In the world of art, breaking the rules is a rule of its own. This is no exception for portrait photographers. However, like in any genre, there are portrait photography mistakes we should simply not make.
I’ve both experienced and witnessed a lot of creative failures. Read are article to ensure you don’t make the same mistakes.
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Importance of Portrait Photography Mistakes
These portrait photography mistakes taught me the importance of patience, communication, imagination, and more. By learning from them, I was able to quickly develop my skills and learn new ones along the way.
The portrait photography mistakes I learned from others helped me avoid a lot of embarrassment and wasted time.
Because of this, I want to share a few common portrait photography mistakes many photographers (including me) have made. If you learn from them before you make them, you’ll find yourself improving in no time!
10. Giving the Same Instructions to Every Model
Before I took photos of other people, I photographed myself. Self-portrait photography helped me find my best angles, expressions, and poses. When I started taking photos of other people, I found that what worked for me didn’t always work for others.
This simple realisation completely transformed both my mindset and my relationship with clients.
When you photograph others, give them the time and freedom to get comfortable. Make it clear that awkwardness and mistakes are more than okay. Let them know that you’re not expecting unattainable perfection.
I often tell my models that the first few portraits are going to be bad and that they have all the time they need to find their best angles.
Your openness will make others feel comfortable enough to experiment with your creative ideas. Most importantly, it will strengthen your relationship with them and give you the opportunity to take marvellous portraits.
9. Diving Straight Into a Portrait Photo Shoot
Get to know your models before you photograph them. Find out about their interests, ambitions, and creative goals. Their answers will give you a better idea of how to approach your photo shoot.
Some models prefer to focus solely on posing, while others enjoy having conversations throughout a shoot. When you have a clear idea of what people are comfortable with, you’ll find it easier to take genuine portraits.
Even if your models aren’t photographers themselves, listen to their ideas and opinions. Make sure you ask for help, give them visual references, and listen to their thoughts.
By expressing interest in their feedback, you’ll show them that you’re more willing to collaborate than instruct. In turn, your models will get to know your creative aspirations, respect your views, and help your visions come to life.
8. Using Autofocus All the Time
There’s nothing wrong with letting your camera focus for you. Autofocus often saves time, captures the perfect amount of details, and makes it easy to focus on other aspects of photography.
However, it can become a nuisance when you want to create detailed compositions.
Portrait photography is far from simple. Portrait photographers like to adorn their portraits with intricate details, dreamy foregrounds, and vibrant backgrounds.
As beautiful as the results may be, they are too overwhelming for the autofocus feature.
To avoid blurry results, switch to manual focus. This will guarantee the sharpest results that will make your portrait gallery shine. And if you’re unfamiliar with manual focus, don’t be afraid of using it!
Though it will take some time to get used to it, you’ll be proud of your effort. Before you know it, you’ll be switching from autofocus to manual focus like a real pro.
7. Focusing on Your Favourite Look
We all come across poses, angles, and expressions that we can’t get enough of. These looks are impossible to resist, especially when everything else seems to be failing. Regardless of their allure, they’re unhealthy for you.
Focusing exclusively on favourite looks will stunt your creative growth, make you avoid experimentation, and give you boring results.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be biased. However, make sure you don’t get lost in your favourites and end up with hundreds of boring photographs.
Instead, appreciate your favourite angles, take a few photos of them, and move on. The more you experiment, the more new favourites you’ll discover, and the more diverse your portraits will be.
In the editing world, overexposing is much better than underexposing. Too much overexposure, however, gets rid of details, colours, and tones that make great portraits look unimpressive.
If you overexpose your portraits in-camera too much, you’ll have trouble editing them later on.
To avoid this common mistake for portrait photographers, slightly overexpose your images when you get the urge to do the opposite.
Your in-camera results may not look appealing, but you’ll find it easier to enhance them in your editing program. Overexposing will preserve a lot of details that you’ll be able to restore later on.
5. Letting Too Much Light In
Certain types of light are either too dull or too harsh for portraits. For example, midday sunshine isn’t recommended for portrait photographers who want to take soft portraits.
