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Portrait Photos

These pictures are the formal-ish posed photos you'd send to Grandma, or put on the mantle for show. It can be terribly difficult to get a good one, especially of children, but if you plan it out beforehand, it can be a snap.

First, pick a background. Doing portraits in your home gives you more control over lighting, the backdrop, and how much time you have. Outdoor portraits can be lovely, but lighting, the weather, and choice of background can be severely limited, and other buildings limit lighting and how much time you can spend on the project. Your own home is probably your best choice.

You'll need a solid-color backdrop, something that won't detract from your subjects, and also a flattering color. An all white wall will work, but it usually *looks* like a wall in your photos. A large, clean bedsheet (Queen or King sized is best) makes a more flattering background. Stark white can be unforgiving, so try to choose a cream color that isn't too yellow. Blues and greens are good too, but never never ever use yellow, red, grey, or orange. Your subjects will look plague-ridden. Black is iffy... some complexions can carry it well, but pale people should avoid it unless you're going for the Goth look.

Children and tall people need to sit in a chair for their photos, and for this a stool works best. If you don't have one handy, or your seat of choice just doesn't go well with the rest of the photograph, just drape another sheet over it, preferably the same color as the background sheet. If you bought a sheet set, the fitted sheet works nicely for this.

Next, you should consider your subjects. Having a good subject goes a long way to making a good picture. With children under the age of twelve or so, makeup and clothing isn't terribly important, but teens and up need to pay attention to what they look like for posterity.

For the girls, their makeup and clothing is the fun part, but they need to be dissuaded from making the common mistakes of dressing as they normally would. Taking a beautiful picture is all about fooling the camera.

Here's a little secret... all cameras hate humans. They do. It's the cameras dream to make people feel like crap, and they follow their dream by making normally lovely people look fat and ugly. It isn't about being photogenic, it's about fooling the camera into forgetting that you're one of those horrible humans. You do so by dressing in weird clothing and putting makeup in strange places.

For clothing, dark colors are a good choice. The darker the outfit, the slimmer the wearer looks. For most portraits, the face is the focus... so the less the viewer sees of the rest of the body, the more they see the face. Loose, long sleeved and long skirted dresses are fantastic, especially if the dress has princess seams. This cut is the most flattering to the female body. Never never ever put your subject in an empress-cut (baby doll) dress. *No one* looks good in this style. No one.

If your subject is in good shape, then sleeveless dresses are ok. Try to put them in long skirts anyway, since legs are usually awkward to pose naturally.

If you can't use darker colors for clothing, at least make sure the cut of the outfit is flattering. Princess seams, flowing fabric, and smooth lines are your friends. Unless your subject is in a kilt, don't use plaid! And horizontal lines are the enemy.

If you're going for "interesting" over "pretty", you should still follow these clothing guidelines for a flattering "interesting" picture. Just add some leather.

Makeup for photography is not the same as makeup for everyday. After I had written reams on this subject, I decided to give it a page all to itself, which can be found here- Makeup for Photography. This page covers hair and makeup for men, women, and children, although hardly a comprehensive tutorial.

Clothing for men can be just as tough to choose as it is for women, but the same basic principle is involved. Darker colors are more flattering to the figure, smooth lines are good, and horizontal stripes are evil. A good rule to remember is that the more comfortable the clothing, the more comfortable your subject, and relaxed subjects take good pictures. Do try to get the guys dressed up a bit, though... jeans and t-shirts rarely look good for family portraits. Don't get too formal, either... ties almost always look stuffy and contrived in photos, and suit jackets don't suit most men. (sorry about the stupid pun)

If you *do* have formal wear lying around, a nice tuxedo can't go wrong.

For children, comfort is the ultimate consideration. Posing kids, and keeping them still, is hard enough without throwing in scratchy lace and frills, or stupid short pants and caps. Unless you're a horribly sadistic parent, don't put your kids in suspenders and bow ties. It's just mean.

Loose, comfy clothes are key to getting them to sit still. Of course you want them to look nice, but for every frill you add, subtract ten minutes from your usable session time.

Ok, so... we've covered the setting, the hair, makeup, clothing, and the importance of the tripod and comfort in portraiture. With just these ideas, you have a nice, basic portrait, but what follows makes those pictures keepers.

Posing and Framing

Posing refers to the positioning of your subjects, while framing is about setting up your picture to show your subject to the best advantage.

When posing a single person, this person is also your framing target. He or she is the single most important object, and for portraits, usually the only object in frame. For multiple subjects, all must be in frame, but your frame should only encompass them... make sense? You only want your subjects, not the rest of the wall, not the table off to the side, and not the inconveniently placed light fixture. How you pose people will depend on how you can frame them.

