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The Basics of Portrait Photography

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Did you ever look at a portrait of someone and wonder what they were thinking or what it is about that particular photograph that intrigued you enough to stop and ponder over it? Is it the perfect exposure or the way that the light and shadows play with the lens? Perhaps it is the way that the photographer masterfully captured that moment in time by creatively cropping it just the right way. The truth of the matter is that there are just as many correct answers to what makes a photograph a masterpiece as there are photographic masterpieces.

The main thing to remember that photography, much like art, is very much a matter of taste and what I like might not be quite up to your specifications. But the main elements are always going to remain the same. A portrait requires a subject that is properly posed, properly composed and properly exposed. Beyond that it is an art form that is subjective. So let’s take a look at those three magic elements to making a great portrait.

Properly Posed

If you don’t take the time to properly pose your subject then you are losing the element of control that will set your portrait a few notches above being a snap shot. Anyone with a camera can take a snap shot. However it takes a real photographic mind to actually pose the subject in a manner that is pleasing to the eye. It is an acquired touch to look at someone and see what pose is likely to be the most attractive for them.

Perhaps your model is more rugged and that will suggest a more daring pose that shows the roughness of their ways and will add to the lines on their face to enhance the silent story that you are trying to tell with your portrait.

Perhaps you are shooting a youngster posing for his or her first portrait for graduation from preschool. This one should make the viewer think of color and fun that will have them smiling at the pose.

But do not get caught up in the old adage that a portrait needs to be stiff and stagnant in order to be good. Those days have long since passed and today the rules are a lot more relaxed about what is accepted in the realm of portrait shooting.

The best thing to do is to shoot a few test shots as your subject is getting used to being around all of the lighting and gear. They will more likely than not be very nervous and looking at all of the many things and do dads that you have around them for the session.

This is a great time to le them be themselves and just tell them to get comfortable while you are setting levels on exposure and the like. As they are doing this you should continue to shoot shots. Make a mental note of what poses actually seemed to compliment the model and their personality. That way when the actual posing begins, the model will be relaxed and you will know more what will work the best and you are far more apt to get great portraits from hat session. In fact I have personally had sessions where some of the best shots actually came from the “warm up” pictures I took. Digital memory is cheap enough that you can afford to shoot a lot of shots.

Properly Composed

Far too many photographers that do portrait worm are of the opinion that they should get as much on the shot as they can and then they can crop and edit out the unwanted stuff in the background with Photoshop.

The problem that most professional portrait photographers have with this philosophy is that if you shoot more than you need and then crop off and blow the photo up to what you actually envisioned, you are going to have a grainier photograph. There are only so many pixels in there no matter if you are using a 6.3 or an 18.1 mega pixel camera and once you crop and enlarge, you are losing size and sharpness, there is no way around that.

Keep in mind as well that you do not have to have an elaborate portrait set up in order to get great shots. You need a good camera and a good prime lens. I would stay away from the tendency to grab the zoom lens out of the bag and use your legs to move in and out. You will get a much more usable and quite a bit sharper image that way because a prime lens is designed for doing only one thing but doing it extremely well.

You also can forget the need to think that you have to have all the fancy lighting rigs. Yes they are great to have if you have anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars to spend. But that money is better spent on perhaps a background stand and some rolls of background paper, a good prime lens, a tripod and a couple of nice reflectors.

With this setup you can take advantage of using available light and mounting the camera on the tripod will allow you to shoot at a lower ISO setting to assure a crisp image. This is essential in portrait shooting because your image might be the one that ends up getting enlarged for the wall.

The biggest thing to remember in available light and what I call casual portrait shooting such as shooting at someone’s home is you need to be sure to look at the back ground before you shoot. There are often things there that will be totally out of place or even down right distracting in the final picture. This check can make an otherwise blah print pop out as a stellar shot.

If it is impossible to do anything with the background and you want the casual look so the background stand and paper are out it is best to take your fastest prime lens with the longest telephoto length. This way you can set the depth of field to allow only the face to be in sharp focus and let the distracting background clutter fade into simply color patterns in the back.

Remember that the best rule in portrait photography is to blur the background. A sharply focused face or faces with an out of focus background pulls your gaze into the photo and allows the centerpiece, the faces, to shine and be the focal point. If the background is also in focus you will find that your eyes and mind will wander and your portrait will be nothing more than a conglomerate of images facing a serious identity crisis.

