When taking color portraits one of your primary concerns should be to always strive for natural looking skin tones. Be sure your white balance is properly set and matched to the character of the light you’re shooting in, or be sure to shoot in RAW so that you can accurately achieve good skin tones in post. You should be aware of colored light that might be reflecting back into your subject’s face. A nearby red wall, green foliage, or blue automobile, for example, can give unnatural skin tones. When shooting indoor portraits in color, try to select a room with white or neutral gray walls.
You can succeed at available-light portraiture without really trying if you follow one basic rule: keep the lighting contrast low. With a high ISO and a camera with an f2 or faster lens, available-light photography at medium levels of illumination is as simple as snapshooting by daylight outdoors — if the lighting is relatively flat and even. A small room with white reflecting walls and ceiling will tend to produce this effect. Large banks of overhead light — especially fluorescent tubes — tend to give low-contrast lighting. With this kind of illumination (common in schoolrooms, offices, banks, stores, and some contemporary homes) you should find candid portraiture by available light easy. It’s in high-contrast situations, with bright highlights and deep black shadows, that a high degree of skill is required in exposing your image.
Cropping portraits calls for taste and imagination. A standard ‘rule’ for conventional portraits is to allow a little more space in the direction toward which the subject is looking. Most people seem to find this satisfactory. But for your own pleasure, try unconventional cropping, too: For instance, a head surrounded by a large expanse of space, very tight cropping that centers attention on a person’s eyes and mouth, dynamic tilting of a head or body, and using narrow vertical or horizontal formats.
Three floods are enough to create virtually endless varieties of portrait lighting, and the cost is quite modest. Use one photoflood as your main source of light, the second close to your camera as a fill light (to lighten shadows), and the third as a background light.
To minimize wrinkles on an aging face, some portrait photographers use a soft-focus lens. You can achieve a similar soft-focus effect very easily and inexpensively. Just take a piece of nylon from a woman’s stocking (light-toned, not dark), make a small hole in it, and place it in front of your lens, securing it with tape or rubber bands. The larger the hole, the less the diffusion, so you’ll need to experiment to get exactly the degree of softening you want. As a start , try a hole about the diameter of a pencil.
Simple, imaginative props can enhance a portrait. A good prop gives the subject something to do with his or her hands (which otherwise might be difficult to pose gracefully and naturally) and can add storytelling visual detail. But don’t use props in an arbitrary or inappropriate way — they should have a meaningful relationship to your subject. For instance, freshly cut flowers might be a good touch for a portrait of a beautiful woman. You might use the tools of a person’s occupation — a writer’s pen and notebook, a musician’s guitar, a scholar’s book, a scientist’s microscope. A favorite sport or hobby provides another possible source of good props — a tennis racquet, fishing pole, ship model, chess set, pruning shears, etc. And simple accessories such as sunglasses, a weathered briar pipe, a cane with an interesting handle, driving gloves, or a cigarette holder can say something about your subject and lift your portrait out of the ordinary.
Windowlight has been used for portraiture ever since the great 17th century Flemish painters, and it’s still a wonderful illumination for portraits today. Windowlight has a beautiful quality and it’s utterly simple to use. Don’t try a window with direct sunlight coming through it; this lighting is too harsh and contrasty. A north exposure is ideal, but you can use any window on a shady side of the house or wait for an overcast day. Exposure will vary, of course, depending on lighting conditions and the distance between your subject and the window. (Typical windowlight exposures at 200 ISO range between f/4 and f/5.6 at 1/60 of a second.) If you want to make the shadows on the face lighter, use a reflector to bounce some of the windowlight back into them. A large sheet of white cardboard is good for this purpose.
A tripod can do wonders in improving the technical quality of your more formal indoor portraits. Most photographers aren’t as steady as they think they are and even a slight amount of movement will rob a portrait of its crispness. So for non-candid camera portraiture, use a tripod, especially if your shutter speed is 1/60 or slower. Get a sturdy, steady tripod. A type with an elevating “pan” head is by far the most convenient because it enables you to quickly make the small last-minute adjustments so important when photographing a live subject.
