Many decisions go into shooting a single portrait. Often, as we chat with our subjects, we’re not even aware that we’re making choices about framing, subject distance and position, color palette, focal length, lighting, and other elements. But rather than rely on instinct alone, here are some ways to ensure you make the right decision.
1. Frame Them Up
More then any other tools at your disposal, composition and framing help you direct a viewer to appreciate something specfic about your subject. It could be a physical quality such as beauty, or a personal quality of character.
One crucial question: How tight should you frame a face? When Richard Brocken of the Netherlands (richardbrocken.com) made this portrait of his (then) 10-year-old daughter Eva, he wanted to focus attention on her beautiful eyes. Their gaze reflects a calm, Zen-like quality unusual in a child so young. So he moved in as close as possible with his Nikon D50 and 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor to capture a single eye and cheekbone.
“Because I’ve photographed my children all their lives, they’re very used to it,” says Brocken. He was able to move within 18 inches of the child, and she remained relaxed, composed, and unselfconscious.
“My first concern is always to focus on what’s important in a portrait, and here it was that eye,” he says. After some experimentation, he found that converting the image to black-and-white drew even more attention to this limpid window into the soul.
For subjects with whom you are not quite so intimate—or who feel less comfortable being photographed—you can use a telephoto lens to let you stand farther away, though you may need to crop for the exact framing.
For a less intimate view, move back for a half- or full-length portrait. This shifts the attention from your subject’s skin and facial expression, placing it onto the body, gesture, and background. (It also takes the pressure off your subject to appear fashion-magazine “perfect.”)
If the background is cluttered or distracting, downplay it by cropping in on your subject, dimming the light in the background, or defocusing it by shooting at a larger aperture. If, however, the greater scene complements or somehow comments on your subject, include as much of it as possible.