When someone you wants a nice formal portrait there are a few things to keep in mind. Posing, lighting, background, retouching and focal length are some of the points that need to be taken into consideration. When everything comes together the result is an image that the subject will be proud to display.
There are many styles of portrait lighting. The recent trend is toward a very even and diffused light on all sides of the subject. Formal portraits for many years were built on a foundation of the key and fill light. This lighting style features one side of the face in brighter light than the other. The Hollywood era of the 1930s and 40s featured black and white images with deep shadows. The important point is that the subject is lit in a manner that is flattering.
By definition formal portraits have some type of cloth or paper backdrop as opposed to an environmental portrait which includes elements such as tools for an image of a mechanic, or horse and hay bales for a cowboy. There are all painted canvas backdrops and seamless paper in all colors. A brightly lit portrait with a white background is known as a high key portrait.
Posing your subject is important and professionals have many poses in their repertoire. It is best not to use a regular chair because that can end up showing up in the image as a distraction. An adjustable is the beat. I prefer to have the person seated at an angle with one shoulder pointed at the camera. Then I have them turn their face directly at the camera. Shoot some with that shoulder facing forward; then switch to the other shoulder. Also make slight adjustment to the head position. If you are using a tripod, which is great for camera stability, shoot a few image from a bit higher than the subjects’ eye level and a few images from below eye level. If the person wear eyeglasses, it may be necessary to have them drop their chin a bit to avoid glare from the lenses of their glasses.
Another advantage of a tripod is if you are shooting several people in a session, things will move faster if the posing stool and tripod-mounted camera stay in position as the people posing flow through. Some photographers prefer not to use a tripod because they feel they have more freedom to move about. Shooting toddlers for instance may work better when not locked into a tripod. But executives tend to be well behaved in that regard.
When 35mm cameras were the workhouse of photographers the 105mm lens was known as a portrait lens. Why? Because if did the best job of replicating the way the human eye sees another person. Focal lengths on the high end such as 400mm and longer tend to flatten the face a bit. On the other end of the scale wide angle lenses tend to distort the face and make the nose seem longer. In some cases the subject’s ears may far seem away or the shoulders look out of proportion. With a DLSR there is a slight conversion to compensate for the fact that most digital sensors are smaller than a frame of 35mm film. So if you have a zoom lens on your DSLR set the lens at somewhere between 50mm and 90mm for optimal results.
Children have beautiful clear skin, but when you are shooting adults, retouching becomes an issue because of wrinkles, bags under the eyes, blemishes and other issues. Learning to use a few post processing techniques will lead to pleased customers. Just remember that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. I used to do some portrait work for people who needed pictures to go on their online dating profile page. Although I normally did some fix up work; one woman requested that I make her look much thinner and offered to pay extra for it. I declined.
Retouching jobs can be sent out to third party firms, often located offshore in places like the Philippines or Malaysia. I recommend doing it yourself. The healing tool is my favorite. Get a fuzzy brush and set the opacity pretty low and go layer by layer. Most adults have crow’s feet on their eyes that can be dealt with easily. Select some nice clear on the cheek and layer that over the problem area. Then look for bags under the eyes and do likewise. Sometimes I will brighten the whites of eyes with the dodge tool or a very light application of white paint with the airbrush. It will make the person look healthier. Just don’t overdo it. The teeth can be whitened this way too. Some women will apply a thick coat of lip gloss right before sitting for a portrait and that using ends up reflecting the portrait light back at the camera. So this may have to be solved with the cloning tool or the healing brush.
One more point important when shooting portrait is to put the subject at ease and get them to relax and give a pleasant smile. I always like to get a good natural smile in a t least one shot. But for some portraits, such as a police officer or politician I also like some serious expressions. There are some photographers that real masters of dealing with people. Others know equipment, but lack people skills.
It takes practice to get it right. However, if you keep these points in mind, you will find it easier to create great formal portraits.