I’m teaching myself photography . . . [with a digital SLR] . . . and have been using family and friends for portrait practice. But the results so far are honestly not much better than those I created with my old point-n-shoot. What am I missing?
There are several elements that make portraits effective. One is setting: putting the subject in an environment that’s reflective of or complementary to their personality or occupation, depending on the purpose of the shot. If you’re profiling someone, you want the right background context. The bartender and his tappers. The chef at a produce market. A loner in a canoe in the middle of a lake. Using metaphor will add another dimension to the image.
Then there’s perspective. You’re passing a certain judgment on the subject by where you place the camera (why it’s called subjective camera instead of objective – well, that’s not really what it means, but bear with me here), and as you know, many creative endeavors were born simply by taking a common theme and shifting the point of view. A reflection of a dancer in her studio mirror. Looking down from an aerial. Underwater camera shooting what’s above. Using a wide-angle to exaggerate a body part. Maybe some verticals appear to imprison your subject.
Technically speaking, traditional portraits use long lenses, I’d say 80mm or more (or the long end of whatever zoom you can muster – just move the camera back for the desired framing). The reason is that it draws focus to your subject with a shallow depth of field. And it also has an appealing bokeh. A large aperture (like f2.8) will contribute to this as well – preferably both. You can also try putting more distance between your subject and background if using a wider lens.
I’m a fan of backlight, or rimlight, but it’s mainly just another function of separating the subject from the background, as is focus. Outside, I like to shoot into the sunlight, using it as backlight, and put a bounce card in front of the subject to fill in their face. You get two light sources for the price of one (free). And remember that many practical surfaces can be used to bounce as well: pages of a book, pillow, etc. In the absence of backlight, other techniques you can use for separation are color and contrast, by which I mean actually arranging the design of your location, wardrobe, etc. to make the subject pop. And speaking of, an eyelight is a nice touch, too, just to give a little sparkle in the pupil blackness.