How to Take a Good Portrait - Fundamentals

I hosted a short portrait workshop recently and rather than leave my notes in Google Keep I thought I'd share them here. Almost all of us take portraits sometimes, often without thinking about it being a portrait. Of ourselves, of friends, family members, colleagues, often at events, parties or special occasions. They're not necessarily easy to do well, but a little thought can go a long way to producing a good result.

[ˈpôrtrət, ˈpôrˌtrāt]
a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.

To me a portrait is about making someone the clear and obvious subject of a photograph. It could be taken candidly, without their awareness, but portraits are more usually planned and posed, a collaboration between subject and photographer. And that means a portrait usually takes interaction, some social skills. We all have some hidden (or not so hidden) fears and insecurities which might affect the interaction, although that might not always be a bad thing.

Before you think about the technical aspects of the picture, think about the purpose. Do you want it to convey a particular mood, or aspect of their personality, or do you want to show them in a specific situation or environment? Do you want it to be staged and elaborate or simple and personal?

Once you have a purpose in mind (and that might just be for fun or for practice), that should help in considering the following elements. These aren't in a strict order and often one element will affect the others.

Most critically, and this could easily me a separate category by itself, is the light. If you're outdoors, bright sunlight directly on a face creates very defined, harsh shadows so you might choose to have your subject stand in the shade or face away from the sun. An overcast day provides soft, even light, although can look a little flat. If you're indoors, window light is a great option if you have it. Using artificial light is another topic entirely, but the most important consideration that the larger the light source in relation to your subject, the softer the light will be.

In combination with considering the light, your background will be the other important factor in choosing a location. You might want to minimize distraction and keep the background as simple as possible, or opt for an environmental portrait that more incorporates the surroundings as a feature of the image. You might not always have much choice and have to make the best of what's available around you.

Even once you have your location decided, you still have to choose how you want to compose the image. Portrait or landscape orientation, or is it going to be cropped square for social media? Your subject central to the image or offset to one side? Are there elements of the surroundings that you want to use to draw a viewers attention to the subject (see the leading lines in the first example below)? How close do you want to be to your subject? There aren't necessarily right or wrong answers. Personally I tend to shoot relatively close and rarely have the subject in the center of the frame, but that's personal preference. One interesting technique is to have one eye in the center of the frame, as Steve McCurry did with his well known 'Afghan Girl' portrait.

Pose and Expression
Location, composition and technical settings are usually, but not always, decided by the photographer (or possibly a director). For pose and expression though you might want to let your subject be as natural as they can in front of a camera. Which isn't usually very easy. Chatting to them can help, and sitting or leaning against something might help them to find a more natural pose than just standing. Or you might choose to direct them very specifically in terms of body position and the type of facial expression you have in mind. Do you want them to look into the camera, to give more connection to the viewer, or away to give a more candid look?

Finally your gear, and lets start with the lens you use. Anything between about 80mm-130mm (on a 35mm sensor) or even longer is considered to be good for portraits. It depends a lot on how close you are to your subject though, and 50mm or even 35mm can produce good portraits too. The closer you are though, the more likely that a wider lens will produce an unflattering result (which may of course be your aim in the first place!).

Assuming your subject is going to be relatively motionless, just follow the general rule for shutter speed in relation to focal distance. So at least 1/50s for a 50mm lens, 1/80s for a 80mm lens etc. Aperture choice is usually more fundamental to the portrait, choosing whether you want the background to be in focus or blurred. Using a very wide aperture such as f/1.2 or f/1.4 for a headshot means that you'll be blurring some of the head, so focusing on the nearest eye becomes even more critical. Keep in mind too that your camera may not be able to shoot at the widest aperture in bright sunlight without overexposing the image, even at it's fastest shutter speed.

As with any photography, there aren't really any rules. Having said that, you almost always want to have the eyes in focus. Without that, the viewer loses connection with the subject and it feels unsettling. If your subject is facing straight towards you, focus on either eye. If their face is at an angle, focus on the eye nearest to the camera.

Other Thoughts
A portrait doesn't have to be of a person. It could be an animal of course, and some of my favorite imagery of animals has been in a very human portrait style. There's no reason too that a portrait couldn't be of a plant or object.
Similarly, you could take a picture of a person without it being a portrait. If you purely want to reflect a mood or show an environment that happens to include an individual, it's probably not a portrait.

Portraiture is a great challenge and art form. There are many masters of the craft that you could check out, such as Arnold Newman, Richard Avedon and Yousuf Karsh, and I've pinned many examples in Pinterest here. From my own work, here are a few recent favorites:

Heather, Hoboken, January 2017. Fujifilm 35mm, ISO 200, f/2, 1/250s, natural light.

Heather, Hoboken, January 2017. Fujifilm 35mm, ISO 200, f/2, 1/250s, natural light.

Connie, Brooklyn, March 2017. Fujifilm 35mm, ISO 200, f/2, 1/600s, natural light.

Connie, Brooklyn, March 2017. Fujifilm 35mm, ISO 200, f/2, 1/600s, natural light.

Shannon, Manhattan, 2017. Fujifilm 35mm, ISO 200, f/2, 1/280s, natural light.

Shannon, Manhattan, 2017. Fujifilm 35mm, ISO 200, f/2, 1/280s, natural light.