As with anything in life, success and “skill” come with it a long history of failures, mistakes, and shortcomings. Photography is no different. We learn how to control our cameras by virtue of our settings, and subsequently come to realize that we have a mountain of additional learning and shooting to do before we feel like we have mastered our craft. I am a firm believer that we can learn from the mistakes of others. Their advice can be crucial in propelling us forward to a skill level we feel more comfortable at.

Portraiture is essential to learn for most any photographer, as well as a goal for many. Making mistakes along the way it is inevitable in learning how to shoot people and become a much more successful at this craft. I would love to share with you my ten pieces of advice for new portrait photographers. If even a single point helps you in your portraiture journey, then this is a successful read. The points are in no particular order. Here we go.

Scout The Location

Location scouting has become a very crucial element for me when I am about to shoot portrait a portrait session. Knowing the time of day you will be shooting is key, and identifying locations that correspond with that time of day is your next step. Will you be shooting at sunrise or sunset, because you will need to know where the sun is going to rise or set. Are you shooting in the middle of the day? Identifying places where open shade is going to be will be an absolute must. Knowing the color of the landscape may, in turn, correspond better with certain colors of clothing. Recommending complementing colors to your clients to wear is then needed. Also, if you’re shooting at a location that has operating hours, make sure to know when it opens and closes. There’s nothing more embarrassing than your clients seeing you unprepared.

Be Outgoing And Loose

Chances are, if you’re stiff and quiet, you probably won’t get the expressions out of your clients that you’re looking for. Their expressions will make or break the images much more than a beautiful location will. Are you going to be shooting a session with children and their parents? Take the first part of your session to get down and play with them. Build a relationship and rapport with them, and you will be much more likely to get natural looks during the photo shoot. Take the time to learn their names as well.

Recognize Your Backgrounds

A major mistake that I’ve made before when shooting portraits is not noticing elements in the background that could be distracting or downright unflattering towards your subject. I’ve shot many portraits with tree branches coming out of peoples’ heads, or horizon lines splitting someone’s head. The client may not necessarily notice this, but removing distracting elements can make the portrait much more appealing, even if they don’t know why.

Be Aware Of Your Horizon

While your horizon line may not make or break your photo, it can absolutely save on time here and there during post processing. Most cameras have some type of leveling system in the viewfinder, and I would advise you to be aware of it. Shooting with a horizon that is not straight typically can’t be bulk edited within your post processing software, because each picture will have a different tilt. This makes for an added step that could’ve been avoided with a little extra attention to detail. In tighter portraits though, a drastically un-level horizon will result in a more cropped image when leveling it, possibly cropping into your subject and ruining the image.

Shoot In Raw

I still come across people that don’t feel the need to shoot in RAW or simply aren’t away of what it is. The major benefit your camera using a digital sensor is the ability to manipulate the file afterwards. Shooting in JPEG will result in more destruction of the image’s quality during post processing, as well as result in less leniency in the image. If you are brand new to photography and wonder how photographers manipulate colors and other elements of the photo, their shooting in RAW is the answer. My advice would be to set your camera in RAW the evening before your photo shoot, and to double-check it before your clients arrive. I hope that you will only make the mistake of shooting in JPEG once. If your camera has duel card slots, I highly recommend shooting RAW to each card. Some photographers like to shoot RAW to one card and JPEG to the other, but my practice is to shoot RAW to both.

Focus On The Nearest Eye

This is possibly my number one rule for portrait photography. The eyes of our subjects draw us in, and getting their eyes in focus is of the utmost importance. While some rules of photography are simply guidelines, I believe that getting the nearest I can focus is not one that should be broken while shooting portraits. If you look at portraits that you’re drawn to, notice where you’re eye moves to in the photo. More often than not, it will be the eye, which is most likely in focus.

Learn How To Shoot Your Subjects Backlit

Whenever possible, I use backlighting in portraiture. Backlighting has several effects on the photo. First, when shooting during sunrise or golden hour (the hour before sunset), the sun has to penetrate more atmosphere. This gives off that beautiful orange, red, and yellow glow that you’re accustomed to. That glow is much more appealing for portraiture. Back lighting your subject during a harsher time of day when the sun is higher in the sky will also remove any harsh shadows from your subject’s face. While backlighting your subject will make your picture more appealing, your camera may have a harder time autofocusing when using this method. Hiding your subject behind of the sun or focusing on your subject while holding your hand over the sun will help your camera’s autofocus, so practicing these methods is a must. Having some practice under your belt shooting a backlit situation will undoubtedly help you shoot much more appealing portraits.

Learn How To Use Flash

I see a lot of photographers calling themselves “natural light photographers” like its a badge of honor.  I could not disagree more. While natural light photography absolutely has its place, learning how to use a flash can take your portraits to the next level. I believe that flash is one of the biggest factors in giving your images a professional look. Learning flash also teaches you how to control your light in almost any situation you are placed in, not being dictated by the time of day you were shooting in. While it may seem like a daunting task, flash technology has come a long way in making portrait photographers’ lives very easy. Expanding on flash photography is several articles and videos in and of itself, but starting down the path of learning flash will benefit your photography greatly, guaranteed.

Find Shade Or Re-Light Your Subjects

Understanding the lighting conditions you have been dealt during your portrait shoot and how to overcome those conditions is key. In fact, knowing how to identify light as a photographer is more important than the camera you’re using. Whenever possible, I recommend finding open shade.  What that means is finding an area that is in shade, but open to a light source. It can be a tree, and alley, and underpass, or anything else that gets your subjects out of the bright sunlight. If no open shade is available, using a diffuser to block the sun on your subject will also give them much more appealing and flattering light on their face. Finding shade can also come in handy if you understand flash photography. Using a flash to “re-light” your subject will give the photo that added “pop” that everyone looks for.

Learn Posing

To be honest, I still struggle with this aspect of portrait photography, especially when shooting couples. Understanding how to pose your subjects naturally is extremely important, and a skill that can’t be learned overnight. I recommend culling through tons of portrait photography on the Internet, and looking for natural poses that can be mimicked. Building up a repertoire of poses will undoubtedly come in handy. Going back to a previous point, building a rapport with your subjects will also bring out more natural smiles in them and not give your photos a “posed” look.

I hope that at least one of these ten points struck a cord with you or helped in some way. These points are from my personal experience, and you very well may have mastered several of them. If not, I hope that you continue working on these various aspects of your portraiture, just as I will.