Portrait photography, I firmly believe is the single most challenging genre of photography. There is so much to learn and so many unknowns during your session that even basic portrait photography can be extremely complex. As with all forms of photography, the goal is to reveal something of the subject to the viewer. Getting to a place with your subject where this is even possible is a combination of many factors. Everything from light and composition to choice of location and choice depth of field play heavily into the outcome. However, your connection with your subject will elevate your photographs more than anything else.

Today, we’ll take a look at a few things you can consider when you want to make a basic portrait photography shoot to a great one.

It’s easier than you might think to improve little things that can really help to bring your sessions to another level. We’ll take a look at location choice, light, camera settings, and most importantly your subject. All of these play into making your shoot a success.

Location

One of your first considerations when setting up a portrait photography session should be the location. You want something that will further the story you’re trying to tell about the subject. Also, it will help if this location is somewhere that your subject is comfortable with. Unless you’re working with a professional model, this is key to beginning to build your rapport with the subject. If it is somewhere the subject already has a connection to, you’ll be able to get them talking and feeding you information while making themselves feel good that they’re being listened to. Your location might also dictate the time of day that it is best to shoot the portrait at, so it is worth considering before you start planning.


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Light

When it comes to a basic portrait photography session, I would recommend sticking to natural light in the beginning. Even if you plan to move into flash work later on, it can help to keep your subject confident and focused at the beginning by keeping your own setup simple. Before you begin shooting, find pockets of nice light around your location and use them to your advantage to give you multiple looks. Open shade will give you a chance to create a flattering portrait, while a shaft of sunlight will give you something more dramatic to work with. Direct sunlight can be used to illuminate the face, part of the face, or even as a “hair light” simply by turning your subject around. Once you have found these places and know what you are aiming for, you will be able to confidently express this to your subject and gain their trust in your ability.

Settings

I can’t stress how important it is to know your settings and be able to quickly and confidently change them as needed. The more complex your session becomes, the more necessary this is. But, being able to dial in your settings without getting flustered or even letting your subject know that you’re still figuring things out goes a long way towards building trust.

Knowing what everything does also means that you’re quickly able to get a variety of different looking shots. You could start at f/1.4 for example and get a buttery out-of-focus background before quickly dialing in f/5.6 to bring more attention to other elements in the scene. You might even switch to 1/8 second shutter speed and ask your subject to remain still while you blur other moving objects in the scene.

The main thing here is that the settings are the price of entry to basic portrait photography. You should already have them mastered so that you can focus on everything else in your shoot.

Check for Distractions

One thing that it always pays to do before taking a shot is check both your composition and your subject for distractions. You could adjust your composition slightly to remove that pesky fire extinguisher that is sneaking into the bottom corner. You might take a moment to move a few things on your subject’s desk before making the final photograph of them at work. Maybe you don’t like the pen sticking out of the chef’s pocket for this photo; take it out. Taking the time to look for distractions and rectify them before you take the shot will save work in post-production and let your subject know that you’re working towards the best image you can.

Set Your Subject at Ease

The more astute of you might have noticed that I keep coming back to one point again and again. That is, how everything you do affects your subject. A subject who has faith that the photographer is doing all they can to make great images is a subject that will relax and give you what you’re really looking for. We’re searching for a way to reveal this subject to the viewer and the only person who can truly reveal themselves to the viewer is the subject. As the photographer, you can facilitate it, but not make it happen.

As I mentioned, the choice of location, demonstrating your command of light and technicals, and reassuring the subject by paying attention to the details can all lead to relaxing them and allowing their emotions to show in front of the camera. Now that we have all these things in place, your job is to bring the feeling you want to the surface. You might talk in a quiet voice while offering simple suggestions to the subject for a quieter look. You might ask them to tell you a success story if you’re hoping to catch proud moments in between. Getting your subject to open up to you will also open them up to the viewer. Be a friend and a guide to them and your pictures will benefit.

Shoot Plentifully

One final piece of advice I can offer for a basic portrait photography shoot is to always make more photographs than you think you’ll need. Chances are you’re working with a digital camera and memory is cheap. Once you feel like you’ve got the shot, keep shooting. Shoot a few more of the same thing to make sure it’s perfect and then experiment with your settings, composition, and even with the emotion of the subject to see if something works better than what you initially had in mind. At the very worst, you’ll have options to choose from this way.

In Conclusion

By working through these things each and every time and building on them, your basic portrait photography will soon become great portrait photography. Work hard on location, light, and camera settings, but work even harder on communicating with your subject and drawing from them what you need to make great shots.


Conquer lighting, posing, composition, and post-processing with Scott Robert Lim. Learn more.