There are three very simple things that improve all photography, including portraits. To this day, there is no trick I have found that replaces the need for proper exposure, white balance, and sharp focus.
1) Never select all of the focus points for portraits; pick one
When you pick the autofocus option that allows the camera to select focus points, you are doing your portraits a terrible disservice.
This feature of a camera is usually designed to pick whatever is closest to the lens and focus there. In some cases, like with my 1DS Mark III, the camera will choose a cluster of focus points and make a “best guess” based on averaging the distance between all of the chosen points. Using one focus point gives you, the photographer, ultimate control.
2) Always focus on the eyes
The eyes are the windows to the soul and should be the focal point of any good portrait. Not only are the eyes the most important part of a good portrait, but they are the sharpest element on the face and should be left that way.
When you are shooting with a wide aperture value and you’re focused on the eyes, the lens’s bokeh will aid in softening the skin, as well.
3) Shoot wide open for shallow depth of field
There are quite a few reasons to invest in a fast lens capable of wide aperture values; the most common is for shallow depth of field.
If you can shoot at ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/4, you should use it. Most fantastic natural light portraits are from wide aperture values, and it is all because of the wonderful smooth background blur we call “bokeh.”
4) Never, ever shoot a portrait at less than 50mm; try to stay at 70mm or higher
The last thing you want to hear from a client is “Why does my head look swollen?”
Any focal length below 70mm can distort your subject. However, it doesn’t become very noticeable until you are below 50mm. The compression effect of a telephoto lens will also increase the blur of bokeh. Most of my portraits are done between 120mm and 200mm.
5) Always shoot in RAW
These words have bellowed from my mouth a thousand times, and they will surely come out a million more. Raw is an unmodified compilation of your sensor’s data during the time of exposure. It is your digital negative. When you shoot in JPG format, everything but what the image processor needs to make a shell representation of the image you intended to capture is stripped away. For every edit you make to a JPG, you lose more data. With RAW, you can make a vast range of edits before creating the JPG.
How can this make you portrait better? Think about the last time your white balance was set incorrectly and you tried for hours to remove the color cast, only to destroy the image with every attempt. RAW would have saved you by allowing you to fix the color before opening the image for retouching.
6) Always bring a gray card or a piece of a gray card for white balance
Gray cards aren’t free. However, $5.95 US for a cardboard Kodak gray card is darn close. To avoid confusion, I am going to explain this backward. When opening Camera Raw or any other RAW image editing application, there is always a way to select a custom white balance. Usually, it is an eyedropper of some kind that you can use to click on what you think is neutral gray in your image.
Imagine a world where your photoshoot involved 4 locations and a total of 800 images, and all day the camera was set to Auto White Balance. That is 800 different white balance values, a post-production nightmare.
If at each location you have your subject hold the gray card on the first shot, you will save hours of work. When you open images from the first location in your favorite post-production application, all you have to do is click the eyedropper on the gray card, select all the photos, and synchronize the rest. Precious hours will be saved.
(If you plan on taking your time, it may be wise to do this once every 30 minutes or so to compensate for the changing light of day.)
7) Shoot in the shade (avoid direct sunlight)
Direct sunlight is harsh, makes your subject squint, and creates hard directional shadows and unpredictable white balance conditions. When shooting in the shade, there are no more harsh shadows, only smooth, milky shadows created by your subject’s natural features. With proper exposure and white balance, you can make these shots look amazing.
8) Shooting carefully on an overcast day.
Nature’s softbox is a giant blanket of clouds. A good heavy blanket of cloud cover can help you enrich your colors, and make some very smooth and pleasing shadows.
9) If you must use hot, hard, bright light…
Always try to control the direction, use some kind of reflector, and try to mimic a studio light. Putting the sun directly behind your subject isn’t a good idea, unless you are trying to make a silhouette.
When the sun is at my back, I have the subject look off-camera (away from the sun) and get very nice results. Another great trick is to wait for a cloud to move in front of the sun; this usually creates a very bright-yet-contrasted look.
10) Use an existing reflector
For example, my guess is that about 75% of the delivery trucks on the planet are white. These big, white delivery trucks can make amazing fill light reflectors as long as they weren’t painted with an off-white. (A yellow tint can change the white balance in your shadows.) Picture framing outlets and craft stores always have medium-to-large-sized pieces of foam core lying around that have been left for scrap. They are usually more than happy to part with these scraps and, if not, chances are that there are pieces by the dumpster.
11) Learn the sunny ƒ/16 rule
So you have a baseline for proper exposure in your mind to work with if no other tools are present.
The sunny ƒ/16 rule states that on a sunny day, with your aperture value set to ƒ/16, your shutter speed will be the inverse of the current ISO speed. For example, if your camera is set to ISO 100, and your aperture value is ƒ/16, your shutter speed will be 1/100th of a second. On a cloudy day (or when in the shade), you simply use ƒ/8 instead. If you own an incident light meter or gray card, use either for the most accurate exposure instead.
(Note: the procedure for metering exposure with a gray card is not the same as a custom white balance.)
12) Bring a sheet and a few spring clamps from home
Leave the expensive 200-thread-count sheets on the bed. You already got them? Well, go put them back. You know that cheap old sheet you stuck in the corner of the closet to use as a drop cloth the next time you paint? Go get it.
(Another option is to buy the cheapest low-thread-count white top sheet you can find.)
A queen-sized sheet is an amazing, cheap diffuser. Sort of a seven-foot softbox for the sun. Wrap an edge of the sheet around a branch or clothesline and clamp for a sidelight.
(Anchor the bottom corners with rocks to keep the sheet from blowing into your image.) Clamp all four corners to anything you can above your subject for an overhead light.
13) Keep the powerlines and signs out!
We have already discussed keeping your camera focused on the eyes, but you must also keep the viewer’s mind focused on the image as a whole. Powerlines, signs, long single blades of grass, single pieces of garbage, and sometimes even trees can be serious distractions from the overall focus of the image: the person you are photographing.
Last, and most important, have a great time shooting! Enjoy what you’re doing, and it will show in your work (as well as in the expression of your subject).
A few bonus tips for shooting on cloudy days
Clouds are wonderful. They create a giant blanket of natural sunlight diffusion that makes your images rich and powerful. The clouds can fool your mind in ways you can’t imagine, much like your mind corrects for the natural white balance throughout the day.
When you are shooting on an overcast day, using your camera’s custom white balance is especially important. Every day is completely different for color, and that color depends on two things. First, the time of day; most people understand white balance and how it changes throughout the day. Second, you have to account for all of the wonderful things that light has to pass through before it hits your subject.
Pollution changes the color of the light from minute to minute. Even if your eyes don’t see it, your camera does. On a cloudy day, pollution particles are being carried around in the sky by tiny water droplets. Now your sunlight is passing through nature’s prism and reflecting off of pollution particles in infinite directions.
Don’t forget to white balance with that six-dollar piece of cardboard, your Kodak gray card.
The ultimate secret to shooting on a cloudy day is a compass. (You either tipped your head like a confused Chihuahua or just had an epiphany.) I am an experienced, internationally-published photographer, and rarely can I see where the sun is coming from on an overcast day. The light isn’t omnipresent; it’s just diffused, softened, and scattered. Sunlight on a cloudy day is still directional, and your subject still has a dark side. Use a compass to find out where the sun is, put it at your back, and shoot like mad. Never again will you look at an image after and wonder why the sky was blown out when it was so cloudy, or why the clouds look great but your subject is dark.