I have even had times when, for reasons or aesthetics, I have slightly blurred the faces and left the background sharp. While it does not make a great photograph from the sense of a standard and sellable portrait, I have gotten wonderful reviews from folks that have purchased such a shot and use it as art in the room. It leaves something to the imagination and causes the viewer to have to think.

Properly Exposed

No amount of the many points outlined above are going to do you a lot of good unless you take the care to be sure that your image is properly exposed. If you portrait photograph is over or under exposed you will need to do a lot of post production work on that shot to make it even marginally useful.

Many photographers run all sorts of calculations to figure out the correct theory for the right exposure settings. I tried that myself and discovered one thing. By the time that you, at least if you are a beginner, figure out the correct exposure settings for the portrait, that perfect pose and expression is likely gone for good.

Another option until you get to the point that it simply becomes second nature to you is to bracket your shots. Most cameras these days, including most entry level DSLR camera offer this option. Find that section of the manual and read it then try some bracket exposures. You will usually find that all three of them will be decent but one it going to be exactly what you are after. After you do this enough times and review the data in post production you will begin to understand the correlation between ISO, shutter speed and your f-stop setting and you will start to think like a photographer,

Soon your brain will begin to automatically calculate what setting you need based on what your eyes are seeing. It will become something that you do without thinking about it, somewhat like we walk, talk and breathe without having to contemplate what we are doing. Once that takes place a whole new world of portrait shooting will open for you.

Finding a Portrait Location

It might be nice to own a loft where you can have everything set up and ready to go for your portrait sessions, but that is not the case for most of us. A friend of mine actinically has a portion of her garage set up as a place where she can almost instantly convert it into a decent location for a portrait shoot. But for most of us that is impractical so we have to locate other options for a location to do portraits if we want them to look great.

What would you say if I said that you could most likely have unlimited space to shoot portrait shots that would make your images look like they were shot like a pro? We can always move out doors and shoot, but that might not be ideal, out there we have to contend with weather, unusually harsh light, wind, green reflections and uncontrolled backgrounds to name but a few.

Why not grab up your medium telephoto such as something along the lines of a 200 mm is usually a good choice and between 2.0 and 2.8 on the f-stop settings and head off to a museum or a local art gallery. You can almost always count on the lighting being good and there should be plenty of available light colored walls and such that you can easily use to enhance the depth of the portrait.

Another option that has worked well for me in a pinch has been to contact the local college or high school and ask about using the area that the drama class has. Offer to give the school credits in the shots and you can have a great free area with lots of lighting and lots of props to use as long as you can shoot when that area is not being used by the school.

All of these options will offer you a lot of free and safe places to shoot. You simply step down your lens so that the background is out of focus and the viewer won’t know that the portrait wasn’t shot in a high dollar Madison Avenue studio.

One other thing that you need to keep in mind if you are using these public studios as a place for your portrait work, make sure not to annoy the patrons and if your model or models will be doing any type of costume changes. Plan them in advance and make sure you don’t hog up the restrooms during the change.

How Much Equipment is enough?

Cameras & Lenses

The answer that comes to mind for me is, whatever you have available. It is possible to get a really good shot using a well used 6.3 mega-pixel camera such as the Canon D300 and a Canon 50 mm f/1.8 prime lens. You see photography is really not about how much gear you have, it is about how well you know how to use that gear.

The more money you have the first thing to enhance would be your lens selection so that you can have the right tool for the job. Like a mechanic uses a lug wrench to remove a tire rather than a pair of vice grips. Both might get the job done but a better tool makes it easier to do.

When it comes to portraits, most people thing that they have a large nose. It is the absolute easiest feature to see and can cause the portrait to be terrible if attention is drawn to it. For that reason it is best to stay at least ten and less than twenty feet from the subject of your portrait shoot. This is precisely why the all around favorite go to lens for any portrait photographer is the trusty old 135 mm telephoto.

If your wallet is not fat enough to get a brand name prime lens at 135 mm you can go for a slower 135 or 85 mm and work with that until you can afford a better one. But keep in mind that your portraits are only going to be as good as the glass that you use to shoot them. That means do not scrimp on the lens.

Ideally your portrait kit should consist of the following lenses unless you are a very well paid fashion or glamour portrait photographer. This is only my personal opinion but you will likely find many of these same lens combinations in the cases of the world’s best portrait photographers.