For single subjects, this is easy. Put them where you want them, and make sure the camera is placed so that you can see your subject and nothing else. You may need to get closer, farther away, or use a little zoom, so play around with your range of field before you start taking pictures.

For posing, never let your adult subject face the camera directly. This is the most common, and most unflattering, pose ever used. It's fine for kids, but no one else. If your subject is using a chair, have it turned sideways to the camera and have the subject sit with their body perpendicular to the camera. Then, keeping the rest of their body sideways, have them turn their upper torso about halfway towards the camera. The shoulder facing the camera should drop slightly, and the head makes the rest of the turn. If the position looks too unnatural on-camera, they can lessen the severity of the turn by a few degrees, by moving the chair.

If glasses must be worn, give them a slight downward tilt on the face to keep the lenses from reflecting the light.

At this point, the subject should tuck the chin under slightly, and stretch the neck to give it a little arch. The face should be turned a fraction from the camera, so as not to give a full-on face, and hands should be either folded gently on the lap (women) or set lightly on the thighs (men). This pose, while flattering to *everyone* is uncomfortable for more than a few moments. Try to take at least three shots before giving it up, however.

This same holds true for every flattering pose... full-on face looks terrible. Always have a slight tilt away from the camera, although for most people, the eyes should be looking directly at the lens. Looking at anything but the lens is the traditional "ingenue pose", and looks silly for most women. Oddly, though, most men can carry it off.

Sometimes only the slightest tilt can make the diference, so the pose is flattering while the subject still appears to be facing the camera. Careful attention will show that he or she is actually off by a few degrees.

A standing pose should be approached the same way, with the subject's body facing away from the camera. Within this framework, you can go wild and get a decent portrait out of it.

When photographing multiple subjects, remember that the eye likes to see odd numbers. Three objects feel more satisfying to the viewer than two or four. If you have two subjects together, put one in a chair, or have a small table in the center of the frame. If you have a third object, try to use it, incorporate it into the photo. Make it look as though there's a reason for having a table. Have one of your subjects put a hand on the table, or two wineglasses, or something. Random objects hurt the harmony of the portrait.

Having two subjects is one of the few times you can let them look away from the camera. However, they should be looking at each other, so this gives you only a profile to photograph... it can be nice, but don't use it too much.

If possible, have your subjects look "up" into the camera. This makes the eyes look larger, and is one of the tricks for making women look more youthful. If you have trouble seeing the eyes of your male subjects, make them look up at you.

When posing groups, try to keep from cramming them into the shot. Have a large enough backdrop to let them spread out a bit, but keep them all within a foot of the next person. There's a fine line between family togetherness and a can of sardines.

If the group doesn't want a family portrait, do them in smaller groups of five at the most. If this means taking thirty shots so everyone can be in pictures with everyone else, take the time to do so. More than five and your subjects get lost in the crowd. If you have a group of four, place a fifth object in the shot, such as having the shortest or tallest in the group sit in a chair, to even out the frame and give it a pleasing number.

Portraits of Children

This can be the most frustrating task ever, I know. Some kids are at the age where all they want to do is make horrible faces, and those even younger just want to go play. But if you keep them comfortable and entertained, and if you know what you're going to do in advance, it can be a breeze.

Try not to bribe your kid too much, it's really not a healthy practice. Power plays go in a different section, though, so I'll leave it at that.

I know it seems like a brilliant idea, but don't tie your kids to the chair. It never looks natural.

Don't start this project unless you're really enthusiastic about it. If you treat it like a chore, your kids will pick up on it and hate photography for years. Go into it genuinely happy about taking pictures. If you're fake about it, the kids will know, and hate it even more. If you're really dedicated, take a few trial runs in the proceeding weeks, to let them know what they should expect on the big day. For younger kids, it isn't so much *picture taking* they hate, as the unfamiliar atmosphere and the confused directions an unprepared photographer may give them. But most importantly, prepare yourself to give up if the kids get cranky. Once they're unhappy and upset, you've lost your chance to get a decent picture. That's just the way it is.

Children with good motor control should sit in a chair, or on a stool, rather than stand or sit on the floor. If you can get them centrally placed in the backdrop, you have more room for widening the focus, although the framing should center on the face. Kids under the age of ten or so have trouble with the indirect posing, so full-on face is fine. Being so small, they *always* look up into the camera, and they don't need to worry about the little turns that make a person look younger. However, do your best to get them to sit up straight, rather than the good old Hunchback pose so many children favor. Teaching them to duck their chin a little is good practice for their later years, and also reduces the amount of shine from their cheeks and chin.

