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- Use soft light. Soft light—from a broad, diffuse light source like a north-facing window, a cloudy sky, or open shade—softens skin, hides blemishes and creates an inviting look. You know severe looking, overly dramatic portraits? They’re rarely made with soft light sources. Whether it’s the hard light of a flash from the camera or a directional high-contrast light that creates deep dark shadows, amplifies texture and doesn’t look very flattering to most faces, any source other than a soft one will present a bit of a bigger challenge. (The one caveat I have for this is if your subject is large. A rotund face can sometimes benefit from a slightly harder light source because the well-defined shadows help to create angles and edges on a face that is generally devoid of them.)
- Don’t use frontal light. You know that on-camera flash of which I disapprove? It’s full frontal, and it usually doesn’t look very good. So use a window or a softbox or even a harsh bare-bulb light source, but make sure you move it from the camera axis to 45 degrees (or even 90 degrees for more drama) to make the light much more flattering and much more interesting. That’s why so many photographers take their camera flashes and hold them at arm’s length. This helps create a light based on the placement of the shadows it creates on a face. (If you really want to get good at lighting faces, investigate classical portrait lighting patterns—like the Butterfly, Rembrandt and Loop lighting.)
- Use a long lens. Long lenses compress scenes, creating the appearance of a shallower depth of field (particularly if the subject is placed far from the background) and isolating the subject for a stronger, easier to read composition. Even more, a long lens won’t distort the proportions of your subject’s face. Even a normal 50mm lens (which isn’t particularly wide) will create some wide-angle distortion, which is amplified if the subject is close to the camera. (I will say, though, that when photographing young children, a 50mm lens used very close to those tiny little faces creates a wonderful, wide-eyed look.)
- Use a large aperture. What does aperture have to do with a portrait? It’s all about depth of field. A shallow depth of field—especially when combined with a long telephoto lens—simplifies the background and makes the subject’s face the uninterrupted center of attention. This is really key for a successful portrait, because it makes it easier on the viewer. Nobody likes a photograph that doesn’t tell them where to look, and a large aperture helps place the center of attention precisely on your subject. (Speaking of which, make sure you focus on the subject’s eye. A cheek or chin or forehead focusing point can sometimes be visible when working with a long lens and shallow depth of field.)
- Keep it simple. You’ll notice that many of these tips feature simplicity at their core. Keep the composition clean and simple with use of a long lens, shallow aperture and precisely positioned subject and you’re well on your way. The same thing applies to the rest of your session—including any props you may want to introduce, or the attire you want your subject to wear, or the general approach you take to the shoot. Unless you want your photo to be about the crazy prop or the busy patterned shirt or the unbelievably difficult picture you’re pulling off, keep these elements simple and you’ll find portrait success much easier to achieve.