  • A 50 mm f/1.2
  • A  85 mm f/1.2 (you can use an f/1.8 if you are short on cash)
  • A 100 mm f/2.0
  • A 135 mm f/2.0

The basic rule here is that the shorter the focal lengths of the lens, the less blur you will have when trying to get a great portrait. For many years I personally was broke and my kit consisted of a great film camera body and a 50 mm f/1.2 lens. That was it. I learned how to be creative with set ups, lighting and angles of the shots to accentuate what I wanted and downplay what I didn’t.  It was tough but I learned a lot that helps me today.

Also keep in the back of your mind that most entry level Digital SLR cameras have a smaller light sensor than the old 35 mm cameras. That means that the lens that you use actually has a different focal length than what is on it. You can find the information in your owner manual but, for example, the Canon D300 that was my first Digital SLR had a magnification factor of 1.6. Using that number you multiply the focal length on the lens and the list of lenses above looks like this.

  • The 50 mm becomes roughly an 80 mm lens
  • The 85 mm becomes roughly a 136 mm lens
  • The 100 mm becomes roughly a 160 mm lens
  • The 135 mm becomes roughly a  216 mm lens

So as you can see, your trusty old 50 mm prime lens has the effective focal length of 80 mm which is approximately one of the staple lengths of a great portrait lens.

The Brains of the System, Your Camera

The other main part of your portrait system is the actual brain of the system, that is you camera. Today there are so many choices on the market that there is once again no clear correct answer. The only real advice that will ring across from any professional photographer is to make sure you buy a trusted brand name camera. If you look at the portrait professional that are using Digital SLR cameras, two names will be seen for the most part. Those names are Canon and Nikon.

The reason is that these two companies have a reputation of making great cameras that will give you a good life of trouble free use when handled correctly and you will find a plethora of compatible accessories for both of them.

Canon as an example uses the EF series lenses. These have been the heart and soul of Canon cameras since their introduction in 1987. So there are a ton of lenses out there that will fit your Canon camera, even those from the old 35 mm Rebel that was so popular when it was released.

Selecting your camera

You need to go to a decent camera store and pick them up and get them in your hands ad see how it feels to you. You will be the one using it so it has to feel good. Look at the relationship of the buttons to your fingers. In a fast paced portrait session one of the last things that you want to do is stop to think and hunt for the button to change your ISO settings or to get to the menu to change another setting. You need to know it will feel good and that your thumbs can reach the buttons.

After you have narrowed it down try some other lenses like we mentioned above and see how they feel. A heaver lens will change the dynamics of the camera and you portrait sessions can last a while so you want the camera to be well balanced and nimble feeling.

Another big consideration is of course the mega-pixels of the camera. The higher the number the more image resolution you will see. That means you will get huge files and have a lot of detail. So you will need a ton of memory, always buy the biggest that you can afford that will fit the camera. That is because I suggest that on ALL portrait sessions that you shoot your portraits in what is called RAW mode.

RAW mode gives you about twice the file size but the data that is stored in a RAW file can literally save your portrait session. I once shot an entire session in JPEG format when I first was starting with digital SLRs. I had been messing around with the custom white balance settings as I was learning the camera and left it set for some awful white balance setting for some very large florescent lights.

Guess what? When I went to review the pictures the next day to edit them down for the client every last one of them had a turquoise blue tint to them. It took me a while in Photoshop (remember here – I was new to this at this point) and I had to hand color correct each and every one of those portrait shots. I did end up with twelve usable ones and the client was happy but I wasted about a week of editing time making all the corrections to do so.

Had I shot the portrait session in the RAW setting from my camera, it would have been simple. With RAW everything is stored much like meta-data. Nothing is actually applied to the portrait when it is shot but rather you apply them in the studio and make the adjustments and fine tuning with one click that can be applied to all of the portrait shots in a batch saving time, energy, sleep and hair.

Lighting Equipment

This is a big pandora’s box when it comes to portrait photography. The deal with good portrait photography is that you NEED to have good lighting. You can rely on outdoor lighting if the conditions are right, but at some point you are going to need to get nitty gritty with all the various portrait lighting equipment setups, especially if you are keen on having your own portrait studio or you want to get more into fashion/glamour photography.

There are a zillion different lighting setups and this topic itself merits a giant post (or 20). We’ll have a full blown portrait photography lighting guide for you folks later on. For now, just accept that lighting is one of the most important elements to taking good portrait photos.

Final Word

Portrait photography is a complex topic to discuss and teach. There are so many styles of portrait photography and depending on WHAT TYPE of portrait photography you are interested in (glamour, fashion, baby photography, etc), your equipment requirements and techniques will change.

The best way to learn portrait photography is to just get started shooting! So what are you waiting for? Go get a camera and shoot!

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