For younger kids, letting them hang on to any security blankets or toys is a good idea. It doesn't detract from the portrait at all, if fact, it gives the viewer a little clue about the child's personality, and in later years might make good blackmail ammo. It also reinforces the child's comfort and helps them relax under the harsh lights.

Children can wear bright colors and not suffer unless they're very pale. Keep in mind that what looks cheerful in sunlight may look hideous under other lights, and make sure you have two or three other colors and outfits to choose from after you see them in the lens. Also, try to use a lighter shade that complements the clothing in the backdrop... darker colors surrounding a child may make them look washed out and unhealthy.

If you are taking pictures of more than one child at a time, don't ever put one kid in the other's lap. This pose is somehow a favorite, even though it looks horrible and unnatural. Neither kid is comfortable, and often the smaller kid looks like a growth with a contorted face. It's just nasty. Put the kids side by side, with the smaller child a little closer to the camera. The kids can hold hands if it looks natural, but don't try to fold their hands together. Too many people try to force their children into unnatural poses that never look right, and they are invariably disappointed by the result. If they don't do it normally, it will look gawky on-camera.

A third object for children's photos can be a pretty toy, or one child's security blanket. If both have security objects, toss in a fifth toy that they won't fight over.

Children under the age of sixteen or so can use the ingenue pose of not looking at the camera without seeming affected and silly, but overusing this pose isn't recommened- it gets saccharine awfully fast. If you get a shot of your kid laughing at something off-camera, go with it! A truly happy child makes a wonderful picture.

Portrait Lighting

Ideally, you'll have four light sources of the same intensity - bright bright bright! If you don't have anything handy, four workshop clip lights can be arranged perfectly. Use the highest watt bulbs you can find, although the soft white and grow lights work best.

The workshop lights I mean are those with a reflective circular hood, that can be twisted and held in position easily. Like this, which can be found in most hardware stores.

Never place the lighting directly in front or above the subject, this creates unpleasant shadows on the face... this also goes for lights directly beneath the subject. Place the lights just out of frame, at the upper far left and far right, then lower far left and far right.

The type of light bulb you choose will have a huge impact on your photo. Harsher lighting may give you the best visibility, but will certainly wash out the subjects more than makeup can compensate for. Halogen bulbs, florescent lights, and bright whites are to be avoided, but the soft white and grow lights, as I've said, work well. Some complections can handle the pink lights, but a colored ambiance can easily be added in a photo editing program. Most common light bulbs have a definite yellow cast, which give a plague-ridden look to everything in pictures.

While you want as much light as possible on your subject, to much ambient light can harm the result. Turn off every light in the house save the four clip lights when you're taking the picture, and try to block out as much sunlight as possible. If you find that the clip lights aren't providing enough light, then two in each upper corner plus one in each lower corner will do it. Try to have the majority of your lighting coming in from above.

If you're using a regular camera and don't have access to a photo editor, you can give the ambiance some color using a filter. This is a colored material, usually glass or a durable plastic - something that won't melt under the heat of the lights. Each filter attatches to the light hood, creating an effect similar to stained glass. Red and blue filters are the most common colors used for portraits, giving a soft pink or light blue glow.

If you decide to use filters, only use them on one or two of your lights. Usually the two lower lights create the best effect, but if you're using six lights then one from each upper corner can soften the harshness while still providing plenty of light.

So that's pretty much everything I know about portrait-taking. There are one or two other things to keep in mind for a smooth experience, though... such as keeping the portrait area cool. It's *hot* under those lights! Use air conditioning if at all possible, rather than fans, as a breeze may cause the lights to move, or the backdrop, or your subjects' carefully coiffed hair.

Always take four or five photos more than you think you'll need, especially with children. After working so hard on this project, it would be awful to find out later that someone blinked, or had a funny look for a split second.

Never let your subjects drink while taking pictures. Drunk people are *so* hard to pose, and even though they may look sober enough to you, the camera (which hates humans, remember,) will show every single droopy eyelid and dull look.

If you just can't get your subject to relax enough to give you a natural pose, then put them in the rough pose you'd like the picture to be in, and talk with them. If they have a bunch of friends standing around, have the friends chat with the subject. Once your subject is laughing and chatting back, start taking pictures. Try to take as many photos as possible before they notice they're on-camera. Even though some of the resulting shots may be blurry, you'll be surprised and pleased with how many gorgeous pictures you get. Most people have a lovely natural smile, but a stiff and ugly camera smile. I can't get my husband to quit gritting his teeth when he's on camera, so I have to use this trick all the time.