Portrait photography is one of the most common types of professional photography on the market today. Most of us have been put into the position of having to pay a professional photographer large sums of money to have senior portraits taken of our children, or simply having the yearly shots of the family taken in order to preserve the kids growing up in different stages of their life. These are important photographs for us. In most cases, people will consider these photos as some of the most important things they own.
Good portrait photography can be fairly easy though, if you take the time to cover the basics and you own a reasonably good digital camera. Most of the point and shoot cheaper models will be inadequate to give you the really good photos you want of your family. I recommend a camera that's no less than about six mega pixels if you want really good shots, although you can get some pretty good photographs with lesser resolution if you're careful and prepare well.
I've covered lenses in earlier posts so we won't go into a lot of detail on how different lenses work, but you will need a lens that has some zoom capability, and honestly the more the better. Just make sure that you're lens is in the range of 100mm with some zoom capability on either side of that.
A good flash setup is essential. You have to have a flash that you can move around the subject in order to get the proper lighting. The flash that's either in your camera or attached to your camera simply won't provide the versatility to take good portrait photographs.
Lighting your subject in the most flattering way is the starting place for good portraits. You'll need to take a close look at your subject and see the areas that need improvement. In addition to your flash, you should be considering whether you'll be taking your portraits inside or outside. The whole idea is to have your subject well lit from all directions. You can do this by using your flash, outside light with a flash, reflectors that capture and return the light sources, or just room light if the room is set up properly. Remember that a single light source coming from one direction is going to create a shadow or an uneven lighting. As the person behind the camera you need to take enough time to examine your subject in the available light, and to see in your minds eye the effect of the flash or any extra light you may be using.
One of the cheapest ways to achieve a natural effect is through the use of an umbrella. There are several types of photographic umbrellas available. These are great for softening up the light that comes from your flash because they tend to scatter the light around an make it seem to be coming from more than a single point.
Without a doubt, flash is the easiest to use. Because you can alter the intensity of the flash, you'll be able to change your shutter speed and aperture to their best affect.
You also need to know a little about the different types of light. Light can be bright or low, hard or soft. I avoid taking portraits with a harsh direct light on the person I'm shooting as it tends to bring out the imperfections in the skin. I generally will take family photos in my back room, where I can use a combination of flash and natural sunlight through the window.
Backgrounds are next. I have several different color backgrounds that I use for taking portraits, none of which cost me a lot of money. That's because you can buy rolls of background paper of different colors very inexpensively. When you're done you can just throw it away without losing a lot of money. If you're really thrifty, you can roll it up and use it again, but be very careful that it doesn't get wrinkled or creased in the process. It's not worth having a distracting line behind your subject to save a few pennies on paper. Make sure that the area you use for your background extends widely enough to contain your entire subject and the lighting you intend to use. Extend it at least two feet beyond the image in order to have the background contribute to the effect of your lighting.