Truly great portrait photography isn’t anything like what you remember from high school. It isn’t about capturing someone in front of a fake background and hoping it turns out. From my experience, the portrait photographers who really know what they are doing take the time to learn everything there is to know about their subjects. They go to extraordinary lengths to photograph their subjects in places that suit their personality, and it shows. The following article is written with the intent to let you into their world, to see what they see and incorporate it into your portraits.
The number one rule in portrait photography
A lot of us get caught up on the idea that a portrait has to be a single face against a pre-fab background. In reality, a good portrait is anything we want it to be. It can be your friend and his cat or your mom and her guitar. As long as it is genuine, and it reveals something personal about your subject, it’s a portrait.
Try out everything. Ask your friend to gather up ten things that really mean something to her before you head over to her house. Play around for awhile and keep asking questions. Oftentimes, just having this stuff around can be quite revealing, and we often learn much more about our friends than we ever knew before. If you take this exploratory attitude and always try to learn more, you will undoubtedly find the perfect way to cast your friend in the right light.
Here is a portrait of a friend of mine. We were simply walking around in the woods and chatting at sunset. He turned around, and I snapped it.
I didn’t have a fancy flash with me to fill in his face at the time, but I still like this photo because it is truly genuine. My friend loves walking around in the forest, and the trees frame his face perfectly. It reflects my friend’s personality better than any other photo I have of him.
Rule number two: do something about that distracting background
You probably remember standing in front of some pretty bizarre backdrops when you were getting your photo taken as a kid. Part of the photographer’s intent, in doing so, was to try to control the background of the photo and draw attention to your beautiful smiling face. Granted, this probably backfired and instead drew attention to the dazzling rainbows behind you, but it was nice try.
Whenever you take a portrait, try to find a background that won’t distract the viewer. This can be challenging, especially when you are doing what is called an “environmental” portrait where you use the scene to say something about your subject. There are a few things you can do to sidestep this issue. You can either try to bring your subject somewhere with an uncluttered background, or you can blur out the background altogether by using a very open aperture (F5.6 or below).
If the above two options fail, go ahead and bring some backdrops with you. Nobody can control which times are good or bad for creating portraits. You’ll always be better off when you can control the background variable, no matter how you do it. Sure, it might look cheesy, but sometimes you have no choice.
Rule number three: get a grip on that big schnoz
A few months ago, I wrote an article about telephoto lenses and some of the effects you can create with them. One thing I mentioned is that a telephoto lens is great for portrait photography because the telephoto effect flattens the nose and makes it stand out much less. You can do this by moving about 15 feet away from your subject and zooming in until your subject’s face fills the frame.
This is a handy technique when you’re outside, and you have a tripod. Unfortunately, it might be a little more difficult when you are crammed inside of a small house. Just remember to get as far away from your subject as you can within reason, and don’t use a wideangle lens up close. The wideangle creates more depth, making that schnoz appear even bigger than it actually is. It’s a major photography faux pas.
The simplest advice I can give to anyone learning portrait photography is to get inside your subject’s head and learn everything there is to know. Be patient, and try do something different from the standard run-of-the-mill studio photo. Whether you like to believe it or not, your friend has a natural habitat. Find that habitat and use it to create something truly expressive and brimming full of life!
While you’re at it, send me your best and most expressive portraits. I’d love to pick one and do a critique on it.
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