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There are many pieces to doing a portrait – it’s not easy. You have to think about the technical stuff like exposure and focus, as well as the non-technical stuff like composition and working with a live subject. It can be daunting if you’re just starting out doing portrait photography so let’s break it down into all the pieces so you can work on one at a time, then put it all together.
Here are the 10 crucial elements you need to think about when doing portrait photography:
This is how the light falls on the subject’s face. How you set up the light will determine the mood of the final portrait and whether or not the subject is flattered. Lighting partner is a critical piece to get right. There are four main type of patterns and two styles, they are:
Knowing what each looks like and when to use them is very important. Read more here: 6 Portrait Lighting Patterns Every Photographer Should Know.
A ratio is a comparison of one thing to another and in terms of lighting it is comparing the dark and light sides of the face. How much difference is there is from the shadow, to the highlight side? The greater the ratio, the more contrast the image will have, and the more moody the portrait will become. The lower the ratio, the less contrast, and the portrait will have a lighter, fresher feeling.
Look at the following examples:
In the images above the ratio on the left is very strong, about 16:1 or four stops. The missing is about 4:1 or two stops, and the right is almost 1:1 or even. The only difference from one to the next is use of a reflector. Notice how the mood and feel of the portrait changes, as the contrast is adjusted.
For more detail on ratios read: Lighting Ratios to Make or Break your Portrait
Another aspect of lighting you need to decide is whether you will use hard or soft light.
Hard light is produced by a small light source and is characterized by high contrast, enhanced texture of the subject, added drama, and harsh well edge-defined shadows. Examples of hard light sources are:
Here are two portraits done using hard light. Which is more appropriate use of this type of lighting for the subject?
Soft light is produced by a very large light source. It is low contrast (or can even be quite flat), less textureenhancing, and is more forgiving and flattering for people photography. Examples of soft light sources are:
Here are two portraits done using soft light. Which is more appropriate use of this type of lighting for the subject?
So along with the ratio, the quality of light will have a great affect on the mood and feeling of your portrait. Choose soft light for portraits that flatter the subject, and choose hard light for an edgier look with more grit and drama.
The lens you select will change the appearance not only of the subject, but the background as well.
Using a wide angle lens will introduce distortion and cause the subject’s face to look abnormal, sort of stretched. It will also allow you to see a large sweeping view of the background behind them.
However, there may be instances where you want this look such as a humorous portrait, kids, or an editorial style portrait of a street vendor at a market where you want to see his environment.
Telephoto lenses compress perspective – this does two things. First it is usually more flattering to the subject, their facial features look less distorted. Second, it simplifies the background by seeing less of it, and often it’s less in focus as well (dependant on distance to the background) putting more emphasis on the subject, which is what you want. Read more at: How to Achieve Blurred Backgrounds in Portraits.
Same girl as the portrait above. Compare her face in the two images, and take note of the background as well. See how much less of the room, and how it is more out of focus than the wide image above?
The long lens used for this image has compressed the background and because it is so far away (across the river on the other side) it is really out of focus and provides a soft background to enhance the portrait, not take away from the girl.
One thing many of my students forget to control and think about is the background. It’s so easy to be focused on all the other stuff and working with your subject that you forget to even look at the background.
Two things you want to make sure about for the background are: it makes sense with the portrait, and doesn’t distract the viewer from the subject. There are four things that can do that, watch for them in your background and adjust your camera position or composition accordingly if they show up:
Any or all of those can draw the eye away from the subject if they are in your background. The eye is attracted to the brightest area of an image, as well as the sharpest. So get your portrait subject away from the background far enough to get it out of focus, and watch for hot spots that grab the eye. Sometimes simply moving your camera a foot or two to the left or right can eliminate trouble areas and give you a cleaner background – allowing the subject to be the star.
Use of multiple techniques here have drastically improved this portrait over the one above. The background is now solid, out of focus, and it does not take your eye away from the couple but rather compliments the overall portrait.
For a portrait where the subject is not moving, I almost always use the following camera settings:
That gives me the most control over doing one very important thing – having a consistent exposure from one frame to the next. That may not seem like a bit deal but if you ever decide to do portraits for a friend or have real paying clients – you want to be able to show them the images on the back of the camera and not worry about the one in the middle that was black cause you forgot to adjust the exposure.
The other thing it does is makes editing in the post-production stage much faster.
So basically set your exposure, do a test shot (review it for exposure using the histogram), then don’t touch it unless you either move to a new location, or the light changes.
