How to take the perfect photo for a great portrait

When I do a commission, the quality of the photo reference I am supplied with has an major influence on how the end result will look. I'm often given low quality photos to work from which are out of focus or poorly lit. Being an artist people expect us to use our imagination and artistic licence, which I do often and I think I could probably draw my kids from memory now as they are so familiar to me. But if I've never met the subject I need a photo that gives me as much visual information as possible to enable me to get not only a perfect likeness but also an accurate portrait with a true sense of 3 dimension. This is why it is so important to get it right, a photo that is well taken can produce a fantastic end result.

When a client wants a portrait done and can't get to me for a photo shoot, they have to supply their own photos. Life is hectic, people are busy and often daunted by the prospect of having to take their own photos. I've been asked so often how to get a good picture of the subject that I've written this months blog about just that; How to easily and simply take a good portrait shot (even with a phone camera) that's suitable for a painting.

For me, the most important requirement of the photo is a good range of lights, shades and shadows - the tones. The artist depends on the shadows for information on the form of a subject . So a portrait shot with a good range of dark, light and mid-tones gives a real sense of 3 dimension and drama and makes for a much more interesting piece of art. A good light source is important, when light falls on the subject we can see the form emerging.

Pic 1 Pic 2

In the pictures above the apple in pic 1 was taken in natural light coming from the side to eccentuate the form. The other in pic 2 was taken in the same position but using a flash. See how the flash bleaches out the tone and shadows making it look flatter . This is what I try to avoid if possible.

Pic 3

When photographing portraits the light source should not be front on but coming from the side of the face so that it illumintes one side of the face and a little of the other side too (see pic 3 above). Ideally the flash should be turned off as it flattens the object.

The shot above was taken with natural light and coming from the left and hitting the side of the face. This eccentuates the contrast and gives it a full range of tones creating more drama and atmosphere.

I find that a full face pose taken from front-on or a three quarter view works best. This is when the model makes a half turn to the left or the right making visible to the viewer three quarters of the models face.

Here are some pointers for good portrait photos:

  1. Ideally the photo would be taken indoors as its easier to control the lighting

  2. Turn the flash off- it makes a face look flat and lifeless.

  3. Find a light source, ideally a window in daylight or a spot light or lamp if its dark.

  4. Have the subject about 3 feet away from the light source (window) if its too close the detail will be bleached out.

  5. Position the subject so the light is hitting the head slightly off centre and to the side of the face. Ideally the whole side of the face will be illuminated with a little triangle of light hitting the opposite cheek as well.

  6. Try to avoid a black or dark back drop as it can suck all the range of tones away from the face. A neutral background is best.

  7. With young kids and babies it helps to have a third person over your shoulder engaging with them- an animated expression is much more appealing than a fixed grin or just staring at a tv screen.

  8. If using a phone camera hold it about 3-4 feet away from the subject (if your'e too close it distorts the features).

When you commission a painting or drawing it is precious and will last forever, so its worth getting the best quality photo that will produce the best possible end result. Get the photo right and the painting will sing....Happy snapping!

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