Portrait Photography: How to Make It Work with Minimal Training

Portrait photography is not the easiest of techniques but certainly a patient person could eventually get the technique down.  Sometimes, what you lack in natural talent can be made up for with learned skill.  Portraiture takes skill and finesse, but it also takes an understanding of composition, light, the camera, the relationships and framing.  It is almost as if portraiture is the meeting place for all photographic techniques.  For a lot of photographers just starting out, portrait photography is the last kind of photography they tackle.  There are so many variables when it comes to shooting people; they don't sit still, they have an opinion on the matter in the moment, they have an opinion on the matter after the fact especially, they don't frame themselves in the shot like a building might and they are constantly changing.  

Taking pictures in a studio can only fix so many of these problems, such as lighting and framing, yet studios produce some stark emotions.  Natural conditions, like a beach, backyard or park, create more interesting results with a cost: all those variations.  I know, I know, I just said it was hard enough to photograph people and know I'm asking you to take this whole thing outside where control is left up to the elements?  Portraits can be daunting but with some effort, creativity and diligence, you can produce a good portrait.

This is where I stand on photography, portraiture included: everyone can learn to take a good picture but not everyone can afford expensive lenses or even Photoshop. Keeping that in mind, all the images used in this picture were taken with a Canon Rebel XTi along with the kit lens and totally unedited (no color fixing, no Photoshopping, just cropping) to prove that it does not take fancy equipment to get a good shot.

MOST IMPORTANT (Notice the all caps, bold and Italics lettering makes it seem super important)

No matter where you are or what you are shooting, always prep your camera.  Knowing what works where and in what situations will prevent fumbling with your camera in the moment.  If you are against studio set-ups like I am, then this rule is even MORE important.  Portrait photography is ever evolving.  The subject is constantly moving, interacting and relating in the moment.  There is no time to reset aperture or ISO settings.  If you change location, allow for time to take a few quick test shots to make sure the light is right but get immediately back into the swing of things.  Losing momentum in a portrait session can be detrimental.  The person or group should be as natural as possible; having the time to watch the photographer reset can take them out of that momentum. 

Keep It Natural 

Unless your client specifically asks for the kind of picture that would end up on a business card, keep the set natural and light.  Environmental photography, meaning that you are capturing the subject where the live, work or play, is a great way to get variation in setting, a relaxed client and great results from the shoot.  In this particular photoshoot, I photographed the family where they live.  Lucky for them (and me as the photographer), they live on the beach in Hawaii.  Before they arrived to the "set", I took the time to get my camera at the right settings.  Since it was about 8:30 in the morning, the light was perfect and coming in at just the right angle.  There were no props, no absurd costumes and certainly no faux backdrops.

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Ask your clients to wear neutral colors the day of the shoot.  Patterns and stripes will only clutter the image and pull away from the person, which is after all what is important in the shot.  Get to know the client ahead of time.  You don't want to spend time the day of the shoot getting comfortable with the person or group of people.  Break the ice when you first schedule the session.  Ask them where they are from, why they are taking the pictures, what about this location speaks to them, etc.  It works out even better if you know the relationships of the people you are photographing (micro-family, extending family, co-workers, etc.)

To Prop or Not to Prop

Unless the situation calls for a prop, leave them at home.  If there are items that flow with the situation, bring those in.  In environmental photography, props will occur naturally.  It should feel effortless and should not call attention from the viewer.  With this family, Princess Peanut (as I will refer to her) obviously required essential baby items, one of which was her favorite lovey, Big Bunny.  Because it was an intimate family shoot, Big Bunny fit right in with the situation and adds to the photo shoot.  Use that as a rule: only use a prop if it adds to the picture and fits in with the story.

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Find a Unique Perspective

This does not mean to get on the ground and shoot up at everyone every frame.  Not too many people look at a photo of their double chin and boogers and think "Yes, I'll hire her again.  My nose hairs look awesome in this picture."  What it does mean is to play with proportions, angles, and ranges (how close or how far away).  For both the photographer and viewer, it gets really boring to have the same distance from the same straight on position in every shot.  With kids, this will definitely mean getting on the ground with them.  So you need to wear your play clothes that day, too.  Be willing to get dirty or wet.  For a few of the pictures with this family, I was wading in the water snapping away as they played on the beach together, getting both the green grass, the tan sand and the blue water in the picture.  

This particular shot below was the only one I had planned for the day.  Knowing that the morning sun was going to cast some particularly long shadows, this composition was really simple to get.  The only thing I directed was where to stand; the rest happened organically.  It says so much about them, from their heights to their relationship as a family.  You can tell in the shadows that they are looking down at Princess Peanut while her smiley, adorable little face is looking square at the camera.  It adds a level of interest without having too much to look at. 

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Get Close

This applies to both the photographer and the group you are shooting.  Intimacy in pictures makes for a better shot composition and story.  Remember, your pictures are telling a story without words.  Keep everyone cozy.  Close groups in a wide shot look excellent.  There is a balance of positive and negative space.  They eye knows where to look and there is something substantial behind it to set the scene.

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Coming in close to the subject can create a powerful effect as well.  Don't be afraid to get right up in there.  This is where getting comfortable with the client beforehand comes in handy.  Now is a good time to do size comparisons.  They make for really cute side-by-sides, especially with kids or pets.  In the pictures below, Princess Peanut is front and center-ish on the left, pulling focus on her face and barette, emphasizing her features that make her uniquely Princess Peanut.  In the picture on the right, you see just how tiny and vulnerable she really is.  The differentiation is clear only because I got up tight to Princess Peanut.  Don't be afraid to invade space.

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(Click Here for Larger View)

There are so many other things that are involved in portrait photography, but they take time and lots of portrait sessions to get right.  If you are just starting out or have photography on the side as a hobby, ask your friends to pose for you.  Do it for free and it will be less tense for everyone; you don't have to worry about wasting their money by ruining their photoshoot while you practice new techniques and they won't care if all their pictures turn out crappy.  Shoot anyone and everyone within reason; getting permission is always your best starting point.  Change up your positions as the subject changes theirs.  It will keep the final results interesting and give a wide range of variety in the pictures.  Keep it natural; try to capture as many candid shots as possible and don't be afraid to make posed shots more candid than staged.  You want to capture to humanness of the group.  Portrait photography should show off who that person is and not how many postures they can fit into. 


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Maggie OBriant
Maggie O'Briant  Personal Blog Flickr

Maggie O'Briant recently graduated from Florida State University with an English Literature degree.  She is currently a freelance writer and photographer.    She currently lives in Hawaii with her husband and giant baby. 

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