101 Potrait Photography Tips

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    101 Potrait Photography Tips

    I am currently planning out the lessons for my 30-Day Portrait Photography class

    (sorry, its sold out now). Ive been eating, sleeping, and drinking portraiture this

    week. One thing I noticed is that all portrait photographers have a tough time

    pushing their photography constantly to the next level. This article will help you getout of a creative rut in your portrait photography.

    To write this, the Improve Photography community submitted some of these tips on

    our Facebook page. Together, we made the largest collection of portrait

    photography tips ever assembled.

    1. Photograph the subject in their native environment. Some people just dont

    belong in a studio. They feel awkward and it shows in camera. So instead of

    forcing Grandpa into the Walmart Photo Studio, let him go to work in his workshop

    and photograph him doing what he loves. Instead of tears and tantrums when you

    try to dress up your child all pretty for studio punishment, let him play with the toys

    and snap pictures of every moment.

    2. Never shoot kids or babies from your normal standing height. This is the view

    we always have of kidsthe tops of their heads. Get down on the ground and take

    images from their level.

    3. Consider giving the subject space to look into. Place the subject on one side of

    the image and have them look into space (not the camera) towards the other side

    of the frame.

    Portrait photo of a boy looking out through a window at a rain storm.

    Window light

    4. Window light. Dont have an expensive studio or want to get more natural

    portraits? Normal lighting in a house or during the heat of the day is not flattering

    on skin; however, once light passes through a window, it is very soft and diffused.

    Consider placing your subject next to a window so the light hits the model at an

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    angle (not looking straight out the window). Without much effort, youve created

    beautiful light which studios strain to copy.

    5. NEVER use the on-camera flash. On-camera flash gives a deer-in-the-headlights

    look to even the most beautiful subject. Because the light is perfectly in line with

    the lens, the light hits the subject squarely and creates a flat light that is far from

    flattering. If you choose to use a flash, its truly necessary to get an external flash

    that can be mounted to the side of the photographer.

    Macro portrait photography

    I call it a "macro portrait." It's a picture inside a larger picture.

    6. I know you want pictures of the face, but you might also consider going smaller.

    What about photographing a childs sandy feet while he plays on the beach or your

    grandmothers hands, or your friends eye. Sometimes the tiniest details speak

    volumes.

    7. Over expose. I know I just spent two pages telling you not to do this, but over

    exposing (making the image too bright) is a common and beautiful technique for

    giving a portrait a clean and simple look.

    8. Do something totally off-the-wall. Want cool pictures of your friend in her prom

    dress? Throw her in the pool with the prom dress on. Want cute pics of a baby?

    Put them in a huge basket like Anne Geddes or dress them in clothes that are 5

    sizes too big.

    9. Stop the waving and smiling. When shooting family pictures, nothing can ruin

    the moment more than saying, Hey Dan, look at the camera! Your picture will bedestroyed. Im not saying you have to shoot candid photography all the time, but

    when you are going to have the subject know youre taking the picture, at least

    pose the subject properly rather than having them just stand off squarely at the

    camera.

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    10. Shoot up to give power; Shoot down to take power away. In tip #2, I

    mentioned that it generally isnt good to shoot down on babies and kids. The

    reason is that kids are already small, so shooting down on them is so common that

    the photo does not look as it should. Similarly, you can make a subject seem more

    powerful by shooting from a lower angle up to the subject. For example, it would be

    ridiculous to shoot Michael Jordan from above. Since you want to make a sportsstar look powerful, it would make much more sense to shoot that subject from a

    lower angle.

    11. If one person is a bit stale, two people are perfect. Whenever Im shooting a

    subject that gets a bit camera-shy and wont give me much of an expression, I

    always try to let the person interact with someone different. For example, trying to

    get kids to have fun and smile will be tough without a parent being in the studio too.

    This technique works the same with adults. If your subject looks a bit stale, wait

    until they talk with someone else to capture the best expressions.

    Bride with whitened teeth

    Especially where brides are wearing white dresses, the bride's teeth need to be

    perfect.

    12. Whiten teeth properly in Photoshop. For quite a long time, I brushed exposure

    onto the teeth to make them look whiter. I never got the results I wanted untilanother photography told me that it was better to brush brightness onto the teeth

    rather than exposure. Overnight, my digital teeth whitening improved drastically.

