Portrait photography is one of the most popular varieties of photography in part because it allows the photographer to be diverse, creative, and tell a story. Keeping that in mind, portrait photography can also go wrong rather quickly. By keeping the tips you'll find below in mind, you can help bring your portraiture to the next level.
- Busy Backgrounds and Distracting Elements: This one really seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised at how often photographers forget to pay attention to the background when taking a photo. The idea of a portrait, as we all know, is to showcase the subject. How is the viewers eye supposed to stay focused on the subject when there is something distracting them and pulling their interest elsewhere? Pay attention to everything that is going on in the frame, making sure there are no distracting elements within it. This happens most often when shooting outdoors, but studio photographers are also guilty. When choosing a backdrop cloth, try to avoid ones that have a bold print or pattern. They might have been stylish in past, but this is one trend we should be happy to see end. In this case, less is more! A couple quick ways to fix this would be to adjust the depth of field so the distractions blur away naturally, or simply move in close to your subject and fill the frame with them, eliminating the background altogether.
- Misplaced Focus: It's almost an unspoken rule that the focus of a portrait should be on a subjects eyes. If you don't have sharp eyes, you don't have a portrait. Now, I'm all about bending the rule every once of while, but this is one I like to adhere to pretty religiously, especially when using a shallow depth of field. As humans, we can tell a lot about a person just by looking at their eyes which is why the eyes are always our focal point when we are engaging with another person. While we can't exactly converse with a portrait, the photo should not inhibit our natural gravitation to focus on the eye. It should also be noted that if only one of the eyes can be in focus, it should always be the eye that is closest to the camera.
- Posing Techniques: Most of us don't really know how to pose in front of a camera and the experience can be very intimidating and uncomfortable. As a photographer, it's up to you to make your subject feel at ease in front of the camera and ensure they are standing–or sitting–in a manner which lends itself to a natural and attractive look. Without them looking too rigid, ask them to stretch their body upwards and maintain good posture for the shots. Look for their good angles and shoot from a direction that flatters their features. Pay attention to where they are placing their hands and feet. Make suggestions rather than using a bossy tone of voice to help keep them at ease. Even when shooting candid shots, when you don't particularly have control of the subjects body, you should still be looking for moments and angles that best show off your subject.
- Using The Wrong Lens: The majority of the time you will probably want to avoid shooting with a wide angle lens because it will distort the subjects features in unflattering ways. For example, with a 20mm lens, the face will be stretched out and your subject's face will start to appear to be alien like. Alternatively, too long of a focal length will also create odd looking distortions. It's best to stick within the 70-135mm range, my personal preference being a solid 85mm prime. That being said, there is a time and place for lens lengths outside that range, but if you are just getting started in portrait photography, you could consider it a safe zone.
- Using The Same Old Stuff: It's easy to find something that works and run with it, but in an increasingly competitive photography world you really have to make sure you don't become stagnant. Mix up your style occasionally and try new techniques. The top portrait and headshot photographers got to the top by breaking free from the norm and inventing new styles. Additionally, since your customer base will inevitably be so different as a portrait photographer, it's important your portfolio reflects a bit of diversity so there is something that will appeal to all different types of people.
Hopefully these tips will help you avoid some common portrait photography mistakes. Of course, this is just a condensed list of problems. Be sure to constructively share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, letting us know what you think is important to keep in mind when taking portraits.