Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners

Abraham LincolnTaking a good photo of someone can be done with virtually any camera and environment. It just takes the right moment and some level of luck to make the perfect portrait. That doesn’t mean you can’t do a number of things to dramatically improve your shooting situation.

Professional portrait photographers typically work with their own set, complete with advanced lighting and optimal conditions to take the perfect picture. Even on locations outside of the studio, close attention is paid to the background and external flash devices are often used to improve the natural lighting conditions.

Taking a portrait is very different from doing landscape photography or macro product shots for a blog. You need to pay close attention to a lens’ distortion profile and the impact a single shadow in the frame can have on the overall picture.

Here are some frequent questions asked about portrait photography.

What Type of Lighting is Best?

Lighting is a big part of any photo. The right lighting can make it easier to take a stunning photograph without missing key components due to the darkness of a shadow. You want to make lighting every bit as much a part of the photograph as the background or even the subject.

Answering the question about what lighting is best is impossible. One of the biggest rules of photography is to break any preconceived notions you might have about the rules of photography and break every one of them.

Play with lighting a bit. Cast shadows over your subject’s face or use different reflectors to brighten one side of your subject. A shadow in the right place can thin the person’s face or bring attention to areas on which you’d like the viewer to focus.

What Should I Do for a Background?

Backgrounds can be anything. You can use something as simple as a green screen, which empowers you to add your own touches in post, or you might opt to find a background that suits your subject’s personality.

Some portrait photographers have a set of backgrounds containing neutral colors that don’t distract from the subject. Others prefer to use plain colored backgrounds, namely white or black in order to separate their subject(s) entirely.

Using a lens with a wide aperture will blur the background and give it a bit more character while bringing your subject to the front. Depth of field is an excellent technique when used properly.

What Should I Avoid Doing?

Avoid doing anything that puts your subject in an unflattering position. If the person you’re taking a portrait of is self-conscious about a blemish or prefers a specific side, then it’s your job as the photographer to take that into account.

Avoid harsh lighting that reflects oils and smooth surfaces on clothing. Diffused lighting is generally much more flattering on skin tones. Additionally, lights reflecting in a person’s eyes or glasses might be a common sight in music videos, but it’s only useful when you really want it to be seen. Set lights off to either side of the subject’s face and you can avoid these reflections.

While there are some areas you should avoid at the behest of the person being photographed, you shouldn’t avoid putting them out of their comfort zone. People show true emotions when they’re faced with the unexpected, and sometimes it’s what you do that surprises them that makes a good photo great.

Which Type of Lens Should You Use?

Photographers argue over this point all the time. A wide-angle lens will give you a slightly different look than a standard prime or telephoto lens. To say that one lens type is superior would be like saying red crayons are better than blue ones. They’re different, and each has its own sets of pros and cons.

A wide-angle lens sounds great on paper, but it won’t help you very much if your goal is to get an accurate image of the person you’re shooting. Wide-angle lenses tend to enlarge and distort objects closest to the edges of the frame. If you’re taking a photo of someone standing up, their legs and arms might appear larger than they actually are.

A standard prime (50 mm is the most common) is excellent for shots with bokeh (blurred backgrounds). Prime lenses also force you to think a bit more about your photo before you take it. Your feet are your zoom, and that means getting close and personal with your subject.

A lens that zooms or sits in the 70-300 mm range is excellent for portraits. There’s very little distortion, and your subjects will usually appear more true to life. Because people typically remember features on someone’s face they see at 15 feet, many portrait photographers tend to follow this pattern and a higher focal length allows them to do this. You shouldn’t have to be on top of your subject to take their photo. Keeping distance between you and them makes them a little less nervous, as well.

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Ryan Matthew Pierson has worked as a broadcaster, writer, and producer for media outlets ranging from local radio stations to internationally syndicated programs. His experience includes every aspect of media production. He has over a decade of experience in terrestrial radio, Internet multimedia, and commercial video production.