7 Tips That Every Beginning Portrait Photographer Should Know

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So you want to be a portrait photographer. Well, you'll need to learn the basics. There is quite a lot to master as far as exposure, aperture, lighting, ISO etc. are concerned. Here are some tips for all the potential award winners out there.


Get The Eyes Sharp

This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of portrait photography. The expression in the eyes speaks volumes about a person. This is evident in the famous photo that Steve McCurry shot of the Afghan woman and the paralyzing stare that her green eyes gave the viewer. When eyes are lit correctly (perhaps with a ring flash) we can notice layers and layers of complexity in the irises. Additionally, we as humans always love to make eye contact with one another.

Editing them to be more appealing and to maximize the details is also very important. More on this later.

Interestingly, studies have shown that portraits of women looking directly into the camera are more appealing than not looking in. In contrast, images of men not looking directly into the camera but still show their eyes are better regarded.

Pay Attention to The Hands

A person's hands can tell a lot about them. For example, the gloved hands on a carpenter holding a power sander are great evidence of how hard he works and also help to define him. If you are shooting an environmental portrait (in this case, one that uses the entire space of the image to tell a story about who a person is) then the little details of what the hands are doing can help convey much more about the subject. Similarly, a beautiful bride brushing her hair back with one hand and her other hand in her lap shows her to be comfortable and happy.

Still not convinced? Ask a wedding photographer that has shot Hindu weddings why photographing a bride's hands are so important. The bride can go through hours of henna tattoo work to get the intricate details just perfect. Soon after the wedding, the henna will all be gone—and the only memories left will be the photos that you've shot.

Some Focal Lengths are Better Than Others

Here's a little guide for you to keep in mind:

85mm: Great all around for portraits

35mm-50mm: Most useful for 3/4 portraits

100mm: Great for headshots with a hint of the rest of the body

135mm: The ultimate headshot focal length.

It's always a good idea to also bring more than one lens with you. My Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS always accompanies me on photoshoots whether I'm bringing my 7D or 5D Mk II. My 85mm F1.8 is great on either camera. My current choice is Canon, but the equivalent lenses from other brands will work just as well for the intended purposes.

The general rule is that the longer the focal length, the more flattering the image will be because of the way longer lenses render images. Wider focal lengths tend to distort body parts like noses, legs, hands and others. If this is your intention, and for creative purposes it very well could be, then remember that careful placement of your subject is important.

Carefully Note the Lighting

Shadows are super important to how a portrait comes across to the viewer. Because of this, take careful notice of the lighting and the shadows in your image. Soft light is usually the standard in portraiture, although hard lighting is used to give a different creative feel to the images. Typically, I keep my 430 EX II, Gary Fong Collapsible, and Gary Fong Lightsphere  close to me. In studio, I use umbrellas and giant softboxes.

As of recently, I've been using the Orbis Ring Flash. Lightspheres tend to give your images a more, "bare bulb" effect and create wonderful lighting that one usually sees in the photos of celebrities on the red carpet. They are best used when not aimed at the subject. In contrast, you typically want to aim a ring flash at your subject. Originally used by dentists trying to illuminate darker areas in one's mouth, ring flashes quickly found great use with photographers looking for creative lighting effects. Ring flashes are great tools for providing flat, soft and even lighting for your subject with an added halo effect behind them. The halo effect comes from the flash's typical placement around the lens. That doesn't mean that they can't be used in other ways, though.

There are many natural light photographers that would rather not use flashes, strobes or off-camera lights at all. If you're shooting weddings or portraits, I'd strongly urge you to at least use reflectors to fill in shadows on the bride's face. The alternative is good Lightroom or Photoshop knowledge in the retouching process. Photoshop does indeed have gradients for soft light, hard light, etc. If you're not that advanced or technical enough, getting it right in camera is a better way to go.

In photography, good lighting knowledge is far more valuable than using the latest and greatest camera.

Take Careful Note of the Background

One of the biggest sins in portrait photography is capturing a portrait of someone with something appearing to come out of their head, such as a pole or a tree behind them. The background surrounding your subject should be clear and not distracting to the image at hand. This is something that should often be noted when moving from location to location as this requires a new setup of image composition. Thanks to new technology in Photoshop like the content awareness fill, these foreign objects can be removed with relative ease. However, no one wants to spend extra time on a project when they don't really need to.

Keeping the background out of focus and relatively smooth will always work to the portraits advantage. If you really can't get rid of these foreign objects, then try changing your angle of view or the subjects pose in order to cover it up.

