Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners

Portrait photography has always held a strong interest for many photographers. And, for good reason. There is nothing more familiar, nor more expressive to human beings as the human face. A great portrait appears to us to be a glimpse into a stranger’s soul. When we look at a well crafted portrait, we can feel as though we’re actually looking at a photograph of the subject’s very identity. A great portrait can appear to us almost to tell the life story of the person pictured. And, as such, it is perfectly understandable why so many photographers make great portraiture their primary pursuit — this is interesting and intriguing ground for most anyone.

Portrait Photography Tips for BeginnersPHOTO: Clay Spann Photography

However, if you’re new to photography, you may have already tried your hand and taking a few portraits only to discover that your portraits come out somewhat lackluster and flat. So, what are you missing? What can you do to really make your portraits stand out as stunning images? Read on to discover some of the most basic portrait photography tips for beginners that can be easily followed in order to drastically improve your portrait photography results.

Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners: Tip #1

Makeup! Many beginner photographers tend to undervalue the importance of good makeup for a successful portrait. It’s quite common for inexperienced photographers to believe that a model, who has no experience or training in makeup application for photography, can do an acceptable job with applying their own makeup. It seems to make sense, doesn’t it? You’ve got a beautiful model. She does her own makeup in her daily life and she looks fabulous. So, of course, if she applies that makeup for your portrait session, shell look just as great, right? Well, nine times out of ten, this is simply not the case.

Sure, if a model (or anyone else) appears to be quite good at applying makeup they may give you an acceptable makeup job that wont look ‘bad’ in photos. But, do you really want your images to look ‘acceptable’, and to look ‘not bad’? Or, do you want your portrait to be truly stunning? If it’s the latter, then the importance of a competent makeup artist with experience and training in applying makeup for photography can not be overstated. They will know how to apply makeup to your model in order to bring out their best look and features for the camera.

A really skilled pro MUA (Makeup Artist — it’s industry jargon) may also be able to provide you with creative makeup ideas that can give you different interesting and unique looks — this likely wont happen with someone who does not have such experience or training. If your model is like most people, she very likely has one or two ‘looks’ that she applies to herself — the same looks she’s probably always been applying — her ‘daily’ makeup look, and her ‘going out’ makeup look. And, that’s probably about it. A trained and skilled makeup artist can ‘read’ a model’s features and apply makeup in a way which takes the best advantage of the model’s facial structure. They will also be able to adjust the makeup job to better suit any look you’re trying to achieve. Are you going for a sizzling-hot sexy look? An experienced MUA will know what to do to best give you that look. Or, are you going for a more pure, innocent girl-next-door look? Again, a talented MUA will know what needs to be done to give you that look.

It’s simple: If you want your portraits to look as absolutely as spectacular as they possibly can, you simply must procure the services of a talented, experienced and skilled makeup artist.

Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners: Tip #2

Learn professional photography portraits for beginnersShoot A LOT! Then, shoot some more! Just take a heck of a lot of photos. Chances are, in this day and age, you’re not shooting film. So, what’s stopping you from shooting and shooting and shooting some more? In the old days of film it was cost that stopped you — film costs money. Each time you pressed your shutter-release, it was like putting coins into a machine. Not anymore, however. Make sure you’ve got plenty of memory cards and just shoot and shoot and shoot. You’ll end up with at least 80% of the photos you take being complete duds, most likely. But, so what? The more photos you take the more you up your chances of capturing those one or two truly magical looking photos.

I can’t stress the importance of this enough. If you think you’ve taken way more than enough photos, you probably haven’t. The hundreds of substandard photos you end up with just get deleted with the click of a button — no big whoop. But, if you take, say, 500 photos, and it would have been the 501st photo that was the winner — the model’s hair was just right, the light was just right, the model’s expression was just right, the angle you shot at was just right, and the whole thing just came together to give you one of those one in a million photos, then you should have taken 501. Right? The more photos you take, the greater the chances increase that you’ll snag one of those killer photos that only come along every so often — even for the pros.

Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners: Tip #3

Make double-triple sure the eyes are in focus! The eyes are the focal point of any good portrait. It is of the utmost importance that the subject’s eyes are in sharp focus. If using a shallow depth of field, the general rule is that you want the eye closest to the camera to be the point of focus, but this rule can sometimes be broken.

Nonetheless, supreme focus on the subject’s eyes is incredibly important. As long as you achieve good focus on the eyes, you’d likely be surprised at what else can be out of focus, and by just how much, while still managing to pull off a successful image — even great — image. If the eyes are out of focus, however, 999 times out of a 1,000, the image will fail. But, if the eyes are tack-sharp, practically everything else in the image — even the rest of the subject’s face — can be severely out of focus and the image wont necessarily be a throw-away. In fact, it might actually come out looking interesting and dynamic.

Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners: Tip #4

Find, or make, the best light! Good light is absolutely essential for a good portrait. For photographing women, especially, a very soft, diffuse, wrapping light will best compliment your subject in most situations. The greater the size of the light-source in relation to the subject, the softer the light will be. Large softboxes, or bounce, or shoot-through umbrellas positioned in-close (the closer to the subject the larger that light-source will be in relation to them, and thus, the softer the light) are great for achieving the right kind of diffuse light. But, if such lighting equipment is out of your reach, look for a large window with a lot of natural light coming through and position your model close to it. If the window will not be visible in the final image, you can experiment with hanging a thin, sheer, white sheet in front of the window or covering it in wax paper to try and really soften the light to its maximum softness potential.

Also, do some research on some of the more traditional lighting styles for classic portrait photography. You can start by looking up terms like “Rembrandt lighting”, “Butterfly lighting”, “Split lighting”, “Loop lighting”, “Broad lighting”, and “Short lighting”.

Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners: Tip #5

Posing and expression. The tendency for inexperienced photographers, and inexperienced models, is to sit or stand facing the camera straight on, squeeze out a smile, and click the picture. This can, of course, make for an okay portrait. But, you can really add life to your portrait photography by incorporating some interesting poses and expressions.

Professional Photoshop tutorials for portrait photographyI recommend doing image searches, or looking through the images of master photographers, and trying to notice pictures that really stand out because of interesting angles, poses and/or expressions. Make note of the ones that are really striking and try to emulate these in your own portrait sessions.

Try getting the model to look into the camera, then away. Have him or her make facial expressions and try different, off-the-cuff poses — don’t be afraid to get as silly, crazy or outlandish with these as possible. Remember portrait photography tips for beginners: Tip #2! You’re going to be shooting, and shooting, and shooting, right? So, perhaps you’ll get 50 unusable photos wherein the model just looks absolutely ridiculous? So what? Click a button and they’ll get deleted. But, if you shoot and shoot, getting as wild and crazy as you can with posing and expressions, there’s a very real chance that you’ll get at least one photograph that just explodes in uniqueness and character, and comes out looking just awesome.

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