When you have a sense of the person you’re working with, then turn your attention to the room. Pidgeon suggests asking yourself, “Are there natural light sources? Is it a situation where I’m going to use harsh lighting, soft lighting, direct, indirect? What's going to tell this story?”
It’s easy to feel rushed when you’re taking someone’s picture, but one of the keys to taking a good portrait is allowing the time to connect and consider. Naba Zabih, a wedding and engagement photographer, says that even in the flurry of a big event, it’s important to take time to compose an image that you’ll be proud of. She continues, “Especially when everything’s digital and super fast-paced, just stop, and compose, and think about the shot before you actually take it.” Keep in mind that with a portrait photo, you’ve got an extra variable to consider: “People are people,” Zabih says, “so they are definitely going to be harder to shoot than something that’s still — they’re going to move. They blink.”
Find the right light for the story you’re telling.
So many elements of portrait photography rely on intuition over technical control, so it’s useful to be able to identify or arrange great lighting for your portrait session from the start. If you’re shooting in a studio, you’ll get to make a lot of these decisions in advance.
Ingersoll suggests, “If you want a dramatic, high-contrast portrait, you’re probably going to use more direct light, whether that’s sunlight or artificial lights. If you’re looking for a less dramatic photo, more like a professional headshot, that’s going to be more diffused, with multiple light sources. You’ll have a primary one, typically the brightest, and it’s going to light up one side of the subject’s face. Then you’ll want to light up the other side, so you’ll have a secondary stroke — otherwise you’re going to have a very dramatic picture. A third light is optional. Sometimes you use that to light up their hair or the backdrop, if there is one.”
“As people get older, you want to soften up the light a bit, unless you really want to accentuate the texture in someone’s skin.”
Pidgeon advises, “As people get older, you want to soften up the light a bit, unless you really want to accentuate the texture in someone’s skin. But if someone has acne scars or wrinkles, you wouldn’t typically work with a dramatic light, unless this is really part of who they are. I think part of it is asking, ‘Is this going to be kind to them, show them in their best light? Are they a dynamic person? Do they have an edge to them? Is this appropriate?'”
He warns that portrait photographers need to understand how to balance their lights. “A lot of beginners tend to overpower with flash, and then you have that mugshot kind of look,” he says. “You’re basically making two exposures at the same time when you’re balancing the main light and the fill light. When you develop an understanding of how that balance works, you can make incremental changes instead of just saying, ‘OK, I’m going to blast it or I’m going to take it away.’”