Portraiture is one of the most popular genres of photography around. It’s also one of the most challenging. It takes many long hours of practice before you get really good at capturing the essence of human personality and, along the way; you’re going to make more than your fair share of mistakes.
Don’t sweat it, though. Everyone goes through it. The point is to learn from those mistakes and make corrections. Below, you will find a list of six mistakes commonly made in portrait photography; it is, in fact, more than a mere list, however. Along with a discussion of the mistakes, you will see that there are suggestions on how to correct or altogether avoid the problem.
1. Shooting Wide
Wide-angle lenses make close subjects look much bigger than those that are further away and with a portrait this can mean a big nose, above a receding chin, on a small face with tiny eyes. It’s far more flattering to shoot from a little further away and use a longer lens as this will help keep the sitter’s facial features in proportion.
The problem, however, with shooting too wide is that your subject’s face will appear distorted. If your subject is expecting a nice, flattering portrait, using a wide angle lens is not going to win their favor. If you’re doing environmental or full body portraits, you can get away with using a lens wider than 50mm; otherwise, go with a longer focal length.
2. Eyes Are Not Sharpe
The eyes are the number one thing to get right in a portrait. You can have a great pose, great lighting, great composition, but if the eyes aren’t sharp, it’s not a great shot. The camera’s default autofocus area mode often chooses the object closest to the camera. In a portrait, that means the nose is often sharp instead of the eyes.
Always focus on your subjects eyes; if you normally use autofocus to do the work and you’re getting blurry eyes, it’s time to start using manual focus. DSLRs have highly capable autofocus systems, but sometimes they do get things wrong, so learn to get comfortable with focusing manually and you should see improvements.
3. Shooting From Wrong Height
The definition of ‘wrong height’ varies depending upon the subject and the context of the image, but it can help you produce better results if you shoot at your subject’s eye-level. With children this may mean kneeling down or even lying with your elbows on the floor. Conversely, if you want to take a quick shot that emphasizes how small they are, then shoot from above.
Many portrait photographers advise against shooting from below your subject’s eye level, because it can lead to double chins and up-nostril views. Traditionally, women and children were always shot from slightly above with them looking up to emphasize their eyes and make them look more appealing, but these guidelines are less relevant today.
One of the dangers of using the flash on your camera is that the light is very close to the lens and this can result in light from the flash being bounced back of your subject’s retina and into the camera causing the phenomena we know as redeye.
Anti-redeye flash settings that fire a pre-flash can help by closing your subject’s irises down so that less light enters their eyes and bounces back, but the best cure is to move the flash away from the lens.
5. Harsh Shadow
Shadows can make or break a portrait; they can add drama and enhance mood, or they can be an unattractive distraction. Harsh shadows, more often than not, fall to the latter category.
So, your goal is soft lighting with subtle, understated, appropriately placed shadows. You can accomplish this by using a diffuser of some kind and by strategically arranging your lighting setup. The easiest, most affordable solution is to diffuse the light; you probably have items sitting around your house that can serve as a diffuser.
6. Poor Framing
Most new photographers tend to shyly stand back, taking full body portraits or shots from the waist up. While it’s great to get a variety of different poses, don’t be too shy to fill the frame with the subject’s face. It’s fine to crop to a head and shoulders shot, and sometimes even closer framing just the face or even just the eyes.
To take good portraits, a shy personality will often need to step out of their comfort zone a bit. Its okay to get in close, or use zoom if you have it.
Portraits are an enjoyable and rewarding sub-genre of photography. But like any area of photography, there’s a set of mistakes new photographers often make getting started. Get started off on the right foot by avoiding the six most common mistakes new portrait photographers make.