Five Ways To Take a Great Portrait

On nailing the close-up

Phil Lubin, by Josh S. Rose.

No matter what kind of photography you do, if you are “good with a camera,” at some point somebody is going to ask you to take their portrait. It might be for their company website, their social media feed, their acting career or any number of other reasons, but as soon as they know you’ve got the goods, it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself pointing your lens at someone’s face, looking to capture their best side.

If the prospect of this seems a little daunting, have no fear — there are a lot of different ways to nail the close-up. Here’s some of my favorites:

Range of Emotion

Just like any actor, every person has a range. As a photographer, a big part of your job is finding that range, and getting it all out of them. Some subjects jump right into it and know how to turn it on, while others will just stare blankly and wait for your direction. The latter, of course, takes more work on your end. Find your set of questions, or asks, that get your subject to express themselves differently. My objective is to have a different look every two or three frames. So, in essence, I ask for a look, shoot off two or three shots, then ask for a different look. And repeat.

Phil Lubin, by Josh S. Rose.

I don’t like to give a lot of direction, as what I’m really looking for is something natural out of the subject, but when I do give direction, I try to offer something that makes the subject have to do some thinking. People are willing to work hard when they have an assignment, so I like to frame it along the lines of, “can you smile like you know something that other people don’t know?” Or, “Look over to your right and then look back like someone just called you.” Even if the person is not an actor, that kind of stage direction gives them something to work with and tends to get them to change more aspects of their face, position and expression. And then I vary up those directions to get a wide variety of looks and angles.

One thing I also like to do is look through the shots after we’ve cycled through a bunch and see which ones I’m already liking the most. Then we revisit that one. But it’s really this wide range of expressions that helps you get the great shot. It’s just more options to choose from and a much higher likelihood of getting something unique.

Get Closer Than You Think You Should

Don’t be afraid to get up close. There’s a reason that headshots are cropped to fill up the entire image with face. At that close range, the image tends to feel more intimate and personal. And also, it’s just rarer to see it. Most images are taken with a mobile phone, which are pretty wide — so the big close-up feels special and professional.

Not to mention, there’s no better way to connect with a portrait than through the eyes, so the bigger the better.

Dillon Chapman, by Josh S. Rose.

Open Shade Shooting

Open Shade is when you shoot just at the edge of a shadowy area, between dark shadow and bright light. Once you get used to seeing these areas, which are everywhere, finding them becomes second nature.

Open Shade portrait, by Josh S. Rose

The best is when there is also some reflective light coming into the open shade — that’s when things really start to sparkle. But in general, that open shade is a guaranteed diffused light that creates even tones across your subject’s face and keeps dark shadows from ruining the shot. Also, exposing for skin tones in the open shade areas tends to create a light background, which helps with an overall light, airy and attractive image.

Shoot At An Angle

This is one of the easiest ways to take a regular, maybe even difficult shooting environment, and get it to work for you. Simply move yourself from shooting straight at the wall or surface that your subject is in front of and angle your view down the street. Since you’re still on the same plane as your model, it’s not going to change her proportions, but the background suddenly falls off and becomes less distracting to the viewer, drawing more attention to the face.

Kanika Lal, by Josh S. Rose.

Shallow Depth of Field

This is perhaps the most common of portrait techniques, as opening up your aperture to its widest setting forces your sensor to throw more of the non-focused-on areas of the image into a beautiful, blurry mess. This accentuates (or as we say, isolates) the face, putting all the viewer’s attention on it. And it just plain looks cool.

Portrait by Josh S. Rose

As you may know, not all camera lenses can open up wide enough to get that effect, or they simply give you different effects, depending on how the lens is made. For that extremely dreamy bokeh, though, you want an aperture that opens up to around f/2 or wider, though you can also accentuate the look by getting closer to your subject.

But it’s a misperception to think that you need a very expensive camera or lens to achieve this look. For these shots, it’s all about the lens (though a bigger sensor in the camera certainly helps in the overall quality of the shot) and there are plenty of decent 50mm f/1.4 lenses out there in the $300 range. If you’re going to shoot portraits, having this small, relatively inexpensive lens in your possession is a sure thing.

Yet another way to get this look is to zoom into your subject’s face from far away. So, a long lens, like a 70–200mm will also isolate your subject’s face in much the same way, even at a smaller aperture, like f/2.8. And, in fact, the majority of professional portrait photographers use precisely this lens for portrait work.

Hope you enjoyed. Any questions, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or send me a message.

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