Lesson 5: Portraits

In this chapter I’m going to ask you to study portraiture for a couple of different reasons. One, most of us just end up shooting a lot of portraits throughout the course of our photographic life, whether they’re simple snapshots or more formal pictures that people ask you to take. They’re also a great way to study, because they require all of the things that any other type of photograph requires: good composition, attention to lighting, attention to lots of different kinds of detail, good exposure theory. And, there’s probably someone around you so it’s easy to find subject matter. I’m going to give you a few very basic rules of portraiture that you can start to work with and later you can add on top of those and build up to a more sophisticated level if you find that portraiture is an area of photography that you’d like to pursue. Right now, you’re looking at a decent head and shoulders composition of me. I’m being cut roughly in the middle of my arm. That’s your first rule. In general, it’s good not to cut people at joints. As viewers we find that disconcerting to see someone’s joints kind of amputated in the middle. So break between joints is a good rule of thumb for any type of composition. Personally, I think that the biggest problem that beginning photographers face is the headroom question. Pay attention to what’s up here. Watch what happens if we go really nuts with the headroom. This is something you very often see in snapshots. People will put their subjects face in the dead center of the frame, which leaves all of this space up above. What’s this doing? It serves no purpose. You want to fill the frame with your subject. This is true with any type of photograph. This is a much nicer use of the space in the frame, of the pixels that I have on my sensor. If I’m facing in a particular direction, it’s better to lead me with empty space, rather than packing then empty space back there. If we shift so that the empty space is back there, it’s kind of weird, because why are we paying attention to this back here when I’m looking over there. It can sometimes even be a little menacing. With space behind me we expect something to kind of come fill it, and so that can lead to a very weird psychology in the image. So those are some very simple, very basic compositional techniques for portraits, but they’re the things that you’re going to worry about in any portrait that you take. I’ve got Stephen here, and I’m going to take his picture now. I’ve done something right off the bat here that you may have been told not to do, which is, I have put his back to the Sun so that I am shooting into the light. I’m shooting into the Sun here. But I’ve done that for a reason. That is, it’s giving him this wonderful backlighting. His hair is all lit up from behind, his shoulders are lit up, it’s really separating him from the background. The background I’ve chosen is one that is in dark shadow, so that’s going to make him pop out even more. I’m going to face a couple of problems when I do this, and I think you’re going to see them right away. I got my camera in full auto mode here. I’m going to frame up my shot, and half-press the shutter button. Now when I did that, the first thing that happened is my flash popped up. That’s because my camera is smarter than I am. This is great news. It has already figured out, “Uh oh, this idiot’s shooting into the light. “That means that his subject’s face “is going to be in shadow.” And sure enough, it is. And so the camera’s decided, “You know “if I pop up the flash, we can throw “some extra light on there, and fill in “that shadow and make a good exposure.” So this is great. It effectively means I’m shooting with two lights for free: the Sun is giving me this nice backlight, my built-in flash is popping up to give me this light on the front. If your camera doesn’t have a built-in flash, you can either add one, or try to brighten it up later in post, or decide, well, I can’t shoot into the Sun like this without an extra flash. I’ve got to find a different composition. Fortunately I have it. I’m going to frame up my shot, and the next thing I notice is because I’m shooting into the Sun, I’m getting a really bad lens flare. Lens flare are these lines that appear, let me just grab a shot of this so you can see… See all that stuff in the middel of his face? That’s lens flare. That’s the light bouncing around in the lens in a way that the engineers didn’t intend, and it’s creating these ugly artifacts. I’m going to tighten up a little bit, which gets rid of some of the flare. I’m also going to shield the lens a little bit, and I can actually see the change in the viewfinder. I’m actually seeing a little bit of darkening. Now what I’m worried about is my hand casting a shadow from the flash, so I’m trying to keep it out to the side here. This is looking pretty good. Stephen, can you tilt your chin down just a tiny bit? He’s taller than I am, so that’s making me shoot up at him a little bit which is rarely flattering to anybody. Now, the flash is doing something else here that can be very very crucial in a portrait. It’s putting a catch light in his eyes. Just a tiny little reflection. Without it, his eyes can look kind of dead. I’m going to shoot one without the flash. To do that, I have to switch the camera to a different mode here so that it doesn’t pop up the flash. Look at the difference in his eyes here. The difference between this kind of flat eyes that don’t have a catch light and eyes that do. If he was facing the other way with the Sun shining on him, then that would be giving him a catch light. That’s something you really want to look for in your portraiture, just that extra little bit of twinkle in the eye. Stephen, you’ve got it most of the time, anyway, this is just a lighting issue, that’s all. Finally, the last thing you do with portraits is you shoot a lot. It’s very difficult to nail an expression the first time. Tiny changes in facial expression can carry alot of meaning. The more you shoot the more relaxed your subject is probably going to get, until you take too long and then they’re going to start to get angry and tense, and so then you’ve gone too far. But it’s good idea to shoot quite a bit, just because you don’t know what’s going to happen as you start interacting. My light has changed here. Interesting, my light has changed, oh, no it hasn’t. The camera still thinks it needs the flash. So because I’m working with flash, I’m going to wait between shots a little bit to be sure the flash has time to recharge. Still keeping an eye on flare, trying a few different compositions. OK, Stephen, give me a bigger smile now, there we go. I don’t know what I’m going to like better, the open mouth smile or the closed mouth smile, so I’m trying them both. As you go along, if you’re talking to your subject you can kind of get more rapport going, help them relax, and end up getting better portraits that way. So, head out now, grab a stranger off the street or someone you know, and start practicing just these basic portrait composition things. Remember, you’re still half-pressing the shutter button, you’re still making sure that it focuses in the right place, and you’re still paying attention to shutter speed through all of this. Those are the habits you have to have no matter what type of shots you’re taking.

