Nikon Imaging | Republic of Ireland | Europe

How to take better portraits

Learn the elements of a good portrait photograph

It can't be that difficult, right? Your friend/spouse/child asks you to take his/her picture. You have a nice digital camera, so you grab it and take the shot. But you're not happy with the result, and you don't know why. It's in focus and properly exposed, so what's wrong? You've just learned that there's more to a good portrait than getting it technically right.

First, put some thought into the background. It shouldn't distract from the subject. A plain wall, dark green foliage—anything that's simple (without strong lines or patterns) works well. There's nothing worse than a line, pole, or branch appearing to grow out of the subject's head.

© Gary Small

D800, AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR lens, 1/250s, f/6.3, ISO 100, Shutter Priority, Matrix metering, fill flash.

In this photo there is a street signpost 'growing' out of our subject’s head.

© Gary Small

D800, AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR lens, 1/250s, f/4, ISO 100, Shutter Priority, Matrix metering, fill flash.

In this photo, we’ve moved over just a few feet—no more signposts—and we've produced a more pleasing photograph.

Consider the background

If you photograph someone against a bright background, you may well end up with a silhouette. That's because the brightness behind can cause the camera to underexpose the subject, making it appear dark. To counteract this, you could pop up your Nikon DSLR's built-in flash, or turn on the flash function in your COOLPIX or Nikon 1 digital camera. But while you would add light to the face, you'd still have the problem of that bright background. 

Every Nikon DSLR and COOLPIX has exposure compensation. Overexpose by one or two f/stops or shutter speeds to offset the brightness of the background. If the results are still not what you wanted, try a different background: preferably one that's darker than the subject.

Keep in mind that the picture is about your subject. Don't shoot the entire area around them. Get closer by physically moving in, or by using a telephoto lens or zoom lens. Isolate your subject against that simple background you found. People's heads are vertical, so shoot them that way. Horizontal portraits can look uncomfortable.

© Gary Small

D800, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II lens, 1/250s, f/2.8, ISO 100, Aperture Priority, Matrix metering, built-in pop-up fill flash.

The composition of this portrait is not interesting at all. The subject is sitting against a brick wall, centred in the frame, with a lot of extra space around her that doesn't add to the image.

© Gary Small

D800, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II lens, 1/125s, f/5, ISO 100, Aperture Priority, Matrix metering, built-in pop-up fill flash.

In this shot, we've asked our subject to lean against the wall and turn back to face the camera. We've also tightly cropped the image—as a vertical—for a more interesting look. The brick background now becomes a dynamic element in the composition.

Think about styling

Next, consider how the subject is dressed. Solid colours tend to work well in portraits, mainly because they're not distracting. Bright patterns scream out: look at me, don't look at the face.

© Gary Small

D300, AF-S NIKKOR 24-85mm f/2.8-4D IF lens, 1/30s, f/3.5, ISO 200, Aperture Priority, Matrix metering, flash from the built-in pop-up on the camera.

In this image, not only is our subject wearing a pattered shirt, but he’s sitting next to a shelf that’s cluttered with a variety of items (on the left) while vertical blinds rest against his opposite shoulder.

© Gary Small

D300, AF-S NIKKOR 24-85mm f/2.8-4D IF lens, 1/30s, f/3.8, ISO 200, Aperture Priority, Matrix metering, SB-900 bounced off ceiling with a reflector throwing light onto the subject.

In this image, we’ve asked our subject to move over—so the vertical blinds become the background. We also asked him to change into a solid-coloured shirt. And by zooming in for a tighter crop, we’ve removed the remaining distractions. Light bounced off the ceiling provides soft illumination for the image.

Flattering angles

Finally: unless you shoot mug shots for the local police department, don't photograph your subject head-on. Have the subject turn their body a little (perhaps 45 degrees away from you) and rotate the head back to face you. It's a nicer, more flattering pose that also helps slim people down.

© Gary Small

D800, AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR lens, 1/60s, f/4, ISO 400, Aperture Priority, Matrix metering, SB-900 Speedlight, direct flash. 

In this photo, we’ve got a couple of problems. First, with direct flash on the subject, there’s a harsh shadow hitting the background.

Secondly, the background is a little cluttered, with portions of picture frames on the sides, the ceiling visible at the top, and a couch near the bottom of the frame. Lastly, the straight-on pose is not flattering.

© Gary Small

D800, AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR lens, 1/60s, f/4, ISO 400, Aperture Priority, Matrix metering, SB-900 Speedlight, bounce flash.

We’ve created a nice image by zooming into the frame to isolate the subject. The background is not a distraction anymore. By bouncing the flash off of the ceiling, the lighting is made soft (without harsh shadows that detract from the image).

Lastly, instead of having the subject stand perpendicular to the camera, we’ve asked him to stand at an angle with his head turned back to the camera and arms crossed.

Feature article and imagery contributed by Gary Small.