Portrait Photography : Tips and Techniques to getting a better portrait | Part 1

Felicia - Glory

Focus on the eyes, blurring of the background, lighting to create dimension, texture both smooth and rough…these are but a few of things we can dissect that make a portrait stand out.

**This post was originally on my old blog and has now found it’s way here**

I love portrait photography. There’s something about working with another person, having a great dialog with them, and taking memorable photographs that make me a happy camper. I tend to be extremely modest about my work, but can confidently say that portraiture is a strong point in the repertoire.

So it’s with great enthusiasm to write this blog about tips and techniques to getting a better portrait. Straight and simple. This blog post will be updated pretty much most of this week, and probably will be very long by the end of it. There’s just that much to write, and in general just be excited about.

Portraiture can be intimidating. It takes a while to be comfortable with one work, to develop a style, and consistently deliver a strong photograph. Now take into the equation that there is a face on the other end of the camera, a photographer may begin to worry about their subjects expectations also. I have seen this plenty of time, and watched 20 years experienced landscape photographers crumble with worry when a person ask for simple portraits.

So what gets you over this hump? The answer is simple, and universal. Know your tools.

The most immediate tool in a photographers possession is his camera. Camera in it’s simplest form here. A device that records the image as seen and composed by the photographer. One does not need a $10,000 camera to take a great portrait, and if one doesn’t know how to use said $10,000 camera their image appears just that much more worst. What’s most important though is to ask if that camera is able to consistently produce the same results one wants. Does the camera have the manual control and latitude of change that allows the photographer to precisely dial in camera settings to achieve sought after results? More importantly does the photographer understand what settings do what to achieve the look and feel they want?

I won’t go through every nuance of Camera settings here, just what I believe are most important for portraits. A consistently good portrait photographer will be very familiar with aperture, focal length, white balance, exposure, depth of field, and focusing.

Note : Some of these are really basic level stuff, please feel free to skip any of this and scroll down if you are more interested in my personal techniques. Also if you are interested in further details concerning a certain subject, please feel free to email me.


Haley - See me in my memory

A low aperture now only gives photographers that wonderful shallow depth of field (blurry background), but also allows the photographer the luxury of shooting in normally difficult situations (street lights at 11:00pm in this example)

Image shot with a Canon 5D and a Canon 50 1.4

A portrait photographer should be familiar with aperture because it’s one of the main factors that create the magic of a great portrait. Remember that the main focus of a portrait is the person(s) being shown. Aperture is one of several key ingredients to help isolate your subject from their surroundings. Have a lens that has a faster aperture also allows a photographer to photograph in situations where there is less light, this creates more opportunity for the photographer to get his photo. Lastly there’s a general rule that if you stop down 2~3 stops from the fully open aperture of your lens you will get the sharpest and best results of that lens. For example if you have a lens that starts at an aperture of 2.8, if you go down two stops to F5.6 you will get the optimum results from your lens. This is one of the reasons that it is suggested one purchases the fastest lens they can, so that if a photographer does stop down for optimum results he still can get a low aperture to maximize depth of field. Suggestions for portrait lenses will be listed below.

Focal Length

Stephen - Fall Colors 2
A focal length of 85mm shot at f2.0 helps minimize any exaggerations of the subjects features, along with supply a pleasant blur of the background creating a sense of scenery yet helps the background avoid dominating the viewers attention.  

Shot on a Canon 5D Mark II with an 85 1.2L II


Focal length is a major factor in the outcome of a portrait. Immediately I’m going to mention a general rule about portraiture. The typical focal lengths that deliver a strong portrait start at about 80mm (50mm on a crop DSLR) and up to about 200mm (140mm on a crop). The reason why those numbers are thrown out is due to perspective distortion and compression. If a photographer tries to shoot a portrait up close with a wide angle lens (24mm in this example) proportions tend to be exaggerated outwards. Noses look bigger, foreheads get wider, and limbs start looking like the person is related to Gumby. On the other end of the equation working with distances of 300mm or more, a photographer doesn’t have any issues with perspective distortion, he just loses any ability to communicate to his subject on a personal level as he is standing almost 30 feet or more away. At a focal length of 80mm to 200mm, the subjects features begin to pleasantly compress and look more appealing. Because the subjects features are compressing don’t confuse that with losing dimensionality, as this is created more by lighting which will be covered later.