Here’s a quick tip for times when you’re shooting portraits outside. Stephen’s standing in direct sunlight right now. At first you may think, “Oh that’s where I want him, “because there’s a lot of light there.” There’s a problem with direct sunlight, which is it can be kind of harsh. This is actually pretty nice direct sunlight, but notice that it is deepening the shadows under his eyelids, under his nose. It’s really shaping his face. Sometimes you don’t always want that. Stephen, could you come forward a little bit, please? Just moving into open shade really softens things up. It makes for contrast that’s less extreme, it makes for more even exposure, and less darkness under cheekbones and noses, and well he’s only got the one nose, but you know what I mean. So, this is a really simple things you can do. With individuals or group shots, moving into open shade really cuts a lot of contrast that can be very harsh, and very often unflattering. So here are the two shots side by side. You can see the difference in harshness of the contrast. What I mean by that is the shadows are much darker in the direct sunlight picture than they are in the open shade picture. It’s just a softer, gentler light. It wraps around him a little bit more. It’s more diffuse and that’s just inherently more flattering. It’s also more flattering for rougher skin tones. So if you’ve got someone with a lot of wrinkles or deep lines in their face, this is a way of softening it up. So this is just another way that you can play with portraiture, regardless of the gear you have. Last time you saw me working with a pop up flash. If you don’t like that backlit look, if you don’t have a pop up flash, if you just want to try something different, I really recommend doing some experimenting like this. Really learn the difference between direct light and open shade. Next, you can move things around even more, and start experimenting with directional light. We had the sun shining directly on him from the front, try having it shining from the side. We haven’t done that yet. And just really start to get an eye for how light changes as your subject moves around within it.

Got one more portrait tip for you here and this one may be kind of the most critical of all. If you’ve ever had your own picture taken and thought, “Well, that doesn’t look like me” or “That’s not very flattering”, this might be the reason why you had that reaction. I’ve got a zoom lens on this camera, probably just like the one you have on your camera. This was actually the kit lens that came with this camera. It’s a very nice lens; it’s very typical of the focal length range that you’ll have on a typical starter lens. Now remember when I say focaling, I’m talking about the length of the lens. As the lens gets longer, I zoom in, and things far away get larger. As I zoom out, my field of view gets much wider. So, I can frame the same shot of Steven a lot of different ways. So I’m going to show you two of them right now. I’m going to zoom all the way out to 24 millimeters because I’m standing really close to him, and if I want to frame up a nice head and shoulders portrait, I have to be zoomed out that far to fill the frame with him. And you’ve already learned that it’s very important to fill the frame. Now I’m going to frame up the exact same shot, but I’m going to do it from over here because I have this zoom lens. So from back here, or maybe back here, I can zoom in all the way and frame up the same shot. Okay, so here’s the first picture that I took, and now here’s the second. They’re very, very different. That’s because where I stand and, of course, finding focal length that I used, yields a very different image. In the first one where I was standing close and zoomed out, Steven’s face is really distorted. The distance from his nose to his ear is really elongated as compared to this one, where I stood back and zoomed in, and his face is more compressed. It actually looks much more like him, and it’s a much more flattering image. So, in general, you’re going to be able to say that a good focal length for portraiture is a lens that’s slightly longer than normal. Remember, we define normal as a lens that is roughly the same as the human eyes fill the view. On a full-frame digital camera, that’s going to be a 50 millimeter lens. On most other digital cameras, that’s going to be around a 40, so we want something longer than that. Something around the equivalent of 85 millimeters is usually very good, but, in general, just anything longer. You also don’t have to know it by the numbers; you can tell just by looking. These effects that you’re seeing in these two images, you will see them in the view finder, you just have to learn to look for them. Something else that’s interesting about those two pictures, here in the first one, look at the background; I can see the mountains back there; I can see a whole lot of the foliage behind him. Now look at the second one. Wow, it’s completely different! I don’t see the mountains at all; that green arch thing back there appears to be much closer to him; it’s a more abstract image. So I’ve got a very, very different sense of space. One is not necessarily right nor wrong, but they are very different. And depending on the type of mood or atmosphere you want to evoke, you’re going to want to pay attention to the relationship of the foreground to the background. I can change the geometry of the objects in the distance by choosing to stand and zoom from different locations by different amounts. So that’s something very important to pay attention to as you’re out practicing your portraiture.

Scroll to Top