Even if I’m not a great specialist in this field, it is widely widespread but often misunderstood, and sometimes even confused with other ones. For example, how many times can you hear someone talking about street photography when all they did was take portraits of people walking down the street? As long as the subject is a person, we can talk about portrait. Obviously, if you shoot a street picture and there are people in it, if they are not the main subject of the picture, then it’s a street picture. But tightly framing a person on that same street to turn them into the main subject of the picture is different. For those who are new to photography, the ideal would be to first read our article detailing exposure in photography. You will find all the necessary elements to understand this article, including the concepts of aperture, ISO, and shutter speed.
Portrait photography is not limited to framing a person’s head or, on the contrary, to shoot them in an environment. Indeed, there are several types of composition that can all be considered as portraits. I would say that your picture is a portrait when it is obvious that the subject is a person, no matter how you compose it! You will find as many opinions on what a portrait should be as there are portrait photographers. Some will tell you that you should frame tightly with a shallow depth of field so that only the eyes are in focus, and the rest out of focus. Others will tell you that you have to integrate the subject in its environment and everything should be sharp. In the end, many portraitists will fall somewhere in between. Personally, I would say that you should do whatever you like the most. If you feel that in a certain situation, it would be better to isolate the subject as much as possible to make it stand out, do it! In other cases, it may be interesting to show what’s around. In short, do what you think is best to capture and highlight your subject.
To shoot portrait photography, however, you will need some camera equipment. But rest assured, this is a field that generally doesn’t require much investment in order to get results. At least not much financial investment. If you want to shoot portraits that stand out from the crowd, you’d rather have to invest on technique and preparation. Indeed, just arriving in front of a person with your camera, raising your camera and pressing the shutter button will not be enough to take a beautiful picture… Even if it will still look like a portrait!
On our blog, you will find an article that will help you choose your equipment for portrait photography. To put it simply, any camera can be used for portrait photography, from smartphones to medium format cameras. Of course, some will be more limited, especially depending on the lenses you or your camera has. Indeed, smartphones and some expert compacts often have for example a fixed focal length which is not necessarily adapted to certain types of portraits. Regarding DSLRs and mirrorless, they have large enough sensors to suit most situations while offering high quality images. Autofocus (AF) is also not very important as most of the cameras have a sufficiently powerful AF for portraits. Larger sensors will have an advantage, especially when it comes to ISO. Indeed, for low light portraits, it will often be necessary to increase the ISO to keep the exposure time relatively short. You will find on our blog an article to help you choose between mirrorless and DSLR, as well as an article on the advantages/disadvantages of the different sensor sizes.
There is a very large number of lenses suited to portrait photography – the choice will mainly depend on the shooting conditions, your budget, and your desires.
The next thing to consider is the lens. As mentioned in the article on portrait lenses, the use of lenses between 35 and 200mm is most of the time recommended. Focal lengths below 35mm are rather reserved for portraits with a very present environment (hence their recommendation for landscape) or tight portraits with perspective effects that are certainly interesting, but rarely flattering, and quickly tiring! On the other hand, the longer focal lengths (telephoto, zoom) will generally require a significant distance, which you will not often have, and will then make interaction with your subject quite difficult. Be careful though, even if it is often advised to extend the focal length to frame more tightly, and to reduce it to add context, it is quite possible (and even often interesting) to frame tightly at 35mm and wide at 200mm. In the first case, however, there will be a risk of distortion of the perspective, and an obligation to move away in the second case, which will require you to compose your picture even more precisely.
Finally, some accessories will prove to be precious aids, specially to control and shape the luminosity like flashes and other types of lighting, diffusers, and reflectors. They can be found at all prices but will require a certain amount of control and will add bulk to your camera. It is obviously quite complicated to use studio lights to shoot in the woods, or to deploy reflectors in front of a subject across the street when you shoot on the fly. Most of these accessories are therefore suitable for pre-prepared photo shoots, for example for studio portrait photography. The most interesting ally will be, as often, the flash. Indeed, it allows a good control of the light when well used, although it is limited by the range of its flash.
