10.22.2011

Ten Ways to Shoot Better Portraits.

Neely in the old studio.  MF.  180mm f4.  AgfaPan 100.


1.  Stop worrying about technique.  Set up your lights before your subject gets to the studio, test them, test them again and then let it go.

2.  Spend some time letting everyone get settled in.  Don't feel like you have to rush through a portrait session.  If you are doing it for money you're obligated to do a good job and that means slowing down and doing it right.  If you are doing for the satisfaction then make the session like a lollipop.  Lick it slowly instead of biting right in and chewing it all up.  When you feel rushed it's hard to feel relaxed.  Don't do rush yourself.  My good sessions take at least an hour...

3.  Do your own style.  If you are trying to shoot the exciting "flavor of the week" style you are already doomed to mediocrity.

4.  Don't be afraid to fail.  But don't be afraid to succeed either.  You can't force someone to have a good day but you can be relaxed and empower them to have a better day because they are in front of you.  Experiment with extending and improving your own style.  Experiment hard with your listening.

5.  Really talk to your portrait subject.  Not just generic chit chat from behind the camera but real stuff.  Ask what they love.  Do they have kids?  What do they do for fun and fitness?  Share feelings.

6.  Use a longer lens.  There really is an optimum focal range for a flattering portrait.  Too long and faces look one dimensional and smushy.  Too short and noses get bigger while ears get smaller.  If you are shooting a classic headshot portrait with anything shorter than a 50mm on full frame you're just being mean.  Conversely, if you can't have a normal conversation with your subject because of the distance between you then you are being too skittish. Be less like a scared rabbit and more like a best friend.  100mm on a full frame camera makes me and my subjects happy.

7.  It's easier to compose well in a square. Try it.  No reason to be captive to the dreaded 3:2.

8.  If you are shooting portraits for pure recreation/art/hobby/happiness then never photograph anyone to whom you have no attraction whatsoever.  Just having a warm body in front of you is not enough.  You must be interested to find out more about the person.  In a sense taking a portrait is just a pretense to find out more about the person in front of the camera.

9.  If you want to see beautiful people in your final images then you'll have to start by either finding obviously beautiful people to put in front of your camera or.....find the beauty in the person and put that in front of your camera.  Warm bodies for "practice" is not enough.

10.  The best way to become good at taking portraits is to do it over and over again.  It's like any other pursuit in life.  Practice makes fluid.  When you've been through all the permutations of Murphy's law, both physcially and mentally, you start down the path of figuring out solutions to anything that might hamper your highest and best portrait expression.  To love portraits......shoot more portraits.

Bonus tip:  Everyone looks better in black and white....

15 comments:

Glenn Harris said...

Great top 10 list Kirk. I just did a headshot shoot this morning and it was interesting to go over this list after the event. Thanks for this post.

darango said...

Thanks. Love reading this kind of stuff. I'm working on getting past technique. I'll trust myself to use good technique while interacting with a person.

Frank Grygier said...

This a great post. It must be the new blog persona. Giving instruction.
These ten tips would be a great ebook.

Reflexdoc said...

You just can't beat the focus fall-off of MF. I agree that portraits look better in B&W, since the viewer can enjoy the form of the subject's face without the distraction of skin flaws.

I just ordered a bunch of Fuji Neopan to break out of the Tri-X rut. Does anyone have any specific advice regarding this film?

Your essay on Why We Take Photographs was a classic. Thank you for providing such great thoughts for contemplation.

kirk tuck said...

advice on Neopan. Shoot it at the rated ISO. Use daylight balanced light for best skin tones. Go nuts.

sey said...

"To love portraits......shoot more portraits." and love people.

Excellent guide, Kirk.

AK_Dragonfly said...

I have two prime lenses for my full frame (fx) DSLR that should be good for portraiture, the Nikkor 50mm 1:1.4 D, and the Nikkor 105mm 1:2.8 D
Question...
How close together(in distance) should a group of 3 to 5 people be to keep them all in focus? If I use a longer depth of field to encompass them all, then I might loose some great detail/contrast with these lenses.

John F. Opie said...

I use the Olympus 50 f2 for portraits: you can always tone down the sharpness in post-processing, but can't put it back.

And practice, practice, practice, practice. Kirk, your son and wife are vastly more patient with you than my daughters and wife. Well done. :-)

And while the vast majority of my shots are either in 35mm or 4/3, I find that the core of the composition is almost always square. Why oh why is there not a right and proper square alternative in digital that doesn't require cropping the sensor? Just as in film, the square is also the best utilization of that magic lens and film combination to maximize quality and not to force design decisions due to the perceived need to offer 3:2.

If Rollei were still around as a real camera company (all they do today is rebadge), they'd be the ones to offer that. A redisgned Rollei SLX with a 24MP digital back would be a dream combination for almost everything, redesigned and reduced in size for a digital sense sized 1" x 1"...

Sigh.

Bold Photography said...

I love posts like this --- not for the advice, but for the way they come across.

The one point that most will read but few will do is #10...

kirk tuck said...

AK, find a depth of field scale on the web and figure it out based on your camera to subject distance.

John, Thanks. By the way, the subject is Neely, not my long suffering spouse...

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Wow. To make women look up really helps in getting great looks. It also helps against double chins (not that your subject would have one). But this looks like you had to stand on a ladder, even if she was sitting. Considering the 10mm-equivalent focal length (in 35mm) - wow.

Oh, and your list is great as well; thanks! I don't have HMI or any other daylight tungstens, but flash also works well for B&W...

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

woops - I meant 100mm-e of course...

almostinfamous said...

one more technique tip from me. use a tripod, and if available, live view. i find it very hard to maintain a good conversation and therefore connection while squinting through a tiny hole.

(waiting for the day i can bag me a nice and visible medium format camera w/attendant waist-level finder )

Matthew said...

Great post, and a refreshing way to breathe some sense back into a hectic day. I wish I could find a way to explain #8 to non-photographers without sounding creepy. I especially like the last line of #8, as I find this is the main reason why I photograph anyone or anything at all.

cadencemichael said...

This is one of my favorite posts of yours. Thank you for sharing this.