From the cheapest phone cameras right up to the most expensive DSLRs, a camera’s greatest use undoubtedly comes from capturing people. Family and friends, in particular, are regularly lined up for the camera, though colleagues, clients, and even complete strangers are also captured on a million digital sensors.
To help you make the most of your portrait photography, here are seven tips to hopefully bring your photography to the next level.
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This tip may seem obvious, but it's worth considering before the camera even comes out of its bag.
Do you want to compose the photo(s) with your subject arranged in a static composition? Or do you want something a little looser, a bit more spontaneous? Perhaps you want to be a fly on the wall, simply snapping away as you follow some form of activity in a reportage style?
To some extent, your creative choices may depend on your subject. To make a composed, static portrait, you need a subject who is willing and able to cooperate completely.
You also need to be able to give clear, intelligible directions that your subject can understand and act on. For this to work well, you should choose your subject carefully. They should either be someone you know well, or someone who’s very comfortable in front of a camera and perhaps used to following instructions.
If you're aiming for something more spontaneous then, of course, you're not going to exert as much control or give out as many instructions. Your photo will be more dependent on what your subject(s) decide to do, and you may only provide some occasional input.
When you get to be the fly on the wall, you should aim to sink into the background, leaving the subject(s) to do their own thing. Perhaps they’ll be getting on with something in their daily life, more or less ignoring you, and hopefully almost forgetting that you're even present.
This is the kind of photography that you might do with strangers – or indeed small children – when you're aiming to record some aspect of their life.
It’s up to you, the photographer, to recognise and grab momentary great compositions from an endlessly flowing sequence of movements.
The subject does little to help consciously create those compositions, besides responding to the occasional plea to 'Hold it there for a second!'.
Not surprisingly, the static portrait and fly-on-the-wall styles are very different techniques, requiring quite different photographic skills. They are both equally valid, but generally applicable in different scenarios. You should decide in advance which approach is best for each situation.
The type of lens you choose to use (or the degree of zoom you select, if using a compact or phone camera) will have a dramatic impact on the type(s) of photos you obtain.
In much portrait photography – particularly the more formal forms – a short telephoto lens (i.e., a moderate amount of zoom) is typically used. By shooting with this type of lens, you’re ensuring that the camera homes in on the subject's face, while the background is completely blurred.
This lens is perfect for the kind of portrait photography where you want to direct attention simply to the subject's face. This is the classic kind of portrait photography.
That said, there are risks attached to this approach – the subject’s face becomes contextless, divorced from its surroundings and whatever might be going on around the subject.
If you want to show a person, or people, in their surroundings, perhaps engaged in some activity, then you're much more likely to want to use a wide-angle lens (or zoom right out on your compact or phone camera).
This then enables you to put your subject really in context, to show them in their environment. Although this is a big plus, there are several potential pitfalls to try to avoid.
Perhaps the most significant potential pitfall is that the subject's face will become significantly smaller in the frame, and so is likely to not command as much of the viewer's attention as it would in a classic kind of portrait. You can combat this by moving much closer to the subject than you might otherwise think usual.
Light is, of course, critical to the success of any portrait photography shoot. And I'm not talking about the amount of light, but rather its quality, intensity, and angle.
In general, a soft flat light – such as that obtained on a bright but lightly overcast day – is considered the best kind of natural light for outdoor portrait photography. Under these conditions, light is evenly spread across the face, with few (if any) deep shadows or bright highlights disrupting facial features. Strong jaws and sharp noses tend to become softened, and blemishes minimised.
In bright sunlight, by contrast, the face may be marked by strong nose, jawline, and brow shadows (the last of these resulting in the eyes often being lost in shadow). This is particularly the case if the sunlight is side-on, and many kinds of marks can become quite visible.
So, if you find yourself taking part in portrait photography on a sunny day, the best option is to move your subject into some shade, either under a tree or in the shadow of a building. However, if you do this, you must ensure there’s no bright sunlit area in your background, as this will distract attention away from the subject's softly lit face.
One way to produce beautiful portraits in bright sunlight is to arrange your subject with the sunlight shining from behind and above them.
The sun will, of course, be shining at the camera, so it’s best to make sure the sun isn’t visible in the image. It needs to either be out of the frame or at least hidden behind the subject's head.
This prevents the camera from being flooded with too much light, while ensuring that the face – which is effectively in shadow – receives an even, soft illumination.
The result is a photo in which not only is the subject evenly lit, but the head is surrounded by a bright halo, particularly in their hair.
However, because the face is in shadow, while the light is shining very brightly towards the camera, there’s a tendency for the camera to under-expose the face. If this happens, you can lighten the face either by positioning a reflector to bounce light back into the face, or simply over-exposing the image a little.
So far, I've concentrated on portrait photography using only natural light. There are occasions, however, when you might want to use a flashgun to provide a little extra light.
It would be wrong to think of flash as something you use as your main source of light. In outdoor (and often indoor) portrait photography, the flashgun is rarely the main source. Instead, it’s used in a supporting role, its output balanced against the natural light.
It can often be used to fill in shadows, particularly if you're having to shoot in bright sunlight, a time when the face might otherwise be spoiled by strong shadows lying across it.