If you use this time of day to take outdoor photos, your results will look both harsh and unflattering. Another cause of portrait photography mistakes is dull light on a cloudy day.
If your models pose under a gloomy sky while looking straight into the camera, their faces look uneven and you’ll get strange-looking compositions.
I believe that any kind of light can be used to take incredible portraits. You just have to manipulate it the right way. So, if you’re taking photos at noon, find a shade.
Alternatively, take photos from a low angle so that your models block the sun.
If you want to take photos on a gloomy day, bring a reflector! This will light up your models’ faces and give them a pleasant glow.
Whatever you do, make sure you’re not letting too much light in. This will guarantee brilliant results.
4. Avoiding the Dark
It’s easy to understand why the dark is so unappealing. A lack of proper lighting can make your subjects look frightening, silly, or just unusual. However, using a limited amount of light has its benefits.
To avoid taking dark and unflattering portraits, be in control of whichever light source you have. If it’s too dark outside, use a torch (or even a torch with a reflector), a street lamp, headlights, or anything else you can find.
All of these things can be manipulated in ways that will not only make your subjects look amazing, but give you lots of creative freedom.
When it comes to the dark, you might be afraid of increasing your ISO number. In today’s age, grainy photos can be fixed with handy editing programs.
They can also remain unedited and serve as beautiful cinematic pieces in your gallery. Don’t be afraid of them!
3. Capturing the Wrong Details
Details can add a lot of depth to a portrait, but they can also make subjects look less appealing. Portrait photographers like Cole Spouse masterfully capture both subjects and backgrounds without ruining their compositions.
Other photographers, like Anastasia Volkova, prefer to separate their subjects from everything else.
The aperture (or f-number) you use depends on the kind of background you want to include in your photograph:
- If you want a soft background filled with bokeh, use a small f-number like f/1.4 and f/2. Make sure the background colours complement your subject. This way, you’ll get visually appealing results.
- If you want a sharp background, use larger f-numbers like f/16 and f/22. Unless you have a specific vision in mind, don’t photograph busy backgrounds. If you do, your subjects will blend in and look unflattering. Instead, shoot in front of simple backgrounds that complement your subjects’ clothes, pose, etc.
2. Getting Too Close to the Model
Closeup portraits are great for highlighting facial features and experimenting with new angles. However, you can’t take a closeup with any kind of lens.
Certain lenses, like the fisheye, will distort your subject’s face and make them look like caricatures!
To avoid these portrait photography mistakes, use portrait lenses like the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM. There are also telephoto lenses that will beautifully capture a face without distorting its features.
An example is the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM.
Unfortunately, not every portrait photographer can afford such expensive lenses. If you want an easy alternative, simply crop your photographs.
To take the photo above, I used a Canon 5D Mark II with a 50mm 1.8 lens. Then, I cropped it in Lightroom and created this closeup effect.
If you’re not going for the closeup effect but still get distorted portraits, take a few steps away from your model. Even a single step back can make a huge difference.
This distance will get rid of any unnecessary warping and avoid portrait photography mistakes.
1. Shooting in JPEG
If you want to take snapshots, JPEGs are more than okay. If you want to preserve as many details as possible, switch to RAW.
JPEG files are compressed in-camera, which means that lots of valuable image data gets removed. This makes the editing process much harder than it needs to be.
RAW files, on the other hand, preserve a lot of image data. RAW portraits are richer in dynamic range and easier to colour correct.
RAW files have to be edited and converted in specific programs like Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom. They’re also much larger than JPEGs.
Though you should be aware of these cons, don’t let them intimidate you. RAW portraits will make your portrait photographers portfolio stand out in the best ways possible.
Now that you’re familiar with these common portrait photography mistakes, go out and experiment!
Use these tips to improve your social skills, get better at understanding the technical side of photography, and get out of your comfort zone. The more you practice, the easier it will be to take outstanding portraits.
Just remember to not be afraid of portrait photography mistakes. When you do, note it and share it with other photographers. This way, you’ll be able to help other artists, one mistake at a time.
Looking for some more self portrait photography inspiration? Check out our 20 Up and Coming Portrait Photographers to Keep an Eye on!