Featured Photography

5 Tips for Taking Better Portraits

 by Lisa Bettany, 5DMKII, 85mm f/1.8, 1/200 @f/3.5, ISO 100.

Before I jump head first into 2010 Olympic coverage (3 days!!!), I thought I should give my favourite photographer followers some post love. Here are 5 Tips to get more professional looking portraits:

1. Light your subject.

Lighting is one of most important aspects in creating a great portrait. Good lighting is easy to achieve, but requires skill and an off-camera flash. Getting that flash off your camera and onto a light stand with a shoot-through umbrella may seem a bit daunting, but trust me, it’s the only way to guarantee that your photos are going to look professional.

The first thing I suggest is to go read Strobist’s lighting 101 section. Try to take in as much technical information as possible and then practice until you get it.

Things you will need:

  1. A strobe. I use the 580EX as my key light, and 430EXs for edge or back lighting.
  2. Lots of batteries. Speedlights eat through batteries like a sugar-deprived kid with a Pez dispenser. Buy lots of rechargeable batteries and always have two extra sets for each flash. Also remember that batteries take ages to charge, so start charging them up to a day in advance of a shoot.
  3. Wireless triggers. I recommend the Alien Bees CyberSync Triggers. They are way cheaper than Pocket Wizards and work flawlessly. You’ll need one transmitter and a receiver for each flash. You will also need PC sync cables. Also, if you are shooting with a flash, (like my 580EX) that doesn’t have a PC sync socket, then you’ll need to buy a hot shoe adapter for your flash.
  4. Light stand + umbrella adapter + shoot through umbrella. You can buy kits at photo store or find them on line. You can always use “human light stand”, but after a few hours they usually start to complain and demand food, so it’s probably best to just sink the $100 and get a metal one that you can abuse without feeling guilty.

Kara, 5DMKII, 85mm f/1.8, 1/200 @ f/3.5, ISO 100.

2. Engage with your subject.

As a photographer it’s really easy to get preoccupied with the technical details of a shoot and disconnect from your subject. Unfortunately, this disconnection between photographer and subject shows up like a red flag in photos. Nothing is worse than a portrait of a subject with dead, expressionless eyes. It’s something that no amount of Photoshop can fix.

To combat “zombie eyes”, stay connected to your subject and actively give them feedback throughout the shoot. Make small talk to your subject between shots, make sure they are comfortable and happy, tell them silly jokes if you need a smile. I find that with teen girl subjects, mentioning anything to do with Twilight or hunky vampires gets a great response!

3. Shoot in front of a simple, complementary background

Mostly Lisa halo
Some might argue that the foliage halo never goes out of style.

A bad background can ruin a good shot. Trees growing out of subject’s heads, shrubbery poking out of ears, messy piles of things poking from chins, & clashing colours will distract from your subject. When you are setting up your shoot make sure your background is clean and simple. You can remove things in post, but why add the extra work for yourself. Clear any mess away or choose a new angle.

The secret is to shoot at a low aperture >f/3.5 and focus on the eyes. This will create a dramatic depth of field, with the eyes tack sharp and the hair and background soft and out-of-focus. I tend to shoot most of my portraits at f/3.5 or lower because I love dramatic dof and bokeh.

4. Compose your shot.

The rule of thirds is a portrait photograher’s best friend. Learn it. Love it. Replicated it over and over. Portrait photography is something that benefits from strict compositional rules.

When I started, I studied the best portrait & headshot photographers and practiced replicating their work shot for shot. There is no shame in copying others composition, lighting, and settings when learning, and I strongly encourage it. Once you’ve learned the basics and have a good handle on angles and set-ups that works, you can start to explore your own style.

Shauna headshot
Shauna. Canon XSi, 50mm f/.4, 1/200 @ f/2.5, ISO 100.

5. Retouch your shots.

Nobody is perfectly flawless, but everyone wants to look flawless in their photos. While you don’t want to remove all the “character” from someone’s face, any sort of skin imperfection can probably be nixed without a word of complaint from your subject, especially if you are doing promotional headshots or wedding photos. As a model, it would stress me out to no end if I got a blemish before a photo shoot. If I would have known how easy it is to clone stamp that puppy away in one click, I would have way fewer restless nights and possibly consumed more chocolates. mm. Chocolates.

