3 Ways to Get Killer Portraits Using a Tripod

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As photographers, you’re all looking to “wow” the people we’re taking pictures of, whether they’re clients or just friends. When you show final images, there’s that sense of anticipation, excitement and nervousness as you gauge reactions. And when you hear the words “amazing” or “I love them,” it’s truly a great feeling. So how do you get the “wow” and avoid the “just okay?” Well that’s not always easy. With so many good photographers out there and so much of their work getting exposure via social networks, expectations for good photography is as high as it’s ever been.

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Here are three ways to achieve killer portraits with the use of a tripod that we use in our studio. These include the following, all of which we’ll show you – keep reading:

  1. Shutter Drags
  2. Composites
  3. HDRs

Required Equipment

  • Sturdy tripod – that old hand-me-down tripod might not be stable enough, as any movement will show in the images
  • Shutter release – using a cable release will help you avoid touching the camera and causing movement
  • Wide angle lens – as you can see from the images in this article, a wider lens is going to bring out many of the “wow” elements like the clouds, the ocean, the streaking lights, and more
  • Camera – as with any type of photography, the camera is only as good as the photographer. You can get amazing results with both entry level DSLRs and full frame cameras.

1. Shutter Drags (Long Exposure Photography)

Dragging the shutter refers to using slower shutter speeds to capture movement. This captures motion of anything in your frame that is moving, while keeping the static objects in the scene nice and crisp. If you can get your couple to hold still, you have the opportunity to create awesome effects with moving people, cars or waves like you see in the image below. Additional saturation and contrast is added in post production using some Lightroom Presets.

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Shutter Drag Quick Tips:

  • How slow do you go? – well that depends entirely on how fast the other elements in the scene are moving. If cars are zooming by, you can get away with faster shutter speeds like 1/60 or 1/30, but if you are capturing moving people and they are slowly strolling, you may have to drop it even lower like 1/10th or even lower. For water, like the shots above, we are generally around 1/2 to 1 second.
  • Ensure that your subjects are holding really still – instruct your subjects to hold very still, avoid blinking during the shot or sequence of shots, and even hold their breath.
  • Utilize static poses –  posing for these types of photos will have to be static. Dips, jumps, and walks will add too much motion in the scene and result in blurry photos. However, static does not have to mean boring. You can still have them in flattering, romantic poses.
  • Snap a few extra shots to ensure you have one crisp photo – take a few extra shots because a photo may look crisp on the back of your camera, only to show noticeable motion blur as it’s taken into post production.

2. Composites

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Compositing multiple photographs into one is sometimes the best solution when it’s unreasonable to have your couple hold still for as long as you need to achieve the desired effect. For example, if you’re looking to capture the beautiful stars in a night sky or if you’re looking combine multiple streaks of passing car lights –  the five, ten, or even 30 second exposure time is much too long to expect any live subject to be still. Below is an example where our couple would have had to hold still for around 15 seconds as we spin flaming steel wool just behind them.

wedding-photography

Composite Tips:

The tips for capturing composites are actually very similar as the tips for capturing shutter drags. For example, you still need a sturdy tripod and a shutter release; and you should certainly snap a few extras to make sure you have enough choices to work with in post-production. In addition, here are some more quick tips for capturing composite photos.

  • Expose for the couple’s skin tones first – your lighting can be anything from flash to constant lights; but the most important thing is to focus primarily on the subject.
  • Have the subjects exit the scene – after you’re sure you have a shot with a good pose and good lighting, you can have them exit the scene.
  • Then adjust your settings as needed to expose for the background and create your desired effects. For example, if you’re looking to capture the streaking lights, adjust your shutter speed down and wait for the cars to pass.
  • If you can keep the overall exposures identical between shots, compositing will be incredibly simple. Just layer the images in Photoshop, and then mask in and out elements on each layer. However, if the exposures and look of each image varies, then it will require quite a bit more advanced compositing work which would be beyond the scope of this article.

3. Try HDR Portrait Photography

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While HDR Photography gets a bad rap sometimes for being gaudy and fake, when done correctly, you have the opportunity to create memorable, distinct photography. This is especially true with outdoor scenes on a cloudy day. Grab your tripod, pose your couple in a static pose, dial in the right settings, and shoot away. What are the right settings? Well start with ISO 100 and a decent aperture (f/4 and up). From there, the shutter will vary depending on the brightness of the scene. For more information, feel free to check out some of these HDR tips on dPS.

hdr-architecture-wedding-photography

HDR Quick Tips:

Here are a few more things to keep in mind.

  • Study how to bracket exposures on your specific camera. Almost all cameras have the AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing) feature, but you will need to know how to access it to dial in the correct settings.
  • Keep your minimum shutter speed at 1/200 or higher. Any movement in the couple or background can cause unnatural “ghosting,” so keeping the shutter speed high will really help you save time in post production.
  • Avoid strong and overpowering flares. If you’re shooting into the sun, strong flares can desaturate your image and create a loss of sharpness. If you are shooting into the sun for compositional purposes, choose an angle where the flare isn’t going to distract from the subject.
  • Choose the right time of day. Sunrise and sunset are still going to one of best times to shoot, as you are most likely to have amazing color in the sky during that time. Remember that the same general photography rules still apply when shooting HDR, we simply are using the HDR process to bring out more detail.
  • Watch the weather report. Partly cloudy days are great times to shoot HDR photography. Capturing all of the contrast and interest in the clouds, as you see in the sample images in this article, really add the “wow” factor.

