A beautiful portrait will always stand the test of time, and reliably create impact. The good news is creating memorable portraits is within your reach. You don’t need years of experience to create a portrait image to be proud of.
In this article, I’ll share the secrets of portraiture, and how to get started with the camera you’ve got right now. I’ve laid out my top ten portrait photography tips, to start your journey of mastering the art of timeless portraits.
The aim of portraiture is to create an image of your subject that reveals something of their character. The best way to do this is by drawing the viewer’s attention towards the face — especially their eyes.
The most important element to consider when creating a portrait is the location. I look for a background that will be darker than the face of the subject in the final image. Rich, dark colours and textures can be found amongst old farm buildings, industrial sheds, graffiti walls and thick bushland or forest. Avoid a location where direct sunlight is falling on your background or subject.
Time of Day
The last (and first) hour of the day is what photographers refer to as the ‘Golden Hour’. What I love about this time of day is the way it intensifies colours with warm, soft light. When I’m shooting outside during this time, I prefer shooting in the shade, and rarely shoot with direct sunlight on my subject. This means that the brightest part of the sky becomes the main light source for me image. Professional photographers often refer to this as subtractive lighting.
What to Wear
Yes, you should definitely style your subject’s wardrobe! Clothes that are colour coordinated will hugely increase the impact of your portrait. I prefer dark, neutral colours like browns, greys, navy and black. Long sleeves and pants will help keep the viewers eye returning to the face of your subject because it covers more skin — which is usually lighter in tone than the face. The viewer’s eye is generally drawn to the brightest part of your image.
Choose interesting necklines and collars, complemented with nice leather shoes. Avoid shirts with logos, bright colours, sports shoes and shorts if you can.
Depth of Field Compression
Lens selection and focal length are more important than the camera you choose, because they impact the depth of field
. Depth of field compression is produced by telephoto lenses — the background seems to be flattened and pulled closer to a subject, or compressed. This helps draw attention to your subject.
The aim of the game is to blur the background, using your lens’s aperture to create a shallow depth of field
. To do this, you need to set the camera to the smallest aperture number the lens can achieve.
The settings I usually choose for my starting exposure are:
- Manual Mode
- Aperture f/2.8
- Shutter Speed 1/200th
- 100 ISO
If you’re not sure about settings, try shooting in Auto ISO until you feel more confident.
Working with People
It’s important to keep your subject feeling comfortable and happy. Unlike in landscape photography, your subject can feel insecure, awkward or nervous. My advice is to keep communicating with them and talking through the process of what you’re trying to achieve.
It’s a great opportunity to educate them, and help them to feel you know what you’re doing. Consider learning a few jokes to unleash at the right time, to get a candid and natural response from the subject.
Pro-tip: When you have a shot that you think looks good, show them! Their feedback will let you know if you’re on the right track.
Posing the Subject
It’s unlikely your subject will be a professional model who knows how to work the camera. Chances are you’ll need to give the sitter good instructions on how to pose. Be prepared — have a shot list with sample images from magazines that would be suitable for your subject. Keep a scrapbook of these images that you can refer to in the future.
Be realistic. If your subject doesn’t look like a super-model, posing them like Miranda Kerr is only going to end badly!
Fill the frame — distractions in the background or foreground will ruin the magic of your portrait. Look through the viewfinder and scan for composition killers like rubbish bins, street signs, parked cars. Ultimately, you’re looking for a neutral background that’ll become a ‘tapestry’ to keep the viewers eye looking at your subject’s face.
A catch light is a bright highlight in a subject's eye — referred to by the pros as specular highlight. A catch light draws the viewer’s attention to the subject’s eyes. If your sitter doesn’t have a catch light in their eyes, the portrait is dead. Consider your camera angle, and move your shooting position slightly until you can see the light reflected in the subject’s eye. It will likely be the main light source from the brightest part of the sky. A simple reflector held by an assistant can create fabulous results by reflecting the light back towards the subject, filling in the shadows and adding a catch light.
The camera angle can make or break your portrait. For example, shooting down on a subject can make them look vulnerable, or shooting up can make them look powerful. Photographing portraits of children is often best from their eye-level to give the viewer the impression that they’re in their little worlds.
Pro-Tip: It’s usually more flattering to shoot from a higher angle down at the subject looking up towards the camera. This will make the eyes look larger and create a nice jawline. Just remember that it can also make a subject look vulnerable — so perhaps it’s not suitable for the CEO’s portrait!
If you follow these steps — and practice — you’ll start to create timeless portraits that are worth framing and sharing. Experiment by trying these tips with different subjects in different situations.
Images and text by Greg Sullavan.
Greg’s a Canon Photographer and a Double Master of Photography with the Australian Institute of Professional Photography.