The Essentials of Portraits on Smartphones
Portraits are ideal when you want to capture a subject…
Combine your smartphone camera with the essential fundamentals of portrait photography and you can capture someone’s expression, personality, and mood—one beautiful image after another. This week, renowned commercial photographer and iPhone camera aficionado Trevor Paulhus pitches in to offer his expert advice. Here are five fundamental lessons to get you well on your way to taking great portraits with your smartphone camera.
One of the most challenging aspects of portrait photography is making the subject comfortable so they can feel natural and be themselves. Even if the person knows you well, they may not be at ease in front of the camera. Of course, with the number of smartphone users worldwide set to surpass two billion people in 2016, it makes sense that we’re getting more and more used to having our photos taken. It’s a more comfortable experience than a traditional camera photo shoot, but there are still barriers to cross.
“Getting a subject to be comfortable in front of you is definitely one of the biggest challenges of a portrait photographer,” Trevor says. “Not only do you need to find a way to have them relax so you can capture a genuine moment with them, but you also need to get them to trust you—trust that you will, for lack of a better phrase, ‘make them look good.’ This is where the personality of the photographer comes into play.” The more natural and confident you appear, the more your subject will be inclined to relax and be themselves in front of your camera. A good portrait photographer should be both personable and approachable to eliminate any anxiety the subject may have about being photographed.
“Be communicative and be patient with them,” Trevor continues. “But also be very confident and focused so they know that you know exactly what you want. To me, taking a good portrait is about sharing a moment of personal connection with someone. Whether it’s a contrived situation or not, that moment needs to be found. And really, just be nice.”
The less awkward of an experience you can create, the more authentic of a moment you will capture. It could be as simple as one quick frame when your subject takes a deep breath and then relaxes for a second. Before you start snapping pictures, take some time to talk with your subject and get to know them a bit.
Once you start shooting, continue the conversation. “I find that being conversational with my subjects not only helps in creating a more personal moment with them, but it also makes it less of a ‘task’ for them to be having their photo taken, which I find relaxes them,” Trevor recommends. “In turn, it gives me a more authentic representation of their character. Being talkative helps us connect and get better images.”
Put some thought into where you are going to take the photos. Get to know your subject, and get creative.
Let’s say you have a Little League baseball player as your subject. Have the youngster in uniform at their local ballpark where they play most of their games—standing at their position on the field, in the dugout, or with a bat on their shoulder next to home plate. Or, do your subjects enjoy gardening? Pose them thoughtfully, admiring their handiwork from the side or actually holding an armful of fresh vegetables, with the garden out of focus behind them.
Maybe you don’t want a theme or you simply want your subject in an appealing setting. That’s fine, too. However you decide to frame your portrait, remember to focus on your subject and let the background and the setting enhance the subject or draw the viewer’s eye to them.
“Always be aware of your environment,” Trevor explains. “Make sure that your subject is where you want them to be in the frame, with no busy distractions directly behind them, like light posts or trees coming out of their head, so to speak. Pay attention to those types of small details when composing your shot. A busy environment isn’t necessarily bad, but just make sure your subject is the focus of the image. That is where you want the viewer’s eye to go.”
Tap on your smartphone screen to focus on your subject’s face—preferably the brightest part of their face to properly expose their unique skin tone. Focus, depth of field, positioning, lighting—these are the things that will help you make sure that your subject stands out.
Trevor advises visualizing what you want your image to look like ahead of time, so that you can best direct your subject: “When you know where the light is coming from, where you want them in the setting, and how you will compose your shot, it will make for a much better experience for everyone.”
A key aspect of portrait photography is lighting. Proper lighting will make or break your mobile portrait photography efforts, so it helps to know what to look for and how and where to include light in your image.
It could be a sunny day. Maybe it’s cloudy and overcast. You might be inside with the curtains or windows open. Whatever the day dictates, focus on natural light and eliminate any thought of using the available flash on your smartphone.
So—where should the light be coming from? Should it be behind you, facing the subject? Maybe behind your subject? How about lighting that comes in from the left or right side of your subject? The correct answer is simply—yes. Try them all.
