Tips & Tricks: Portraits

Our Tips & Tricks series aims to give beginners, amateurs and professionals alike more ways to approach different aspects of photography and videography. For each installment, we’ve enlisted the expertise of our MPEX staff and have received their feedback on method and equipment.

“So many people dislike themselves so thoroughly that they never see any reproduction of themselves that suits. None of us is born with the right face. It’s a tough job being a portrait photographer.” –Imogen Cunningham

Portraiture, abstractly, should be one of the simplest genres of photography. You sit your subject on a stool, you shine a light in their face, and you take their picture. Right?

But already we’re running into problems: The subject feels uncomfortable getting their photo taken. The exposure’s hard to read and changes every time you move your light around. You feel like you’re taking the same photo over and over again.

Yes, portraiture is deceptively difficult to do well, let alone master. Yet, it’s one of the most important (and lucrative) types of photography. So what can you do when the challenges of portrait photography arise?

Photo courtesy of Adam Slane
Photo courtesy of Adam Slane

The first problem that many new portrait photographers (and even those who have been doing their thing for a long time) run into is the subject’s own awkwardness when it comes to having his or her photo taken.

Adam, our lighting specialist, had a few suggestions for helping nervous subjects feel more comfortable. If you’re taking senior portraits, for instance, ask the subject to bring music that they enjoy. You can play their music while taking their photo to make them feel more at ease. If you’re snapping photos of small children and you have a smartphone, consider picking up an iCandy. That way, you can put on a cartoon to keep your tiny subject engaged and attentive. Heck, they may even sit still for more than three seconds.

An iCandy smartphone adapter. Never bring silly-looking stuffed animals to a kid's shoot again.
An iCandy smartphone adapter. Never bring silly-looking stuffed animals to a kid’s shoot again.

Another trick that Adam uses regularly when conducting a shoot is to have the subject bring examples of what they’re looking for. This is especially useful, Adam says, because it gets the photographer and the subject on the same page from the very beginning. Use the subject’s examples as a jumping-off point. Having that common ground makes beginning a shoot (which is generally the hardest part) much easier and more fluid.

Adam will regularly make portraits for The Metropreneur. His subjects for those shoots are generally local business owners, and Adam finds that starting the shoot by taking photos of the business itself — the space and the surroundings — not only give Adam an initial reading of the light in the room, but it also gives him and his subject something to talk about, and it shows the subject that the photographer is interested and engaged. However, you don’t just need to be taking photos of a local business. You could compliment your subject on how photogenic their home is, for example. Or, if you’re taking photos outside, start by taking photos of the trees and wildlife. Then, you can share those photos with the subject, getting them more involved in the process.

Photo courtesy of Adam Slane
Photo courtesy of Adam Slane

Colleen from our Rentals department cautioned photographers to not get too distracted with their gear. There are many things to think about when on a shoot, but it’s important that a photographer spend more time interacting with the subject than fiddling with gear. “Telling jokes is a good trick,” she said. Jokes keep the mood light and put a nervous subject at ease. Colleen recommends getting a shutter release cable that allows the photographer to step out from behind the camera and interact with the subject.

On the technical side of things, Adam (predictably (he is our lighting specialist after all)) has several recommendations.

The first is to start simple. You can get a lot of mileage out of a no-frills 1- or 2-light kit. Experiment with placement of the light. Move it around and see what kind of effects you can achieve.

The second recommendation, then, is to experiment with modifiers. Add a softbox, an umbrella, or a beauty dish, and see what you can cook up. Then, add a grid to your softbox. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, bounce your flash off a bare reflector for a scandalous harsh light (“Soft light is safe light,” says Adam).

If you’re shooting outdoors, Colleen recommends thinking about the time of day and the quality of light. Noon might seem like a good time to take someone’s photo outside, but the high angle of the sun creates nasty shadows on a person’s face. But just because you’re shooting with available light doesn’t mean you can’t modify. Is your portrait shoot scheduled for noon? No problem. Get a reflector underneath the person’s face so that the sun bounce will eliminate the shadows. Or, better yet, use fill flash with one speedlight and a stand.

Have any specific questions about shooting portraits? Leave a question in the comments section, or email, and we’ll tackle your questions in a future post.

Midwest Photo

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