    Try it!

    13. Contrast clothing and location. I recently shot engagement photos for a couple

    who chose to wear bright colors. The bride wore bright pink and the groom wore a

    light blue shirt. Those colors undoubtedly catch the viewers attention, so I chose to

    place them in front of muted backgrounds. For this shot, I chose old grey brick

    walls, blurred out dark backgrounds, etc. The results were perfect! You can alsoapply this tip when shooting a model who is wearing muted colors. In this situation,

    shoot the model against a brightly colored background to make the model stand

    out.

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    14. Youre missing out on half of your model. No, I dont mean that you could be

    shooting twice as many people. I mean that there is a whole other side of your

    clients that you arent shooting at all. Whats that side? The back side. Shots of

    the subject walking away from the camera, or of the subjects body turned away

    from the camera and head facing the camera can be quite compelling.

    15. Think application before taking the portrait. What is your photo going to be

    used for? While many of our photos are just used generally for looking at, some

    photos would be better either vertical or horizontal if it is going to be used for a

    specific purpose. For example, if youre taking a portrait for someones Facebook

    profile, you can get a much larger picture by shooting it in vertical orientation (up-

    and-down). If youre shooting for a wedding announcement, its probably better to

    shoot horizontal so there is enough room for text on the side of the couple.

    A model is backlit as a photographer takes a portrait photo of her.

    Backlighting is great for hard mid-day light.

    16. When shooting in poor mid-day lighting, have the subject face away from the

    sun. I see this done wrong more often than not. Most of the time, photographers

    have the subject face the sun so their face doesnt look dim and shadowy in mid-

    day lighting. This is unfortunate, because the hard light will create unflattering

    shadows on the face. The best way to shoot mid-day portraits is to have the subjectface away from the sun so their face is in the shade, and then have the

    photographer over-expose the picture so the face looks properly exposed.

    17. Spot metering is your friend. If you dont feel comfortable setting the exposure

    manually to do the technique taught in tip #16, then learn to use spot metering.

    With spot metering, you can simply have the camera meter on the subjects face to

    expose it properly, and then let the background be slightly overexposed. For some

    people, spot metering may be a better option than manually setting the exposure

    for the face.

    18. Whip out the CTO. When shooting in lower light (or if you have a really

    powerful strobe), you can put an orange gel on your flash so that the light that hits

    the subject is, well orange. Then, you adjust your white balance (I always just do

    it later in Lightroom) so the subject looks neutral, which makes the background turn

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    blue. Here is a great collection of examples of using this color shifting technique.

    (Side note: I couldnt remember the term color shifting this morning, and several

    helpful readers reminded me on the ImprovePhotography Facebook fan page). If

    youve never heard of gelling a flash, you will be surprised to know that a gel is not

    jelly-like in consistency. Its just a plastic colored transparency. You can buy a

    set of gels for around $10 on Amazon that fit most flashes.

    19. Compose and then focus rather than focusing and re-composing. Could I have

    made this tip any more confusing? Probably not. What I mean is that it is generally

    preferable to compose the shot and then move your focus point on to the eye of the

    subject rather than focusing on the eye and then recomposing. For more on this,

    check out this previous post on focus.

    A young woman gets a portrait photo tip when using bubblegum as a prop.

    Bubblegum can be a fun prop to help the model get a few casual shots.

    20. Models relax immediately when a prop is introduced. Being a model is scary

    stuff. Its just you vs. the guy with the giant lens. When I see a subject feeling

    uncomfortable, I immediately search for a prop. Pick a flower and give it to the

    bride to play with, give the couple bubblegum and take a photo of them blowing

    bubbles together, give a kid a toy, etc. You dont necessarily have to include the

    prop in the frame (although it usually looks cool), but it is a guaranteed way to getthe subject to relax a bit.

    21. Book a real photo shoot. Contrary to popular belief, models are a dime a

    dozen no matter where you live. Head on over to ModelMayhem.com and find a

    local model. Many of them will not even charge you if you give them copies of the

    pictures you take. Its called TFPtime for prints. Oh, a warning on ModelMayhem

    90% of the models think their best pictures are when they are disrobed. I always

    have my wife go on the site and choose a model for me so I dont have to see the

    nastiness. Not cool.

