What makes a good portrait? Photographing people is the most common and, in many ways, the most rewarding but challenging task for photographers. We all know a good picture when we see one but what is it that makes the good photos stand out? Is it because it is an especially good likeness? A photograph will always be a true likeness, even when we think it isn't. How many times have you heard someone say "that doesn't look like me at all"?
The reason for this is that we are used to seeing people moving around, at least their faces, and in some kind of context, doing something or talking to us. So what makes a good portrait of someone is that it should say something about that person that we feel is true. A good portrait sums up the character of the person or at least an aspect of their character. The pose, viewpoint, direction and quality of lighting, choice of lens, choice of background and the cropping of a picture can all contribute to the mood of the photograph and therefore what you are saying about that person.
"A good portrait is a picture that says something about the person, gives you an insight into the person's character, whether you believe it or not."
The most important item in the list above, by far, is the pose. Capturing the right moment is crucial and, with that in mind, it is important to take as many shots as you can. Each one will be slightly different, as you take pictures you will think up new ideas, the whole thing is an evolving process. Which brings me to one of the most important tips for successful portraiture.
"You must be ready for the action and work very quickly, seize the moment."
People, especially children, get bored very quickly. If you start fiddling with your camera telling them to hold on a minute you will never get good pictures. The most important part of the picture is the expression on the face. When you see that expression you must be ready to instantly capture it, everything else, the lighting, the background, the composition must be ready. Facial expressions, at least the good ones, are very fleeting things. If you ask someone to smile and you leave them holding that smile for even a second it will look very false.
When taking pictures of children I like to use a long lens and blend into the background. After a while they forget you are there then you start to get much more natural expressions. You need a lot of patience to work this way, you must not keep stopping them or trying to get them to turn in the direction you want because you will break the mood. Just keep watching be patient and be ready.
In closing, portrait photography is a very personal thing, new experiences and continuous shooting builds your portfolio, your confidence and communication skills with your model of choice. Every photoshoot is unique and must be handled differently, find the method that works for you, whether it be planning out every detail of a portrait shoot from location to wardrobe, models and make up or it may be as simple as being in the right place at the right time, keep your camera and gear ready, and generally having fun with any assignment.
Just remember when capturing life.. "Let the good stuff happen when it will."