The secrets of taking good pictures: Portraits

Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to turn an average shot into the perfect photograph.

Eve Black 311 (photo credit: Tom Langford)
Eve Black 311
(photo credit: Tom Langford)
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
I shoot many different types of photography - products, models, architecture, food and portraits. While each category requires specific techniques and presents different challenges to be creatively overcome, portraiture can be especially problematic.
Many people feel uncomfortable in front of a camera so your most important skill is to help them relax and feel at ease. If they don’t have an enjoyable experience no amount of photographic technique can flatter a tense and self-conscious sitter.
It’s important for you to feel relaxed and confident too. Long pauses while you fuss with your equipment are not to be recommended, so prepare well in advance. Check the important settings on your camera; check the battery is charged; have a stand-in pose and work out any problems with the lighting and background. And then double-check everything again.
A studio portrait
Photo; Tom Langford
Photo; Tom Langford
I remember a session shooting a recording artist in London. To ensure a comfortable atmosphere I booked a large studio in Holborn Studios, complete with it’s own parking, restaurant and room service. I arrived early with my assistant and set up the lighting, tested all of the equipment, and was completely prepared and relaxed well before my client arrived. When she entered the studio we made her feel at home, brought coffee, laughed and chatted about this and that – it was quite some time before we got around to starting to shoot and by then she felt at ease and ready to have some fun.
When I showed her the initial test shots she was delighted. The session was a success because we created the right atmosphere for it to work.
A home portrait
Photo; Tom Langford
Photo; Tom Langford
I took this portrait recently of Eve Black, Life Coach and Voice-over artist. For a short session you don’t need to use a studio and I took this in my living room.
Eve wanted a dark background so I simply taped a black sheet to the wall. For this shot I used flash lighting because it gives reliable, repeatable results and is easy to move around and adjust. I used the classic combination of a soft box and reflector to light the face, plus some bounced flash to top-light the hair and shoulders.
A soft box is a special diffuser that turns the harsh light from a direct flash into a rectangular glow that resembles soft light from a window, in this case 80 x 60cm. I placed this about three meters in front of her face and a little above eye level. A large horizontal white reflector was supported above her lap to gently bounce light up into the face. A second flash on a high stand was pointed at the ceiling. This bounced light down onto the hair and shoulders to help separate them from the background.
The camera was used in manual mode with the aperture adjusted so the preview on the back screen looked bright enough. The shutter speed was set to the “flash sync speed”. There was no need to use a tripod since the flash lasts only about a 750th of second so I could handhold the camera.
Most importantly Eve felt at ease with the confidence in which I conducted the session in these informal surroundings. After a few test shots we knew we had a great portrait that she could use on her websites and promotional material.
Professional flash lighting was used for both these portraits but it’s just as easy to use table lamps, available light, or natural light to create great portraits too.
I hope you never have the misfortune of taking the portrait of a self-conscious and tense sitter. If you do, you’ll know how excruciatingly accurate that old saying can be: “The camera never lies."
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Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his next courses and field trips at: Eve Black, Life Coach: