If you are looking to improve your technical ability to take portraits, here are 55 tips, tricks, and techniques that will make you a better portrait photographer. Whether you are a beginner looking for advice from a professional or an experienced photographer looking to refresh your memory or try something new, take a look at the list below. The list doesn’t really follow a logical order. Nor is this list exhaustive or all-encompassing. I tried to start with some semblance of organization, but it devolves as the article continues. No matter what, you’ll find something that will help you create better portraits.
Light is the most important part of any photo. The perfect location, pose, or composition is worthless without light. On a basic level, you need light to expose your image. I’m always surprised by how bright a room seems compared to what the camera registers. But what’s much more important than having light is having good, interesting light. You want to capture light that’s different than what we see everyday. On most days, we see bright, hard light that comes from a small, slightly warm light source above–the sun, while huge compared to us, is really far away, which makes the light source really tiny.
You want a photo with light that is different than your typical sunny day. You want light from a different direction, a different color temperature, a different hue, or a different size. A good photo always starts with good light. When you start to differentiate interesting light from normal light, your photography and your portraits will improve. Your friends and family might think you’ve gone crazy because once you start thinking about light, you’ll always be thinking about light. You’ll start saying things like, “Wow, this light would be perfect for a portrait session,” or, “Can we pull over and take a photo? The light is perfect right now.” Don’t worry, this is perfectly natural behavior for a photographer. Everyone else is just crazy. Right?
2. 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?
3. 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.
4. Get closer
This article is about creating better portraits. Portraits are about people, so fill the frame with people. More often than I’d like to admit, I go home and crop my portraits tighter. There’s usually just a little too much space around the subject. Getting closer will allow your camera to capture more detail. Getting closer will make your image more intimate and alluring. Resist the urge to back away. Get closer.