Oh how we all amateurs envy the professional portrait photographers. Lugging expensive DSLR bodies and telephoto lenses they compress the foreground and the background into oblivion on the pretext of creating ‘stunning’ portrait photos. Oh how we love to prove that we amateurs are not to be taken lightly either and that we are just as capable.
Professional quality portrait photography is certainly not beyond us. All it needs is a steadfast dedication to the job, a continuous gung-ho attitude and a little bit of imagination. You will also need a few professional tools to help you along the way. These tips will, however, certainly help in your endeavor.
Remember, results will only come when you are at it on a continuous basis. The greatest enemy of a photographer is stagnation and lack of inspiration. Before you know your equipment are listed on a second-hand garage sale. So keep shooting and keep looking for inspiration.
Equipment required for portrait photos
For shooting portraits you would require a camera, a good portrait lens (we shall discuss about that in the next paragraph in further detail) and preferably a tripod. A tripod is not a mandatory tool as in most of the cases you will be shooting hand-held with a stabilized lens. It is mandatory only when you are shooting portraits in low light and don’t want a blurry result as a result. Having said that a tripod is required if you are going to shoot portraits in a low light situation.
We shall be discussing about low light portrait photography as well later in this article.
Optional tools include a set of reflectors ideally golden (for warm tones) and white / silver. These reflectors will be used to throw back some light on to the subject’s face to ensure that it is uniformly light, shadows are removed and any blemishes are suppressed. The color of the reflector to be used depends on the mood that the photographer wishes to capture.
Diffusers are also a great tool to use in portrait photography. Your camera flash, whether built-in or a Speedlight are basically examples of hard light. They tend to throw an amount of light that is often more than what the scene requires. It also happens that the metering option that you choose and the inherent way that metering system works, tends to get meter the scene incorrectly. A diffuser in such situation can cut the excess amount of light ensuring that the scene is not unnecessarily washed out. We shall speak of a relevant topic – flash compensation in the section on lighting below.
You would also need two strobes (ideally) or at least one to start with. One of the strobes will be used as your main light for indoor portrait photography. The other strobe will work as your fill light and is to be used in a ratio of 1:2 brightness with the main light. More on this on the lighting section.
Which lenses to use in portrait photography
Perspective is an important consideration when it comes to portrait photography, because if you use a lens that has a short focal length you tend to unusually exaggerate certain facial features. A longer lens on the other hand has an inverse effect.
The ideal choice is something in between. If you are using a full-frame digital SLR then a 24-70mm lens is a good choice. The tele end of the lens is a great focal length for shooting portraits, especially if you are outdoors. The 85mm and the 135mm primes are also used widely for shooting portraits.
Prime medium tele lenses are mostly preferred by professional photographers because they have fewer moving parts inside allowing manufacturers to concentrate on the optical quality of the lens rather than the mumbo-jumbo of optical zoom.
Prime lenses also have wide maximum apertures and they can be very handy when you want to capture a soft background / foreground blur. At wider apertures only a small area of the frame is in sharp focus. The remaining area of the frame is soft. This is also known as Bokeh.
Why is this so sought after by outdoor portrait photographers? This is because it helps the photographer to isolate the subject from a background that is less than flattering. In a low light situation a wide aperture will allow the photographer to capture a lot of light thereby eliminating the need for a tripod when shooting portraits.
When choosing a portrait lens ensure that it has some form of optical stabilization as well. Optical stabilization will allow you to hand hold the camera and shoot in conditions where you would normally require a tripod.
Optionally look for lenses that have been treated with additional layers to correct both LoCA (Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration) and LCA (Latitudinal Chromatic Aberration). This ensure that your lens is devoid of aberrations and the pictures are sharper.
To summarize a lens that has optical image stabilization, a prim focal length of around 70-135mm focal length and has a fast maximum aperture (around f/2 is the best portrait lens.
Tips for great portrait photography composition
First tip of portrait photography is to study your subject. Which part of subject’s face is the most photogenic? Is it his eyes? Or may be his nose or even the lips? Take into account the color of the dress he is wearing as it can have a bearing on the exposure compensation later on.
A full front on picture may not always be desirable. It may not bring out the best features of the person. Is there are a window in the room. Is it large? Does it have direct or indirect sunlight? Ask the subject to stand near it and use it as a large soft light.
Do you have access to a strobe light? Place that at an angle of 45 degrees and directly overhead. You could have a beautiful loop lighting arrangement for a portrait. Place the light a bit farther and at right angle to the camera and there you have a Rembrandt lighting arrangement for a more intense looking portrait.
In any great portrait the eyes are the main area of focus. Take two portrait pictures, one which focuses on the eyes of the subject and the one that randomly selects any point. Now hang them side by side and ask someone to pick the one he likes. 9 out of 10 times it would be the one that has the eyes in focus.
Why this happened? This is because most of the times when look at a portrait picture we tend to look at the person’s eyes. If they are not tag sharp the portrait immediately feels ‘lifeless’. When selecting the focus points, select the one that is closest to the eye that is nearer to the camera.
At this point, we reached the end of the first part of this article. Keep tuned for the next part talking about more tips that can help you to take portrait photos like a pro.