The Tricky Thing About Portraits

When dear husband and I were planning our wedding, the hardest thing after finding a venue (and getting married on a budget…) was finding a good wedding photographer that we could trust. As people who take lots of photos, we definitely know what we like and don't like. Thankfully, we ended up with more photos we liked than photos we disliked.

That said, having shot weddings and events in the past, I like capturing fun moments and not being in the way (don't get me started on photographers and videographers who block the view for the entire crowd of onlookers during a ceremony). The way I like to take photos is that you shouldn't really know I'm there. But I think that’s kind of easy these days.

The real tricky part lies in taking pictures of folks not doing something special but just being. Here are a few tips I have in case you are trying to make a good picture of another human:

1. Get Lit

And by "lit" I mean pay attention to lighting. Good lighting is imperative. The last thing you want to do is have a whole lot of dark photos that you need to tweak. Unless you are trying to capture someone's dark side, in which case, carry on!

That said, good lighting doesn't have to mean expensive lighting equipment. If you find your camera's flash is too much, try to redirect that light. You can literally put a rectangle mirror under your flash while you take a picture (there's a product that does this for you called the Lightscoop). This helps diffuse the light so that flash is not so harsh. Alternatively, take your portrait on a bright but overcast day and let a cloudy sky be your big softbox in the sky.

2. Make Me Look Pretty

Everyone is beautiful in their own way and when you create a portrait, it’s about figuring out the best way to capture that. Makeup can be your friend; although, more so the kind that keeps you from getting too shiny if you tend to have oilier skin and not the kind that alters what you look like (again, unless that's what you are going for!).

Do keep in mind that even the beautiful people don't always look so great staring straight at a camera. Models are lauded more for creating angles with their bodies versus something inherent about their composition. This is when I think it’s totally ok to have some inspiration photos you like that you will try to capture. I have a Pinterest board of inspiration — whatever floats your boat.

Moreover, once you are inspired, it's important to use the right tool to facilitate the result you are after. If you have a zoom lens or interchangeable lenses, a good rule of thumb is to go higher than 50mm for individuals and go lower than 50mm for large groups of people. A lower number means a wider field of view which can distort lines and people's faces if you aren't careful; a good example of this is in the movie La La Land. As the camera at the audition pans in on Emma Stone's face, you'll notice something's a little off due to the distorting effect of the wide lens:

3. Don't Be So Basic

Every person is different and so every session will be different. What feels right for one may be terrible for another. If something you envisioned for your model doesn't work, realize that as soon as you can and move on. Don't force some photo trends just because it's in.

Similarly some photo trends need to die and you have my permission to let them die. Photo shoots on railroad tracks, for example, need to end; who decided that was safe?! And don't get me started on bad couples poses. I've seen engagement photos bordering on the obscene because of where a hand is placed during a staged kiss. When you are trying to create a portrait of a regular person, you generally want to avoid techniques that will be seen as gimmicky in the future. I generally try to avoid super stylized lighting or poses unless I'm working with an actual model who wants something unique; your average person will want to simply look their best in as many of the photos as possible.

Key takeaway: focus on presenting someone in their best light (literally) and don't be afraid to make changes and adapt in real-time if needed to improve the outcome!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *