Common Portrait Photography Mistakes to Avoid

Most people use their camera for one thing to capture portraits of their friends & family – whether they are staged or candid – and therefore it’s vitally important to understand the 10 things that you DO NOT want to do, or at least stringently avoid, when taking a portrait photo.

AVOID USING THE ON-CAMERA FLASH UNIT. By being on-axis with the camera’s lens, the super-bright, on-board flash is more often than not unflattering to your subject. The sharp, blue light (its color temperature is daylight balanced) flattens the contours of your subject’s face(s), washes out their skin and at the same time accentuates any blemishes on the skin. So either use a corded flash and bounce the light or find another light source if the surroundings are dark or use a tripod and lower your shutter speed. These options will allow you to play with the light more, and that’s what you want anyway.

COMPOSITION MISTAKES, Pt 1 – watch the HEADROOM, as in too much headroom (see I was going to say max headroom, but that would have been too much, right?). The problem with too much headroom is it looks like your subjects are swimming in space or something is going to fall on them. In addition, the inherent dynamics of proper framing is lost – tight framing directs the viewer’s eye; that’s one of your tools, so use it. Also avoid CUTTING OFF AT THE NECK, this is a classic mistake; either have the bottom frame line be just below the shoulders or just above the chin. The point of framing is to give your viewer a specific amount of information and no more. That way the image information that they do see is more specific and potent.

COMPOSITION MISTAKES, Pt 2 – this one comes down to lack of courage; by this I mean playing it safe with how you frame your subject(s). Portraits are supposed to give a glimpse into the subject’s personality or show a different side of the subject, therefore you MUST be bold and confident as you convince your subject to walk off the deep end and show their inner self. Now here’s where I’m going to contradict myself, in the previous point I said that you need to watch the headroom; however, if you’re skilled a utilizing negative space, then you can employ what might be considered too much headroom to your advantage; now this requires placing your subject deeper into one of the corners of the frame, but this can be most impressive and expressive when done right.

hasselblad_h3d_camera_zoomCAMERA HEIGHT. Just because you hold the camera at eye-level, doesn’t mean that you need to remain at eye-level! This is extremely important and often overlooked mistake (in fairness, this is a composition error, but it deserves its own paragraph), because many a photograph can be enhanced just by changing the height of the camera (up or down). Distance to or from the subject isn’t the only thing you must worry about when planning your composition. You will get more vibrant images by simply lowering or raising the camera only a foot or two (if not more, depending on the subject and the style of composition that you’re going for) – it’s what makes pro and fine art portraits. This change in perspective will do wonders for increasing the vibrancy of your photographs, as you can increase or decrease the subject relative to the background for startling effects – this is how something like the Pyramids or a waterfall can look even more imposing.

A DISTRACTING BACKGROUND is another issue that mars portrait photos. You must make sure that the background is extremely out-of-focus or is as neutral as possible. Backgrounds have to be in the image, but unless it’s important to give location information then the background detracts from your main subject. Portrait photography is all about getting the viewer to focus in on the subject’s eyes, why infringe upon that goal?

INAPPROPRIATE LENS SELECTION, this is purely subjective, but wide angle lenses tend to exaggerate a subject’s features, and telephoto lens (which you should use) compresses an image and is, therefore, most appropriate for portrait photography. So when you have a group photo, don’t zoom out – move back instead.

Your subject’s GOOD SIDE; while this is a common joke in Hollywood casting sessions or model photo shoots, there is something real to the concept of having a “good side.” Empirical studies have shown that over 85% of people don’t have symmetrical faces (beautiful stars and starlets , hence they have a “good side” and you want to photograph your subject in a 3/4 view that showcases the subject’s “good side.” The nose is in better balance and so are the eyes.

DISTRACTING CLOTHING, sure people using clothing to express themselves, but with portraits the focus needs to be on the face and eyes (always the eyes), and anything that draws the viewer’s attention away from that must be removed before you release the shutter.

Ignoring a VERTICAL COMPOSITION; don’t try to make the image work with horizontal framing – some pictures will be better when you turn the camera on its side. You can get closer and avoid excessive headroom and lower (or raise) your height in relation to the subject when you choose vertical framing.

The last mistake is NOT PAYING ATTENTION TO LIGHTING. Photography is all about lighting – it means “writing with light” in Greek, so this one of the things that you have to pay most careful attention to. You want to avoid unflattering lighting – and mark my words, a lot of lighting is unflattering. You want to avoid overly bright backgrounds (or you’ll get a silhouette), harsh toplight (i.e. from the sun) because it prematurely ages the subject, and because strong toplighting causes people to squint.

True Image photography blog is for all passionate photographers who want to learn new skills in order to capture the best moments through their lens. Check the techniques of portrait, fashion, and indoor/ outdoor photography and be a pro.

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