One of the most beautiful things about this big old complicated world that we all live in is how wonderfully diverse the humans that populate it are.
The first portrait was taken in 1839 by Mr Robert Cornelius. There was no such thing as digital cameras or fancy phones to snap a selfie in those days and Robert had to set the photo up and sprint to his position and sit in perfect pose until the image was created.
Nowadays it’s much easier but it doesn’t mean we should give it any less consideration and thought.
What is a portrait?
A portrait is a photograph of a person that makes their face and expression take centre stage.
A portrait doesn’t have to be head and shoulders, although this is quite common particularly with headshots.
There are several types of portraits:
- Professional or headshots: for websites, event promotion or LinkedIN
- Family or couple portraits: very popular, people love a beautiful shot of their loved ones.
- Candid: genuine captures of emotion out in the world
- Traditional: smiling and looking straight at the camera
- Environmental: people staged in their zone, skateboarders at the skate park for example
- Self portraits: over the years very popular with artists as a form of expression, now brilliant practice for photographers and posed shots for social media!
This is a classic environmental portrait.
How to take a portrait
Taking portraits can be a lot of fun and you definitely don’t need the whole studio set up to capture people’s emotions in an image.
A successful portrait instantaneously connects with the viewer. You want to capture the subject’s essence, their personality and their mood.
Emotion is the name of the game here because a portrait without emotion is a flat stock image as opposed to a characterful portrait of someone.
Look at this great shot I took in Mudeford. It isn’t staged or planned, the light is quite harsh but it forces the squint which I think adds to the feel of the photo. You get the feeling that he is waiting for something, the perfect moment, the right shot. The blurred background keeps the focus on him and his camera. He is in his element and you get that from looking at this image.
Whether your portraits are planned or off the cuff, emotion is key.
How do we take portraits?
Light is the most important thing. You want to use natural light as it’s beautifully soft when captured at the right moment and absolutely free. If you have a studio and can play with artificial light then have a go at it, but most people are using the light we’re given.
Think about what you want to portray in the portrait. Are you taking a photograph of a male business leader who needs a powerful headshot? If so then side light would work well because it highlights angles and makes the subject look rugged.
Or are you taking a photograph of your mother on her 80th birthday? A soft backlight would work better here.
I would recommend using a lens of at least 85mm up to 200mm combined with low apertures so you can create a soft blurred background.
Use the light to add emotion - play with it! Practice with self portraits.
Watch this great video that Bella West did for us on portraits:
Top tips for portrait photography
I love a candid portrait. Out in the field, on a workshop or just on my travels. These portraits are spur of the moment and emotionally driven and not what we are talking about here.
When it comes to posed portraits these are the tips I want to impart to you!
- Research your subject beforehand - and make sure to talk to them throughout the shoot to put them at their ease
- Get them to make direct ‘eye contact’ with the lens, but not face-on like a passport photo
- Try positioning your subject at a 45-degree angle, then get them to tilt their head so they’re looking directly at the camera
- Try shooting from slightly above or below. Getting them to look down slightly into the lens can make them appear more imposing
- Think about props. Hats, ties, glasses, jewellery, something that is synonymous with them. It could be jaunty and colourful or more sombre, depending on mood
- Try something different. Portraits don’t have to be just head and shoulders. Explore different camera angles and tilts
- If on location, look for structures to frame your subject within the picture
Portraits are so important to our history as whole nations and our personal ancestry. They tell us so much about what has been and carry so much emotional sentiment through the ages.
Whether you’re taking a headshot of an admirable leader or snapping a candid image of a loved one laughing with glee - get out there and take photos of people! You will learn so much about the environment around you and the people that make this world such an interesting place.
If you would love to learn more about lighting, composition or focal length watch the hundreds of free videos I have on my website to give you the tips you need to become a better photographer.