Older gentleman wearing all white shirt, pants, shoes, and a hat is holding a pair of sunglasses and looking to the right side while sitting on a stool in a photography studio. The background and the floor are both gray.

Do you find yourself wondering why your portraits, or "headshots," aren't coming out as professionally as you'd like them to? Well, in this blog, we're going to suggest a handful of essential tips that will help you up to your game in the world of high-end portraiture. 

In addition to getting the techniques and skills down, you'll discover how to design your shoot for success even before you pick up the camera.  

From here on out, whether shooting mirrorless or with a DSLR, you'll be offering a different standard of photography, putting both yourself and your subject at ease in the process.

 

 

 1. It's not only who's in front of your camera but also what's behind them. 

By selecting a dynamic, visually & thematically appropriate — but also non-attention grabbing — background, you can really make your subject "pop."

Make sure there aren't any "busy" patterns clashing with your subject's wardrobe, no distracting colors — or non-complementary colors — or anything that can be interpreted as "cluttered" by a potential viewer. You want to make sure the person you're photographing remains the "star" of the portrait. 

That being said, don't be afraid to be creative, incorporating color, patterns, and texture. Because the view of a portrait is so narrow (usually just someone's face and upper body), you can really add a lot of character to your portrait by choosing your background wisely. Plain, light backgrounds tend to zap the photo of its life, so don't play it safe. Be bold, just be beautiful, too. 

Another effective trick is to add some context using your background. If your subject is a film director, think about including something that reflects that profession, or build the shoot around that personality-defining detail — stylishly placing them in the center of a movie set. 

 

2. Create an atmosphere where your subject can feel like themselves. 

Contrary to popular belief, not everyone enjoys getting their picture taken. For some people, a professional portrait is an expected adjunct to their career or public status, so it's your job to put them at ease and educate them on the process.

Understand that sometimes being in front of the camera can feel inauthentic, especially with the designed and posed nature of the portrait, and recognize that this frame of mind in the subject can be evident in the final picture.

Be patient. Be collaborative — talk about your vision for the picture and include your model in that creative process. Try to connect with your model on a personal level, exhibiting a fun and easy-going attitude. Take a few "sample" photos, so they know that a better picture is just one click away. Once the subject is feeling relaxed, the best shot can be taken.

 

3. Set up your subject for success

You know the feeling you get when you put on a new piece of clothing that you think makes you look really good? It's a big confidence boost, right? A whole new state of mind. Well, the same thing happens when your subject is dressed perfectly for their portrait, and that confidence can be detected by the camera lens. 

Depending on the atmosphere desired for the final shot, give your subject guidance on what clothes to wear and what colors best suit them. Depending on their skin tones, suggest contrasting colors so their face really stands out. 

Be on the lookout for wrinkles, tags, lint, stains, undone buttons (and even undone zippers). Ensure the subject knows you've got their back and that you're there to make them look their absolute best. 

 

4. With portraits, it's okay to be a poser.

Once they're looking good and feeling good, you can begin to pose them in a position that highlights their natural attributes. 

As mentioned before, this aspect can feel the most "unnatural." Just reassure them that it might FEEL weird to sit this way or that way, but it looks hyper-natural and stunningly confident to the camera. 

Oh, and the keyword there was "sit." While it's perfectly fine to take a picture of a person while they're standing, having them sit down will accomplish a few things quickly.

1. They're more comfortable, and therefore more at ease.

2. You'll have more flexibility when positioning your model because they'll have baseline support, allowing them to twist, turn, rotate, hunch forward, and lean back. 

 

5. Communicate, but not too much

Okay, now that you've got your subject in position, try to maintain their relaxation. Easier said than done… 

Keep your suggestions about how you want them to behave to a minimum, and make sure they're clear and concise. Remember, you're the professional here — not them — so if they're not quite sure what you're asking for, walk them through it patiently.  

 

6. Go off-book, experiment, and play

You should feel comfortable with the approach to this series of photographs and have developed a good report with the subject. 