“I tend to prefer more side directional lighting for portraits,” Trevor notes. “I feel it helps to add a bit of drama and contrast that I like in my images. I also feel that both sunny days and overcast days offer great lighting situations. Sunny days provide that much harder directional light that makes it easier to get sharp shadows and bright highlights. Overcast days provide you with lots of soft light that you can really use to your advantage to achieve beautiful portraits.”
Backlighting (illuminating your subject from behind) with your smartphone can cause an overexposed look, but it creates an interesting effect you may like—plus you can manually adjust your exposure on-screen to get just the look you want. No one type of lighting is right for all situations. They all offer their own benefits, it just depends on what you, the photographer, are looking for. That, of course, is the beauty of not only portrait photography but photography in general. It’s an art form and you are the artist. Use your unique ideas to make the images your own, with your personal stamp of creativity.
“Focus on whatever works best for the mood you are trying to give the photograph,” Trevor says. “Be aware of the light. Understand where it is coming from, how it will fall on your subject, and how it will affect your shadows, highlights, and the setting.”
Here’s the really fun part. Your subject is ready, you know where you are taking the photos, where the light is coming from, and how you want the picture to look. It’s go time.
Distance from your subject How far should you stand from your subject? Some suggest that an arm’s length is a suitable starting point—or a general rule of thumb— but there are other options.
“This really all depends on the comfort level of your subject,” Trevor mentions. “Some people might not want you up in their face with your phone or camera, so standing back a little bit might help you give that level of comfort that will help them loosen up and feel natural in front of your lens.”
Eye Level—or Slightly Below Try to get eye to eye with your subject and then move slightly down or slightly above that to see what looks best. When it comes to getting on the same level as your subject, Trevor suggests “either eye level or even a little lower than eye level.” Remember, it’s your goal to make the subject look their best.
“Some people think that lower than eye level is not a flattering angle for portraits, which I would agree with for certain subjects, but I think it can also make for a very powerful and dramatic perspective. I usually never shoot downward onto a subject. I’m not a fan of how that looks.”
Portrait vs. landscape mode It may seem obvious to take portraits in portrait mode, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. In fact, Trevor prefers a horizontal orientation in his portrait photography, noting that it provides a “more cinematic and powerful composition.” You might agree. Try both ways, then use what you think works best for your particular situation and setting.
Focus on the Face You’ve heard the expression: “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” Focus on your subject’s eyes and you will be well on your way to creating a very dramatic portrait photograph that captures their personality.
“I typically always try to focus on my subject’s face when shooting a portrait,” Trevor says. “After all, that is what people will be drawn to when looking at most portraits. I think it’s important for the face and eyes to really have that sharpness and stand out a bit in the picture.”
Finally, it’s time to edit your portrait images. As with any picture you have taken, focus on taking great pictures, then make your already good images even better.
According to Trevor, a little goes a long way: “Try to hold the integrity of the original image as much as possible. This is more of a style/taste decision, but my typical editing process is actually pretty minimal most of the time. I definitely like to add some sharpening to my images to give them a little boost. But besides that, I usually just use some color correction and contrast adjustments.”
There’s an app for that. Using Enlight’s editing tools, you can go from conservative to crazy, depending on your mood.
To sharpen an image like Trevor does, tap Image > Adjust > Tools tab > Details and raise Sharpening and Structure or raise Structure in Analog > Tools tab > Structure. For color correction and contrast adjustments, preset filters offer many unique looks to consider, but go to Image > Adjust > Tools tab for more in-depth tweaking.
If you’re daring enough to venture into the world of iPhone art, create a posterized look that includes text and graphics or use the Mixer tool to blend another photo into your portrait for a superimposed effect. You can create fun caricatures out of your portraits and transform yourself into a cartoon illustration using the Doodle, Sketch or Painting tools. This might not be your style, but keep in mind, the possibilities are endless.
“More than anything, just have fun with the process,” Trevor concludes. “Spend some time playing around with photo apps to see what they do. Then create something that you dig. That is really all that matters.”
Written by: David Kindervater of iPhonePhotoLab.com.
Contributing Photographer: Trevor Paulhus. Originally from the East Coast, Trevor has spent the past decade calling Dallas, TX home, while traveling the globe taking photos for a long list of clients. Although the iPhone isn’t his normal day-to-day work tool, its ever-evolving ability to beautifully shoot and expertly edit photos on-the-go, gives Trevor the ability to share his work and experiences with others in a much more natural way.