Photography is an art form with many faces. Each artist might find themselves drawn to one type of photography over others. Whether they capture landscapes, take journalistic-style photos of the world around them, or prefer to work with people, a photographer leaves a mark with every image.
Portrait photography is often viewed as the most challenging specialty. Working with humans ensures that every shoot and every photo will be different. Drawing out the right emotion and capturing those fleeting moments is an art form in and of itself.
If you’re just getting into portrait photography, you’re in for an incredible learning experience. Here are five portrait photography hacks you should know when exploring this form of artistic expression.
Editing to Remove Noise and Distractions
If you’ve been taking photos for a while, you’ve likely heard the term “noise.” When used in this context, noise in a photo pertains to distractions that diminish the quality or experience of the image. Noise could be anything from grainy textures or shadows to background objects that shouldn’t be there (for example, a bag of garbage on the curb.)
Removing or avoiding noise in a photo is a two-step process that takes place before and after the shoot. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to avoid background distractions in the environment—though it’s an important goal when choosing a location).
It’s important to understand that the concept of noise is subjective. Your threshold for acceptable noise may vary from another photographer’s. A beginner who takes photos as a hobby will likely have a dramatically different threshold than a seasoned professional. Keep in mind there’s always room for improvement, and every shoot is an opportunity to learn.
Here are the key things to learn when trying to avoid or edit out noise in a portrait.
Avoiding Low Quality
The first consideration when trying to avoid noise in a photo is to learn the basics of photography and how to adapt to your environment. This means learning how to adjust your camera speed and lens settings for the lighting, motion, etc.
One of the primary causes of noise in a photo is using a higher ISO to offset low light conditions. While higher ISO will brighten the shot, allowing you to capture details in the shadows, it tends to increase the grain as well. Increasing ISO should be the last resort; try altering the shutter speed or aperture first.
Sensor size also has an impact on noise levels, which is a common challenge for mobile photographers who use smartphones and small, portable cameras. The benefit of using a camera with a larger sensor (like a DSLR) is the noise reduction when working with a high ISO.
Pixel density within the sensor also plays a role. The higher the pixel density, the more susceptible to noise your camera will become. Additionally, long exposure times and shadows also contribute to noise, especially with a higher ISO. The grain might not show up in the bright blue sky behind your subject, but it could show in the dark shadows under their chin.
Do these considerations mean you need the best possible camera to get started, or that you should never shoot with a high ISO? Absolutely not! It’s about finding that sweet spot and learning more about your camera and composition as you go.
When you choose a location for your portrait photography, the background plays a pivotal role in the end result. There are two contradicting paths to take when choosing a background for your portrait photography. You can either choose a background that doesn’t attract attention, or you can choose something that adds dimension to the photo.
Again, there’s no right or wrong answer when choosing a background. The goal is to choose something that adds to the image rather than causes a distraction. Ensure that everything showing in the background is meant to be there. If you can’t avoid another person or lamp post appearing, there are tools available to remove them during editing.
As the nature of portraits is to get up close and personal, a blemish or stray hair can be distracting. As you delve into the art of portrait photography, take some time to practice on yourself first. Learn how to remove stray hair from selfies and how to whiten teeth without making them seem unnatural. Once you feel comfortable with the basics, work with other people to expand your editing skills.
Editing portraits is a nuanced skill, as you want to showcase someone in their best light rather than transforming them completely. Your editing efforts should never erase the person underneath.
Coaching Your Model
While learning to take a great photo is one skill, learning to coach your models is quite another. Some of your subjects will be quite comfortable in front of a camera lens, while others will feel awkward and rigid. Either way, it’s up to you to guide them so that you can capture the perfect portrait.
Break the Ice
Start building a rapport with your subjects before the photoshoot. Depending on your approach, you might choose to meet with them before the session to get to know each other, or you could plan for a few minutes of chatter on the big day. The more comfortable your subject feels with you, the better the photos will be.
Brush up on your small talk skills, find a common thread, and become a friend to your subject.
Aid with Posing
When working with inexperienced models, expect to offer some extra hand-holding when it comes to posing. Let them know where to look, how to tilt their chin, and what to do with their hands. Don’t hesitate to use props to help them relax— sometimes holding an object removes the awkwardness of hand positioning and helps them relax.
Even skilled models will require assistance with posing. Don’t hesitate to offer input on their positioning to ensure you capture the shot you want.
Work to Capture the Real Emotion
Perhaps the biggest challenge in portrait photography is capturing the real emotion. Overly posed or awkward shots come off as wooden or false.
Consider giving your model a character or scenario to guide the process. Ask them to close their eyes and think of the funniest thing they’ve seen, then open on the count of three. Ask them to look to the distance and think of a grave issue that causes them to worry for a more serious pose.
Figure Out the Distance and Zoom
Figuring out the right distance and zoom is another skill that you’ll learn over time. With portrait photography, the objective is to fill the frame, whether you’re taking an upper-body shot or focusing solely on the face.
Selecting the Right Lens
Choosing the right lens makes all the difference when exploring portrait photography. Again, not having a great lens is no reason to wait to get started; there’s plenty to learn about shot composition with a starter camera.
There are several great portrait lenses for all brands of cameras. The one you choose will depend on the type of camera you have. When selecting a lens, consider using a prime lens for your portraits and keep the sensor size in mind.
Make Lighting Your Priority
Lighting variances are the difference between decent photos and great photos. A wayward shadow or strong sunlight can negatively impact the composition of your image.
Facing the Light
When taking a portrait, the ideal positioning is to have the subject face the light source. This removes any shadows from the side or overhead lighting to better capture the features.
Of course, facing the light isn’t always an option when shooting outdoors. Invest in reflectors or a simple ring light when starting out. These are budget-friendly options that will help you hone your craft until you’re ready to invest more in your lighting setup.
Optimal Light for Portraits
Natural daylight is optimal for portrait photography. Gray, cloudy days will become your best friend as a photographer for their neutral, even light distribution.
If you’re indoors without a lighting setup, try to face a window, using a white sheer as a makeshift diffuser.
Learn the Rules— Then Break Them
When learning the science of photography, you’ll find that there is an overwhelming number of rules. Learning these skills and rules will likely feel like a job, taking the joy out of your passion for photography. However, it’s important to learn these rules so you can break them later.
Having a great foundation for portrait photography gives you the freedom to branch out and experiment to create your own signature look as a photographer. Once you understand the nuances of lighting, you can break the rules and play with shadows across the face. Once you understand how to set your ISO, you can intentionally push the boundaries to create something artistic.
With these five portrait photography hacks, you can continue on your journey to becoming a skilled portrait photographer and an artist. Practice your skills, get creative, push the boundaries, and open your mind to continued learning and improvement.