Simple Steps to Better Portraits

Portrait in the Park

Portrait in the Park

This photo is pretty close to a “to do” list for portrait photography. Focus on the eyes. Shoot in soft light. Have the face at a slight angle. Use a short telephoto focal length. Have the camera lens just above eye level. Use a non-obtrusive background. Give the subject something to do. Move in close for extra impact. Portrait rules to be followed and broken. So when do you follow the rules and when do you break them?

First of all, it is best to follow the rules for a while until you have them well in hand. And it helps to know the reasons behind the “rules” (which I prefer to think of as “guidelines” or “really good good suggestions”). And it helps to do a lot of portraits. The more you shoot, the more you will develop an instinct for what works best.

1. Focus on the eyes. If you look at hundreds of photos on Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, or anywhere else people post tons of portraits, it will quickly become obvious that 99 times out of 100, it ruins a photo to have out of focus eyes. There are exceptions for special effects, but they are very rare. This guideline is so important that is pretty close to a rule. Pick up any high fashion magazines and look at the portraits. How many have out of focus eyes?

2. Shoot in soft light. Soft light is the most flattering light for the human face. Hard light amplifies every wrinkle, crease, line, and pore. Not many people like that. If you are shooting the craggy, weathered, grizzled face of a Maine lobster fisherman, sure, go for hard light and exaggerate those features. If you are shooting a model with absolutely flawless skin, go ahead and crank up the contrast.  But for most people much of the time, soft light is the key.

3. Have the face at a slight angle. Most people look best with their face at a slight angle rather than straight on. Try a simple experiment. Every time you photograph someone, begin by shooting them straight on, then from slightly to the left and slightly to the right. Look at the images and see which you like best. Show the images on the back of your camera (if you are shooting digital) to your subjects and ask them to pick their favorite images. They will usually pick a photo taken at a slight angle.

4. Use a short telephoto focal length (usually 70-100 mm or longer). Short telephoto focal lengths create a natural looking face when you are filling the frame with a head and shoulders portrait. If you use a wide angle focal length and move in closer to fill the frame, it distorts the face and make the nose appear larger and the eyes smaller. It is a subtle thing (usually) but it makes a difference. The closer you get, the more exaggerated the nose becomes. It isn’t really the focal length that is the problem, it is moving the lens physically closer to your subject that creates the distortion. Using longer focal lengths tends to keep you farther from the face when filling the frame, which makes the face look more natural.

5. Have the camera lens just above eye level. Most people look better when the camera lens is slightly above their eye level. There are exceptions of course and you can experiment with different angles but generally if you have the lens above eye level, the face looks better and it opens up their eyes.

6. Use a non-obtrusive background. Go back again to Facebook, Flickr, and Instragram. Tons of portraits are ruined by a distracting background. Bright hotspots in the background can also ruin an otherwise excellent portrait. This usually happens when the subject is in the shade and there is sunlight in the background. A soft, blurry background is usually best. Three ways to do that are to increase the distance between your subject and the background, use a wider lens aperture, and a longer focal length lens to limit the depth of field. That will blur the background. There are exceptions to this rule of course. Sometimes you are doing portraits with a beautiful scenic background, or shooting a model in Las Vegas or NYC and the background is important. Grab a first class fashion magazine again and look at the backgrounds. How often are they soft and indistinct, and how often are they sharp?

7. Give the subject something to do. Standing with arms hanging at their sides and staring straight at the camera is just about the worst way for people to pose for a portrait. People are more at ease in front of the camera (which is a good thing) if you give them something to do, like “Rest your face on your hands”, or “Cross your arms”, or “Lean against this lamp post and put your thumbs in your belt loops.” Or photograph your subject doing something they love to do, like a favorite hobby. One more thing about “resting their face on their hands” – which usually leads to a scrunched up chin or face. Your subject should pretend they are resting their face on their hands so in reality, their head is just barely touching their hands.

8. Move in close for extra impact (by zooming your lens to a longer focal length). The extraordinary photographer Robert Capa once said “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” He was right, at least a lot of the time. And that applies to a lot more than portrait photography. Are there exceptions? Yes. Sometimes a 3/4 portrait, a full body, pose, or a portrait in the landscape/cityscape makes more sense. When in doubt, try it several ways.

I don’t want to minimize the complexity of portrait photography. Master portrait photographers spend years honing their craft and they do amazing things that are far more complex than the basic suggestions provided here. But try these simple basics. You will see an immediate and dramatic improvement in the quality of your portrait photography. Your images will be much better than the thousands of lackluster portraits that are posted every day.

Do you want to really kick your portrait photography into high gear? Do portraits every chance you get. Break the “rules” too. Some of your favorite portraits will break one or more of the rules above. Get one or more of the books at the links below.

Now grab your camera, get out there, and have fun!

Photo Data: Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Canon EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 65 mm. 1/125 sec;   f/8;   ISO 400.


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What you do with the camera is only part of the job. A few minutes in the digital darkroom with inexpensive software (under $100) can make a big difference in the look of your final image. This recent article is just one example.