Portrait Photography Tutorial
What makes a good portrait?
Photographing people is the most common and, in many ways, the most challenging task for photographers. We all know a good picture when we see one but what is it that makes the good ones stand out? Is it because it is an especially good likeness? A photograph will always be a true likeness, even when we think it isn't. How many times have you heard someone say "that doesn't look like me/you at all"? How can that be when we are using a camera?
The problem is that we are used to seeing people moving around, at least their faces, and in some kind of context, doing something or talking to us. We very rarely see people completely motionless, except perhaps when they are asleep, so a single frozen moment in time can seem totally unrepresentative, it can, only too easily, capture a moment when they are in a pose that we have never noticed before.
So what makes a good portrait of someone is that it should say something about that person that we feel is true. A good portrait sums up the character of the person or at least an aspect of their character. You don't know the girl on the left but, looking at her photo, you have made some judgments about her and you have made some decisions about her character.
The pose, viewpoint, direction and quality of lighting, choice of lens, choice of background and the cropping of a picture can all contribute to the mood of the photograph and therefore what you are saying about that person.
A good portrait is a picture that says something about the person, gives you an insight into the person's character, whether this is make believe or not.
The most important item in the list above, by far, is the pose. Capturing the right moment is crucial and, with that in mind, it is important to take as many shots as you can. Each one will be slightly different, as you take pictures you will think up new ideas, the whole thing is an evolving process. I took about fifty shots to get this one, the others are nice, most of them, but this one stood out as being the best. There is no excuse now that we have digital cameras, the cost of taking extra shots is nothing.
How do I know when to stop? I know the session is over when I catch myself taking the same picture again and again, or we just run out of time.
The picture above was taken in the studio where I can control the lighting carefully and ensure that the shadows fall exactly where I want them. I'll be giving you some tips on light placement on page 2.
This little fellow below on the other hand was shot outside in the playground. I only actually got two shots of this guy so I consider myself quite lucky to get a pose as good as this. Once again, when you look at the picture, you immediately start to read his personality. The shot is a very natural pose. You could not tell him to do that and expect the same degree of success. Which brings me to one of the most important tips for successful portraiture.
You must be ready for the action and work very quickly, seize the moment.
People, especially children, get bored very quickly. If you start fiddling with your camera telling them to hold on a minute you will never get good pictures. The most important part of the picture is the expression on the face. When you see that expression you must be ready to instantly capture it, everything else, the lighting, the background, the composition must be ready. Facial expressions, at least the good ones, are very fleeting things. If you ask someone to smile and you leave them holding that smile for even a second it will look very, very false.
When taking pictures of children I like to use a long lens and blend into the background. After a while they forget you are there then you start to get much more natural expressions. You need a lot of patience to work this way, you must not keep stopping them or trying to get them to turn in the direction you want because you will break the mood. Just keep watching be patient and be ready. Let the good stuff happen when it will.
On page two I'll give you some tips on lighting, cropping and the more practical 'nuts and bolts' aspects of portraiture. These are obviously important too but the most important part of the process is to set out with a definite purpose in mind. My most successful pictures are the ones that were planned carefully. That doesn't mean getting out lots of gadgets, it means thinking about what you want to do and making sure you are in the right place at the right time. There are flukes of course but the flukes are more likely to happen if you plan ahead and are ready to take advantage of them.
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Other tutorials in this section
A few tips for the budding wildlife photographer.
Lighting and perspective.
What you need and what to watch out for.
All the settings you need.
Photograph flowers like a professional, what you need to know.
For when you need extra depth of field.
How to get those ultra close-ups in focus.
Shooting a panned sequence of shots and stitching them together to make a panorama.
Techniques to help you capture those golden moments.
Getting the exposure right in all that white.
Tips on how to capture fast action.
Take better holiday photos without losing your sanity.
A complete 'how to' for weddings, with an accent on crowd control.
Bribing people to sit for you.