Home Club News Basic Portraiture Notes (updated)
Basic Portraiture Notes (updated) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Cranston Reid   
Friday, 21 October 2011 01:52

Here are five basic guidelines for creating better portraits:

  1. Good communications: Most people simply don't like to have their picture taken, a reluctance that might originate from a previous bad experience, low self esteem due to wrinkles, weight, hair or a myriad of other perceived defects. If you have an assistant, the lighting can be set up and tested well before the client is invited to participate. If you are proficient with your camera equipment, this projects professionalism and confidence. This friendly professionalism will help establish relaxed communications and a bond of trust.If you don't have an assistant, take a few moments to explain that a couple of test shots are needed to check the exposure. Sometimes, just knowing that "this shot doesn't count" is enough to get the client to relax and your first photos might be the most authentic and relaxed. In any case, it helps the model know what is happening and feel more at ease, as well as makes the session more fun and more productive.
  2. Choice of lens (and distance from subject): These choices are linked, so I've included both here. Since many individual portraits include the upper body or just the head, a focal length of 85mm is a good compromise. This length of 85mm is a good choice for a full frame camera, so adjust this accordingly if you are shooting with a 1.5 or 1.6 multiplier. The smaller sensor cameras will work nicely if fitted with a 50mm lens, which is a full frame equivalent of 75 - 80mm. I don't own an 85mm prime lens, so my favorite portrait lenses are the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 or the Canon 24-105mm f4.5 "L" series image stabilized, zoom lenses. While not quite as sharp as the primes, the difference is very slight. If you get closer than 6 - 8 feet with a shorter focal length lens, the subject will become somewhat distorted. Remember the classic "fun photo" of a dog's face with its nose only a few inches from the camera? While it might be a bold perspective, a CEO or bride might prefer something a little more flattering.
  3. Aperture: This consideration is also linked to the choice of lens, but is important enough to stand as a separate category. There are times you might want everything to be tack sharp and an aperture of 5.6 or more is fine. However, if you can't open the aperture enough to enable an artistic touch to the image, there are no alternatives. This is where my f2.8 lenses fall short at times. For example, you might want to focus solely on the eyes (or perhaps only the eyelashes of one eye). I can post process a sharp image in Photoshop to create almost the same blurred effect, but it takes time. The background is frequently cluttered and does nothing to enhance a photograph, and the ability of an f1.2 lens to provide a very shallow depth of field is hard to beat. If your budget allows you to enjoy the luxury of low f-stop lenses, the can make your choices more flexible and you have the added benefit of shooting in much lower light situations than permitted by the f4.5 or even f2.8 lenses.
  4. Environment: This works in tandem with the depth of field and is part of creating the working image in your mind before shooting the session. A background should enhance the subject by being appropriate in content and of compatible brightness and color. For shooting on location, try to find backgrounds that don't compete with the subject. There are plenty of exceptions to the guideline that the background should be darker than the subject's skin tone, but the idea is to provide a gentle contrast so the subject appears to stand out without being too harsh. Background clutter generally detracts from the image, e.g., a corporate office or logo in the background. If they are unavoidable, try placing the subject in front, so there is adequate space to blur the background into something that reinforces the subject, rather than over powering it.
  5. Lighting:  Like all photography, a portrait attempts to represent a three dimensional object in a two dimensional form. The artist can add additional interest to a flat, 2-D image by careful use of highlights and shadows. Remember that while light illuminates the subject, it's the shadows that define the portrait and give it character. If you shoot portraits using an on-camera flash, you will most likely obtain a flat, 2-D image. However, move that same flash away from the camera and the resulting shadows will help add interest to your image. Shadows provide the sense of depth and dimension that are lacking when using on camera flash. An additional benefit is that the common "red-eye" associated with on camera flash is no longer a problem when using off-camera flash. If the shadows are too harsh or too dark, they can be lightened by light from a reflector or a second, much weaker light source.  We are accustomed to our world being lit from above, so artificial lighting is frequently placed at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions from the model, perhaps at a 45 degree angle to provide some gentle definition to the nose and jaw lines. There are many "standard" lighting placements that produce very nice results. Sometimes it's the unusual placement of lights that produces dramatic lighting that creates stunning results. Take the time to plan and shoot variations from common techniques.