How far you want to take your retouching it is up to you. I think there is a definite point of no return that you should try to keep in mind when you are retouching. If the skin starts to look like plastic, then you should probably lay off the clone stamp a little. Keep your brush size small >20px and steer away from too much Gaussian blur. Use your aesthetic judgement, and get feedback from other photographers and even your clients.

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  • Reply
    Craig Taylor
    February 7, 2010 at 11:07 PM

    I have to say that with point #3 a good lens goes a long way to blurring out the background. I think the best bang for your buck is the 50mm f/1.8 of whatever flavor you are shooting as it is really fast and sharp as a tack. The Nikon version is easily under $200. (I believe I recall you saying on an episode of TWIP that you used nothing but prime lenses for a while and I imagine that that this was probably “the” lens of choice during that time).

  • Reply
    February 7, 2010 at 11:09 PM

    Lisa thanks so much for your tips and updates. I do mostly journalism and sports photography and I am really trying to move into portraits and your work and words of advice have been a big inspiration to me. Keep ’em coming!

  • Reply
    February 8, 2010 at 12:37 AM

    That was the best line about speedlights :) “Sugar-deprived kid with a Pez dispenser” so going to have to use this the next time I help my friend with a photo shoot.

  • Reply
    Tweets that mention MostlyLisa.com » Blog Archive » 5 tips to taking better portraits -- Topsy.com
    February 8, 2010 at 1:06 AM

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Domingo Cáceres, Photo Addicts. Photo Addicts said: 5 tips to taking better portraits: get more professional looking shots http://bit.ly/cHcrTR […]

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    uberVU - social comments
    February 8, 2010 at 1:30 AM

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by epicmahoney: Yes, CyberSync triggers rock. RT @photoaddicts: 5 tips to taking better portraits: get more professional looking shots http://bit.ly/cHcrTR

  • Reply
    Five Tips « Kurznotiz
    February 8, 2010 at 1:32 AM

    […] tips to taking better portraits – http://mostlylisa.com/blog/5-tips-to-taking-better-portraits/ […]

  • Reply
    Yves Bougardier
    February 8, 2010 at 6:04 AM

    Hi form Paris
    Great post as usual.
    I always add in my bag a 1/2 and 1/4 CTO & CTB gel for my 580, they can be useful when you have to manage with indoor light or sunset
    Congratulations for you blog

  • Reply
    February 8, 2010 at 9:14 AM

    these are great foundational tips, nice and concise.

  • Reply
    Curtis Copeland
    February 11, 2010 at 9:00 AM

    Hey! Great tutorial on portrait photography. Best I have seen for a while. Nice work. Thanks for sharing!


  • Reply
    February 11, 2010 at 5:09 PM

    Nice tips and great photos. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    Bo Vejgaard
    February 12, 2010 at 1:57 AM

    Great advice, explained in a simple understandable way, and with a sense of humour. I love it!

  • Reply
    Heather M.
    February 17, 2010 at 9:01 AM

    A little birdy told me you were dating Pete Cashmore wink wink. Care to divulge the juicy details?

  • Reply
    Georg Portenkirchner
    August 4, 2010 at 2:49 AM

    Thanks for sharing. Very helpful.

  • Reply
    16 Photography Project Ideas to keep you shooting every day! | MostlyLisa.com | Photography tips & inspiration
    January 21, 2011 at 4:43 PM

    […] If you are looking to photograph the attractive sort then you can try finding a model through ModelMayhem.com (more tips on photographinc  models here) or pester some of your good-lookin’ Facebook friends. Almost everyone wants a great Facebook profile shots, so offer to give them a nice shot for their time. More tips on taking great portraits. […]

  • Reply
    August 31, 2013 at 4:35 AM

    Im doing a photography course i am 15 going into year 11 i had the idea of doing passion and obsession as my portraiture project but i don’t know how to start it as i need to write a design brief and find photographers who tackle the same theme please help

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