What makes a great portrait?

I've discovered there are 6 components that define what make a great portrait. These have nothing to do with how you look but rather how it all works together. We all have reasons why we don't want to get a new headshot. You may want to lose more weight, grow out your hair or get more sun. In all honesty, no one ever feels it's the right time. Embrace your natural beauty in whatever state it is in right now and take the plunge. 

I have seen not-so-great portraits of beautiful people (by society's standard), and have seen amazingly gorgeous portraits of average-looking people. What is the magic formula? Several factors need to be taken into consideration to create an exceptional portrait.

Below are 6 factors that defines what makes a portrait great.

You must feel confident in yourself and the process.

A good attitude about yourself and your objective is really important. Having good experiences in general starts when you're balanced and relaxed. It is also very important to have confidence in the photographer and their team to accomplish what you hired them to do. This all relies on good communication before any photo session. A clear goal must be made and agreed upon by both you and the photographer. Only then, can a plan be set for the wardrobe, sets, and/or location. 

Good communication also takes the pressure off you when the day of the session finally comes. Being well informed of the process, including how to prepare for your session takes the mystery out of figuring it out yourself. Simple tips such as getting a good night's sleep the evening before the photoshoot makes a big difference in the way you'll look and feel.

Wear the proper makeup & wardrobe.

Makeup can make a big difference in a finished portrait. We always suggest you wear makeup for your photoshoot even if you don't wear it daily. Camera-ready makeup ensures that light will evenly reflect off your skin. Harsh bright lights may flatten out a persons face. Having the proper amount of contour and color will give your face depth and the right shape. 

Here is a great video tutorial on how to DIY camera ready makeup. However, we usually suggest you get your makeup done by a professional, even if you desire a natural look. This way all your best features will be enhanced and your less favorite features will be minimized. A professional makeup artist will know how to contour and highlight your face in the most flattering way. 

OMG! I look like a clown! Be prepared, your makeup will be heavier than normal. Ask the photographer do a test shot. If you want a natural look, it should look natural in the portrait. Therefore, it's very important that when your artist is finished you like and approve the makeup before you are photographed.

Another element that defines what makes a great portrait is your clothing. Proper wardrobe is an essential tip for a great portrait. We work with style consultants for our larger branding photoshoots but anyone can get advice on what to wear for a portrait. The most important thing to remember is that it must fit very well. If you wear anything too small or too big, you will look big. Plus, fashion is a great way to instantly date a photograph. If you're looking for something more timeless then you'll want to choose classic looks rather than anything trendy. 

Gina Cinardo, photographer and brand strategist.


It's about timing & compatibility.

Whether someone is an entrepreneur, actor, or just someone who wants creative portraits, they are the model for the day and the model must feel relaxed and at ease. Nothing ruins a portrait more than someone who feels uncomfortable when their portraits are taken. A photographer must give good direction as well as positive reinforcement. Plus, offer a fun and enlightening experience on top of it. All of those things are good attributes for having a nice flow during the session. When I photograph a client and I get excited over a pose I just shot, the client knows it. Plus, she knows I'm taking good portraits because I jump around and show them to her during the session. Sometimes this happens after I've tripped over a cord in the studio. Well, no one said I had to be graceful. But it does help with getting a good laugh.

Good camera angle & lighting is essential to a great portrait

The wrong angle on a face and body can make you look wider, thinner, or longer than you are. Subtle distortions are okay to get the right effect but unless the objective of the photoshoot is meant to be funky or weird then most of the time the camera should be at or right above eye level with the right lens at the right distance.

Lighting can make or break a portrait. Bad lighting can create odd shadows that may be too hard on someones face, or wash out the skin. Unless these are effects that go in line with your objective typically they don't naturally represent the true essence of a person. An experienced photographer will know what angle will be most flattering on the body and face shape. 

The right posing & editing makes choosing easier.

You may think the wrong expression creates awkwardness in a portrait but the wrong pose is predominantly the cause. I am meticulous at posing. For some reason, I just know when the head angle is right or not. An experienced photographer has done their research on posing and knows what angles will flatter the body most. However, there is a lot to consider when posing. Not just the body angle and composition, but the background as well as the focal point and expression I wish to capture.

My goal is to take enough shots of each pose until I know I've gotten "the shot". Only then do I feel confident enough to move on to the next pose, editorial, or wardrobe change. I may take duplicate poses and multiple expressions of one pose but inevitably I show the best of those and remove redundancies.

If there are a lot of photographs and many are redundant poses that look alike you can get confused. If your last photo shoot left you so overwhelmed you got an instant headache they might have failed on the editing. You should have a complete portfolio to view with enough varieties and expressions without too many redundancies. 

Final touches include post-processing and retouching.

Once all the favorite poses are picked out they need to be post-processed. This includes color-correcting and finishing, such as cropping, adding vignettes, or removing odd things in the background. I photograph many families at the beach and one common thing I always end up removing is the people in the background. However, I usually keep the surfers. 

Once the images are finished I'll do some light retouching of my subject. In most cases, it starts with removing fine hairs on the face, small blemishes, and sharpening the eyes. It's pretty amazing how retouching can make such a difference in the final image. I think the best description my clients tell me is that they look so clean. Not overly done. 

In conclusion, what makes a great portrait takes several steps to accomplish but in the end you also get an archive of yourself at a specific time in your history. The moment your portraits are captured they become invaluable to those who love you most.

If you're someone who is a business professional or a business owner then a great headshot is an essential tool in developing your personal brand to an audience. This shows you are serious about your work and have the confidence to do it.

If you would like to schedule a lifestyle or branding photography session then you can set up a complimentary strategy session to get you started.