(Editor’s Note: This portrait photography tutorial by professional photographer Jerry Ghionis is the first in a new monthly series on Digital Photo where top pros from Nikon USA’s Ambassadors program share their simple tips, tricks, and advice on how to be a better photographer. You can read our 2017 profile of Ghionis here.)
I have been a professional photographer for nearly 30 wonderful years and have been teaching for 20. Through thousands of weddings, events and workshops, I consistently find that what everyone looks for in a portrait is for it to be flattering and/or tell a story and to make the viewer feel something.
To make this happen, here are 5 key photography fundamentals you should keep in mind for amazing portraits. Whether you are photographing a friend or family member in your backyard or practicing as we wait for the world to open back up, remember these steps as you go into your next shoot.
1. Direction of Light
Light is first on the list of my portrait photography basics, because it’s always the top consideration. When you are deciding where to shoot, always look for the direction of light. What you are looking for is a glow, an iridescence in the environment, and perhaps a pocket of light. Light is the best tool to make your subjects glow and have them look their best.
Here’s a personal tip: If I can’t immediately see the best light with my own two eyes, I put my hand in front of me and the then slowly turn around 360 degrees. As you turn, look for that moment when you see iridescence and saturation on your hand. When you get the right spot, you’ll see a difference.
The light on your hand will not be dull. That will be where you want to place your subject, so that the same glow is on your subject’s face. When you begin photographing, start by turning your subject away from the light. Then turn their nose towards the light just until the eye that was furthest away from the camera is completely lit.
When this happens, you will be shooting on the shadow (or short) side of the face, which will bring out cheekbones and provide shape, depth, and dimension. Pay attention to the catchlights in the eyes, which should usually be placed somewhere between the 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock position in the top half of the iris.
Don’t forget when you’re photographing people, the person is the most important part of the photo, not the location or the background. When selecting a background consider the colors, textures and patterns, but you also may want to consider the use of negative space, which can be very powerful.
That being said, if the location is meaningful, feature it but don’t let it dominate the picture. If you want a combination of a person and an environment, try showing why the background works with your subject. For example, if you shoot near a tree or wall, give your subject a reason to be there instead of just “placing” them in the environment.
You want the environment to complement your subject, not compete with them. Also, your subject doesn’t always have to stand right against the background. Bring your subject away from the background and that will give your portrait more depth and dimension.
Don’t underestimate the fact that most people are happy to work with you if it makes them look and feel better. Posing does not have to be mechanical or stiff. You may have heard the photography tip that says, “If you can bend it, bend it.” This is especially true when photographing the female form. If you photograph a female from the front, you are shooting her at her widest. Begin by turning your subject on an angle, then point her front toe towards the camera and slide the heel back in. Next bring her shoulders back and ask her to lean her chest forward. This will create curves and a flattering pose.
Another great tip that works for most subjects is to ask them to bring their chin forward, then tilt their head. If you find that your subject is starting to look a bit wide eyed and staring, then you can ask them for a hint of a squint. This adds a bit of finesse and intrigue to their expression. Regardless of who you are photographing, one of the easiest ways to direct your subject is to get them to mirror you. Ask them to pretend they are looking into a mirror as they watch you pose. As you move left, they move left, as your chin moves up, theirs moves up, etc. It’s the easiest way to direct someone.
After I have found the light, decided on a location and directed my subject into an attractive pose, then the next step is to work out what my camera settings will be. This includes the exposure and your cropping and composition.
Remember the rule of thirds: you don’t want to always center your subject in the frame. Traditionally, negative space in front of a subject represents harmony, while negative space behind a subject represents mystery. When it comes to determining your exposure, remember that seeing detail in the skin can be just as powerful as creating a striking silhouette. Your choice of lens will also impact the way your portrait looks.
When photographing portraits, I will most often use a Nikkor Z 70-200mm f/2.8 and the Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8. When deciding what lens to use you might ask yourself: what kind of compression do I want to have in my final image? Do I want to isolate the subject from the background, or do I want to show more of the environment? Your choice of crop can also be a powerful way to tell a story. The way you crop an image can make it mysterious, soft and playful or confronting.
The last step, but certainly not the least, is to evoke emotion. This is what brings a portrait to life and makes it more believable. You can’t always rely on your subject to give you that smile and that warmth. It can be very intimidating to be in front of a camera and most subjects will need help to come out of their shells.
If you are close friends with the person you are photographing, then you can use a personal anecdote or inside joke that elicit a reaction. The reaction that you get doesn’t always have to be laughter or smiling either. Sometimes the way you say something can be just as powerful as what you say. If you are trying to create a soft, romantic portrait then you’ll want to make sure your tone of voice is also calm and quiet to match the feeling that you are looking for. Your clients will mirror your energy.
Conclusion & Resources
While you can take these five steps to better portrait photography and get great results, your best teacher will always be repetition, experience and practice. Don’t ever stop learning and growing as an artist. I’d love to offer you some additional free courses that I have put together and that will help you explore your creative boundaries. Be a fly on the wall as I capture an entire wedding day from start to finish. I also want to offer you a download of photography tips and tricks, as well as a free look into a themed shoot I did which was a film noir homage to the Sin City movie.
To see more of Jerry’s wedding and portrait work: www.jerryghionisphotography.com
To see more of Jerry’s fashion and editorial work: www.jerryghionisphotographer.com
About Jerry Ghionis
Jerry Ghionis is a working portrait, wedding and fashion photographer, a Nikon Ambassador and is considered one of the top wedding photographers in the world. Jerry and his wife Melissa are based in Las Vegas, USA and Melbourne, Australia and travel frequently on international photography and speaking assignments.
Jerry is the most awarded photographer of the Wedding & Portrait Photographers International organization (WPPI) and became their first Grand Master. He was also included in their list of top five wedding photographers in the world. Jerry was also named by American Photo Magazine in their first list of top ten best wedding photographers in the world and was also given a United Nations Leadership Award by the International Photographic Council.
Named by PDN magazine as one of the top photography workshop instructors in the world, Jerry is also the inventor of the revolutionary Ice Light (a portable handheld LED light). The Jerry Ghionis brand has become synonymous with excellence, mastery and innovation in the photography industry.