Retouching is Your Friend

After you shoot a portrait it always helps to:

- Export to Photoshop

- Create a background layer and edit the whites of the eyes

- Create a layer of the previous layer and edit the black area around the irises and saturate the irises

- Create a layer to deal with skin problems

- Create a layer to deal with random little problems needed to be disposed of with the spot heal brush

- Smooth the skin out

- If the subject is wearing makeup, create a new overlay layer and paint over the make-up by first using the color dropper tool and then mixing it in using the opacity tool. This can help to make the colors pop a bit more.

- Flatten the layers

Shooting "RAW" Can Help

Shooting RAW is the easiest way to correct for any problems that you may have encountered during the initial shoot. It is also the most versatile way to edit in post-production. For those of you wondering what the differences are, RAW images are uncompressed file formats that contain lots of information of the scene that were captured at the moment of pressing the shutter. In contrast, JPEG images toss away lots of that extra information and literally give you what you see on the back LCD panel. If you're still confused, think about a RAW image as your negative and a JPEG as your developed print. Once again, you'll need to experiment in Photoshop and Lightroom a bit in order to refine your RAW images into polished JPEGs or TIFFs.

This statement is not meant to tarnish the reputation of JPEG shooters. There are many photographers that shoot wonderful images in JPEG only. Consider this though: shoot a JPEG in black and white in your camera. Afterwards, shoot a RAW image, and then import it into Lightroom. Set the color scheme to black and white and then adjust the color levels, contrast, detail levels, recovery settings, etc. In most cases, you will come out with much better black and white images when shooting portraits. A popular editing technique is turning the contrast, detail levels and sharpening up all the way and adjusting the color levels accordingly to give the photo an extremely crisp B&W look.

If you're shooting film, Kodak Portra film is perhaps what you'd want to go for. In terms of black and white, Tri-X is very popular.

Finally, remember to make sure your subject has fun; their energy will translate over into your photos.

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Some pretty good stuff there and useful information. I've shot over 120k Portrait shots of a Model for the past couple of years now. She's incredible to work with and see her come to life as we work. Doing everything from Retro to Modern and even a mix of the styles.

I agree perfectly make sure you get the Eye's and get them as clear as possible. It's an automatic make or break of the shot.

Indoors vs. Outdoors lighting there is a bit of a toss up here. I find Nature actually seems to give one of the best complements to any portrait. The Lighting and the Location can also make that portrait that more special.

For softness and Natural I prefer the Model to be loose and herself. You will get shots that you just cant plan for that can be what your looking for when you least expect it. Also it tends to bring a lot of life and character to your photo.

There is one issue that you can run into easily. Skin glare, some times when were doing shoot's because her skin is so smooth we get a lot of glare from either indoor, or outdoor lighting. Keep some neutral powder handy. While the super and natural skin is so beautiful it can sometimes shine harder then you want and over power other great details of the face.

The model I work with has some of the most beautiful and smooth skin I have seen. Many times we have had to go into Photoshop and bring it down a little.   

I pretty much agree with the lens Focals how ever that to can change on location or environment with the photos you will be taking. I've taken a Nikon D3000 with the 2 stock lenses and gotten some amazing results.

In fact even took some inside a friend of mine's photography studio and he had a very high end Canon with some super high end glass but we managed to get nearly identical results with the Nikon.

As for shooting in Raw here is something I've come to believe and also from a recent Scott Kelby interview on NIK Software Radio. Depending on the situation there is plus and there is disadvantages to both JPG and RAW.

JPG jpeg is clearly a finished point of a photo and the camera has done lots of processing for you and usually what you see on your display is close to what you will get. How ever the amount of retouching and tweaking can be limited by shooting in JPG.

Raw is cool and gives you so much more to work with. You got more control of what your wanting to get out of the photo however draw back includes time of processing the shot and the amount of memory you will eat up. Also when you shoot in RAW what you see on your camera's review window is not RAW it's JPG so it will not look the same.

The 3rd option as most newer cameras allow you is to do BOTH. I do this While it eats up memory faster I get the best of both worlds how ever it slows up time for the camera buffer. High Speed memory also helps a lot. When I shoot both camera raw and jpg i sometimes will layer the two for some different results.

Photoshop is your friend and there is also lots of other great software that also can help do many wonderful retouches to your images.

I like the little mention of Film there I still will hang on to my 35mm for special things that I cant get out of Digital.

Great Article and tips B&H Rocks!

thanks, nice article

es bueno el comentario para recordar algunas cositas, solo que es muy pero muy basico, siga adelante compartiendo conocimineto, gracias!

Seriously - this is the worst article on photography I've ever read. The images are ridiculous, and the article reminds me of a poorly plagerized yet somewhat updated verion of a 1970s Pop-photo how-to guide.