Here are a few additional thoughts and links to online sources dedicated to portraiture. This reference is hopelessly incomplete thus I am hoping others will add to these notes.

Available or ambient light:
The least expensive method of lighting a subject for portraiture is to use the available or ambient light. If this light is compatible with the photographer's intent, it might be the best choice of all. A little fill-light from an additional light source such as a silver or white reflector could add interest or control what we see in the shadows and background. When using mixed light sources, it's worth considering the ambient light's "temperature" or color. A flash produces light that is roughly 5500 - 6200 degrees Kelvin (similar to bright daylight), while tungsten lighting will produce yellowish light closer to 3000 degrees Kelvin. This isn't a problem when shooting black and white, but color images will reveal these light sources as very bluish or yellow-reddish in color. Fortunately, mixed light sources can be corrected with the addition of inexpensive gels or filters over the flash heads. I always carry a yellowish filter (1/2 or 1 step CTO) that can be placed over the flash head to simulate tungsten lighting. It makes post processing much easier if the light from the modified flash is close to the same color temperature as the ambient tungsten light.

It's worth mentioning that ambient light will also illuminate the area behind the model. Careful use of the camera's aperture to control the depth of field can reduce a cluttered background to a pleasing, non distracting backdrop. If you need the background to appear darker compared to the model, increase the shutter's speed to allow less ambient light to be recorded by the camera's sensor. If you need a lighter background, slow the shutter to allow more of the background light to enter the camera.

I always shoot RAW instead of .jpg mode. It allows for much wider color correction and changes to the image highlights or shadows. RAW mode does not change or process the image "in camera" like it does in the compressed .jpg mode. However, the image you see on the back of your camera IS a processed .jpg image, even if you are shooting RAW mode. Therefore, take time to study the camera's manual (yeah, I know...) to see how to correctly adjust the display to something that more closely resembles what you see on your calibrated monitor and final prints. These adjustments help minimize the errors that make skin tones look unnatural.  When shooting RAW mode, turn OFF your camera's automatic white balance setting!  This step will save time in post processing because any color balance settings will be consistent and not fooled by the camera's best guess at automation for each image.  Also, be sure to use an incident mode light meter to get the exposure right each time. I've tried the Sekonic model L308S but was never pleased with its performance. However, the Sekonic model L-358 is a major improvement and worth every dollar (as of October, 2011, its street price is $305 at Amazon). Once the proper exposure is determined, shoot a close-up of an 18% gray card and use that photo to create a custom white balance for your camera that's corrected for your light source. I'm also a fan of the X-rite ColorChecker Passport http://www.amazon.com/X-Rite-MSCCPP-ColorChecker-Passport/dp/B002NU5UW8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1319157996&sr=8-1 , but somewhat pricy at $95.  However, it does include a built-in white balance target, plus a 24 color patch target. It works directly with Lightroom to automatically produce a custom color profile for your camera. These steps will lead to results worth the effort. It minimizes the skin tone errors and speeds up basic edits in Lightroom or PhotoShop.

You might find these archived online classes to be of interest. There are hundreds of good ones online, so PLEASE send me links to any and all portraiture sites you discover and I'll update this list. If anyone would like to add additional tutorials on this topic, I'll get them published on the club website at lubbockcameraclub.com.

Cranston Reid
email cr at usreids.com

These are just a few to get things started.  Please look around and share your favorites with the group!


ColorChecker Passport:

Portrait Photography Editing and Enhancements, Part 1

Portrait Photography Editing and Enhancements, Part 2

Color Portrait Retouching with Jane Conner-ziser

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 December 2011 01:42