By Brendan Keenan, Penn Camera Tysons Corner
First, it is important to know what makes a good portrait, and it isn't all technical. The best thing to remember, and the basis of good portrait photography, is that you must "capture" your subject. We've all heard this term, and we know it when we see it. This is the first rule of good portrait photography. The character of the subject should be evident in the photograph, and the photograph should set a mood. This can be as easy as capturing a child's smile or laughter. It can also be more difficult. Some of the best portraits can be very serious, and capturing a solemn moment of thought makes for a powerful photograph. In the beginning just try to include one aspect of your subject's personality in the photo. With practice you will learn to capture and enhance what makes your subjects special, and any unique traits or features, even quirky mannerisms and attitudes can make the difference between a photo of a person, and a true portrait. A portrait is a representation of someone's likeness, and we all know that there is more to everyone than what we see on the surface. Look below the surface and photograph that. It sounds tricky, and it can be, but it is the foundation of any really good portrait. Of course, it isn't as simple as that. You will need to get the hang of the technical end of things as well.
The second thing to focus on when you start to shoot portraits is obviously using the right camera settings. This is important to achieve proper exposure, and control depth of field. Traditionally, a portrait should only focus on the subject, removing any distracting background clutter. This can be accomplished by always using a wide aperture, like f2.8 of f4 to achieve a shallow depth of field and emphasize your subject. The next important exposure element to remember in portrait photography is your ISO setting. It is always good practice to use as low an ISO as possible to achieve the best picture quality. Experiment with some different settings, but try to adhere to these rules for the best results when starting out. For more information on exposure, check out our blog post on Exposure Control. Of that is also where controlling light comes into play, so let’s move on to lighting.
Lighting in portrait photography can actually be done a scale from very simple, to very complex. For total control, professional photographer's use studios, but don't worry, you can still get great portraits with some more basic setups to start out. One simple setup requires no real special equipment, and can be accomplished using only available light. Find a place indoors with a window that is letting a good amount of light into the room. With your subject placed off to the side of the window (so that the light is shining on your subject, have them face you. Now, use something to reflect the light from the other side of your subject, just out of the frame. Obviously a reflector would be the best option, but I said no special equipment and I meant it. You can achieve a reflective result with something as basic as white cardboard or poster board, even aluminum foil can be used as a reflective surface. This basic setup will achieve flattering lighting for your subject. That being said, the use of light modifiers like umbrellas and reflectors can be an inexpensive way of controlling light and obtaining more precise results. The better your tools, the less work you have to do. To obtain even better results, simply using off-camera flashes can give you the right amount of light, where you need it and when you need it. Check out our blog on Off-Camera Flash to learn more about the basics of off-camera lighting.
Last but not least digital photographers have the powerful tool of editing. With even some of the more inexpensive image editing software programs you can out the finishing touches on your photograph. By adjusting color, contrast and saturation levels, and cropping or straightening your photograph, you can quickly iron out any “wrinkles” you may have had in your original photograph. Even a small thing like slightly overexposing a portrait can have beneficial effects. Overexposing will reduce the appearance of blemishes, and make for a more uniform appearance in skin tones(this is one of the very few times I would recommend overexposure). Most programs make it easy to quickly fix things like red-eye, or crop out distracting elements that draw attention from the subject. It is after all, about the subject. To learn more about some of the better programs out there check out our blog Image Editing on a Budget, which discusses a few good options for people getting more serious about their digital photography.
So focus on the big three rules I’ve laid out for basic portrait photography. Always try to “capture” your subject, and inject that mood, or that characteristic into the photograph. Second, make sure to use proper camera settings, like a wide aperture and low ISO. Third, remember that image editing is your friend. It gives you that final degree of control you need between the time the shutter snaps, and the time the print dries. Start with the basics, and you’ll be a pro in no time.