I already mentioned the settings I use for focus above. Back button focus is something I highly recommend as well. It allows me to lock focus on the subject, precisely on their eye if I’m in close enough, and then recompose my portrait and shoot away. Unless the subject or I move, changing the distance between us, there is no need to refocus.
Here are a few more focus tips from a past article I did: 5 Tips for Getting Sharper Images. Obviously if you’re shooting a moving target, like kids in action, you’ll want to choose different focus settings. Try Continuous focus (Servo or AF-C) and burst mode (continuous shooting mode or drive).
Getting your subject or model into a comfortable, yet flattering pose can be tricky. People are generally nervous when being photographed and will look to you for guidance on how to stand, hold their body, turn their head, and adjust their hands. So you need to have a few ideas ready for them, making sure they can hold it comfortably and they look good at the same time.
Here are a few tips:
For more tips on posing read these dPS articles:
How you position the subject’s face is another factor that determines how flattering the portrait will be, and the mood. Some people look really great in full face view (facing the camera directly) while most benefit from turning slightly to one side, thus narrowing the face a little.
Profile view is something people cannot see in the mirror, so many have never seen theirs, and have no idea what they look like from the side. Only by trying it out will you see and know if it’s flattering for them.
The key to choosing the right angle for their face is to observe them. Do they tend to turn slightly when talking to you? Take note – that is probably the side the subconsciously prefer.
Three different views of the same girl’s face (above). She has a really gorgeous profile and a square jaw. I think the profile and last image (¾ face view) are the most flattering for her but she looks great in any image. Not all your portrait subjects will have that, so you have to help them look their best by making choices like this. If in doubt, shoot all three and choose later, or let them pick. You’ll learn from the subject what they like and what they think looks flattering.
Tip: for people who have a bump on their nose that do not want it to show – try photographing them facing both ways. One way will show the bump, the other it will be hidden. How you do that is shoot one way with the light say off to camera right. Then trade places with them so the light is coming from the other way and do a second shot. See which shows, and which hides the bump – then you’re ready to go.
What camera position you choose will decide what you’re emphasizing on the subject. A low camera angle can show height (especially if shooting full body) and make someone look taller, but it also emphasizes the body more. Not a good choice if someone wants to appear slimmer. Getting low down near kids level puts you closer to the action and makes them appear less small.
A slightly above eye level camera angle will emphasize the face and minimize the body, a good choice for most people. It also makes kids look smaller and can be effective if that’s the look you want. A really high angle will make the forehead prominentant (perhaps not the best choice for a receding hairline).
Just be conscious that where you place your camera will affect the final look of the portrait.
Okay, this is the ultimate thing you need to get right for great portraits. You can nail all nine points above, but if the subject has a bad expression, they will not like the image. There is one big tip I have for getting the best expressions in your portraits – talk to the subject and interact with them. There is one huge barrier to doing that which I see happen all the time.
There is a big black thing in between you and the real person sitting in front of you!
Yes, I mean the camera. Try this exercise if you dare:
Get a friend, or one of your kids or grandkids, to pose for you. Now put the camera up to your eye and take a few shots. How did it feel to you? Did you feel connected to your subject? Ask them how they felt?
Now put the camera on a tripod – yes the dreaded beast we all hate but it a necessary evil – and take a few shots using a remote trigger to fire the camera. How did you feel then? What about your subject? Were you able to make them laugh or smile? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you both had a better experience the second time and you got better expressions in the photos.
The key to expression is eye contact and you cannot do that with a camera between you.
I’ve photographed Bob many times. He is a volunteer at an old coal mine where I do a workshop twice a year. He was a miner way back in the day and is as spry in his 70s as many people who are 40! He loves telling stories about the mine and ghosts so I just get him talking and let him go. We have fun, he loves being a “model” for a day, and it shows in the images.
Try it and see if it doesn’t make a difference. The tripod will also make you slow down and think about your camera, settings, and everything. Your tripod is not evil, it is your friend. Make friends with your tripod and use it.
Whew! See I told you doing portraits is a lot to think about. But you can do this, you got this. Just take it one step at a time. If you aren’t at the stage of getting all 10 of these things yet, just pick one at a time and work on that. Choose patient models that will help you and practice. The only way to get better is by doing.
My students often ask me, “How do you make it look so easy?” – then answer – I’ve been doing this a really long time and it becomes instinct and subconscious after so many hours. Put in your 10,000 hours and we’ll talk!
If you have any questions or want to share your images – please do so in the comments below.