People often ask me about how best to achieve a flattering portrait shot, and there are a few basic rules, which if you follow them, will help you to achieve great results. These are not hard and fast rules, and it partly depends on what kind of image you are aiming for, but these tips are a good starting point for anyone hoping to achieve a ‘classic’, flattering portrait.
The main things you need to think about are Lighting, Lens, Aperture and Composition. Im going to start with lighting as this is perhaps the most important thing to get right, and it’s where most people go wrong.
First of all, there are two basic ‘qualities’ of light: Hard Light and Soft Light. Hard light gives sharp, black shadows, and soft light gives lighter, softer shadows. Mostly, for flattering portraits, especially when photographing women, you want soft light, as it minimises fine lines and wrinkles, and gives skin an even, smooth texture. So if using studio flash lighting, always use a diffuser / soft box, or bounce the light from a reflective umbrella.
Next, the angle of the light should be slightly higher than your model, (never position your light below the models eye level) the optimum position is a few inches higher than the top of the models head. The direction of the light should be angled straight on, facing your model, or just slightly to the side, otherwise the nose will cast an unflattering shadow. Position your light about 2 – 3 meters from your model.
Choice of lens is important too, as different lenses produce subtly different effects. A wide lens will distort features in an unflattering way, so never use a wide lens if you want a flattering portrait. A standard (50mm) lens is fine, as this lens most closely matches the human eye, and will give a realistic reproduction of the models features. But the most flattering lens is a slightly long lens, 85mm – 150mm as these lenses reduce perspective, so they will ‘flatten’ a big nose or a protruding chin. My personal favourite lens is an 85mm, and I call this my ‘beauty’ lens, as it always delivers a very good portrait shot.
Your aperture setting will also make a small difference to the final image. If you want everything nice and sharp, then set it to f5.6, and you’ll get a very good quality clean crisp image. But if you open your aperture right up, to say f2 – f2.8 (or even more if your lens can open up further) then you get a very shallow depth of focus, which can have a very flattering and beautiful effect of slightly softening and smoothing out everything except the area focussed on, which should always be the eyes. This works well if you are fairly tight in on your model, and also if you are slightly above your model.
Finally, compose your shot carefully. The rule of ‘thirds’ is a good basic rule for composition, if you mentally divide your frame into thirds, have the eyes on the top third line. When photographing women, its more flattering if your model is not facing you front on, much better if she is turned slightly to one side, and then turns her head to face you. With men, keep them head on. You want a man to look broad, but you dont want a woman to look broad, and so having her body slightly at an angle has a slimming effect, and also will soften the focus on the shoulders.
Another tip, and this isn’t a technical tip, more of a general one. It helps for the model to be relaxed. Often people are a little nervous at first, so as a rule, think of the first few shots as practice shots, to tweak your lighting, and to give the model time to relax and get used to the flash. I always have music playing, as silence can make a model feel more self-conscious. Every time you get a great shot, or the model poses well, say so, give little compliments, this gives them confidence. And get your model to do tiny adjustments to the head position, asking them to lift the chin a little, or turn their face a little to the left, things like that. Subtle adjustments to the head position can make a big difference to how the face looks in the light. Its not so much about the model doing a great smile, or great pose, its more about finding their very best angle.
If you put these techniques into practice, you cant fail to get a great portrait shot!