Photography / Tips and Solutions

8 Tips Every Beginning Portrait Photographer Should Know

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Why is it that some people are considered photogenic and others are not? What can a beginning photographer do to circumvent this when making a portrait?

Before and after photographs © Lindsay Adler

To address this issue head on, we recently spoke with noted portrait photographers Lindsay Adler and Brian Smith, who helped us compile these eight essential tips for creating successful portraits.

“I think ‘photogenic’ doesn't have to do with the way people look, but instead how they feel and behave in front of the camera,” says Adler. “A lot of the time people who don't feel photogenic are already afraid of having their photograph taken, which then shows in their expression. Our job is to break down those barriers, help our subjects feel confident, and then find the angles, poses, and lighting to highlight that individual’s strengths,” she explains. “Nothing is more rewarding than creating a stunning image for someone who otherwise believed they were not photogenic.”

1. Connect with Your Subject and Share in the Process

As Adler points out in the quote above, the recipe for a good portrait entails more than just photo and lighting gear. It starts with the photographer making a distinct effort to connect with the subject so they are at ease with the image-making process. This can often include advance research on your portrait subject and his or her interests—everything from familiarizing yourself with their passions to bring up as a conversation starter, to specific environmental factors, such as their favorite music playing in the studio to make them feel more relaxed during the shoot.  

When doing online research, pay close attention to other portraits of the subject you find, and ask yourself what you can do improve on what others have captured. If there’s time for the two of you to chat in advance, a few well-directed questions about details—such as your subject’s favorite color or article of clothing; if there’s a facial angle, a pose or even a past portrait that they like best; as well as whether the portrait you’ll be making has a specific purpose or any production specs you’ll need to match—can go a long way in making them satisfied with the results.

Noted headshot photographer Peter Hurley discussed this process during a recent presentation at the B&H Event Space. Click here to learn more and watch videos of his talk.

2. Be Aware of the Lighting and Environment

Once shoot day comes, make sure you have a solid plan—for both the portrait setting and any setup needed for your camera and lighting.

If you’ll be shooting in an interior or studio setting, acquaint yourself with existing options for backgrounds and lighting within the space. Will it be possible to shoot a natural-light portrait or will you need to plan for artificial lighting? Are there clean walls or a simple drapery that you can use for a backdrop, or will you be doing an environmental portrait within the space?

If you’ll be shooting outside using natural light, consider the time of day and the direction of the sun in relation to how and where you want to pose your subject. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times for a natural-light portrait, yet you’ll probably want to avoid shooting at midday, when sunlight and shadows are harshest. Don’t forget that overcast weather can also provide a good opportunity for a portrait with softer shadows and lighting that remains consistent over a longer period of time.

Ideally, your subject should be facing the sun, or at an oblique angle with the face lit to define features, while minimizing unappealing shadows. When composing the portrait, it’s essential to look beyond your subject and check your composition for issues such as a distracting background, as illustrated by Adler’s portrait, below. While it can be easy to overlook a soft-focus geometric shape such as this in the tiny space of your camera’s LCD or when peering through the viewfinder, it creates unwanted tension within the image and distracts from the viewer’s focus on the portrait subject.

When shooting an environmental portrait, be attentive to potential distractions caused by subtle background elements. This concern is much greater than simply the occurrence of “Martian” antennas behind your subject’s head. Photograph © Lindsay Adler
 

3. Watch the Dynamics of Your Camera and Lens

In shooting a portrait, you are effectively translating a three-dimensional face into a flat plane of space, so deciding on your lens or focal length and positioning the camera in a way that complements your subject’s features will have a significant effect on the success of the resulting image. The overwhelming variety of individual facial features and combinations thereof—from heavy brows to pronounced noses to double chins and beyond—furthers the challenge of capturing a pleasing portrait of any given subject.

Are you coming in close for a headshot or beauty portrait or does your subject want an environmental portrait that conveys a sense of what they do or where they live? Each of these vantage points requires a different approach. Keep in mind that whatever is closest to the camera will appear largest in an image and that wide-angle lenses will amplify this effect. When shooting a close-up portrait, facial features such as a pronounced nose can be particularly challenging, requiring special attention.

The young woman pictured at left has a longer-than-average nose, yet Adler used the photographic tools of posing, lighting, and lens choice to reduce its appearance in the portrait at right. Photographs © Lindsay Adler
 

As in Lindsay Adler’s example, below, a longer lens will cause geometric facial elements to look flatter and more compressed, making the face appear fuller and the nose shorter and less pronounced. To capture this subject at her best, Adler traded a typical 85mm portrait lens for a 200mm telephoto, set her camera on a tripod, moved back and positioned her camera straight-on, until the model’s face filled the frame.

