You have a good camera and photograph people on a regular basis, yet your photos don’t look like the portraits you admire or regularly see in magazines or online. All of the elements seem to be there but something appears to be missing. In this case, you may be taking snapshots and not portraits.
Snapshots tend to capture a moment in time with little regard to lighting or composition. You photograph your daughter wearing her new dress or your boyfriend in front of a favorite restaurant—these shots tend to be snapshots. Portraits, on the other hand, require attention to detail—lighting, positioning of the subject, choice of an interesting background. In short, a portrait is deliberate.
So why might your attempts at portraits end up looking more like snapshots? Following are some common reasons (and how to avoid them).
Problem: Centered Subjects
Great portraits tend not to center their subjects, especially in horizontal photos. The subject are often placed on one side or even just slightly off-center, making for a more interesting composition. In vertical portraits, heads can be placed in an upper corner to allow leading lines in either clothing or the body itself to move the viewer’s eye to the face.
Solution: Try composing off-center, leaving space for your model to exist in
Problem: Light is Too Hard
You’ve remembered you were once told to always keep the sun behind you. Only problem—this puts the light right in your subject’s eyes, causing squinting or even tears. It can also remove shadows from the face that provide for a more natural appearance. Think of hard light like shining a spotlight in your subject’s face—unless that’s the look you’re going for, you might want to soften your light.
Solution: Soften your light source, use portable diffusers or seek out open shade
Problem: Subject is Backlit
While intentional backlighting can be used for dramatic effect, unintentional backlighting can cause the subject to be in silhouette or an area of the frame to be blown out. This often happens when you see a background you want to place your subject in front of without considering where your light is. Instead, see if there is a different angle you can shoot from that will bring everything more in balance.
Solution: Find a different angle
Problem: Background is Always in Focus
Many portrait photographers employ a shallow depth of field to provide softness to the background of their subjects. This helps to place the focus of the photo on your subject and not the location. Not every portrait requires a shallow depth of field, of course, but it can provide a visually pleasing effect and add an extra element to your portraits. To achieve a shallow depth of field, use an f-stop of 2.8 or lower. This is a particularly good choice when your subject is in a crowded area or in an environment where the subject could be easily lost.
Solution: Open your aperture to a wider setting
Problem: Background isn’t Interesting
Even when employing shallow depth of field, your background still needs to be interesting (even more so when not employing a shallow depth of field). The background should suit the portrait and add to it. It should also not be distracting or in any way take away from your subject. Your top priority in portraiture is your subject.
Solution: find an interesting location
Problem: Focus is Off
With rare exception, the focus of a portrait should be the eyes (or the eye nearest the viewer if your subject’s head is turned). When relying on autofocus, the focus can sometimes shift to an object closer to the camera or one with higher contrast, leaving the eyes soft. Just a moment’s extra attention can ensure proper focus and elevate your portraits.
Solution: Spot focus on the eye closest to you, and work on manual focus
Problem: Lack of Attention to Detail
Everything in a portrait needs to be considered—angle of the arms and legs, position of the hands, facial expression, direction of the eyes, overall composition. Is there a hair running across an eye or a shadow where there shouldn’t be one? The portrait photographer needs to review every element before taking the photo. See a tree growing out of your subject’s head? You’ve just taken a snapshot.
Solution: Look at everything, then adjust
Problem: Losing awareness of Shadows
You’ve found a great location in the woods with your subject among some foliage. The composition is good and the pose is natural. What you failed to notice was that the light filtering through the trees behind you is causing shadows on your subject’s face. Uneven light and shadow on a subject’s face is not only distracting but also very difficult, if even possible, to correct after the photo has been taken. In this instance, if moving the subject is not possible, you can try to alleviate the shadows by either using a reflector or flash.
Solution: Find open shade, or create it with a portable diffuser
Problem: Misused Flash
Like hard light, on camera flash can flatten a portrait by taking natural shadows away from the face. However, on camera flashes are often far more adjustable than you may realize, including the intensity of the light. Also, diffusers can often be added. Even better, you can learn to work with off camera flash to allow you more versatility and direction of light.
Solution: Try new things with your flash, master using it off-camera
Problem: Stiff or Always Smiling Subjects
Study just a few basic poses and your subject can go from stiff and awkward to more natural and inviting. People often tend to freeze when faced with a camera or have one go-to pose, which can make for less than exceptional portraits. Also keep in mind that your subject doesn’t need to smile in every photo—that may be appropriate for holiday snaps but is too limiting when shooting portraits.
Solution: Give your model something to THINK about
Problem: Lack of Proper Post Processing
Even if you hate that doll-like post processing that some portrait photographers employ doesn’t mean some basic post processing can’t elevate your portrait. You can use a tool such as clone stamp to remove a distracting element or a preset filter such as auto-skin softening or smart blur to smooth out slight imperfections. Even just adding some contrast or saturation can do wonders.
Solution: Try out the free software that came with your camera, and evaluate Adobe Lightroom
Problem: Not Shooting RAW
No matter how good your camera, if you are shooting JPEG, you are not capturing all that you can. Shooting RAW is like capturing a digital negative—the data is not compressed like JPEG and offers far more options when processing your photos. With a RAW file you can correct white balance and restore detail to underexposed areas, and this is just when opening the file.
Solution: If you're nervous, shoot in Raw+jpg and test out some editing of the raw against what the camera shot in jpg mode