They say a picture paints a thousand words. And if it’s a portrait, that’s a thousand words about the person sitting in front of you, so they’d better be the right words! In fact, most people don’t enjoy having their portrait taken and if there’s anything you can do to produce a better end result your subject will really appreciate it.
Attention to details such as the angle they sit at and the intensity of the light can make an enormous difference to how they look. If you can master the art of the flattering photographic portrait, you will find referrals and recommendations coming thick and fast.
Before you begin
Before taking your first exposure or even putting your subject into position, you need to have a conversation with whoever’s commissioned the picture. Find out the purpose of the portrait – is it for work, for friends and family or for some other reason? Do they wish to appear formal and smart or relaxed and happy? They may have very specific requirements, for example, if the photo is going to be used on a corporate website or for a passport. Discuss what pose they would like to be photographed in and what they will be wearing. As the photographer you will be expected to get the picture right, so make sure you know the style of picture they are expecting.
Selecting the right pose
Depending on what the portrait will be used for, there are a number of poses to choose between. Furthermore, you may wish to shoot a number of different poses at the same time – discuss this with your sitter in advance.
1. Head and shoulders – this is the classic shot for corporate photos, passport photos or actors’ head shots. Position your subject with their shoulders at a 45° angle to the camera and then ask them to turn their face straight on. Don’t miss the opportunity to pictures from take a variety of angles and ask them to tilt the head up and down to see which is most flattering.
2. Extreme facial close-up – pictures in which a person’s face fills the entire frame can look particularly dramatic but they are also unforgiving and difficult to execute.
3. Seated portrait – often chosen for more elderly subjects and family groups, you will need to check that your subject is not slouching, that the background is not too busy and that they are dressed suitably from head to toe. The seated pose can add gravitas for a high ranking executive, but for someone young and ambitious, perching on the edge of the desk may look more dynamic.
4. Standing – as well as a headshot, your subject may wish to have a formal standing portrait. Position them at a slight angle to the camera with most of their weight on the back foot and hold the camera at a slight downwards angle towards them: in particular, this angle is more flattering if they are carrying any extra weight.
Do’s and don’ts for the perfect portrait
Your understanding of what works well in portrait photography will naturally grow with experience but in the meantime learn from these shortcuts how to improve your portrait work.
1. Pictures are often more aesthetically pleasing when the subject is slightly off centre. Use this truism to your advantage.
2. Be careful where you crop – if you are not taking a full-length shot, frame your subject carefully to avoid amputating limbs.
3. The late Princess of Wales perfected the head bowed, looking down pose but take care – it will truncate your subject’s neck.
4. Don’t take a facial portrait from a low angle – no one wants to look up anyone else’s nostrils.
5. Make your subject’s eyes the focal point of the picture.
6. Use clever lighting and camera angles to hide problems such as double chins, protruding ears or blemishes.
7. Assess your subject’s pose carefully and advise them if they are slouching, hunching their shoulders or looking particularly awkward. A position that feels natural may not look that way in the picture, and vice versa.
8. Don’t shoot your subject from a very low angle or very high angle as it will exaggerate their proportions.
9. Check the background carefully – no one wants a tree growing out of their head or passers-by standing on their shoulders.
10. Avoid very dark clothing as it may make your subject looked tired and drawn; bright white shirts can overwhelm, as can bold patterns or irritating graphics designs. Your subject’s clothing should say something about who they are without becoming a feature in their own right.
11. And always remember, a relaxed sitter takes a better picture so use your people skills as well as your photographic skills.
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