Conclusion

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By no means are these three techniques enough for a solid session. In fact, the majority of the photos you take during any portrait session should revolve around candid posing, story-telling, and emotion. For us, we use these dramatic environmental shots to “set the stage” in a final album, canvas mural or other print medium. They are the big grand images that sets the scene, and they are followed by the close up candid images showing the couple interact in said scene and environment.

These techniques are also wonderful in creating “wow” shots, i.e. the shots they share on Facebook and the shots they end up printing on a canvas at their wedding. The shots that make everyone else go, “how’d they do that!?”

Do you have any other killer tips you’d like to share? Please do so in the comment section below.

sunset-hdr-wedding-photography

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Post Production Pye

I hate speaking of myself in the third person, haha. I am a Partner and professional photographer with Lin and Jirsa Los Angeles Wedding Photography, and the Senior Editor for SLR Lounge Photography Tutorials. I am passionate about photography as an art as well as my part as an educator in the industry. Subscribe to our YouTube Channel and feel free to hit me up with questions anytime on Facebook.

  • Larry

    Another good article from Post Production Pye, EXCEPT:

    I have a problem with him calling long exposure photography “dragging the shutter”.

    To the rest of the world shutter dragging means a combination of flash and ambient light by shooting at a slower speed than required for the flash in order to balance flash and ambient light, or capture background movement while freezing the subject with flash. Rick Berk does a good job of explaining this in his article: https://digital-photography-school.com/dragging-the-shutter-balancing-fill-flash-with-ambient-light/

    What Pye describes here is just “slow shutter speed”. Good article anyway.

  • Kelvin Wong

    Would just like to contribute something is that, if you are shooting with a tripod, naturally you are looking at getting a crisp clear shot, especially in a low light situation like, night portraits.
    (1) You may wanna increase your iso so that you can use a faster shutter speed to ease the pressure on your subject on holding still. Nowadays, Im sure we can all handle iso 100-6400 pretty well huh?
    (2) Turn off IS / VC or any form of image stabilization on your lens before you mount it on a tripod.
    This article talks about dragging shutter speed to achieve some great effects. I think assuming that some of us are beginners, you might wanna mention the use of ND filters to greatly reduce light and achieve that shutter speed that you wanted.
    Just my humble input . Thanks

  • Andy Austin

    I’m usually a landscape photographer, but I dabble in portrait photography. I got to combine the two last fall doing this night portrait for an engagement shoot for friends. Used a flash to freeze them then I dragged the shutter to pick up the stars.

  • #1 – true, however if you are trying to add car light trails or a sparkler – you need the longer shutter times.
    #2 – yes for sure, good tip!

  • just amazing 🙂

  • Yes “flash and drag” bit of an old school term. I think the message is still clear though.

  • Kimberly Clark

    Amazing Work and Great Photography! Really appreciate you sharing your knowledge

  • ChristopherLin

    Hi Larry: Thanks for the feedback.

  • Pravesh

    its not looking much realistic.. but composition is very nice.. good work

  • Barry E Warren

    Thanks for sharing these Great tips, now to try some HDR. Those photos look amazing.

  • Arawak

    I like to print and save these articles, but why can’t I copy these photos to go along with the article? I want them only for reference.

  • walwit

    I don’t have any problem selecting-copying-pasting any article from Internet Explorer to MS-Word, including the images.

  • gabmorin

    Joining this page was the best thing I’ve ever done in my young career. Awesome article. I mainly take pictures of cars but looking to expand to portraits, this was very usefull.

  • ChristopherLin

    For More info on HDR Photography by SLR Lounge, please consider checking out the DVD Workshop Here: http://www.slrlounge.com/store-product/hdr-photography-a-comprehensive-guide-to-mastering-professional-hdr-photography

  • The Long shutter exposure photography is something I have really started bringing into tool-bag of tricks, that also include “flash and drag” as a separate trick in my belt.
    I am usually leaning on a wall or lamppost for stability during my shots so no tripod, although I do not think I have tried it at 1sec yet.
    This is one of my long exposure shots, city bus moving past and the couple standing still for about 1/5s shutter
    http://www.dewandemmer.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Grooms-in-front-of-moving-bus.jpg

    I admit I am still getting comfortable with flash and drag, with this as an example of my latest experience.
    http://www.dewandemmer.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Grooms-special-dance-move-at-Hoxton.jpg

  • Michael Hope in Toronto

    I like this info. Very helpful and something I had not considered. Now another tool in my bag. Thanks

  • Ilia

    Would you mind explaining the reason behind switching off image stabilisation before mounting the camera on the tripod?
    I’m not quite sure what difference it makes to have IS on or not, and what happens in the background (ie the technical side), when you have it on.

  • It works by vibrating to counter your own hand vibrations and movements. Supposedly the lens or camera is smart enough to know when you’re on a tripod and stop the vibration, but I don’t trust it. You don’t want the lens vibrating as it will introduce blur to your photos even on a tripod.

  • Anuj Grover

    Great Article and some handy tips. I am a novice and love to experiment with the slow shutter speeds. However, I mostly end up getting over exposed shots due to too much light entering the lens (even at dusk/ night times if there’s a lot of street light ambient light around). How can i take care of that? Thanks

  • valphotography

    nice pictures! http://www.voguespot.at

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