Many people like to take photos of friends, family members, loved ones and their pets, so it’s not surprising another popular question on the photography forums is “what makes a portrait look professional?” In order to get those professional looking portrait shots there are a few things you need to consider including:-
If you want your portraits to look like they were shot by a professional it is important you nail the exposure and get it spot on. Some photographers like to be creative with exposure however I have never seen the point with portraits. I mean, you don’t want dark and moody photos of your kids hanging on your walls do you? Maybe you do, but whatever the best portraits shots are where the subjects are correctly exposed, i.e. not too light and not too dark.
Lighting is key to give your portraits that professional look. There are many different types of lighting set ups you can use when taking portraits, however consistent lighting across the entire subject with no shadows or highlights is best for family/friend shots.
Low key, mood lighting works for magazine and fashion portraits, but when taking photos to hang in your own home or taking portraits for other people to hang in their homes the moody type shots don’t look right.
Some photographers claim they only use natural light for their portrait shots, which is fine if there is sufficient ambient light and it is uniform. If the lighting is insufficient you need to add a burst of artificial light with a flash or speed light. If the lighting isn’t uniform, i.e. harsh with high contrast, you will also have to add some flash to balance the light and lift the shadows to ensure nice, even lighting.
Some photographers argue even lighting is flat, lifeless and dull however it is best for lighting portraits, unless you want that edgy look of course. In my experience parents don’t want edgy photos of their kids to hang on their wall, neither do they want edgy photos of their dog either. Even lighting may be safe, but it appeals to almost everyone (no customers ever complain about it) so it is the best lighting for those professional looking portrait shots.
Whilst on the subject of lighting and using flash light below are some flash related articles you may find useful to light your portraits.
Using a flash may seem daunting however once you get the basics right it really isn’t too bad. “The basics of flash photography” is an article explaining how to get started in flash photography, and I guarantee this will improve your portraits and make them look more professional.
There are times when a single speed light isn’t enough to ensure the subject is evenly lit. In these circumstances you need more powerful lighting, and a multiple speed light set up will help you achieve this. “How to gang 3 speed lights” is an article explaining how to set up and use a quick and easy multi speed light set up.
There is a group of photographers who believe you should only ever use flash in full manual mode in order to get the best exposures, and this is utter rubbish. There are times when it is best to stick your speed light in automatic mode and “When to use a flash in ETTL mode” identifies those times.
Using a speed light or flash off camera is a great way to light subjects for that professional look. Many people seem to think that using a flash off camera is expensive, but this isn’t the case as “Off camera flash on a budget” demonstrates.
3. White balance
After lighting the next thing to consider is the white balance. Selecting the wrong white balance for the lighting conditions leads to ugly color casts and the subject can end up looking too warm or too cool.
Some photographers prefer a slightly warm cast in their portrait photos, however I have to say it is not something I am a fan of. At the end of the day it is down to personal preference whether to intentionally use a slightly off white balance resulting in a slight color cast, however if you do this it is important not to push it too far.
Some people like to leave their camera in auto white balance (AWB) mode, which is fine in most circumstances, however there will be times when the camera gets it wrong. If you shoot in RAW this won’t cause any issues (you can simply correct it post capture using a RAW editor) but if you shoot in JPEG it’s another matter. Setting the white balance is important, and many people don’t seem to appreciate just how important it is.
To make sure you use the right white balance setting you need to set the white balance yourself. Fortunately, this is not a difficult thing to do and “Setting a custom white balance to prevent ugly color casts” is an article that may help you out.
Composing a portrait basically means posing the subject in a pleasing way to get the best shot. Posing the subject is crucial to get a professional looking portrait, and it is something you need to learn to do if you want to get professional looking portraits. You can nail the exposure, get the lighting spot on and set the correct white balance but if the composition is wrong the portrait will look wrong.
Learning how to pose the subject will instantly lead to more professional looking portrait shots so it is something you should learn to do. There are loads of books on how to pose subjects for portrait shots, and if you hire one from your local library you won’t even have to spend any money.
In a professional portrait the subject will be the focal point and nothing else will detract the eye from the subject.
If you want to make your portraits look professional you need to consider the background and ensure it isn’t distracting, and the best way to do this depends on whether you have access to a plain photography background or not.
If you have a plain photography background the subject will be the focal point of the photo regardless. If you are not using a plain background you may have to get as much separation between the background and the subject as possible and then use a wide aperture to intentionally throw the back ground out of focus. This is fine if you have a fast lens (i.e. one with a wide maximum aperture and have the space to get the separation) but what if you only have a slow lens and space restrictions? In this scenario you have little choice but to use a plain background to ensure it isn’t distracting.
There are many things you can use as a background including plain walls, wooden doors etc. however you still need to use the widest aperture you can to make sure you don’t see any marks in the paint or any wood grain etc.
6. Engage with the subject
A professional portrait will be an engaging shot where you can see the “soul” of the model. To get an engaging shot you need to get up close and personal to the subject so you can talk to them, make them feel comfortable in front of the camera, get them to relax and also pose them. The more relaxed the model is the more engaging the portrait will be.
Another tip to get an engaging portrait shot is to ensure the eyes (the "gateway to the soul") are in focus. This is very important, and you’ll find that if the eyes aren’t sharp and in focus the portrait will look amateurish.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.