How To Shoot Portraits The Right Way: 6 Common Mistakes To Avoid

Whether portrait photography is your passion or your least favourite photographic discipline, it’s more than likely photos of people will represent a significant portion of your memory card space. Portraits are omnipresent in the digital world. From travel snapshots to wedding albums, they are almost impossible to ignore. Learning how to shoot portraits is something every photographer should consider.

To help achieve the greatest possible results when that moment arrives, we have selected a few of the most common mistakes people make when learning how to shoot portraits. We’ve also included the best ways to circumnavigate them, so next time you’re requested to shoot a portrait you’ll absolutely nail it.

1. Missed Focus Points

The eyes, the eyes, it’s all in the eyes! Not focusing on the eyes of your subject is a fatal error in portrait photography (unless it’s intentional). The eyes form the best way to engage and connect with your viewer. This is especially important during wide aperture work. Make sure the eyes are the clearest thing in the shot.

how to shoot portraits sharp eyes
Photo by Andreas Øverland

The best way to make sure your portrait is focused on the eyes is to tell the camera where to focus. Auto mode will almost certainly fall short. Manually choosing the focus points is the easiest way to make sure your subject’s eyes are in sharp focus.

If you desire wider apertures, continue to focus on the eyes and progressively shoot outwards. It’s important with wide apertures to try and keep the eyes on the same plane of focus; otherwise you’ll be left with just a single eye in the focused area.

2. Wrong Focal Length

Wide angles are usually a bad idea with portrait photography. Not only will the distorting element create an enlarged nose on your subject, the whole face will also become distorted, giving a more rounded and unrealistic look. Unless this unusual look is requested, it’s probably better to give the wide angle a miss.

how to shoot portraits focal length
Photo by Steven Santiago

There is a generally accepted advisable range of 70-105mm for portrait photography. You can obviously go higher than this, and often the restricted depth of field at higher focal lengths can produce a subject that significantly stands out. However, the distance requirements of indoor portrait photography often prevent focal lengths longer than 105mm. Typically, a lens between 70-105mm at a wide aperture (about f2.0-5.6) is a good start and will produce enjoyable results.

Related Article: Indoor Photography Tips

3. Background Action

It can be all too easy to focus solely on the subject and forget anything happening in the background when shooting portraits. Sadly, this can often result in your subject receiving a pole projecting from the head or a branch growing from an ear.

Bright colours and excessively busy environments can also lead to photos where the eye is drawn to the background rather than your desired foreground subject.

how to shoot portraits background bokeh
Photo by Matthias Ripp

The simple fix for this situation is to always check your background before and after you have taken the shot. A quick look at the LCD after your first shot should reveal any unwanted distractions.

If a background is especially distracting, try filling the frame with your subject instead. Additionally, shooting with a wide aperture will help blur any potential background nuisance and leave you with a stand-out subject!

4. Bad Lighting

Not paying attention to the light in your photo can produce horrible results. In the same way a landscape photo with a blown out sky has little appeal, a portrait with harsh lighting or excessive shadow across the face can leave you with an undesirable shot.

Unless you are shooting indoors in a controlled setting, you may think the light and shadows in your portrait are out of your control. However, in almost every situation you’ll find places around you with light and dark areas.

how to shoot portraits lighting
Photo by Mike Cartmill

When taking a portrait, try to find an area with well-diffused light and move your subject and/or yourself if necessary. It’s also possible to control your own light input with a flash or add extra light with a reflector. When using a flash, it’s advisable to use a diffuser. If you don’t have a ready-made one, it’s easy to produce your own using items found around the household.

Check out this article for more ideas on how to shoot portraits and deal with bad lighting.

5. Unflattering Angles

This is especially applicable when shooting someone who is not at your level, whether it be a child you have to look down on or a tall subject you have to look up to. In these situations, failing to put your subject on the same level as your lens can often result in the unpleasant revealing of certain features – double chins, nostril shots, and balding areas.

how to shoot portraits camera angle
Photo by Vanes Hud

This fix ultimately comes down to personal preference, especially if you want to use your shooting angle to emphasize a particular characteristic. However, shooting at the eye level of your subject will yield the best results photographically. In many cases this will require you to change your height. For example, you may need to kneel to capture a child at play or even step onto a stool to surprise your vertically gifted friend.

6. Bad Direction

An unhappy look or an awkward pose can really turn a beautifully memorable moment into an unforgettable one – in a bad way. Children are especially unsympathetic models when directed under an uninspired approach. As the person in charge of capturing those moments it’s up to you to discover techniques in order to get the best out of your model.

An awfully good joke or a witty request can create a natural smile that will be captured by the quick release of your shutter, creating preferable results. You should also be aware that models need directions, including how to sit/stand and which direction to look. It’s always a good idea to look at other portraits to find styles and poses you enjoy. Then try to incorporate them into your work.

how to shoot portraits subject direction
Photo by Stephane

Pain Points Of Learning How To Shoot Portraits

These are some of the more common mistakes photographers make when learning how to shoot portraits. What are some of the struggles you’ve had when taking portraits in the past? Reply in the comments to share your story and how you overcame your struggles. Don’t forget to show off a photo or two in the comments below.

how to shoot portraits the right way



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About the author

Elliot Pelling

Elliot Pelling is a wildlife photographer and passionate conservationist. Working as he travels, Elliot spends most of his time trying to experience the very best of the natural world and inspire others to protect it by educating and increasing awareness through images of animals in their natural environment. You can follow his journey on Flickr.

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