50mm 85mm 200mm

As these three portraits attest, the use of a longer lens can help to flatten a subject’s features for a more photogenic result. Photographs © Lindsay Adler
 

4. It’s all about the Eyes

The eyes have been called the “windows to the soul.” “Nothing could be closer to the truth for portrait photography,” says Brian Smith. “When photographing people, you’ll almost always want to place the emphasis on their eyes. You could have the perfect composition and exposure, but if the eyes aren’t sharp, the entire image suffers.”

Smith, a Sony Artisan of Imagery, notes that most Sony mirrorless cameras have a handy feature called Eye AF that allows you to track focus right on the eyes. “You can also use Flexible Spot AF points to place the focusing point right on your subject’s eye,” he adds. “That way, it’s always tack sharp no matter how shallow your depth of field.”


Focusing on the eyes of your subject, as illustrated in these dynamic headshots by Brian Smith, is the most essential of all portrait tips. Photographs © Brian Smith
 

5. Move In and Out and Get Down on their Level

Brian Smith is a master of telling a great story through portraits. While he appreciates the precision and acuity offered by traditional 85mm, 100mm, and 135mm prime portrait lenses, he generally prefers the focal range offered by a 24–70mm zoom as he works. “At its widest setting of 24mm, this zoom allows you to capture a lot of environment around your subject,” he explains. “Or, for an intimate portrait, select a longer focal length like 70mm. Even when shooting with a prime lens, I move in and out as I shoot, zooming with my feet rather than the lens,” he adds.

If you’ll be working with children, “don’t shoot down from an adult’s eye level,” he explains. “Getting the camera down to their level will make your images more personal and less imposing. The same is true of adults,” he notes. “Seeing eye-to-eye is a great way to make your portraits convey more of the connection you established with the subject.”


Tell the story of your subject as completely as you can by moving around, with your camera gear and with your feet, as shown in two of Smith’s portraits from Nepal. Photographs © Brian Smith
 

6. Camera Settings: Watch Your White Balance

The tonality and appearance of your subject’s skin plays a huge role in the success of a resulting portrait. Looks can be deceiving to the inexperienced eye and, along the same line, your camera’s auto white balance mode can also be tricked by environmental factors such as reflected light off surrounding walls or clothing around the face, or color casts from a lush green garden or the cool ambient daylight of late afternoon shade. Dependence on auto white balance in a portrait situation can lead to inconsistent results, which can cost you valuable time in post and be counterproductive to the relationship with your subject.

A couple of basic accessories to remedy such issues should become essential items in your portrait kit. Serving the same function as Kodak’s 18 percent gray card of yore, a wide variety of white balance cards, filters, and disks—as well as more advanced calibrators and checkers—can help you create a custom white balance for any given lighting situation easily.  

If you’re working with limited (or bad) lighting and need the subject to shine, you can bounce available light back onto his or her face using a collapsible reflector. Available in white, silver, gold, black, or translucent surfaces, these lightweight fabric hoops are held outside the frame and directed toward the subject for a soft fill, to neutralize undesirable color casts, or tame unappealing shadows.

For more on this topic, check out Tom Kirkman’s Explora article on creating a custom white balance for portraits.

Color contamination (green) Introduce reflector ( neutral key light)

Environmental factors can negatively influence skin color. The unsightly green skin tone in the left hand portrait was the result of the sun reflecting off the surrounding grass and trees. In such cases, Adler recommends overpowering the existing light by adding a reflector or strobe, as shown at right. Photographs © Lindsay Adler
 

7. The Classic Look of Black & White

In situations where the available lighting makes it impossible to attain a pleasing white balance, converting to black-and-white is a viable option that also imbues a portrait with a sense of classic refinement. “There is something timeless about a black-and-white portrait,” says Smith. “It eliminates the distraction of color and puts all the emphasis on the subject.” Smith prefers to shoot his portraits in raw and convert to black-and-white in post, but notes, “one of the handy features of Sony’s a7 series mirrorless cameras is the ability to apply a Black & White creative style. This allows you to view the black-and-white scene in real-time as you shoot.” He points out that, “while the B&W tonality is baked into the JPEGs shot in this mode, your raw files are not affected, which allows you to convert them to your taste in post.”


