First the technical:
Since a portrait is about a subject, cleaning up the lighting and composition is key. There are many complicated and rewarding ways of accomplishing this and I encourage everyone to explore this….but the easiest way to do this is to utilize a medium telephoto lens to allow the background to fall out of focus. If you have a zoom, walk away from your subject and zoom in as far as you can. If you want the simplest portrait lens that produces the best results for under $1000, then buy a 50mm f1.8 lens for $100, go here for Nikon, or here for Canon. (Side note: a big f-stop is actually the smaller #, like f1.8 is ‘bigger’ than f5.6 and therefore shallower depth of field and lets more light in for low light situations.) This lens allows you to shoot at a shallow depth of field (due to the f1.8) and has the side affect of force you to think more about your photography (due to being a prime) if you let it.
Now the artistic:
1) The first thing I look for is good light. In the examples below, I looked for where the light was ‘glowing’ in from big windows and I watched for how the light was playing on the subjects face, hopefully lighting up both of the eyes. I have talked about this before.
2) Even having the best gear can make a bad photo…you need to know how to use it artistically. Below are a couple images I took with the 50mm f1.8. I intentionally used a big hallway that extended far away behind the subject to allow it go look out of focus, I intentionally squatted down or leaned slightly to the side to frame the subject into the background. Since all of these images were taken with the same fixed focal length (can’t zoom) 50mm f1.8 prime I moved around a lot to get all these ‘different’ shots. If you want the subject closer (or bigger in the frame) then move forward. Conversely if you want them smaller, scoot back and recompose. Warning, a little thinking and vision are involved here.
3) The last thing was how I related to my subject, well it was also first because I had been relating the entire time I was thinking about step 1 and 2, but it pays off after I have my subject in the right light and knowing how to use my gear. This is where being relational is super important to portrait photography because we need to be everything to everyone in order to make them feel comfortable enough with us to let their guard down and let their self show through. This aspect is the most important element to portrait photography…and usually the most overlooked in chat rooms and people that want to tell you gear is everything. Nobody will be able to tell you what lens or camera you used but everyone can tell if a pose looks fake, or a subject looks uncomfortable, or if the smile looks forced.
There are many other elements to portraits (lighting, or exotic location and people come to mind) but if you jump past the simple elements to soon, the true essence of a portrait can become overly complicated. Juggling all the aspects; knowing how to relate to your subject, seeing the light as your camera does, and thinking in general, are all things that require practice. Put yourself in situations that stretch you, and try to create a portrait that tells a story. A good portrait is created, sometimes by accident, and sometimes by painstaking intentionality.