Portrait photography is one of the most useful types of photography to learn because there are so many photography genres that involve shooting people; weddings, documentary/photojournalism, newborn photography, corporate headshots and editorial work, to name just a few. Even if you're only interested in taking "everyday" candid snapshots of your family and friends, using portrait photography techniques can help to improve them.
There are four techniques that are important to perfect in portrait photography – the eyes, skin tones, framing and depth of field.
When shooting people, especially close-ups, it's important that the skin appears natural, rather than stark white, yellow or grey. Skin is the first area that will lose detail if a portrait is under or overexposed. Flash is a big culprit when it comes to overexposed portraits.
To ensure skin doesn't look washed out or flat, you need to fine tune the white balance and then meter off the skin. This is best done using spot metering mode so that the light meter evaluates the light on the area of the skin you are focusing on (usually the face) rather than somewhere else in the frame. By allowing your light meter to ignore the other areas, the exposure is set to suit the subject's skin which means you're more likely to capture pinky and creamy tones, like in the photo below.
Check your histogram regularly as you shoot to see if any areas of the photograph are "blinking" because the highlights are blown out, and adjust your settings if necessary.
People are drawn to the eyes when looking at faces in photographs, because they reflect the mood and expression of the subjects. Softness or blur in the eyes is a distraction, which is why it's important for them to be in focus. Select a suitable aperture and set the AF points on the centre of eyes so that the details are sharp across the pupil, iris and the whites.
Image taken by Kate Sheffield
In addition to this, what makes a portrait even more attractive is when light is reflected in the eyes (catchlights). Catchlights add a sense of life to the photo by making your subject's eyes appear as if they have a "twinkle" and enhancing the colour, especially in people with blue and green eyes. Catchlights are harder to capture in people with brown eyes because dark colours don't reflect light as well. However, by positioning your subject so that their eyes are facing the light source, you can create them.
Framing and cropping
There are millions of ways to pose people for portraits, using different distances and viewpoints, ranging from full length shots to very close up shots (when only one feature fills the frame, such as the eyes or the lips).
However, there are some rules you should follow to avoid cropping your subject in a way that appears strange to the human eye. For example, cropping people right at the joint at the elbow, knuckles, ankle or wrist gives the appearance of a limb being "cut off". Take a look at the image below to see where cropping is best done, when composing the shot and also when cropping using editing software.
Crop at the green lines rather than the red lines for better visual impact
Depth of field
Shallow depth of field is really desirable in portraits because the subject will be clearly separated from the background, helping their facial features to stand out.
The best lenses to use in portraits are normal or standard lenses (both prime and zoom), and sometimes macro lenses if you plan to shoot small details such as tiny toes or eyelashes on babies.
Prime lenses usually have a wider aperture than zoom lenses which allows for a very shallow depth of field. Many professional portrait photographers swear by prime lenses.
Image taken by Mary Plousha
Other types of lenses can distort faces when shooting close ups. When it comes to focal length, anything above 50 mm is best, which means fish eye and wide lenses should be avoided when shooting portraits. Also, telephoto lenses can sometimes create blur when the focal length is very magnified (for example 200-300mm).