Smith captured this thoughtful portrait of Jimmy Smits at the Sundance Film Festival. While he prefers to make his black-and-white conversions in post, Sony’s Black & White Creative style allowed him to see the image in black-and-white as he shot. Photographs © Brian Smith
 

8. Did We Mention Raw File Format Yet?

Smith’s preferred workflow brings to mind one last tip that is particularly beneficial for novices to adopt. While shooting raw brings with it the challenge of a larger file size and the added complexity of converting files in post, it is especially beneficial when bringing the file to life as a finished portrait.

Raw files are often described as being the same as a photographic negative; after downloading from the camera, adjustments can be made to elements such as contrast, color, tonality, and more, without compromise to the original file. With the JPEG format, on the other hand, the original file is compressed, which results in a loss of valuable image data. For many types of use, posting to social media for example, this is not an issue and, in fact, the smaller file size offers a huge advantage. But each time you take that original JPEG and resize or otherwise change it, you are effectively losing data. If the raw file is your starting point, you will be working from the best available image capture, which will be preserved intact in the storage device of your choosing.

During a recent trip to Haiti, Smith knelt down to the level of this young child for a compelling portrait. Photograph © Brian Smith
 

Extra Inspiration and Tips

A popular presenter at the B&H Event Space, Brian Smith offers many more tips for successful portrait photography in these 2013 videos, Secrets of Great Portrait Photography and Location Portrait Photography: Capturing Personality and Place, as well as in the past Explora article How to Take Better Portraits.

Adler offers inspiration and tips about her process as a fashion and beauty portrait photographer in the 2014 video, B&H Prospectives: Lindsay Adler. To get a rundown on her most essential gear, watch this 2015 Event Space video Lindsay Adler: What’s In Your Bag.

To learn more about the photographers who contributed to this article, click on their names below.

Lindsay Adler

Brian Smith

Books by Brian Smith

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While these are excellent insights.  I always learned portrait photography as a picture that might hang on your wall in your home for years.  While all these photographs are excellent, I think some could be considered "people pictures" as apposed to portraits.  That is they would be good for illustration or magazine work but not necessarily a "portrait

This article was so helpful! I feel like there aren't many articles out there that address making the subject appear more flattering and feeling comfortable, I definitely needed this. I have one question about the part that says the subject should face the sun. I am young and not very experienced with portrait photography yet, but I've always shot into the sun whenever the sun was out. In my experience I found the sun on my subjects' faces seems more unflattering, making their skin look bad and giving harsh shadows to their faces, so I have them face away from it. Have I been doing this wrong? (I usually shoot outside and use just natural light). I'd appreciate any advice!

Hi Sherry, thanks so much for writing in. I'm glad to hear that you found the article helpful.

Your question about positioning your portrait subject relative to the sun has no easy answer, since there are many variables involved and each situation is unique. With natural light, time of day/year and strength of the sun relative to weather conditions has a huge impact on what the lighting will look like and, in many cases, shooting into the sun with your subjects facing away from it (generally referred to as backlighting) can be a very flattering look. This is a type of situation where it is helpful to (first) learn the rules and then (most important) to discover when and how to break them for creative effect.

Also, when and if you do position your subjects facing the sun, try adding a reflector to the mix, to bounce a little light back toward the face to soften the shadow areas a bit. Happy shooting and thanks again for reading Explora!

The 50mm and 85mm shot was shot from above and the 20mm from straight on. You made it seem like a 200mm is always better. You also don't need a reflector if you position your model the right way in ambient light. If you don't believe me, check out Dani Diamond Photography. He's just using ambient light. 

I might add that the point I was making is that you deliberately shot the subject from above to make it seem like 200mm is more flattering. For people who have no clue about photography, it's pretty misleading. I can shoot both 50mm and 85mm straight on and it'll look the same except for the background compression. Take another shot with the 200mm from above so that everyone can see that it'll look just as bad. 

Hi Chris, thanks for your comments and our apologies if you found the three portraits in this example to be misleading. While we can't provide a version of the 200 mm portrait shot from the same angle, what Lindsay was trying to point out here is that for portraits of subjects with prounced features such as a large nose or forehead,  it is advantageous use a longer focal length. While she regularly uses 50mm or 85mm lenses for portrait work, under these circumstances she recommends using longer focal length lenses. Hope this helps to clear up any confusion, and thanks for reading the Explora blog.

Can i use only two reflective umbrella as lights in my photostudio?

