Portraits are a distinct favourite of mine. The amount of history and emotion that can be expressed just through the eyes is astonishing and I never tire of telling stories.
There are a number of aspects I take into consideration when shooting and sticking to these guidelines ensures trouble free, pleasurable photographs. Learning these tips has taken years of practice, experience, trial and error and can’t simply be picked up, but by all means try them at home.
1) Nothing is more important than the eyes
The eyes tell the story in a photograph. They give immediate confirmation of the subject’s mood. They might be smiling but is it a truly happy smile? The eyes will confirm it.
They’re the first part of a portrait that the viewer looks at. They have to be in focus and bright. Also having no reflection in them makes them look dead so tilt the head up slightly if no catch lights can be seen.
2) Unless you’re shooting hair, the head isn’t important
One of the most frequent comments I get is “Top of her head’s chopped off!” By that the viewer means that I’ve cropped into the skull and left it out of the shot. In a portrait you have a story to tell. You’re conveying emotion and wisdom through two eyes and facial expressions. The subject’s hair does nothing to enhance a picture (unless it’s actually a shot of their hair) and so therefore can be omitted.
3) Watch your exits
Where skin exits the frame can be problematic if you don’t keep an eye on it. A close up of someone can be dramatic but having their hand coming up from the bottom of the frame and touching their face can look disconnected and surreal.
Similarly with shoulders and backs going out of the side of a frame, there’s no way of knowing where the body goes after that and can make the subject look bigger than they are. Typically it’s best to have them leaving the frame at the bottom, not the sides. If they do have to leave at the sides, don’t have bare skin leaving the frame; cover it with something.
4) Place eyes in the top third
This ties in with cropping the head. Eyes are situated in the top section of the face and this needs to be reflected in the frame. Seeing eyes in the centre of the frame or towards the bottom looks uncomfortable.
5) Use the correct aperture
Portraits always look more effective and have more impact when there’s nothing distracting in the frame. There are many ways of doing this,but the most effective – and therefore the first one to try – is by using a medium to shallow depth of field.
A lens is at its sharpest in the centre of it’s aperture range (around f/5.6 – f/11) and if it’s a zoom it’s sharpest in the middle of its zoom range. Using an aperture around these aperture settings will both give very sharp results and throw the background out of focus. A blurry background that melds into smooth colours isn’t distracting and allows the viewer to concentrate on the subject. Always focus on the eyes.
Of course rules can and will be broken. You can use a narrower depth of field (larger f stop) to bring the background in focus and add to the story.
You can exclude the eyes in the shot to emphasise an emotion.