In a continuing top ten theme, this time we will be tackling portraits. Probably my favourite form of photography and one that is very easy to connect with as we are so easily drawn to faces and expression.
So in no particular order, here is...
10 Tips To Improve Your Portraiture (Fast)
- Don't Shoot Straight Away: Whilst the inclination with photography, especially for those that don't have the opportunity to do it as often as they like, is to get shooting and shoot as quickly and often as possible, this can be a massive detriment to your work. Talk to your subject. Don't talk about photography or the job at hand, but talk about life. Ask them questions and get to know them. That way you will be armed with plenty of ammunition when you want to draw an expression or reaction out of them without it being forced or contrived.
Scene & Detail: Whilst this always seems to be underestimated by photographers that come on my workshops, I cannot stress the importance of this enough! Give yourself options wit image selection by shooting a variety of headshot, half-body and three quarter length shots. The wider of these will help you incorporate the environment which can be great if the setting ties into the narrative of the portrait, though this can be tricky (we'll cover that in a minute). There is nothing worse than getting back to look through and select your image and find you wished you'd have shot more than tight headshots or what not. Give yourself options.
Know Your Headroom: Headroom is a very subjective and tricky compositional subject and one that will draw many disagreements between basement-dwelling trolls and 50 year pros alike. Here is my take (and I can't stress enough that this is just my opinion): More headroom has more of a thoughtful, whimsical or positive connotation. Leaving space above the subject can give an airy feel that threads the subject more into the environment. Whereas tight headspace (clipping through the head of the subject) can give a much more serious, cinematic and focussed feel. Experiment with this and find your rhythm with it. But just make sure you're not just shooting at random!
Keep It Simple: This means everything! Subject, lens, setting, styling, lighting, everything!!! I spent the first 18 months I owned a camera with a 135mm F2 lens glued onto my 5D. I grew to know the strengths and weaknesses of this lens/camera combination. By restricting that part (the part that everyone seems to get themselves stuck on) I could focus on lighting, composition and building rapports with my subjects. Limitations make us more creative. Even now, I like to spend an hour or two a month, one camera/lens, simple styling, on location either on any average street or run of the mill setting and just shoot some simple portraits. You'll be surprised how fast your abilities will improve and how much fun you will have!
Shoot More Men: It's not hard to work out why women dominate the space in front of most cameras. But it is kind of weird. Portraiture is often about the narrative of the subject. Their expression and surroundings are often the reason for holding the attention of viewer and mens faces are often ripe with character and intrigue. Add to this that it is (compared to female subjects) massively under utilised. What better way to standout as a photographer than to do something that so many won't do (often for misguided reasons).
Continuity: Now this won't apply to everything portraiture related, but the sooner you learn when it does reply, the sooner you get out of probably the worst stage of portrait photography! So what d I mean by continuity? Well... make sure that all the elements that make up your image are connected and make sense in relation to each other. So your lighting matches the setting. the expression matches the composition. The styling matches the environment and subject. All of these things are so incredibly overlooked by photographers who with have sensory overload and wind up with a shot that looks like an utter shambles or (and much more annoyingly) a shot that has just about everything going for it but is ruined by something not matching up.
Shooting Height, Shooting Height, Shooting Height: I nag and bitch and whine and moan about the so much I need to change the record really. But in all seriousness this is the main culprit for making a photographer look like a GWC. Me and my wife call it "shooting in 5'6". We do not mean the aperture, we mean shooting at 5 foot 6 inches off the floor. Because that is how the the camera is when the photographer just stands around, camera stuck to face, pointing and shooting. Want your subject to look taller? Get low and shoot up! Want an unusual perspective? Get high and shot down! The general rule I apply is; Take the framing of the image you want to create, half way up that composition is the most flattering/boring point that will ease any distortion issues. Bringing yourself down from there will create a taller more powerful subject and detach them from the viewer (great for fashion). Bringing yourself higher from the middle of the frame will connect the viewer and subject more and can create more of a sense of vulnerability. Depending on expression, this can be either a positive or a negative thing.
Mood Boards Clue Everyone In: This should be a no brainer, but there isn't a scenario where a mood board would be anything but massively helpful in communication your ideas and vision to your subject and anyone else involved. A lot of people who dismiss mood boards often state that either they can't communicate their idea in one image or that they are too time consuming. Firstly, thats why you have a board! You can use several images to indicate anything from styling, lighting, mood, expression, editing and so on. Secondly, they are time consuming, but also a hell of a lot of fun and a great inspiration to get yourself in the zone for the shoot!
Only work with the best subjects: When you're starting out, often the most frequented path is to book a fairly cheap local model who will humour you and stand in front of the camera with little to no issue. Nothing wrong with that, right? Well, I have always seen a shoot as a 50/50 partnership between photographer and subject. So if you are in any way having to help or advise the model about their 50% when you are probably not really able to be any help, you are also not able to focus on your 50%. There is something of a false economy with lesser experienced models. Book an experienced model with a great portfolio, even if it is for less time than you think you need! Tell the model what you are trying to achieve (point number 8!) don't try anything too complicated (point number 4!) and ask the model for their thoughts and advice. They have probably worked with some great images and you will be surprised by how much more helpful a great model can be to your photography than some photographers!
Use Fast Primes: This is purely personal but if something has been such a revelation for me, why wouldn't I recommend it? Ditch the comfort and blandness of a zoom lens and get yourself some fast primes! I currently have what I believe to be the perfect portrait lens setup for my system. 35mm F1.4 | 50mm F1.2 | 85mm F1.2 | 100mm F2.8 | 135mm F2. I can already hear the complaining about the cost of some of these lenses, but I am not telling anyone to blow their bank balance on anything! Pretty much all systems will have a fast 50mm (or 50mm equivalent) which is an ideal starting point. Canons nifty fifty for example is one of the sharpest and best performing lenses I have used and costs next to nothing in photography equipment terms. If it wasn't for the need for getting 1.2 for weddings, I wouldn't have sprung the extra money for the L lens.
Fast primes will get you moving, really thinking about your composition. You will learn to "see" in the focal length and you will learn the focal lengths strengths and weaknesses. There is also a very decent argument for improved sharpness over zooms and the wider apertures can create a much more cinematic and interesting look to the image. I will also bet that whenever I see an overly vanilla, boring portfolio of a photographer that has been shooting more than a little while that they are a zoom lens user. Call it my party trick!
Okay, that's a pretty mad and varied list of tips for portrait photography. Whilst this may not be the most linear list, that is primarily because I think these are the areas that helped me push forward with improving my work!
So, get one fast prime, book an amazing model for 2 hours, keep the styling simple and use a moodboard. Play with composition and shooting height. Talk to your subject and ask their thoughts on the images. Then come back to me and tell me you see no improvement at all!
I would love to hear your tips and advice, tell me in the comments!