    22. Buy a few scarves. My wife, Emily, made me include this tip for the ladies. She

    said its a great tip for dressing women for a portrait photography shoot, but I think

    its because she has an obsession with Confessions of a Shopaholic (the girl the

    green scarf). Anyway, it has worked wonders for me in the past. For $15 you can

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    buy probably 10 scarves at any many stores. Then, you can have your female

    subjects wear plain colors (such as a white T-shirt and jeans) and then wear

    different colors of scarves. I found that this works GREAT for senior portraits,

    because teenage girls like accessorizing and changing clothes every five minutes.

    Big time saver and youll get many more looks out of one subject.

    23. Raise that light for stunning catch lights. Catch lights are a type of specular

    highlight (the tiny bright spot on any shiny and round object). If you have no idea

    why catch-lights are cool, check out this article where I explain it. If youre really

    picky, the best place to put a flash to get perfect catch-lights is high and a few feet

    to the side of the subject. This will create catch-lights at 10 oclock and 2 oclock,

    which is optimal because then the catch-light doesnt cover the pupil.

    24. The worst way to get a candid expression from your subject. Whenever I go

    on a shoot, I always try and get an assistant that can help pose the subject and

    make them laugh and play so that I can focus on the photography. My pet peeve is

    when the assistant says something like, You look so stiff! Loosen up! Ugh!

    Telling the subject that they dont look good only makes the situation ten times

    worse. Never tell the subject they look stiff or they need to loosen up. It backfires

    100% of the time.

    A beautiful woman gets a portrait photo taken of her while sitting in a window sill

    and looking out.

    To have your subject framed, she doesn't have to sit in the middle of the frame.

    This window frames the subject and still follows traditional rules of composition.

    25. Use framing in a creative way. Have your model look through a window or

    have them lean up against a door frame and your portrait composition can look

    much stronger and more interesting. I like using this technique to take pictures of

    babies and toddlers by placing the child in a crib and having them peer through the

    bars of the crib at the camera. Always makes for a great shot. Ive tried doing the

    same thing with people looking through prison bars, but its never been quite as

    flattering.

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    26. Try high-key or low-key lighting. Some photos look great overexposed for a

    clean and bright look, but the same model in the same pose can look scary and

    moody in low-key lighting. Learning to control the amount of light can make a huge

    difference in the feel of your photo.

    27. Quit being a pansy. Many portrait photographers would love to get out and

    shoot more, but dont have the opportunity to find models to shoot. Fortunately,

    any human can be a portrait model (although you probably want to find someone

    better looking than Scottie Pippen. Yikes). I was teaching a sunset portraiture class

    in Naples, Florida a few months back and no models were available for the shoot.

    Did I crawl into a fetal position and cry in the corner all afternoon? Yes, but that

    was for a different reason. Actually, we just asked random people on the beach if

    they wanted their pictures taken. By offering to email them the picture, we had

    tons of different people to practice on and got some fantastic shots.

    28. Use ultra-wide lenses for a cool perspective. Shooting portraits with an ultra-

    wide lens can cause some serious problems if you dont know how to do it correctly.

    Wide lenses generally distort facial features, which the subject will hate you for;

    however, check out this article on wide-angle portraits, and this article on using

    fisheye lenses creatively and youll be on the right track to capture awesome and

    unique portraits.

    29. Warm that flash for sunset portraits. Sunset portraits are a favorite among

    portrait photographers, but few people do it right. A sunset is not daylight

    balanced. The light from a sunset is quite warm: red, yellow, and purple. Buy some

    gels and warm up that flash to make the picture look more natural.

    Depth-of-field shot with a model standing in a street.

    Since the photographer is further away from the model, the photographer has to

    use a very low aperture to get shallow depth-of-field in this shot.

    30. Crank that aperture for full-body portraits. I am shocked on almost a daily

    basis how many photographers fail to understand that aperture is not the only

    camera setting that impacts the depth-of-field. To learn the four (or five, depending

    on how you count) factors that impact depth of field, chec...