Family portrait photographer Aaron Taylor has put together a brilliant article over at Improve Photography, filled with great tips for beginning and even more experienced photographers.
If I had known all of these things when I first started, I’m sure I would have been able to improve my portraits much sooner. And even now that I’ve been doing this for years already, there were still some very interesting things I picked up from this article.
TIME OF DAY
One way to get better light is to photograph at a time of day when the sun isn’t high in the sky. Photographers love to shoot portraits during “golden hour.” The sun is lower, more diffuse, and a more golden hue, which all make for great portrait lighting. Golden hour occurs for the hour or so after sunrise and the hour or so before sunset. If your subject takes your advice and agrees to a golden hour session, they’ll probably want an evening session, right? Who wants to wake up early and take photos? Consider this, though: an evening session means that you’ll be constantly losing light, but a morning session means that you’ll be constantly gaining light. The morning light you gain might not be “golden” anymore, but you won’t have to end things because the sun went down. One other benefit to morning golden hour can be the dew, mist, or fog that might be lingering from overnight. All of those little water droplets on leaves or flowers can add interest or reflect light or even become little bokeh bursts in the image. As the saying goes, the early bird gets the perfect light for portraits, right?
SHOOT RIGHT AFTER IT RAINS
Another situation where unique light presents itself is right after rain. As clouds begin to clear, you get diffuse, soft light. The moisture in the air can add atmosphere to your portrait. As I said in #2, the water on the environment can add character to your photo, either reflecting light, creating unique bokeh, or opening up the possibility for a unique reflection in a puddle or stream of rain water. If there’s rain in the forecast, don’t cancel a session and reschedule, especially if the rain will pass quickly. The unique light and atmosphere you get right after a storm will be well worth the wait.
MAKE LINES STRAIGHT
Whether you have your subject sitting on a set of stairs or there’s a blurred-out window in the background, the horizontal and vertical lines need to be straight. Pay special attention to your horizon–a slanted horizon can really ruin an image, especially if the slant is minor. A purposeful tilt might yield interesting results, but a lazy tilt that you just didn’t notice will weaken your portrait. Unless you’re going for a sense of chaos or instability, straighten your horizontal and vertical lines. When in doubt, straighten horizontal lines as a priority over vertical lines. We see a significant horizontal line all day, everyday–the horizon–so we are more sensitive to off-kilter horizontal lines than vertical lines.
USE THE SURROUNDINGS TO FRAME THE SUBJECT
To help guide your viewer, use the elements of the environment to frame your subject. You might use something obvious like a doorway or window, or the frame might be more subtle like an opening in a set of bushes or different colored panels on a wall. Pay attention to the creative ways you can frame your subject. One way you’ll know if your surroundings might lend themselves to a frame is if you have a line, like a branch or building corner, sticking out of your subject’s head. Moving slightly to the left or right could turn that element into a frame rather than a random line.
USE A LONGER FOCAL LENGTH…
Conventional portrait knowledge will tell you to use a lens with a longer focal length, at least 85mm, perhaps even 100mm and beyond. Some photographers swear by their 70mm-200mm lens, zoomed to 200mm for portraits. What’s great about a longer focal length for portraits is that the perspective compresses the image, which is especially flattering for people. Whether you’re photographing a headshot or a group of people, everyone looks better with a longer focal length. Longer lenses will also make it easier to blur the background, which is especially helpful if you’re shooting with a kit lens that can’t open to as wide of an aperture as a more expensive lens. Even if you have to shoot at f/5.6, when you’re zoomed to 200mm, you’ll still blur the background while keeping your subject in focus. Just remember that if you use a longer focal length, you won’t be able to include as much of the surroundings unless you back up quite a bit, which might then create an image without intimacy or detail in the subject. When you use a longer focal length, be comfortable showcasing the people rather than the surroundings.
…OR USE A SHORT FOCAL LENGTH
On the other hand, you can use a shorter focal length, like 50mm or 35mm or even 24mm, to include much more of your surroundings. This is especially useful for photographing someone in their home, perhaps their office or workspace. Be careful to make sure that the subject stays in the middle of the frame, and don’t get too close to the subject; otherwise, you run the risk of distorting their body or features due to the perspective of the wider lens. Use a wider lens for a more journalistic look and feel to your portraits.
FIND A BIG WINDOW AND STAND SIX FEET AWAY
Photographers love windows. Windows diffuse the light from the sun beautifully. If you have a north or south facing window, you’re in even better shape because you’ll have more even light throughout the day. Have your subject take a few steps back from the window. That way, the light isn’t too harsh. Plus, you’ll see a soft, beautiful transition from light to shadow on your subject. Window light is a photographer’s best friend.
SIMPLIFY THE BACKGROUND
For some reason, people tend to think that a perfect background for family photos is a medieval castle covered in ivy next to a ten-story waterfall that’s surrounded by wildflowers with a rainbow overhead. I often have clients looking for the most unique and ornate location for their family photos. But we’re taking portraits here, right? The photos are about the people, not the backdrop. Strive to simplify your background and make the people, not the location, the main attraction. You don’t need to simplify to a solid, flat wall, but perhaps getting rid of everything except the wildflowers would do. In portrait photography, the cliche of “less is more” really is true.