Hi Yshine, thanks for your question. You should definitely be able to get some good pictures using only two reflective umbrellas, however a lot depends on your subject matter and the look you are seeking to acheive with your lighting, The Explora blog contains a lot of other articles with lighting tips and inspiration, one good example to start with is this: 6 Questions for Lighting Master Lindsay Adler About Her New Book, http://bhpho.to/2cTNXjD. Happy shooting and thanks very much for reading Explora!

 

Perfect Tips .. I will try some of these Tips! Thank you so much Jill for the great Ideas on taking better photos ..

I found here some tips that can help any photographer using any camera for taking better photos :
8 Effective photography tips

Thanks again ^_^ 

Glad you enjoyed these tips Redouan, and thanks very much for sharing the link to additional photo tips. Happy shooting and many thanks for reading Explora!

Loved the tips, very understandable and helpfull, I´m from Brazil and not a pro. Thankyou all!

Hi Vivian, thanks for writing in. Glad you found these tips to be helpful and easy to understand. You can find lots more tips like these on the Explora blog. Thanks for reading and please visit often!

Very good advice for those who are just starting out in this wonderful world of photography. regards

Hi Kathir, thanks so much for writing in. Great to hear that you found this article helpful. There's lots more to explore on the Explora blog, so please check out the other articles in our Learn Photography portal. Happy Reading!

Thanks for the compliment M Nelson

How nice to see raw written correctly.

Hi Young McQueen, thanks so much for your comment. I'll pass this praise along to our copyeditor and the folks who write and maintain our editorial style guide. They work hard at this! Please keep reading and writing in, we love to get mail!

Facing the sun? Doesn't that yield squinty eyes unless you use a schrim? Flat lighting?

Hi Ken Rager, thanks for writing in. About my mention of "facing the sun" here's a response to another commenter who mentioned this same issue ... you bring up a good point about the concern of a subject squinting in the sunlight. This can definitely be a problematic issue, expecially at midday, as discussed in the paragraph preceding the one you're quoting. To further clarify your question, the sentence you refer to might work better as follows: "Ideally, your subject should be facing, or at an oblique angle to the sun, with the face lit to define features, while minimizing unappealing shadows." Another consideration would be to change the word "sun" to "primary light source," which might better describe conditions most advantageous for a flattering portrait.

Using a scrim is another good option for avoiding squinty eyes in bright sunlight. Onthat note, here's a link to a more advanced article about lighting gear for outdoor portraits that might be of interest:  http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/lighting-gear-outdoor-portraits

Thanks so much for reading the blog!

Loved this article.  Thank you for all the information.  Some wonderful portraits.

Glad to hear that you liked this article Marie Anti. Thanks so much for reading and for getting in touch!

Thank you for this article as I'm a mid-level photographer newbie looking to grow to professional one day. I have taken over 3,000 photos from flowers in my garden to wedding pictures just to get a feel for what you've placed in this article.

Thanks for your comment Samuel, glad you found the article to be helpful. Keep up the hard work and please keep in touch via the blog!

Good tips for the beginning portrait photographer I'm sure and useful for the rest of us amateur picture takers as well. But in my years of taking photos of family, friends, and (sometimes) strangers the biggest obstacle has been getting them to stand still and pose. Many of my intended photo 'subjects' have turned their faces away or even vocally complained, "...here comes the camera monster". Some strangers became downright hostile so I limit taking those pics to long-range distances. I could incorporate your tips if I could get all of them to cooperate but that probably isn't going to happen. So as a rule it's snapshots on the fly and I adjust my digital camera settings before entering the photo environment and usually wind up with a lot of unusable pics. Once in a while while viewing the downloads from my media device a gem appears on my computer screen. We may not all be professional photographers but with practice, 16GB SD cards, and a little luck most anyone is capable of catching that rare shot suitable for framing. Maybe you could proved some tips to use to get subjects to be patient while adjusting camera settings and pose as directed.  

Hi Ross, thanks so much for writing in. I definitely feel your pain with this comment. Getting the cooperation of family and friends, not to mention strangers, can be a tall order and really deserves an article in its own right. That said, the first tip above, about connecting with your subject and getting them to share in the process, speaks directly to this issue. Based on the scenarios you describe, it seems like your first step should be to find a willing subject, someone who doesn't see you as "the camera monster." If you can spend some time getting to know, and making portraits of, just one person who trusts you and shares in the process, I bet you'll come away with some new tips for connecting with others. Most important, you'll likely have some nice portraits from this encounter, which you can present to other intended portrait subjects to gain their trust. Hope this helps and thanks for reading Explora!