Indeed, fill-in flash can be very useful with the back-lighting method described above, to throw some light into what might otherwise be an under-exposed face.
Of course, if you're shooting at night, then you may well have to use a flashgun as the dominant source of light. But even if there are significant amounts of ambient artificial light, the flash may still end up supporting and balanced against the latter, rather than being truly dominant.
Whatever way you're using a flashgun, avoid firing it directly at your subject. The light from a flashgun is quite harsh and can result in bright highlights and deep shadows across your subject's face.
So, always fire it indirectly, either bouncing it off a reflector (a white sheet of some sort) before it then heads to your subject, or sending it through a white diffuser to soften and 'break up' its rays.
A final note concerns red-eye. A flash fired directly and unsoftened at a subject looking straight at the camera will result in unsightly red-eye – the light literally bounces back towards the camera off the retinas in the subject's eyes, making them appear red. Don't allow this to happen to your portrait photography!
Another blindingly obvious point to make is that your image must be sharply in focus.
Inevitably, however, there’s a lot more to this issue than initially meets the eye. Yes, of course, for most forms of portrait photography your subject needs to be sharply focussed, but actually how much of the subject? All of them or just part? And what about the rest of the image?
The golden rule of focus in portrait photography is that you should always focus on the subject's eyes.
This is simply a reflection of the way we, as humans, are hard-wired to see people. We always look at their eyes and if they are not sharp in a photo, this will weaken our interaction with the subject and hence with the photo.
Beyond that, ideally the whole face should be sharp, but sometimes low light levels make this difficult to achieve.
If you're taking a classic portrait photo, shooting with a short telephoto lens (about 80-150mm focal length) and homing in mainly on the subject's face, you should ensure that the face is clearly separated from the background.
This is usually achieved by making the background completely blurred. We do this by limiting the depth of field, the depth of the image that is sharp, from a point nearest the camera to the furthest. This can be controlled and varied according to the type of lens and the lens aperture being used.
In this kind of portrait photography, we want to have quite a shallow depth of field – perhaps no more than a metre, maybe less – which is convenient as telephoto lenses tend to naturally do this, and we can further control it by changing the lens aperture. By this, I mean the diameter of the lens's internal diaphragm, which controls the amount of light passing through the lens. This is measured by the f-number, and having a wide-open aperture, or small f-number, such as f4 or 5.6, will guarantee a shallow depth of field.
If you need to make your depth of field even shallower to ensure a blurred background, simply move closer to your subject. The shorter your camera-to-subject distance, the smaller your depth of field will be.
On the other hand, if you're taking a wider view to include either the subject's environment or an aspect of their work, for example, then you'll be using some kind of wide-angle lens, and you'll want to have a lot more of the scene sharp.
Again, we're in luck here, because wide-angle lenses naturally give a much deeper depth of field than is possible with a telephoto lens, and this can be further increased by making the lens aperture narrower – i.e., a higher f-number such as f11.
It can be a difficult decision as to whether or not your subject should be looking at the camera.
In a classic posed portrait photo, you’d normally want them to be looking straight at the lens, providing direct eye contact with anyone that views your photos, and providing a warm person-to-person interaction.
On the downside, the image can end up looking a little too staged and unnatural, particularly if the subject combines a stare with a cheesy grin, something we usually don’t want!
Where you might not want the subject looking at the camera is when they’re engaged in some kind of activity, even if it's only chatting with another person (whether in or out of the frame). This weakens the interaction with the viewer, but conversely, it can help direct attention towards whatever activity the subject is engaged in and make the image feel more spontaneous and less staged.
Whatever kind of portrait photography you're doing, you almost always need to have the eyes visible and open, regardless of whether or not they're looking at the camera.
Eyes that are closed (or appear to be) are rarely a good thing in portrait photography, so there are occasions when I will ask a subject engaged in an activity to hold what they're doing and to briefly look at the camera. This can be very useful when your subject is looking down to concentrate on their activity (which is quite common), making their eyes appear closed – even though they're not.
Always try to ensure that your subject is relaxed in front of your camera – a tense subject always transmits that sense in the final photos.
It’s remarkable just how differently people react when placed in front of a camera. Some discover their inner model, actor/actress or film star, while others completely freeze into a wooden block. It can be remarkably difficult to predict how anyone will react until they’re put to the test.
Just how well – or badly – your subject relaxes in front of the camera can have a huge impact on the success of your portrait photography. Someone at ease will naturally help you create superbly engaging, natural photography, while a nervous, tense subject will probably make the resulting images look wooden and contrived.
Of course, if you're photographing close friends or family, people who know you well, it’s quite likely they’ll perform well in front of the camera. Difficulties are more likely to arise if you're photographing strangers, particularly those people not used to being in front of a lens.
As the photographer, you need to remain calm and relaxed, so that you’re able to transmit this sense of calm to your subject.
When faced with a tense subject, it is often worth the time – if at all possible – to engage in long general conversations about almost anything before taking any photos, to help your subject relax and to start to become comfortable with you and your camera.
Some of the world's best portrait photographers are known to spend many hours chatting with their subject(s) before the camera even comes out of its bag, let alone gets used.
This blog was written by Nigel Hicks, a hugely experienced Devon-based professional photographer who works with the USA's prestigious National Geographic Image Collection, among many other bodies.
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