Taking beautiful portraits takes patience and practice. I have spent the last ten years perfecting the art of portraiture and I still feel I have room to grow. For me, it is about going through a mental checklist when setting up for a portrait. Here are six of those things on my list.
1 – LOOK FOR CATCHLIGHTS
A catchlight is a highlight of a light source reflecting off the surface of an eye. It can come from the sun, a flash, or just about any light source you can think of. Catchlights add dimension to the eyes and make them appear to be sparkling. It also is an indicator that you have a light source to help light your subject. To find catchlights I position my subject and have them turn slowly in a circle. I follow their eyes and note where they light up and position them facing that direction.
If you can’t find a natural catchlight, you can sometimes create one with a reflector. Reflectors are wonderful for adding light to your subjects face. I use this triangle-shaped one, it folds up easily (and is small) and is easier to hold than the circle-shaped reflectors. I can actually hold this in one hand and my camera in the other. It also can be attached to a tripod.
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2 – BEND IT
There is an unwritten rule in posing people that says if the limb bends on your body, then you should bend it in your pose. There is nothing worse than an image of a person standing knees locked, arms at their side. You just look like a board at that point. If it bends, bend it! Ask your subject to put their weight on one leg, which will force the other knee to bend. Put a hand on your hip, cross your arms, hold your wrist, etc the combinations are endless.
3 – SHOOT FROM ABOVE
When possible, you should shoot from above your subject’s eye level. If you shoot from below their eye level it can give the appearance of shooting up their nose, which is not the greatest look. Shooting from above helps thin people out and can also lessen double chins. To achieve this you can either ask your subject to sit, look for stairs to climb, or bring with a step ladder. For portrait sessions, I always bring my step ladder and shoot from the highest step. Seeing as I am only 5’6 most people are taller than me, and the step ladder gives me the extra needed height.
4- FILL IN THE GAPS
When you tell people to stand next to each other for a picture they will often leave big gaps between themselves. It’s in our nature to give people personal space. But the extra space just looks like a strange void in pictures. Pose your subjects really close, and pay attention to gaps. I often tell my clients to “make sure there are no gaps” most people get what this means and will scoot in closer to one another. This also helps make people look more connected to one another in images and will often elicit genuine emotions.
5 – WATCH THE HANDS
Always remember to look at your subjects hands before clicking the shutter. People don’t think about how their hands will look in images. Often times you will see people with balled up fists or flat ridged hands, which makes people look uncomfortable in their images. Tell your subjects to open their fists, bend their fingers and turn their palms slightly to avoid a flat, fisted hand.
6 – LIGHT IT UP
Not all light is created equal when it comes to portraits. The best time to take pictures is in the golden hours of the day, which means the first or last hour of the day. Golden implies sun though, if your day is overcast head out in the middle of the day when the light will be soft and filtered. If you can’t shoot at golden hour, look for filtered or reflected light. This means light coming through trees, or being bounced off a wall.
Do you want to learn firsthand how to take beautiful portraits? Join me this spring in Badlands National Park where we will be covering everything from portraits to landscapes in my workshop.
About the Instructor
Hi there, I am Beth Mancuso a portrait and landscape photographer based out of Minnesota. I have been in business as a portrait photographer for over ten years now. I have spent the last six years working as an instructor and mentor. I am a National Geographic Your Shot Contributor. My work has been featured by National Geographic, Huff Post, My Modern Met, Peta Pixel, Sony, and Lensbaby. My work has been published in Click, Midwest Living, and Black and White Magazine. You can read more about me here. You can find my portfolio here – https://intothewildwego.photography/portfolio/