I think the years of taking selfies for most people has made them more confident........even family members are more willing to pose, especially if they see good results.
 

Hi Marie Anti, what a great idea to volunteer to take selfies for people who might be camera shy! It's all about making people comfortable and feeling like they're keeping up with the latest trends! Thanks so much for sharing your point of view!

I see too many chopped heads.  I Hate Chopped heads!   The first 4 female models have the top of their head chopped off.  The second model, in the section that's about paying attention to the background, really kills it with the top of her head chopped off. Especially when so much area is below her chin.  I agree with the advice about backgrounds but the photo does not follow it as the framing of the background could have been better.  Move her to the right some more....   The close crop on the guy is fine because it's in tight.  The rest of the photos look good and I agree with the artical overall.  Just my opinion.....

Hi Mr. Low Notes. Thanks for your comment and apologies for any distress caused by the chopped heads in these portraits. Generally speaking, the degree of cropping to the top of the model's head is rather minor and can be read as an effort to emphasize the model's face. As in any artform, composing an image is very subjective and what is pleasing for one individual may be considered problematic by others. In terms of the image that discusses paying attention to the background, this portrait is specifically used as an example of an issue to avoid when framing up an environmental portrait. Glad to hear that you agree with the article overall and thanks again for reading!

Thanks for the reply Jill!  That means  a lot.  Sorry if I came off seeming like a jerk.  I'm really not.  Chopped heads are my pet peeve.  ;-)  Anyway, I missed the part about the way that particular photo (busy background) is framed as being an example of what Not To Do.  My bad. Like you alluded to, Certain parts of photography are subjective.  Just like taste in music.  My wife has gotten interested in photography.  I showed her this article and told it contains some very good info.  So again, good work overall!  :-)

MLN

Hi MLN, thank you for writing back. I know what you mean about pet peeves ... I have a thing about horizon lines that are slightly off kilter. Thanks so much for referring the article to your wife, I hope she enjoys it and finds a lot more to read and absorb on Explora as well!

These tips are excellent for all levels beginners to pro photographers awesome instruction .

Thanks for the compliment M Nelson ... happy shooting and thanks so much for reading Explora!

Hi - I didn't understand the comment "Ideally, your subject should be facing the sun ...." in Part 2. I always though if I faced someone into the sun, they would be squinting, and that would reall make for an unflattering photo. Can you elaborate on what I am missing? Thanks.

Hi David, you bring up a good point about the concern of a subject squinting in the sunlight. This can definitely be a problematic issue, expecially at midday, as discussed in the paragraph preceding the one you're quoting. To further clarify your question, the sentence you refer to might work better as follows: "Ideally, your subject should be facing, or at an oblique angle to the sun, with the face lit to define features, while minimizing unappealing shadows." Another consideration would be to change the word "sun" to "primary light source," which might better describe conditions most advantageous for a flattering portrait. I hope this helps shed light (pun intended!) on your question... thanks very much for reading and writing in!

Thanks for taking the time to put this summary together.  Great things for this newbie to think about.  As a new guy to semi-serious photography, landscapes were the draw for me.  I very much want to develop my portrait skills both with the camera and the subjects.  This article and the various links will help a lot.

Thanks again.

Hi John, very glad you find the article and links to be helpful. Here's wishing you much success in building your skills with portraits! Thanks very much for reading and commenting on the blog!

Jill, Thank you for this timely informatino.  Have been taking photos as a side line.  I am now setting up my studio to work my passion full time.  I have scheduled certain times where I will work in the studio several times a week - and on the schedule are to view tutorials.  This is a great start and encouragement for me to get started.  Thanks again.

Hi Lauryn, so glad you found my article to be helpful. That's a great idea to schedule time into your practice to view tutorials, as there are so many valuable resources out there. Here are a few links to other recent Explora articles and videos from the B&H Event Space to help inspire your efforts ...

7 Tips for Creating Memorable Family Photos: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/7-tips-creating-memorable-family-photos

Capture the Spirit of Family: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/event-space-capture-spirit-family

Child, Family and Couple Photography with Tracie Maglosky: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/child-family-and-couple-photography-tracie-maglosky

How To Take Better Baby Pictures: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/video-how-take-better-baby-pictures

Off-Camera Lighting for Portraiture and Fashion: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/camera-lighting-portraiture-and-fashion

Happy shooting ... please keep in touch!

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