2010’s coming to a close and everyone’s in a rush to get their picture taken for holiday cards, albums or even their brand new Facebook profiles. Here’s how to use any camera you’ve got and some DIY tricks to take awesome portraits.
Portrait photography can be tough at first because the human face changes from moment to moment. Capturing the best moment requires some persistence and skill, but the learning the basics isn’t too difficult and can improve the quality of your portraits significantly. Here’s a quick overview of what we’re going to cover:
- Use shallow depth of field to keep your subject in focus and your background out of focus. If you have a DSLR, certain lenses (like a 50mm or 85mm prime lens) will be more effective.
- Compose your photo well, drawing the eye to the right places and using an interesting setting for a more interesting portrait.
- Consider colour regardless of whether or not the final photo will be in colour.
- Make sure you have good lighting, whether you’re relying on available light or using an artificial setup.
- Keep your subjects having fun, engaged and smiling as much as possible (unless a smile isn’t your goal.)
Camera and Lenses
A nicer camera will give you more options and help you achieve a better portrait, but if all you’ve got is a cheap point-and-shoot, you can still take some really nice photos. DSLRs, however, do offer you several additional options. Let’s take a look at what works best for portraits with both types of digital cameras.
Point and Shoots
There are generally only two kinds of sensors in a DSLR: APS-C and full frame. Full-frame sensors are pretty much the equivalent of 35mm film, so if you put a 50mm lens on a full-frame sensor camera it’s truly going to be a 50mm lens. A DSLR with an APS-C sensors — which is the most popular and probably what you’ve got if you’re not sure or spend under $US2500 — is a bit smaller than full-frame and magnifies the lens’ image by a factor of 1.6. This means that if you use a 50mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera, it’s basically the equivalent of an 80mm lens. If you want to get closer to an actual 50mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera, you’ll need a 28mm lens (which magnifies to 44.8mm) or a 35mm lens (which magnifies to 56mm). Anything around or over 50mm with a wide aperture (of at least f/2.8, but preferably f/1.8 or lower) will do just fine. More often I like to use 50mm lenses for portraits, but many portrait photographers prefer 85mm or more. You’ll have to see what works best for you and for your situation, as one type of lens won’t be perfect for every kind of portrait. That said, if you have to pick one and you’re on a budget a 50mm lens is your best bet. A 50mm prime lens — prime meaning it’s fixed at 50mm and can’t zoom in or it—is almost always the cheapest lens you can buy for your DSLR. Oddly, it also produces some of the most beautiful results despite easily costing you under $US100.
If you really want to save some money, consider using an old lens. Sometimes they result in interesting imperfects in focus and colour (as seen above).
A Quick Note on Shallow Depth of Field
Shallow depth of field is very attractive and isolates your subject effectively, but you don’t want to go too shallow and risk having part of your subject look out of focus. Autofocus systems tend to focus on the closest part of the face first, which is the nose. While the face will appear to be in focus through the viewfinder or on your LCD screen, when you look at the photo on your computer you’ll often find the eyes are slightly out of focus. Focusing manually can help to ensure you focus on the part of the face that will look the best, but if you’re having trouble just use a slightly slower aperture. Setting your aperture to f/2.8 will generally ensure a nice and blurry background while still keeping your subject’s face entirely in focus.
Composition and Technique
Composing a standard portrait, which is basically just a picture of a person’s face, is fairly self-explanatory. Nonetheless, there are a few rules of photography that can help you out, tips that will make your job easier, and choices you’ll need to make to get the look you want.
The Rule of Thirds
Think About Colour, Even if You’re Shooting for Black and White
Be Creative with Angles, Location, Clothing, Etc
It’s easy to aim to take photos with the camera pointed directly at your subject’s face, straight on, with no variation. This can make for some elegant, standard portraits, but it also has the opportunity to create some pretty boring ones as well. Instead, you want to consider different options. For example, consider having your subject look up at the camera:
Depending on the portrait, you don’t necessarily want to have your subject looking directly at the camera:
If you want to make things a little more interesting you can start using props…
or unusual situations…
to make your photos more interesting. Be creative with what you choose and you can turn out some very interesting, unique portraits.
Lighting your subject for a portrait is generally pretty easy. Unless you’re aiming to create artistic shadows on the face, your goal is just to spread even light and eliminate harsh, unpleasant shadows. In certain situations you’d have to worry about the harsh shadows your lights will cause your subject to cast on the rest of the scene, but because your subject will be far from your background to aid in that background being out of focus, you don’t need to worry about this too much. That said, you don’t want to just blast a light directly into your subject’s face. Not only will this often create on flattering shadows from — at least — the nose, but your subject will have trouble seeing and therefore have difficulty looking nice for the picture. Let’s take a look at one simple lighting setup that works well for portraits:
This setup is great because it only takes one powerful light to light the subject and uses a fill to handle the rest. One light in the back is, aptly named, the backlight. It doesn’t have to be terribly powerful and illuminates the edges of the subject to help separate them from the background. OK, so what does all of this mean? Let’s take a look at each item individually.
Your Main Light
Your Back Light
There’s plenty more to cover with portraits, but this should get you started. If you’re already an expert and have some more great tips, share ’em in the comments!