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How to Take Romantic Portraits

By NYIP Staff on April 21, 2010

How to Take Romantic Portraits

With Valentine's Day, February is a month that celebrates romance and love. What better way to show your affection for someone than to take a romantic portrait of that person?

As with any type of photograph, we start with NYIP's Three Guidelines for Great Photographs. 1) You want to make sure that your photo has an unambiguous subject. 2) You want to make that subject stand out and be clearly identified. 3) You want to simplify the image so that nothing in it distracts from the subject.

If these Three Guidelines are unclear, we suggest you check the NYIP Picture of the Month Review for a full presentation and discussion of the Guidelines.

Let's examine these Three Guidelines to see how they can help you make a great romantic photograph of a loved one. Each Guideline asks a question you have to answer before you snap the shutter:

Woman photo by NYIP Student Carlos Latorre

Guideline One: What's my subject?

This is easy. Your subject is the person you're photographing. But, let's dig a little deeper. Your subject is not just the person, but also a mood and expression of warmth, openness, and love that you want that person's portrait to project. It's a romantic photograph. You're not taking a head shot for the newspaper morgue. This is a portrait of a loved one! At the very least, you want your subject to be relaxed and looking his or her most perfect. We'll discuss how to accomplish this in a moment, but first, let's ponder the other Guidelines.

Guideline Two: How do I focus attention on my subject?

For people pictures, the best way is to make the person large and up front in the picture. In portraits, the subject's head and shoulders should fill the frame. Since you don't want to stand closer than four or five feet, (any closer and your subject will be more likely to "freeze up"), to fill the frame you'll either use a medium-long lens or a zoom. How long? Typically, the best lenses for portraiture are between 85mm and 135mm in focal length. If you have a point-and-shoot with a zoom that doesn't go up to even 85mm, use the farthest zoom it provides.

Young man smiling photo

Guideline Three: How can I simplify my subject?

The most common problem with people pictures is a distracting background of clutter — things like trees and chimneys — that appear to stick out of the subject's head. For portraits, a simple background is best. If you're shooting indoors, look for a cool-colored wall, or consider hanging a sheet or blanket for use as a background. Don't hesitate to take a few moments to remove any distracting objects in the background and take any other steps that are necessary to simplify the setting.

Applying The Guidelines

With these Guidelines in mind, the next step is to prepare your subject. That gets back to making sure your subject looks his or her best. When there's a camera around, people feel their best when they know they're looking their best. Convince your subject to pick out some favorite outfit, make sure the hair is done-up "just right," and if appropriate, encourage the use of a little make-up. The hair and make-up are obviously left to the taste of your subject, but you can help with some tips about clothing.

Woman with flowers photo by NYIP Graduate Smadar Kornfilt

You want the focus of attention in your photo to be your subject's face and expression. Suggest dark clothing that will be subdued — avoid checks, stripes and big patterns, unless such outfits are your subject's trademark. If the clothing is subdued and the background is simple, the emphasis will be on your subject. In general, long-sleeved outfits work better than short-sleeved ones. For most women, a high neckline works better than a plunging one.

One more tip about color: If your subject has bright blue or green eyes, consider clothing of the same color to accentuate the eyes. If your subject is a woman who wears bright red lipstick, perhaps a red outfit in the same shade will make a striking composition. In any event, make sure the colors in the outfit and background don't clash with your subject's eyes or anything else in the set. You're looking for harmony here, not contrast.

Now you're ready to start. Use a relatively fast ISO setting — outdoors ISO 200, indoors ISO 400. Using these settings, you can shoot some pictures without flash and some with flash. Keep your subject a few feet from the background to minimize dark wall shadows when you do shoot with flash. For most portraits, hold the camera for a vertical composition rather than a horizontal one — you'll get more subject and less extraneous material.

Woman photo by NYIP Student Mike Byalik

The last step is keeping your subject relaxed and natural looking in front of the camera. If you have a simple stool or a chair with a low back, your subject can sit. If your subject stands, suggest that he or she stand at an angle and then turn the head and shoulders toward the camera. This will make your subject look slimmer. Don't encourage a big smile — most of the time that looks forced. Instead, ask for "a hint of a smile" or "a smile in your eyes." That's more likely to get a subtle result.

Particularly if your subject is standing, make sure that he or she has something to hold. Hands are the ruination of many portraits. Keep those hands busy, whether they're holding a flower, a book, or gloves.

One other point — most people who get tense in front of a camera, show that tension in their shoulders. Make sure the person relaxes their shoulders and takes an occasional deep breath. The suggestion to "lick your lips" not only puts a little glisten on the lips but also relaxes the face.

Woman taking a bath

Now that you've gone to the effort to set up such a great portrait sitting, shoot several dozen frames. As you progress, you'll find that your subject will relax and you'll increase the odds of getting the photo that will be treasured for years to come.

When you're done, examine the pictures carefully. Then take the best photo and have it enlarged so that you can put a 4x6, 5x7, or 8x10 print in a tasteful frame for a great Valentine's Day present!