7 Common Mistakes Every Portrait Photographer Should Avoid

Blog  »  Style, July 5, 2018, Anita Lingott

Whether you are new to school photography or have been shooting for years, our list of common portrait photography mistakes is certain to ensure your clients fall in love with their pictures.

1. Using the Wrong Lens

The first step to creating stunning portraits is to ensure that you are using the right equipment. Most important is the lens that you use. The use of wide-angle lenses in portrait photography is few and far between, as they distort the natural proportions of the human face by accentuating various features. The result can be a bulbous forehead or an enlarged nose.

Instead, take a few steps away from your subject and utilize a telephoto lens. Such will keep the proportions of your subject’s face intact, while also giving you more variety to work with. Suggested focal lengths are 50mm for portraits where you want to capture more of the environment your subject is in, whereas 85mm is best used for head shots.

2. Stagnant Framing

Think outside of the box, literally. Though you can definitely achieve variety in your photos simply by adjusting your subject’s pose, strive to make your photos even more interesting.

Taking full-body or waist-up portraits is the most common way of capturing your subject, yet there are ways to make your shots more dynamic. This means getting up-close and personal. Be bold and fill the frame with your subject’s face, or get creative and shoot using different angles.

Nevertheless, remember to be mindful about what is and isn’t in the frame. If you choose to keep the subject’s hand in, ensure you’re not cutting off any fingers. If you decide to do a close-up of the subject’s face, be conscious to keep their shoulders in frame to avoid them looking like a “floating head.”

3. Dull Eyes

In portrait photographs, the subject’s eyes should be at the center of attention. The eyes should be sharp and attention should be drawn to them.

If you’re shooting in automatic, it’s time to step outside of your comfort zone and take control. As the camera will attempt to focus on what is closest to its lens, your subject’s nose will typically be crisp instead of their eyes. To correct this, opt for manual focus or adjust your camera’s autofocus point.

Shooting with manual focus is preferred if you are equipped with a tripod and your subject is fixed, whereas setting the autofocus point will give you the ability to move the focus directly on your subject’s eyes. Click here for more info on portrait photography

4. Not Compensating for Height

The height at which you shoot from depends on your subject. For photographing kids, shooting them at slightly above their eye-level is the ideal position. This will likely require you to get down on your knees, but the result also helps emphasise how small the child really is.

There is rarely an occasion where it is recommended that you photograph your subject from below, as this often leads to accentuated and unsightly features, such as flaring nostrils and large foreheads. It’s also even harder to get low enough to shoot a child from below!

5. Busy Background

To make the child stand out, you want to keep the background as neutral as possible. This is especially important for official school photographs. That means ensuring that there are few, if any, distractions that can direct your viewer’s eye away from the subject.

The first step is to make sure that the background is not sharp, but instead out of focus. This can be accomplished by using a shallow depth of field and a larger aperture. A blurred background with a crisp subject will make your client will stand out, even if there is a lot going on behind them.

Next, be aware that brightness and contrast are also factors for consideration. Placing a darkened subject against a bright background will cause attention to shift to that background! Likewise, avoid having a background that blends with the child’s clothing, as they will simply blend in.

6. Uninspiring Composition

There are a plethora of sources available with advice on what makes for “good composition.” Some portrait photographers will religiously follow this advice in an attempt to make their photos more interesting. For instance, it is suggested that one should never place their subject in the middle of a photograph, but instead opt for the rule of thirds approach. Much like any rule though, there are exceptions, and you should not limit your photography to fit within the constraints of established rules. Sometimes, centering your subject can actually make for a pleasing composition – it simply depends on the context!

Edward Weston puts it best by stating, “To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.”

Another issue portrait photographers face with composition is repeatedly using the same orientation. Typically, portrait photographers opt for a vertical orientation and get comfortable with this approach. Just as with framing your photos, you can elevate the composition by getting creative. Try to experiment using a horizontal orientation, as this will incorporate more of the background and setting into the photo.

7. Over-Editing

You’ve almost made it; you chose the right lens, considered the framing, took the subject’s height into account, focused on the eyes, cleared the background, and established a beautiful composition. The shoot is done and now comes the daunting task of editing. This is where a great photo can become a mediocre one, and vice versa. To avoid over-editing, there are some guidelines to keep in mind.

Firstly, do not lose the integrity of the subject you’re photographing. That is to say, do not edit your photos to the point where the subject does not even look like themselves. Portrait photos should be a natural display of how the child actually looks, not the version of them that would appear on an advertisement. This means keeping the essence of a person intact while still improving the overall look of a photo. Fix a few blemishes here and there, play with the levels a bit, but do not adjust the picture to the point that it is not accurate depiction of the subject.

Once you’ve perfected your portraits, it’s time to look sell your pictures. Read this article for the 10 best pro marketing tips.

Moreover, be mindful with the use of filters. While filters can serve to evoke emotion (ie. black and white or sepia), some ruin an otherwise good photograph. Diffusion filters, which blur a photo to the point that it looks “dreamlike,” have no place in modern-day portrait photography.

The photographs you take should be strong enough to make an impact without the need for substantial editing and gimmicky effects. It is only through practice and experimentation that you will be able to further refine your portrait photography skills. As such, keep these common portrait photography mistakes in mind as you go forth and hone your skills.

Anita Lingott