Along with perspective, focal length is also another factor in depth of field. A longer focal length creates more separation from the subject and his foreground and background. It’s so strong that using a long focal length lens with a fast aperture can almost render the background obsolete into a mass of abstract color, something that can make a portrait pop!

With the knowledge above, note that you can take a strong portrait with a wide lens and super long lens. Just like life, it’s easier to break rules if you know what they are and why they exist. Also most importantly if you are ever caught in a situation where you have to revert to your most basic of photography instincts, it’s great to know a general area to begin in. Sometimes you never know what someone may ask you to shoot, and being mentally prepared is awesome. I’ll repeat this mantra later, but wanted to introduce it early.

In my own experience I tend to use a focal range of 24~50mm for full body portraits, and zoom from 85~200mm for anything that is stomach/chest/shoulder up. I have found 35mm (particularly the 35 1.4L) a great focal range to get stunning full body portraits with, as shown with this example.

Maryn - Melpomene

It avoids too much distortion but allows a pleasantly large point of view. If I get close to the subject though there is exaggerated distortion so I tend to avoid human subjects closer than 3 feet to the lens.

White Balance

Light has a temperature measured in Kelvin. The temperature doesn’t correspond to how physically hot (boiling water, etc) the light is but instead to the color quality of the light.
I can continue on a long little diddy about white balance, but here’s an article at Cambridge in Color that explains it.

Here’s the trick I wanted to tell people though. Humans have a lot of red/yellow (warm tones) in our skin tone. It makes us look more alive and natural (even in pale people). That’s why there’s the nice gold side of a reflector. It gives warmth to a person. So in practice you can add a little warmth to an image by increasing your white balance by a couple of hundred kelvins up.

So lets say you are shooting someone with a studio strobe rated at 5500 degrees Kelvin. Try setting your white balance manually (if you can, some cameras only offer preset white balance) to about 5800 to add some warmth to the skin tone. This is a great quick thing that can make your images glow as soon as you see them on the LCD. Yes you can do this in post easily, but what if your subject wants to see an image, showing them one that looks great off the bat can really help.

Depth of Field

Depth of Field (DOF) is what I consider the KEY factor in a successful portrait. The majority purpose of a Portrait is to isolate your subject, and draw attention to that subject. Yes they maybe placed in a background, but for all intents and purposes the background is just a suggestion and a small part of the whole image. With that in mind, DOF allows us photographers to control how much of the background and foreground is shown, and up close even if parts of your subject are hidden!

Along with other aspects like composition, and technique, a shallow depth of field is a main stay in my personal style of portrait shooting. I like to give a suggestion of a location, but not the fine details of it. I see it like normal life where our surroundings are actually a blur to us, because of our pace for one reason, but also because we are used to our location it becomes second nature. I commonly remind people that while we walk in the woods we don’t have time to concentrate on every branch and we easily start blurring our surroundings and getting lost in the idea of the forest. And that many of the best looking photos of woods have a single focal point, or a shallow depth of field. I use this same idea to control point of view in portraiture.

Depth of field is the child of three variables in camera control; Lens Aperture, subject distance from lens, and focal length of lens.

One does not need a fast aperture lens (Keyword : Expensive!) to achieve a high level of depth of field control. Most lenses will fall down to f22-32 for a very deep depth of field, but specialized (prime) or expensive lens tend to be the ones that offer a shallower depth of field at a given focal length that most people prefer for portraits. Yet because subject distance and focal length is also a factor, one can actually get a pretty nice blurred background with a cheap $200 70-300 lens, compared to a wide angle 24mm lens that cost $900.

This is the first part of this long blog post.  It will be revisited soon.


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