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10 Essentials For A Great Portrait

A great portrait captures not just the way a person looks, but the essence of who they are. But how do you capture something you can’t see, like personality, with a camera? Taking a great portrait isn’t a matter having one element just right. It’s about making every aspect of the photo work together for the final image. Want to take better portraits? Here are ten things every great portrait involves.

#1. The right gear.

The right gearDo you need the biggest, fanciest camera on the market to take a great portrait? Not at all. But, the best camera to take a portrait with will allow you to control elements like the exposure and the focal point. Usually, that means a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Since you don’t need as much speed as a sports photographer, you can take a great portrait with an entry-level DSLR. The higher resolution and better focusing systems of more advanced models may come in handy, but they’re certainly not a necessity.

Of course, you’ll need a good lens to go with that DSLR or mirrorless body. The best portrait lenses are rather affordable, since you won’t need zoom. A 50mm f/1.8 prime lens is a great portrait lens and typically costs under $300. Of course, you can use the kit lens that came with your DSLR, but if you’ll be taking lots of portraits in the future, that “niffy fifty” lens is a great investment. While it’s the photographer that creates a great portrait, having the right gear can be a big help.

#2. Sharp eyes.

If nothing else, a great portrait will have sharp eyes. Why? It’s the eyes that portray a sense of personality and genuine expression. When taking a portrait, many novice photographers use the default autofocus area mode, which will often focus on what’s closest to the camera. In a portrait, what’s closest to the camera is the nose. Focus on the nose, and you won’t get sharp eyes and you won’t get a portrait that pops.

How do you get those sharp eyes? Instead of using the default autofocus area mode, use single point autofocus. This allows you to choose which portion of the image to focus on. After you change the mode to single point (usually located inside the menu), you can use the arrow keys to move the focal point. Look through the viewfinder and move that red box over one of the subject’s eyes to get them sharply focused.

#3. Catchlights.

CatchlightsYou’ve got the eyes in focus, and now you want to really make them sparkle. Make sure the eyes have a catchlight, or a light that’s reflected on the eye. Catchlights add depth to the subject’s eyes, and make them stand out even more.

In order to create a catchlight, you’ll need to have a light source in front of the subject. If you are shooting in full shade with no flash, you won’t get a catchlight. You can adjust the subject’s position so there’s some light in front (just make sure it’s not so much light that it makes them squint). Or, you can add catchlights by using a reflector or a flash. Catchlights take on the shape of the light that’s being reflected, so keep that in mind as you consider what reflector to use or what flash diffuser to use.

#4. Genuine expression.

Genuine expressionForget about the phrase “say cheese” right now. Why? Fake smiles certainly aren’t part of a great portrait. A fake smile just involves the lips, but a genuine smile involves the eyes too. Asking for a smile usually results in a fake one.

To get a great smile, you have to create the right moment. Help the client to relax by engaging in casual conversation. Tell a joke, talk about something that matters to them, recruit help from one of their friends. Whatever you do, set up the opportunity to capture a real smile .

#5. A solid pose.

Posing is almost an art in itself. Some poses only suit certain body types, while there’s a handful of options that work well for most shapes and sizes. Learn a few basic poses, and examine the pose carefully before you take the shot, making small adjustments to get the most flattering look.

Facing the camera straight-on makes the subject’s body look wider than it is—it can work for guys, but is best avoided when posing women. Whatever is closest to the camera looks bigger, that’s why shooting from waist-level isn’t very flattering, but shooting from eye level or even a bit higher can work well.

#6. Great lighting.

Great lightingGreat lighting is required for any great photo, but it plays a big role in portraits too. The most flattering light for portraits is usually soft light with minimal shadows, though hard lighting can add drama to some portraits as well. Look for shadows falling across the subject’s face. Nose shadows can make the nose appear larger, so reposition the subject or add some fill light if you see any. Shadows under the eyes make a subject look tired, fight those with a reflector or fill flash.

Keep the type of light in mind too. Outdoor lighting tends to be particularly flattering, though of course there are benefits to shooting with controlled studio lights too. Light also has different colors—just before sunset, for example, the light has a nice warm glow, making it an excellent time to shoot a portrait.

#7. An uncluttered background.

The focus of the image should be the subject, so make sure the background doesn’t take away from that. A great way to keep the focus on the subject is to use a wide aperture, leaving the background soft and out-of-focus. Adding more distance between the subject and any objects in the background will also help.

Sometimes, the background can add to a portrait. If you’re shooting in a neat location, don’t be afraid to show some of the scenery too, just make sure it’s not stealing the focus. A narrow aperture will keep more of the scene in focus. Try using the depth of field preview button on your camera to determine how wide to set the aperture to get the right amount of background blur for your shot.

#8. A good exposure.

good exposureA camera measures for exposure based on the light and dark colors in the scene. If you fill the frame with a subject that has lighter colors, for example, your image will be underexposed, or too dark. In portraits, the color of a subject’s skin and clothing can throw off the exposure.

When taking a portrait, use exposure compensation in aperture priority mode, or shoot in full manual mode. Remember the meter will be off a bit based on the colors in the scene. Check your first shot, and make adjustments until the subject’s face has a good exposure.

#9. The right perspective.

Taking a step to the side can often make or break a portrait. Perspective is key in getting a good portrait. Taking one more step to the side can make a pose more flattering, or offer more variety in a portrait session. Getting a higher perspective can help too.

Often, getting in closer helps too. Portraits don’t have to be full body shots or shot from the waist up. Try filling the frame with the subject’s face and you’ll really highlight those eyes and that smile.

#10. A Photographer-subject dynamic.

Most people are uncomfortable in front of a camera, and when someone feels uncomfortable, they’ll look it too. To get a great portrait, photographers need to help a subject to feel at ease, then get them to crack a genuine smile.

Sometimes, this comes naturally to outgoing photographers. But shy photographers can still take good portraits, they just have to step out of their comfort zone. Plan ahead of time and practice articulating some poses so you’re not left searching for words. Don’t be afraid to be a little silly with your subjects. They’ll get better photos, and certainly won’t think less of you for that.

The best portraits capture a person’s personality, and there are multiple aspects that have to work together to create that. Work to get the eyes sharp and a great expression. Find a great pose and a good perspective. Practice getting all the elements together, and you’ll be on your way to capturing excellent portraits.

Looking to sharpen your photography skills? Join our top-rated professional diploma in photography today!

Shaw Academy

Updated: Oct 20, 2015

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