What your portrait subject should wear is a matter of taste, but there are some basic guides that can help you. In general, with men or women, avoid bold, eye-catching patterns. They tend to attract too much attention from the important element — your subject’s face. Muted patterns or solid colors usually work best. With formal portraits of men, there’s a good case for using a light blue shirt (or any other light, solid color) rather than white. A white shirt tends to give blank, “blocked-up” highlights unless very skillfully lighted. With color portraits, plan your colors beforehand. Decide on the background colors, then have your subject wear clothing that is compatible with it. And don’t use too many colors in one picture — keep the color scheme simple.
Want to boost the room light for easier available light portraiture? Try replacing existing household bulbs with 250-watt No. 1 photoflood bulbs. Select lamps with large shades that allow the air to circulate and dissipate the heat. Rearrange the lamps if you wish, for the desired effect. For instance, you might use one lamp relatively close to the subject as a main-light and a second lamp at a greater distance to fill in the shadows. The over-all illumination level in the room will be raised by this method, but the quality of the lighting will remain natural looking. This way, you can have your cake and eat it, too.
Direct flash-on-camera portraiture is considered a no-no these days, dating back, as it does, to the era of the cigar-chewing press photographer-cum-Speed Graphic. If you’re shooting flash, try bouncelight (reflecting the flash off a nearby wall or the ceiling) to create softer, more diffused illumination. (If not shooting with a flash and camera that can automatically detect that you’re bouncing the flash and compensate the flash power, give two to three stops more exposure than you would with direct flash) Or, remove the flash unit from the camera and use it remotely — if your flash and camera system has such capabilities (Most modern cameras and flashes do), or if you have a set of radio triggers, or a flash cord. Hold the flash high and to one side to give modeling to the face and throw the background shadow where it belongs — down and out of sight. With the type of flash that’s built in to the camera there isn’t much you can do about the direction of the light, but you can soften overly harsh flash illumination by placing one thickness of clean white handkerchief in front of the unit — a useful trick for close-up shots.
Neckties and collars are details sometimes overlooked in portraits. A poorly tied necktie or a frayed or wrinkled collar can be distracting elements in an otherwise effective portrait. Check these little details and correct them before you get involved in shooting. Then you can concentrate on the main problem — eliciting and catching good subject poses and expressions.
Get out of the bright sun if you want to simplify outdoor portraiture. Pose your subject in the open shade (a shady area with open sky above) or shoot on a hazy or overcast day. The benefits are numerous. First, your subject wont tend to squint the way he or she would in direct sunlight. Second, the subdued, soft illumination of open shade or an overcast day is flattering for most faces. Third, the problem of contrast between bright highlights and black shadows is greatly minimized. Finally — and most importantly — you and your subject have complete freedom to move around; you can shoot from any angle and the light will be pleasing. Not so with direct sunlight, which casts strong shadows.
Try a self-portrait (if the subject isn’t cooperative you’ve nobody to blame but yourself). Use either a self-timer, if your camera is so equipped, or a long cable release so you can sit facing the camera and trip the shutter when you wish. You’ll need to use a fixed position for yourself and to have your camera on a tripod. Arrange the lights and focus the camera with the help of a stand-in. Then put yourself in the subject position and take the picture. As a guide to pose and expression, place a mirror directly behind the camera and see how you look from the lens’s viewpoint.
Bouncelight is excellent for portraits but many beginner photographers make a basic error in using it — they reflect the light from a point almost directly above the subject’s head. This can result in unpleasant overhead lighting and deep shadows that obscure the subject’s eyes. Simple enough to correct — just aim your flash or flood at a point on the ceiling far enough in front of your subject so that light is reflected into the eyes.
Don’t pose your subject with one hand thrust toward the camera and the other held away. Perspective distortion will grotesquely enlarge the near hand and shrink the far one. Instead, have your subject clasp his or her hands in a relaxed, natural manner, or give him an appropriate prop to hold.