Portraiture is one of the most exciting fields in photography because not only you capture physical details of the body, but you also get a chance to explore different personalities, feelings and attitudes. If you want to shoot some really amazing portraits, then you must care about people. You need to be genuinely curious about people you’ve never met before and connect with them with ease and comfort.
In this article you’ll learn about portrait photography tips on composition, lighting, and perspectives to capture a variety of styles.
Setting the background
There are two key ingredients to successful portrait photography: background and light. You don’t need to own a studio to have a fully manageable background. There are many easy to use backdrops and background supports you can choose from.
But if you simply can’t control the background, the best way around it is to use a fast telephoto lens, like the 300mm F2.8. This will guarantee that your subject’s face will be sharp and anything else that might seem distracting will be thrown out of focus:
If you don’t have a studio, there is one other way to shoot in a large space with diffused light: visit your local museum or university. These places have plenty of neutral light pouring through the windows and with a 200mm lens the background will be turned into a nice blur, while the foreground will remain vividly sharp.
The other important element of good portraiture is controlled lighting. With proper lighting, you get to choose the best angle that will compliment your subject. The most flattering light for portraits is soft diffused light. If you’re shooting inside, use the light coming from a window and place the subject to the sides to achieve beautiful results, like in the image below:
- The hot shoe flash
A hotshoe flash is a must-have. It can be easily mounted using the hotshoe on top of your camera, or any kind of bracket mount. All you need is a light stand for your flash and an extension cord to connect it to the camera. You can even use some kind of remote triggering device.
The best external flashes have heads that can be rotated vertically and/or horizontally. This will allow you to bounce the flash off walls, ceilings or any other surface to create a soft and diffused illumination.
Like with cameras, you can buy any brand as long as it’s compatible with your camera. Stroboframe makes some very good camera-mounted brackets that provide centered, overhead flash. LumiQuest also builds some great hotshoe flash accessories.
- TTL flashes
TTL (through the lens) flashes provide a quick way to setup since they don’t need an external power source. They don’t require power cords and electrical outlets and work great on their battery back. When using a TTL flash, you can choose any aperture depending on the desired depth of field. The camera will provide the proper amount of light for your aperture.
Using a TTL flash is pretty simple: first, measure the available light – either by using the in-camera-light meter, or a hand held light meter. Let’s say you have an aperture of f/5.6 at 1/125. Next, put these values in your camera. The software will read that you are using f/5.6 and will make the flash fire the proper amount of light to create a correct exposure for your aperture.
If you are photographing indoors where the light is dim, use the TTL flash as a fill light and add some kind of diffusion material on the flash head to soften the light.
- No flash
Don’t have a flash? Here is a simple way to shoot without a flash. First, take a meter reading of the light on the subject’s face. A handheld meter can be used for this. Here is how to do it:
- Zoom to the subject’s face until it fills your viewfinder.
- Activate your AE lock feature and take a meter reading of the subject’s face.
- If you don’t have an AE lock just remember the meter reading and adjust your camera accordingly.
- Take a picture then bracket that exposure by taking one picture above and one below the recommended shutter speed. This will allow you to get three different exposure variations.
Before you press the shutter release cable, a look at the picture in the view finder to get an idea of how it will look once it is done.
Taking portraits outdoor
When making portraits outside, an overcast day is best. The light is flat and the clouds are like a huge natural softbox. One of the key benefits of overcast weather is that it creates nice catchlights in your subject’s eyes and makes them seem bigger:
Also pay attention to the position of the sun. The first reason is because sunlight creates shadows. Secondly, photographing against the sun causes a light background effect that makes your subject look like a shadow. Depending on the time of the day, you can compensate your exposure by +2 or +3 stops.
If you are using an automatic camera, the light meter of the camera will detect the sunlight at being very bright and compensate for it by changing the camera’s settings. The camera will be fooled into thinking that the overall subject is bright, which is incorrect. As a result, the shutter speed is set very high. Thus a shadow is created since the shutter is not opened long enough to absorb the full image of the subject.
You can fix this by making the subject face the sun instead of you facing the sun. This works well because the sun creates a sort of fill lighting which clears up any shadows and dark areas around the face area of the subject.
The “Sunny f/16 Rule” allows you to estimate proper daylight exposures without using the light meter. It states that on a sunny day, with your aperture set to f/16, your shutter speed will be equal to the reciprocal of the ISO. For example, if your ISO is set to 100 and your aperture value is f/16, the shutter speed will be 1/100. On a cloudy day you simply use f/8 instead.
Photographing with the sun behind the subject is both challenging and rewarding. There’s the chance that the image will be burn or have chromatic aberrations, but shooting backlit portraits can also provide some amazing results and put a new spin on the classical portrait.
Images takes with the sun behind the subject have fewer shadows and instead the subject is surrounded by a diffused and soft light. As you can see in the image below, the sunlight also gives a special feel to the image and surrounds the subject in an almost mystical light.
Experiment with backlit portraits especially at sunset or sunrise when the light is warmer. You’d be amazed by what you can accomplish even with so-called burned photos.
Filling the frame
One common mistake many people make is to neglect the angles and size of their subject versus the size of the picture. Think of when you and some friends or family went to a zoo or museum and someone took a picture of everyone standing in front of a landmark. Chances are there were the people and there was the landmark – and that’s it. The people didn’t really fill the picture and neither did the landmark.
Yes, sometimes you want a photo to have more than one main element in it, but sometimes photos like this look as if they have a lot of emptiness to them. In advertising this is called “white space.”
Decorators know that you don’t put a tiny chair in a large room, or a small picture on a big wall – it just doesn’t fit. If you do have a small piece of furniture or piece of decoration you need to add other elements to fill things out and make them feel as if they really fill the space.
Filling the frame is probably never as important as when you’re taking pictures of people. Get close enough to fill the frame so that viewers can also feel close to the subjects. This creates a sense of connection and creates more interest in your shot.
Where is your subject looking?
A good portrait also depends on where the subject is looking. Leading lines grab the attention and lead the eye into the image. If your subject is looking outside the frame it could leave a sense of mystery.
You can shoot from below the subject’s eye to flatter them, and you can do that with sitting or standing subjects. Place your subject in the opposite side of the frame to where they’re looking. This creates a sense of space in that area.
People are usually drawn towards where the subject is looking, so by giving your subject some space to look into, you also pull the viewers’ eyes to where you want them to look.
Change your perspective
Most portraits are taken with the camera at the eye level. While there is nothing wrong with it, except that it’s boring, totally changing your perspective can give your photo a huge Wow factor. Why not shooting down on your subject or getting down to the ground and shoot up? Either way, you’ll be surprised by how interesting things can become once you change your vantage point.
Plus, horizontal and vertical lines are not your only options when it comes to composition. Getting your shots straight is common sense, but a diagonal framing will energize them and add a little fun.
Study other people’s compositions and think of how they used different poses, lighting, angles and elements in their work to express feelings and thoughts. Portrait photography is extremely challenging, not only in terms of composition, light and equipment, but in also making you step out of your comfort zone and approach people as if you knew them forever. Practice makes perfect, they said and it’s true. With every mistake, you learn something new and experience is priceless.