Now it's time to experiment and have some fun. Change position, shoot from below the subject's eye-line, "empowering" your model to the viewer, and try shooting from a higher angle. Pay attention to the shifts in "feeling" that each angle suggests.

Based on the subject and the ultimate vision for the project, refine your method and zero in on the perfect shot to capture the person's mood, personality, and power. 

 

7. Pick the right focal length.

Common lenses used for portraits are 50mms, 85mms, and 105mms (Don't worry, we'll come to their apertures in a moment).

The important concept to understand about focal length when it comes to portraits is: the higher number with which you're shooting — or the more zoom there is — the more flattering your picture will become. 

This is because as lenses get wider (anything below 50mms), the more they distort, bending at the edges to offer a more panoramic view. This distortion does strange things to the human face.

Conversely, the more "punched in" a lens becomes, the more compression it uses — minimizing the visual distance between foreground and background objects. This compression causes the photo and the faces within that photo to flatten and look like they're most attractive. 

 

8. Open wide

Companies manufacture lenses specifically for portraits, meaning the focal lengths we discussed before usually come with a very fast speed. 1.2, 1.4 & 1.8 apertures are standard. 

These numbers reflect how wide the aperture inside your lens can open. When it's spread to its max, it not only allows an incredible amount of light to pour in, but it also shallows the depth of field — the zone of focus from foreground to background. 

A shallow depth of field is a crucial attribute for most portraits because it is the most effective way to make your subject stand out from everything else in the picture — as they are, in fact, the only thing in focus. 

The background becomes a creamy, soft texture, and then out in front of it is your subject, looking sharp and crisp. It's a beautiful contrast. 

This technique also suggests a certain intimacy between viewer and photograph because, in the real world, the only time a person is the only thing so clearly in our focus is when they're a few inches away from our face. This subtext can psychologically bond the audience to our work and the subject, which helped us bring this great portrait to life. 

 

9. Let there be light

As with all other photo blogs worth their salt, the light should be stressed as one of the most important things about your picture — portrait or otherwise. 

With a portrait, your subject must be well lit. Unless you've invested in some high-quality studio lighting, consider using the best (and most inexpensive) light source there is the sun. 

If you find a cloudy day, it will help disperse the powerful daylight evenly over your subject's face, creating the ideal photo conditions. 

Of course, suppose you're attempting to tell a story with your picture. In that case, you can try more dramatic lighting, but since portraits typically feature subjects as their most beautiful, implement bold, even lighting that illuminates both halves of the person's face. 

 

10. A few final tips for your back pocket 

With a well-dressed, confident subject, a beautifully blurry background, and a stellar lighting source, you are ready to take some genuinely iconic portraits, BUT… here are a few rapid-fire tips that will always help you out in a pinch:

A. Make sure the eyes are in focus — the human eyes reveal and conceal the most emotion in the human face. It's the first thing we see and the facial feature we linger on the most. Windows to the soul, I think they say.

B. Exposure for the face — Adjust your camera settings to best accommodate the lighting conditions you're in, but as your north star, use the subject's face as the point of most evident focus, both with the lens and with the light. Your camera will force you to choose where you want to detail; always expose appropriately on the face and sacrifice whatever detail may be lost in the background. 

C. Give the subject space — as we talked about, the more "zoom" a lens has, the more compression it offers. But it also means that you're able to give the subject some physical room by standing further away from them, and you're still being able to get the "tight" portrait composition you're after. 

 

As a personal note, this is slightly less common than using an 85mm or a 105mm, but I like to shoot my own portraits with a 70-200mm lens, zoomed all the way out to 200. This means that I'm able to stand far enough away from the subject that they could, conceivably, forget that I'm even snapping pictures. Because I'm so extended in the focal length, I'm getting that remarkable, shallow bokeh effect (at 200mm, the customary 2.8 provides a depth of field that closely resembles a 1.8). Try this out the next time you shoot and watch how the subject's nervousness melts away. 

 

Now that you've got the fundamentals down, go out there and take some fabulous portraits. Reveal the true nature of the subject and of your artwork.

 

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