Photo by Scott Bourne - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons

Photo by Scott Bourne – Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons

This is just a series of random tips for people who are new to portraiture. Like everything in photography, you could find a perfect example that is just the opposite but these have been very good to me over the years. I hope they help those of you who are just starting out.

1. When you want to make a portrait, try to schedule enough time to get to know your subject. Provide them with a clothing checklist. Long sleeved turtle necks or crew necked sweaters are very flattering. Solid colors are better than patterned clothing. Women should wear basic, understated makeup. Both men and women should avoid prominent jewelry. Especially avoid large ear rings on women and make sure you know whether or not the subject wears glasses. This could impact how you light and pose.

2. Before your subject arrives, scout your location and have your equipment ready. The last thing you want to do is fumble around with your camera settings or light placement while the subject waits nervously to have their portrait made. Have your assistant help you preset a basic exposure in advance. When the subject arrives, you want to put all of your attention on them and not your equipment. This takes practice but yields great results.

3. You should study the subject and look for problem areas. This will help you decide where to place the camera relative to the subject. In most cases, placing the camera lens at your subject’s eye level is best for a simple headshot. If you have a particularly heavy subject, raise your camera position and have the subject look up. This will thin out the neck and draw attention away from double chins. If you have someone with a scar, turn that side of the face toward the light. It sounds counter-intuitive but it works. The lit side tends to disappear in the photo. The shadow side of the face is more likely to reveal texture and facial imperfections. Light the problem.

4. If the subject is sitting, place them on the edge of their seat. Whether sitting or standing, ask them to straighten up. The pose should be basic. In fact, the more basic your posing technique, the more likely it is that your subject will appear natural. Having heavy subjects cross their ankles is always more flattering than standing them at attention directly facing the camera.

5. When you are just starting out, try to make sure the head and shoulders are pointing in the same direction. The head should be tilted towards the lower shoulder, so that it is perpendicular to the slope of the shoulder. The face and body should be turned towards the light. A variation on this theme is to turn the body away from the light and the face toward the light. The head is turned and tipped to the highest shoulder. This variation works especially well for women unless they are heavyset. In either pose, lean the body slightly forward at the waist. Be sure that the head turns and tips to the same shoulder.

6. Smiles and expression are also very important. There are some tricks you can use to get a natural smile. First ask the subject to lick their lips. It helps make the lips shine and gets them used to using their mouth. Then say something like…”Okay give me just a hint of a smile.” Take the picture and then immediately say…”Oh come on, that’s fake.” This will usually cause the subject to break out into a natural grin. Another trick I use is to say something like…”Come on, you don’t know me well enough to be that mad at me.” Or…”Okay on this one, try not to look like you are posing for the America’s Most Wanted poster.” Experiment with different jokes. You will develop your own sayings that work, and you will get the smile that counts, the real one. Expression outsells perfection each and every time guaranteed.

7. When photographing men, try to give them something to do with their hands. This relaxes them.

8. Remember that the camera looks both ways. If you’re in a sour mood and not smiling don’t expect anything different from the subject.

9. Start with a basic one-light, one-reflector system if you’re working with strobes or hot lights in a studio. Mastering one light is easier than mastering two. Etc.

10. Do your best. Remember that every portrait you make may be the last you ever make of that subject. Don’t screw it up! :)

NOTE: Remember – this is NOT intended to be an exhaustive list. It’s just a few tips that might help beginning portrait photographers get started on the right foot. Have fun.

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