4 Essentials for a Great Portrait

OK, the title is a little misleading. It’s tough to boil down advice for portrait photography, and there’s so many variables.

  1. Preparation
    • A good portrait lens
    • A reflector
    • An off-camera flash
    • Optional: remote & tripod
  2. Communication
    • Practice poses beforehand so you can direct your model
    • Confidence
    • Clothes and accessories
  3. Develop your eye for details
    • Location
    • Light
    • Composition
  4. Practice!

On Preparation:
While there are photographers who eschew additional gear, I’m of mind that they tend to fall into two groups: the very experienced (as in they know what they’re doing, and know how to get the results they want without the equipment) and the very inexperienced (as in they think they know what they’re doing and that they don’t need this stuff).

Yes, you could get decent results with a kit lens and nothing else, but you’re making it a bit more difficult on yourself. It’s a steep learning curve, and by using a few inexpensive items (well, inexpensive – other than the lens), you’re more likely to attain great pictures faster.

I highly recommend the nifty fifty prime lens – 50mm f2.8 or f1.4. This is a very versatile lens, and it’ll take a little getting used to if you’ve always used zoom lens before. One caveat, however: I find that my nifty fifty is too “big” for a full body shot if I shoot in a small space.  If you think you’ll be shooting primarily indoor, consider a 35mm or 40mm prime instead.

White poster paper. $1. No excuses. ’nuff said.
This simple item can be used to bounce some light into your model’s eyes – otherwise you run the risk of the eyes being too shaded from their hair or brow.

Off-camera flash:
Gives you more flexibility in how you light your subject. Assuming you already have a shoe-mount flash, a wireless transmitter/receiver will cost about $30. For some more info, check this oh-so-creatively-named article, Flash: Equipment.

If you don’t have a second pair of hands to help with the reflector, having a tripod and a wireless remote is nice. Ditto if you want to practice by taking self portraits.

When faced with a model, whether it’s a family, a friend or a professional, it’s easy to get tongue-tied and nervous. But everyone needs some direction. I’m fairly sure telepaths don’t exist.

You as the photographer can see how they look in your viewfinder, and you as the photographer need to be able to explain why a certain pose is or isn’t working.

Poses: And on that note, practice poses by yourself before the shoot, if possible, in the same light & location. It’s cheesy and you’ll feel silly, but it really does help you mentally prepare for the shoot.

Look at it this way: in sports, would you want a coach who had never played the game before?

Confidence: If you don’t have it, fake it.  Not everyone is comfortable in front of a camera, and if they see that you’re nervous…they’ll pick up on that, and it definitely will show in the pictures.

Zombie Photography

Clothing, accessories: Some clothes just don’t look good in photographs. It’s always smart to talk with your model before the shoot and be as straightforward yet tactful as possible. Poorly fitting clothes that pinch your model’s skin or exaggerates fat rolls – not flattering and hard to correct in postprocess.

I personally hate spaghetti strap tops, jersey fabric and shirts that are too short, and always discourage my models from wearing those.

Asking them to bring a change of clothes is smart. Not only does it give you an “out” if the outfit isn’t working, it also gives you an opportunity to experiment with different looks to evoke different moods or styles.

Develop a Keen Eye for the Details
This takes some practice. The background is almost as important as your main subject.

Location: Many locations will work well for any portrait. The key is paying attention to the small details. For example, is there a power pole growing from your model’s head? If so, move the shoot a few feet to the side. Is that brick wall you’re using as your backdrop too busy? Try moving the model a few feet farther away and/or a shallower DOF.

Zombie Photography

Light: Don’t schedule an outdoor portrait between 10 AM and 5 PM, unless it’s an overcast day. The daylight is just too strong and creates harsh, unflattering shadows that’s hard to counteract without fill light.

Pay attention to how the light falls on your subject‘s face. Is the shadow distracting? Or does it obscure too much detail?

Composition: Know your rules of thirds and use it. And don’t be afraid to go in close, fill in the frame. Avoid amputating limbs at the joints. Hit the library and pick up any book that covers this topic. They’re pretty much all the same.

Practice: The last tip pretty much says it all. Practice! The best way to learn is by doing.



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      Ah well. Sometimes it helps to vent a little.

      • I regularly slag WP off, although they haven’t yet annoyed me as much as blogger. I work in PR and Comms which is why it really racks me off.

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  1. I really agree with you on the lens suggestion! I use my 50 mm 1.4 all the time. I also use my 85mm prime and LOVE it as well. One thing I tried recently was using a 70 – 200mm super zoom (the size of a small bazooka!) for portraits. My bride was nervous and this allowed me to step away from her a bit. Great post and I really like the change of clothes suggestion, too.

  2. Question: I have been trying to get a good picture of a Cardinal that visits my bird feeder everyday. I can never get one. How can I get a good photo of that?

    • Lots of practice, knowing your birds’ habits, and taking steps to get the birds comfortable with your presence. Long lens helps as well.

      If it were me, I would: find a sheltered spot for the camera so I’m not shooting through a window, set it up on a tripod, make sure it’s composed well, and carry a wireless remote on my person.

      Then when I notice a bird out there, I can just press the button, and it will snap the picture.

      I suggest a sheltered spot because it’d suck if you forgot your camera out there overnight and it rained. 🙂

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