Today, photography has become more mainstream than it ever has been. Between the incredible ease at which one can get a camera and the huge mass of information that shows how to use said camera, it's really not that surprising. Photography has taken on countless different styles as the needs of different artists rise and fall. I know all the types, but the most common are the "ACTION' photographers, the landscape photographers, and of course, the portrait photographers. Portrait photography is by far the most common, for 2 reasons: first, people are narcissistic and we have born a Facebook/Instagram fed nation of "selfie" addicts, the second is that as far as photography is concerned, portraiture is by far the easiest to do.
If you are a portrait photographer, please don't take that as a slam at all. I realize that good, creative portrait photography is a skill to be learned, and I am sure you are just the bees knees at it. But, that being said, I would bet the farm that after reading this blog, buying a decent camera, and then watching youtube for 20 minutes even the most novice of photographer could churn out SOMETHING worth looking at. The funny part is that there are SO MANY "photographers" that suck at taking pictures. If you think you are great at photography and swear by your 18-55 kit lens, read on...it will help.
Obviously, it is completely dependent on what style one is trying to achieve, but there are a few good go-to techniques that produce great portrait photography.
1. Use a good subject
This is a touchy subject, because I am not calling people out and saying they are ugly and shouldn't be photographed, that's not it at all, but it is true that some people are photogenic and others are not. This isn't completely dependent on a subject being "pretty", it's just how well they interact with the camera. Granted, insanely gorgeous people usually take great pictures, but on that same note, there are many models that are more unique than what society assigns as beautiful. Also note that a subject is more than facial structure, a photographer needs to keep in mind the body type of a model and how it relates to what clothes they are wearing or what clothes that they are lacking. As the one operating the camera, make sure the wardrobe matches the tone you are after.
Consider this picture:
Photo by: Taya Wolfe
Look at the subject in this picture, everything about her matches the tone of the image. It's a casual earthy picture and the beauty of the subject is deeply connected with her simplicity. The subject as a person and the clothes are complimented by the environment around her, which leads us to the next point...
2. Use an awesome environment
Unfortunately, if starting out as a portrait photographer, (I'm assuming all the seasoned photographers aren't reading a photography blog created by a cinematographer) nobody really has much of a choice as to who they are taking pictures of, especially if they are getting paid for the gig. So when this scenario inevitably comes up, pray they are at least halfway photogenic, but even if they aren't, take them to a rock solid location to shoot! It really depends on the tone of the photo, but great places to shoot can be anywhere that look interesting or compliments the subject.
For example, if the gig was to make a bleak minimalistic album of pictures I would choose a location that uses huge bland buildings with few details, dominated by a boring color. If I was taking senior pictures of a super bubbly prom queen I would probably head out to a coastal town that is brimming with color and warmth. The point being that an environment should match the subject to some degree, unless of course I am trying to achieve a strange out of place look. I have a really great shooting spot in Battle Creek, MI that is super dingy and dark and just industrial and awesome, but I wouldn't bring a bride and groom there!
The picture below is a very typical senior portrait type shot that is oozing cliche. But, notice the environment in relation to the subject.
This picture is a contemporary hipster type in an urban environment, exactly where the subject looks good. Looking at this model in a completely neutral environment (think white studio) and with no props his features lean toward a cityscape not the woods. Not to say this model couldn't lose the glasses, dress in more rugged outdoor clothing, and don a rugged look, he just doesn't in this picture.
3. Know what lighting is and how to use it
Good lighting is such a fickle thing to find. The truth is that lighting can look however the photographer wishes it, and whether it is "good" or not is based on the viewer. Take for example this picture:
Viewer A can look at this picture and say it is an atrocity. I've heard complaints of pictures similar of how the subjects features are obscured and that the background is wildly blown out. Viewer B though looks at it differently and says it is beautiful. The way the backlight defines the shape of the model and simplifies the background gives this picture a meaning completely different than a full-color, 3 point lit portrait. The reality of the matter is there are multiple techniques of lighting a person, and experimenting should be encouraged, but in the same vein a photographer needs to know when their idea just plain sucks. Visualize the mood, then make it it happen.