Many people think that to make good portraits it requires a great deal of lighting equipment and exotic lenses. Nothing could be further from the truth. I find that if you simplify the photographic process, you can concentrate on the interaction with the subject and bring out the best in them.
Equipment needed: Any decent digital or film single lens reflex camera will work fine for your portrait session. If the camera has lens interchangeability, it is preferred to shoot with a lens that has a focal length of at least 60 mm. Lenses with a shorter focal length will give an unflattering perspective of your subject. A tripod is very handy if you are shooting with available light, as this assures a sharper image at slower shutter speeds. A reflector of some sort (white poster board, 30″x40″) will help in “filling in” the shadow side of the subject.
The process: Place your subject near an open window that has soft, non direct sunlight entering the room. One to two feet from the window is a good distance. After attaching the camera to the tripod, set your white balance on the “cloudy” setting and turn the camera so it is in a vertical or “portrait” position. Overcast days or indirect window light tends to look blue, hence, the cloudy setting will add some warmth back into the image. Frame up the photo so that the window does not show in the image, only the illuminated subject. A pleasant head and shoulder framing works best for most portraits. Shooting a little loose on the subject allows for cropping in for the final print. Ask the subject to sit with their shoulder directed more toward the window than toward the camera. This positioning gives a sense of a third dimension (depth) in a media that has only two dimensions. The subject should turn their head so that they have eye contact with the camera and you can see both of their ears. Select an ISO of about 400-600 for the photo. Use a fairly wide open aperture, say f 2.8-4 if, the lens will allow it. With the camera in manual mode, select the aperture and adjust the shutter speed until you have a proper exposure. This arrangement allows the highest possible shutter speed (no camera shake, no subject movement) and very shallow depth of field. Human beings tend to look into the eyes of others, so, focus carefully on your subjects eyes. With all this accomplished, have a helper hold the white poster board on the shadow side of your subject without it showing in your viewfinder. This bounce effect will fill in the darker side of the face and give more even lighting.
As you photograph your subject, chat with them to elicit smiling and pleasant expressions. Shoot a lot of frames! I repeat, SHOOT A LOT OF FRAMES! You can always edit to “the” shot and discard the rest. Everyone will now think you only shoot great portraits.