5 tips for better portraits

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To take better portraits is to fully understand what it is exactly you are trying to convey. Wikipedia describes portrait photography as a way to,

capture by means of photography of the likeness of a person or a small group of people, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The objective is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person.

Portrait shots are generally composed of a bust of the person, that is to say, from about the armpits or elbows to the top of their head. Generally speaking, this portion of the person fills the frame and little else is in it, thus drawing the viewer to focus on the subject matter. With these 5 easy tips, you can have even more successful portraits.

  1. Go Vertical! This is the best tip I can share with new photographers. Turn the camera vertical and don’t waste space. Portrait shots end up looking better when done vertically. 
  2. Get your longer lens out. Longer lenses, zoomed or fixed focal length, simply give nicer results for portraits. This allows you to not be on top of your subject while shooting, and also helps soften skin tones, not over-emphasize larger noses and allow for better bokeh shots, explained in depth further below. If you are a Canon shooter, the 85mm f/1.2 is the dream lens of most shooters for this exact reason.  
  3. Shoot wide open. This means set your lens to the lowest (fastest) number aperture (commonly called an f/stop) that you can. Shooting with a shallow depth of field will create a creamy bokeh effect in the background, blurring it and pushing all the focus on the person in the frame. This comes in really handy outside when you might have objects behind the subject you don’t want to be visible, but the colors are nice.

    Photos from CC & SXC

  4. Fill the frame. Don’t be afraid to fill the frame with the subject’s face in it, that’s ok, it’s the point of having their photo taken. Sometimes it’s ok to cut off part of their forehead for the sake of a good photo. A portrait should convey the person and their mood, not the scene or location they are in.


    Photos from CC & SXC

  1. Get the flash off the camera. One of the worst things you can do is use the pop-up flash on a DSLR or even a hotshoe mounted flash directly on the hotshoe. This causes very dramatic, unattractive shadows to fall behind the person, very noticeable when shooting inside against a wall. I’ve been using the Stroboframe Press-T flash bracket for years and absolutely love it. It also allows the flash to swing back on top of the camera for vertical shots. The advantage to using a flash bracket, often in conjunction with an Omni-Bounce flash diffuser is to.
    1. Greatly reduce red-eye (nearly 100% gone)
    2. Soften the light
    3. Get the flash farther away from the lens, and angled slightly down to avoid unsightly shadows on walls when shooting inside
    4. Aide in shooting vertically composed shots, the flash is no longer only lighting one side
  2. Bonus tip! Don’t look into the lens. Eyes tell most all the story in a portrait; they don’t always have to be looking directly into the lens. Sometimes having a subject roll their eyes into the upper right or left corner makes a stunning portrait.

    Photos from CC & SXC 

These six tips should easily allow you to start shooting better, more appealing portraits. Many other factors come into play, but this is a good base to get anyone started, or move onto the next level in your photography.

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