Regarding the exposure mode, it is often recommended to leave the camera in matrix metering. In other words, the whole scene is analyzed to estimate an “average” exposure. Personally, I don’t agree with this advice, especially in portraits because, unless you make a very tight portrait, many areas may shift the exposure. This is often noticeable in portraits against the light (during a sunset) or with the sky in background and the subject in the shade. The bright area in the background deceives the metering and leads to photos that can be described as “underexposed”. In reality, they are not. The camera has only done what you asked it to do, which is to take into account the huge bright area in the exposure. If the person in the scene is the main subject, then I would advise you to choose the exposure mode according to the place he will occupy in the image. If it’s a large part of the center of the image, you can use center-weighted metering. If it’s rather a very small part of the image, or if there are very bright or dark areas around, then you should use spot metering. Beware, some spot metering are only done on the center AF points, as with Canon. You will find on our blog an article explaining more precisely the different metering modes.
The camera mode will depend on what you’re looking for. If you want to have a stranglehold on the depth of field first and foremost, you should use the aperture mode (A/Av), the one which is the most recommended for portraits. If you rather want to give priority on shutter speed, because you want to freeze a moving subject or on the contrary to give an effect of movement with a relatively long exposure time, then you will have to use the speed mode (S/Tv). Personally, I like to have control over both parameters and prefer to use manual mode, usually with ISO on automatic to let the camera manage the only parameter that is not really of “artistic” interest.
The AF mode will depend on your subject. If it is a still portrait where you will be able to direct the subject, the AF-S/one-shot mode will be the easiest. On the other hand, if it is a portrait in action, the AF-C/Ai-servo mode will be more adapted. In any case, I advise you to set your AF so that you can select the active AF point yourself. If you leave it on automatic, some elements can disturb the camera. Nevertheless, on many cameras and especially on the recent mirrorless, there are modes with focus on the face, or even on the eyes, which are more and more efficient. Do not hesitate to use them if you have it on your camera. With a manual focus, whether by choice or because your lens does not have AF, the question does not arise and you will have to find the best way to achieve your focus with the help of the focus indicator in the viewfinder of DSLRs, the magnifying glass and/or the focus peaking in electronic viewfinder.
The diaphragm aperture, noted f/x, allows you to choose the depth of field (the extent of the sharp area in front of and behind the place where you focus) and to reduce or increase the amount of light sent to the sensor by the lens. The smaller the number, for example f/2, the more light the sensor will receive, and the shorter the depth of field will be. Obviously, with a large number like f/8, it is the opposite. Ideally, the aperture should be selected according to the desired depth of field. Indeed, when it is used to make up for bad light, it is no longer an artistic choice but a palliative. If you want to greatly reduce the depth of field or take pictures in very low light, you will have to head for lenses with a large maximum aperture, such as f/1.8 or f/1.4 (so generally prime ones). But make sure you’ll really benefit from them before you go for very large aperture lenses, as they are usually more expensive, heavier, and bulkier. I would say that to start out, you can opt for prime lenses opening at f/1.8-f/2, and zooms opening at f/4, possibly f/2.8 if the price is correct.
The exposure time, noted in seconds or split seconds, allows you to capture the subject when it is short enough or to make movement shots when it is relatively long. It all depends on how fast the subject is moving and, again, on your intention. The faster the subject is moving, the shorter the exposure time will be if you want to freeze it. For a still portrait, some people recommend setting the exposure time to at least 1/90th of a second. In reality, it depends on other factors such as the focal length used or the size and number of pixels on your sensor. The longer the focal length, the larger the number of pixels, and the smaller the size of the sensor, the more likely it is that movement (either yours or the subject’s) will cause blurring. The rule of thumb is to use an exposure time of at least 1 time the focal length to avoid the photographer’s motion blur. For example, if you are using a 50mm, you should use at least an exposure time of 1/50th of a second. But according to focal length equivalences, if you place this 50mm in front of a micro 4/3 sensor, it will be like a 100mm, and you will rather have to set the exposure time to 1/100th of a second minimum. This rule will be more flexible if your sensor, your lens, or both are stabilized. For a moving subject, it will be less important because you will often be at short exposure times to avoid motion blur. For example, if you are photographing a running child, you will most of the time be at 1/250th of a second, or even less, so you probably won’t have a problem with any focal length below 200mm. With sensors having a lot of pixels, blurs may also be easier to highlight. If you want to make motion shots, you will have to use long exposure times, and stabilization will also be a valuable asset in this case, or you will have to follow the movements of your subject as it moves. I would therefore advise you to select your exposure time according to the movements of your subject, and then, if this latter is relatively little fidgety, you’ll have to make sure that you do not extend the exposure time too much at the risk of causing motion blur.
