A Guide to the Perfect Portrait

What’s so great about portraiture is that you have a never-ending supply of subjects available to you, each with his or her own unique look.

Beyond that, there are a ton of different types of portraits, from headshots to action shots to indoor and outdoor portraits and everything in between.

Factor in posing, wardrobe, lighting, and composition, and you have a genre of photography that offers a lifetime of opportunities to learn more about photography.

If you’re just getting into portraiture — or even if you’ve been at it for awhile — this guide walks you through some of the basic things to know to get a perfect portrait.

Natural Lighting

An ideal way to get more involved in portraiture is to focus on natural light portraits.

Images like the one above no doubt have gorgeous scenery, but it isn’t as simple as finding a nice location and snapping a few photos.

To begin with, not all natural light is made equal. For example, at noon on a sunny day, the light has a harsh quality to it with strong shadows and intense, blue-colored light. However, shoot a portrait on a cloudy day, and even at noon, the clouds filter the sunlight, diffusing it for a much softer, more pleasing look.

The same principle applies to Golden Hour — the hour or so before sunrise and after sunset.

That early and late in the day, the sun’s rays have to travel through more of the atmosphere. That makes the light exceptionally soft.

What’s more, Golden Hour lighting is much warmer than mid-day lighting. That golden hue is often quite pleasing for portraits.

Here’s a couple of do’s and don’ts when it comes to using natural lighting

Try a Reflector

A 5-in-1 reflector pack is one of the most versatile and inexpensive camera accessories you can buy.

These reflectors help you bounce light onto the subject to fill in shadows, but do so in a variety of ways:

  • Silver brightens the light, making it more intense.
  • Gold warms up the light, mimicking Golden Hour lighting.
  • White adds a softness to the light while minimizing shadows.
  • Translucent can be used as a diffuser to minimize shadows.
  • Black is an anti-reflector to be used when you need to enhance shadows.

Avoid Shooting in Direct Sun

As noted earlier, direct sunlight is harsh and produces very pronounced shadows, like those you see on the man’s face in the image above.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t take a good portrait outdoors during the day though…

Likely the easiest trick is to find some shade.

By positioning your subject under the shade of a tree, you eliminate those harsh shadows and can get a much more pleasing portrait, like the one below.

What’s more, by seeking shade you reduce the likelihood that your subject will be squinting in the photo.

If there aren’t any trees nearby, there are other approaches you can take:

  • Wait for a passing cloud to obscure the sun to take the photo.
  • Create your own shade by using a reflector to block the sun from the subject’s face.
  • Head indoors and place your subject near a window to capitalize on natural light.

Let’s explore that last point — window light — a little more.

Use Windows to Diffuse Light

You can use natural lighting even indoors by placing your subject near a window.

There are several ways you can go about doing this to get different looks.

On the one hand, you can use light coming directly through the window (like in the image above) to create a high-contrast look with nice shadows that add dynamic range to the shot but are much less harsh than they would be outdoors.

On the other hand, you can position the subject in front of the window and shoot toward the light, making a nice silhouette.

Lastly, you can diffuse the light entering the window by drawing the curtains or even hanging a white sheet over the window.

Doing so has a similar effect as clouds, scattering the light more evenly through the room to minimize shadows and soften the light.

Note how in the image above, there are no bright highlights or deep shadows — just nice, even lighting that gently falls on the model’s face.

Get a few tips on using natural window lighting for portraits (and see some gorgeous example photos) in the video below by Jana Williams:

Artificial Lighting — Fill Flash

Although natural lighting is great for portraits, to an extent, you’re at the mercy of the time of day to get the kind of light quality you want.

However, if you mix natural and artificial lighting, you’ll have more leeway regarding how the lighting looks in your portraits.

For example, without artificial lighting, the model in the image above would likely be underexposed due to the brightness of the sky in the background.

To get a quality exposure, you can meter for the sky and fill in the foreground with a flash to get a similar effect as seen above.

The key is to ensure you have a good balance between natural and artificial lighting — you don’t want the flash to be so in-your-face that it’s obvious one was used. On the other hand, you don’t want the natural lighting to overpower the flash, resulting in odd shadows.

Blending natural and artificial lighting certainly requires a little more legwork than just relying on natural light.

What’s more, as you learn in the video above by Tony and Chelsea Northrup, there’s some essential pieces of lighting equipment you’ll need as well.

Don’t worry though — often all you need is a flash and a diffuser, and you’ll be set!

Headshots

When you think of headshots, you might think of cheesy glamour shots at the mall or portraits of corporate executives.

But headshots are much more than that.

A headshot allows you to highlight the greatest differences from one person to the next.

Apart from identical twins, everyone has different eyes, foreheads, noses, mouths, and chins, making us each unique and distinguishable from everyone else.

In a lot of ways, getting a great headshot is fairly straightforward. By that I mean there’s not as much consideration for the background because the shot is framed so tightly, nor do you have to think as much about the composition of the shot, again, because you’re simply placing the person’s face in the middle of the frame.

Manage Depth of Field

As with any portrait, it’s necessary that you manage the depth of field in a headshot such that your subject is in sharp focus and the background is nicely blurred.

There are a number of factors that influence depth of field:

  • Aperture — the larger the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. For headshots, an aperture of f/2 or larger is advisable.
  • Distance to the subject — the closer you are to the subject, the shallower the depth of field.
  • Distance from the subject to the background — the further the background is from the subject, the shallower the depth of field.
  • Sensor size — the larger the sensor, the shallower the depth of field.

In most cases, the depth of field in portraits will be manipulated with the aperture and the distance to the subject.

Help Pose the Head

Even though headshots are quite simple, you still need to give your subject direction regarding how to hold their head.

By and large, headshots are taken from slightly to the left or right of center, like the image below.

But as you can see, it’s not just the subject’s face in the shot — you can also see her neck, shoulders, and arms.

As a result, have your subject straighten their back, with shoulders rolled back, neck extended, and the chin slightly upward.

This elongates the body, helping the subject to appear taller (and thinner) than they actually are.

What’s more, this helps avoid poor posture (i.e. a rounded back) and also helps minimize the appearance of a double chin.

In addition to positioning your camera slightly off-center, it’s also important to be aware of the height from which you shoot.

Go for an eye-level shot such that the subject’s eyes are highlighted in the frame. This will help to create a stronger connection between viewers and the subject of the portrait.

Consider the Lighting

As was discussed earlier, natural lighting is great for many types of portraits, including headshots. Just remember to find some shade or place your subject near a window to get softer natural lighting.

If you’re shooting indoors with a flash, place the subject in front of a nondescript background, like a wall with a plain paint color.

Then, position one light (preferably with a softbox) above the model’s face. Then add a reflector below the subject’s face to bounce light up towards them to reduce shadowing.

Get more insights on classic portrait lighting setups in this guide.

Putting It All Together

Portraiture is a rewarding endeavor, whether you’re simply taking photos of your kids or you want to do it for a living.

Using the tips outlined in this article, you’ll be in a better position to create portraits that make your subject look good and make you proud of the work you’ve done.

This isn’t an end-all, be-all tutorial by any means, but it will certainly get you headed in the right direction.

Now all that’s left for you to do is grab a subject, get your gear, and start taking better portraits!

Still haven’t uncovered all the tools, tips & tricks you need to take the stunning portrait shots you want?

Enroll in our Portrait Photography Mastery Course and join the photographers who have fast tracked their learning by mastering the art of taking awe-worthy portrait shots in just a matter of days.


Originally published at www.photographytalk.com on April 29, 2017.