A photographer is super useful for a lot of reasons; the biggest one in my mind is that setting timers and taking self portraits is hard! Even as a professional photographer, it's one of the things I dread the most and why I hire photographers myself.
A photographer allows you to relax and be in the moment, while also being part of the photographic story. A beautiful family photo is hard to come by, and so appreciated.
But, what about photos that you could take yourself? Maybe you have a newborn at home and feel inspired to make a quality portrait using your phone or camera. And what about those daily portraits of your kids and pets?
What should you pay attention to in order to achieve the best results on your own? Here are some of my personal and professional guidelines. Prefaced with the fact that every artist and individual has their own preferences, there are no hard rules for a perfect shot. But these are the guidelines I follow to get a quality, nicely-lit portrait.
Lighting is everything and by far the most important component for getting a quality photograph. We have two things to consider when talking about light: type and placement.
1) Light Type | Use Only Natural Fill Light from a Big Window
Why Natural Light?
All light has color. Indoor artificial lighting has a different color than outdoor light. So, rule #1 is to only use one source of lighting. This way you don't have strange color casts in your p photo. I recommend natural light from a big window instead of artificial light. I recommend a window vs a light bulb because it is larger source of light (big window) is going to be softer on the subject than a smaller sized light (lamp).
Why Fill Light, and What is It?
Think about how the light changes around your home from morning to evening. Some hours it shines bright through the window, casting high-contrast shadows on the floor. This is called Direct Light. Other hours it shines softly, making everything in the room appear evenly lit. This is called indirect light. You want the subject in your portrait to have softly-lit skin so that details aren't hidden by dark shadows or too bright by the intense light, this is why Fill Light is preferable over direct light for most conventional portraits.
I usually look for fill light by locating the sun (is it east or west?) and then go to the room on the opposite end of where the sun is. So in the morning, I'd take my portraits on the West side of the house. In the evening, I'd choose the East side. South will always have more direct light than North. So a North-East side of the house in the evening is my jam.
Note sometimes direct light is effective when you want to convey a feeling along with the portrait. Strong shadows express warmth and sunlight. So if the mood is more important than nicely lighting your subject, you can totally go with this. This is the photo that says: I am in the glider, snuggling with my newborn, and the sun is on me and I feel amazing.
Ok, so you've identified the source of light. Now let's talk about...
2) Light Placement/Position | Shine the light on your subject and the parts of your subject you want to draw the eye to.
This might mean they're directly facing the window, or facing away at an angle between between 0 and 90 degrees.
This part means thinking about the direction of your light source. You want the window fill light to be shining on your subject's face, hands, whatever you're photographing. You could put your subject directly opposite of the window, with you and the camera in-between the two, and this makes the window light shine directly on your subject. This will result in the least amount of shadows on your subject because the light isn't coming from an angle. Totally cool! Try it and see what you think!
If you want to add some depth to the light on your subject (some soft shadows are good), try rotating them so that instead of facing directly at the window, they're facing away at an angle between 0 and 90 degrees (0 being looking directly at the window, and 90 degrees meaning their head is turned perpendicular with the window). See how this placement changes the shadows that fall on your subject. What do you like better? It might be a personal preference.
Note: Once you start facing them away from the window (greater than 90 degrees angle) you'll see more shadows on your subject than light. This can be effective for a moodier feel.
Note: If your window is in the background of your photograph it will quickly become the brightest point in the photograph because it is your main source of light, and this is often what your eye naturally travels to and can distract from your subject. This is especially important to consider & experiment with when you face your subject more than 90 degrees away from the window.
Image Notes in the image above, fill light is used to create the soft highlights and shadows. The lighting is coming from a 80-90 degree angle from a window to the right.
Now that you have decided on your lighting, it's time to think about the things in your frame (everything that is in your picture).
3) Background | Be selective with the objects that are visible
My tip is to simplify the background. For a newborn photo this might mean putting them on the bed where you have your favorite linens and nothing else (laundry, toys, cell phone all need to be moved elsewhere).
Think about everything that's in your frame and ask "does this add to my photograph?&q