The ISO sensitivity amplifies the signal to allow a greater sensitivity of the sensor to the light, which makes it possible to correctly expose a photo even if there’s not enough light. This would be great if this sensitivity’s increase did not deteriorate the image quality, because the higher you go in ISO, the more the image contains what is called “noise” (colored “grains” spread throughout the image) as well as a loss of dynamics and color quality. The aim of the game will be then to find, depending on the camera you use and your requirements, the limit value up to which you will allow it to go. The larger your sensor, the less the quality will degrade as you go up in ISO. Ideally, you should try to be at the lowest possible value, but in many situations, it will often be necessary to increase the sensitivity. If you really want to have reference values, I can advise you to stay below 1600ISO in micro 4/3, 3200ISO in APS-C and 6400ISO in Full Frame, with most cameras. Some cameras have better noise reduction treatments, and some software can do even better, it’s up to you to adapt according to what you use.
Whether you are using AF or manual focus, where you focus is very important. Usually, we advise to focus on the eyes, so much so that manufacturers offer, as mentioned in the previous chapter, an automatic focus that detects the subject’s eyes. This is indeed the area we instinctively look for most of the time when facing a portrait. If the subject is not full-face and you having a reduced depth of field to such an extent that only one of the two eyes is in focus, then choose the closest eye to you.
However, focusing elsewhere than on the eyes hasn’t ever been forbidden, if you ever want to focus on another part of the subject. But in this case, it will sometimes be more appropriate to frame only this area, even if the eyes no longer appear in the image. However, we could almost be talking about proxy photography, or even macro photography.
Focusing is accompanied by the depth of field. The larger the aperture, the shorter the depth of field, which can be useful to isolate the face or person, especially if the other parts of the picture are not interesting and do not emphasize the subject. But aperture is not the only element determining the depth of field. Indeed, the distance between you and the subject as well as the focal length used will also have an impact. Remember that the closer you are to the subject, or the longer your focal length, the more your depth of field will be reduced, even if you use the same aperture. Again, there is no law saying you have to reduce the depth of field to the thickness of a cigarette leaf. It may be more interesting to enlarge it so that the context around your subject is included.
Be careful though, if you change the distance, you will also change the perspective, and it should not put the subject at a disadvantage. This gives you then the opportunity to reduce the depth of field, even if you have a camera with a small sensor. Smaller sensors give a tighter frame for the same focal length, so you will have to move back to get the same frame or use a shorter focal length, which increases the area of focus. Since you can move away and use a longer focal length, you won’t have to buy a more expensive camera, especially as moving away from the subject generally has less of a negative influence on the perspective than moving closer to it.
However, when using a camera with a large sensor and a large aperture, be careful to have a quite large enough depth of field if you have several subjects and want to get them all in focus. I often have this problem when I want to take family pictures and my 5-year-old son is clowning around and ends up slightly behind or in front. The easiest way to do this is to close the aperture, but if they are in a distant location, you may have to move back and/or use a shorter focal length. Last solution, you can ask them to gather more or less on the same line. This way, you don’t have to adjust the depth of field as they do come and stand in it.
There are several classic portrait framings:
- the full-length portrait, which involves framing the whole person,
- the American shot involves cutting off the feet and the lower legs,
- the waist shot, which involves cutting off the waist (easy to remember, isn’t it?),
- the bust shot, which involves cutting either at the bottom or the top of the chest,
- the close-up/cross-shot, involves isolating the face and including or not the shoulders.
