Portrait photography isn’t as easy as those who are good at portrait photography make it seem. You’ve got a lot to think about on the creative side, various environmental elements to control for and it helps to have a strong, if fleeting, connection with your model. Plus, there’s all the technical stuff — aperture, metering, focal length.
We all know that a good portrait is much more than a casual snapshot. And while not everyone is cut out for world-class portraiture, we’re all capable of making portraits that we can be proud of.
One ingredient of success in anything is making mistakes and learning from them (or learning from the mistakes of others). If you can avoid these five common portrait photography mistakes, you’ll find success sooner rather than later.
1. Don’t Shoot In Program/Full Auto Mode
Program mode has its place in photography but it’s really no good for portraiture. When in full auto mode, you are leaving your camera to make too many decisions for you. The camera can’t read your mind and decipher what look you’re going for — it’s just going to give you a generic meter reading with no regard for the subject matter.
To truly harness the creative potential in any portrait, it’s best to work in manual mode.
Here are a few basic guidelines for shooting portraits in manual mode:
- Set ISO first. Portraits are typically shot in good natural light or with studio lighting, so keep ISO as low as possible.
- Set the aperture next. If you’re looking to create portraits with shallow depth of field, set your lens to its largest aperture.
- Balance the exposure. Now round out your settings by adjusting the shutter speed until the metering indicator falls right in the middle.
- If manual mode seems too daunting a task at first, aperture priority will serve you well. You set the aperture and leave the rest to the camera. More often than not this will yield the desired results.
2. Don’t Use Multiple Focus Points
Cameras these days are packed with focus points — even some entry-level mirrorless cameras come with upwards of 100 AF points. You don’t need that many to make a portrait.
The problem with using a focusing mode with multiple AF points is that you can’t control what the camera might focus on; it might focus on something in the background or on your subject’s chin.
Set your camera to use one focus point and focus on the eye closest to the camera. This way, the most important part of your subject will be in focus and the background will be blurred out.
3. Don’t Forget About The Background
This applies primarily to situations when you’re shooting portraits outdoors. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your model who, indeed, should be the center of your attention, but you can’t forget about the background.
No matter how attractive your model is, a distracting background is going to lessen the aesthetic of the overall image.
Generally, you want to keep the background as simple and clean as possible, which can present a bit of challenge when working outdoors, but there are ways to achieve this:
- Pre-shoot scouting. Some time before a session, search out a location that offers a backdrop with the clutter-free characteristics you desire. Doing this in advance saves a whole lot of time and frustration on the day of the shoot.
- Use the right lens. Using a telephoto lens can help create subject-background separation. With enough distance between your subject and the background, a telephoto lens will effectively blur out the background so that your model remains the center of attention.
- Get creative with perspective. There are times when your options will be limited — no telephoto lens, no clutter-free spaces. In these situations, you’ll have to play with perspective. It’s actually pretty simple: shoot from down low or from up high. A change in perspective is often all you need to eliminate a distracting background.
4. Don’t Disappear Behind Your Camera
A successful portrait session relies heavily on a positive working dynamic between you and your model. If your model is a human being, treat them as such. Talk to them, have meaningful interactions with them.
You can’t simply hide behind your camera and bark out instructions the entire time and expect for either party to be pleased with the experience.
5. Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment
All the tips mentioned above are rough guidelines designed to help you navigate typical portrait scenarios. As such, these ideas are not immutable. If you really want to have some fun and eventually start producing awe-inspiring portraits, you’ll need to experiment. As with most any other creative pursuit, you learn the rules so that you can ultimately break them in more creative ways.
Once you’re comfortable with the basics of portraiture, start experimenting with different focal lengths, shutter speeds, locations, and lighting scenarios to see what you can create.
Perhaps the best advice I can give is to go into portrait photography with no fear. Yes, you’ll make mistakes, maybe even some of the ones listed here. But that’s okay — all those mistakes are easily corrected.
The only thing standing between you and good portraits is whatever limitations you place upon yourself.
- 5 Mistakes Beginners Make In Portrait Photography And How To Avoid Them
- 7 Famous Portrait Photographers That You Should Know
- Take These 4 Steps To Successful Available Light Portraiture