To get into portrait photography, the close-up is the most practical since it isolates the subject as much as possible and allows you not to be too disconcerted by the context or by a faulty pose of the subject (hand on the zipper or foot upside down, no problem since they will not appear in the picture). The full-length portrait will impose a greater requirement on the pose of the subject and where you are going to place it as the context is included. How many times do we shoot a full-length portrait only to find out later that there was a tree branch, an unsightly tag or an old dryer in the corner of the frame (or once again a hand on the zipper, except that this time it’s seen in the picture). The framing between the two is also quite demanding since you will have to focus on the subject and partly on its pose, but also on the context, even if it will be more restricted. Obviously, the tighter you frame, the more attention you will pay to the face, and in particular the eyes of the model.
Speaking of gaze, leave a little room in front of it, in the direction where it looks, to “give air” to your subject. This is actually a pretty basic tip. If you are taking pictures of someone looking to the left or right, you will quickly realize that if the frame stops right in front of their eyes, the result will not be very pleasing. In general, whether it is the eyes or the body “going” in one direction, leave space in the area corresponding to that direction. If the subject is facing you, this will obviously not be a problem and it will often make more sense to center the face. Asking the subject to look at you full-face will often be more interesting in tight shots. As the context is not very present, it will be less relevant to make him look elsewhere. On the other hand, it will be more dynamic to have him turn his body in another direction, especially for women (the 3/4 portrait, for example), as this allow to highlight shapes.
The image ratio also allows to emphasize the subject, as often in photography. The square format has often been associated with portraits, especially when it is tight and the subject full-face. For portraits that are a little wider, the 3/2 and 4/3 ratios will be interesting because the subjects are often taller than they are wide, and vice versa if they are lying down. By the way, when they are standing, get into the habit of orienting your camera in portrait mode… There’s a good reason it’s called portrait mode, although no one is forcing you to do so, it will generally be a natural orientation to frame the subject. For portraits including context, they will also be quite suitable, even up to 16:9. Again, this is a fairly logical observation but still not a rule. If you want to do wide shots in square format and tight shots in 16:9, no one is going to stop you, and in pictures where context is important, the portrait mode orientation of the camera will less often be consistent.
One important thing in photography is light! This is by the way the definition of photography, writing with light, and portrait photography is no exception. As often happens, we advise you to avoid harsh light, especially in the middle of the day. However, there are always ways to control this light, whether by shading the subject, adding light with a flash, diffusing it, or making it reflect on surfaces you have on site or add. If you want to put your subject in natural light without it causing areas of high contrast on him, favor hours when the sun is low, which means right after its rise and before its set.
However, this does not mean you should not shoot when your subject is in direct sunlight if you do not have these accessories. The advantage (manner of speaking) of hard light is that it causes obvious areas of contrast that you can use to highlight certain parts of your subject. For example, some people use backlighting to create a halo effect on the hair. Others place one part of the subject in a very bright area and the rest in a very dark one, then make the exposure on one or the other so that the chosen part is well exposed and the other is very dim or even black, or on the contrary very bright or even burned out.
Some techniques allowing to play with light are even associated with portraits, such as high-key and low-key. The first one consists in overexposing the image to the limit of the burnt out and to make sure the image contains no shadow and almost only light tones, in order to give a romantic, soft and immaculate vision. The second is doing more or less the opposite, in other words underexpose so that the image contains a lot of dark tones and highlight only a few details to give character. To help these techniques along, you should prepare your subjects, for example by asking them to wear light clothes for high-key and dark ones for low-key. It will be easier to do these techniques in a controlled environment (studio type) with lights, but it is still possible to do it in natural light. For high-key, soft lights (low-angled sun, shadows…) will be preferable while for low-key, you will have to find a place where the light will be concentrated on one or a few precise areas.
If you don’t have a studio (it’s well known, everyone has one at home!), the accessories mentioned above will also allow you to achieve these techniques, and even much more. The flash has many advantages in the field of portrait photography. It allows you to add and control the light, and its burst is often powerful enough to illuminate your subject, since it will rarely be several dozen meters away from you. It can also be combined with other flashes to light several specific areas or to extend its range, among others. However, it requires some experience to be used properly. Reflectors, such as this one, can be used to reflect light to unblock shadows. You simply point it at the area where light is lacking. They often have silver and gold sides to change the tint, and even a black side to add shadow. Diffusers, as the name suggests, allow to diffuse the light, you just have to place them between the source of light and the subject. Flashes are often delivered with a small diffuser to be placed directly on the head (the flash head, not yours).
After having prepared your camera and your scene, it’s now time to focus on your subject. The phrase that will come up most often when you want to take a picture of someone is “I’m not photogenic”. There are probably some people who are more and others who are less, but usually, if a portrait is a failure, it is because the photographer did not do his job properly.
If you are shooting subjects that are quite far away, it will be difficult to make contact and direct them. In this case, you will have to be patient and stay on the lookout while anticipating as much as possible to find the right moment and the right pose. But if you are photographing close enough subjects, don’t hesitate to talk to them, explain what you want from them and ask them what they want from this photo shoot as well. Since during the shooting you will be focused on your camera and the composition, it is better to start talking to them before. Often, when you shoot someone, they tend to be uncomfortable and unmotivated because they are convinced not to be photogenic. Think of all that times you had to do something and thought it was bound to fail, it doesn’t help to concentrate, right? So, your first goal will be to help your subject relax and have fun, not only will it be more enjoyable for them, but you’ll be more likely to get more natural and interesting expressions. As soon as you gain their trust, don’t wait to shoot (use the burst mode) because the longer they wait staring at your camera, the more tense they will become and the less sincere their expressions will be. A good tip is to ask your subject to look at the lens only at the last moment, and as you are the one who triggers, it will be up to you to make them understand that it is the right moment. Also be precise in your instructions, don’t ask them for example to look to one side or the other, but rather to look at a precise place.
About poses, it is up to you to decide what interests you the most. You can entirely guide the person to do a specific pose you have in mind, or let them do random poses, or a mix of both. Actually, when I say it’s up to you, it’s rather up to the photographed person because some people are more comfortable following directions while others can be imaginative (maybe even more than you) when given their freedom.
If you are doing a “classic” portrait with focus on the eyes, you probably want to highlight them and, in this case, there are techniques to do it even more without necessarily surrounding them with heavy makeup. For example, ask the person to slightly lower the chin, which makes the face look thinner and naturally highlights the eyes. Test in front of your mirror, stand straight in front of yourself and then lower your chin a lot – the more you lower it, the more your eyes will be highlighted. Obviously, if you lower it too much, it becomes scary, that’s why you have to do it slightly. When you shoot from above, so by putting yourself higher than your model, it will be kind of the same thing: the eyes will be put forward but be careful with the perspective as you will flatten your model (as we can often see with children’s pictures). To make a portrait a little wide, the low angle will allow to “enlarge” the model, but again, be careful not to exaggerate unless it is a desired and controlled effect. For the body, try to play with curves. It is important that your model is lively because don’t forget that unlike reality, it will be frozen in the photo and you will have to find ways to give dynamism. Pay particular attention to the arms and legs, arms at the side of the body and legs straight as a ramrod do not really look good in photos, just like a rigid neck. Also pay attention to extremities (feet and hands) as they often tend to be cut off in wide shots. One way to avoid it would be to add props to the composition, by asking the person to hold an object in a hand for example, because if you ask them to hold something, it means that thing has an interest, so you will think of it, and by extension, you will also think of the hand holding it… Obviously, harder to hold with a foot! If you are afraid of cutting them or forgetting to check, just directly cut them! It’s better to make straightforward choices because fully cut feet are less suspicious than if they are only half cut.
There you go, I hope all these photo tips will help you get started with portrait photography. Once you have applied all these photo tips, don’t forget to stop following them! These will make it easier for you to succeed in your portraits when starting out, but once you are more experienced, it will often be interesting to take the opposite approach and try things that don’t seem logical but can still be interesting if done with mastery and boldness. To go further, I invite you to read our article explaining how to shoot with a long focal length. You’ll find other types of advice there!
See you soon.