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
When it comes to digital cameras, the bigger the sensor the better off you'll be. Bigger sensors help you achieve shallower depth of field. Most point and shoot cameras have pretty tiny sensors, however, and so the best thing you can do is max out your zoom. When you zoom in on a subject, space begins to flatten. The depth of field becomes more shallow — meaning fewer parts of the photo will appear in focus — and this will help you focus directly on your subject. Because small sensors make creating a shallow depth of field difficult (for reasons that are beyond the scope of this post), zooming is really the only way you can achieve this effect without upgrading to a camera with a larger sensor. If your camera doesn't have any image stabilisation built in, however, zooming in a lot will probably cause a lot of camera shake. Make sure you use a tripod if you're having trouble keeping your camera steady to avoid introducing any motion blur into your photos.
If you have a DSLR, your main consideration is the lens you use. For portraits, you generally don't want anything wider (as in a lower number) than 50mm. 50mm lenses are considered normal (although 35mm sometimes gets this title as well). This is because 50mm approximates what humans see in real life. They're usually fast, meaning they provide really wide apertures and let in lots of light. This makes for easier low-light shooting and — more importantly for portraits — shallower depth of field. The problem is, a 50mm lens on a DSLR isn't always a 50mm lens. It depends on the type of sensor in your camera.
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
Composition 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
The first thing you're going to hear about in a beginner's photography class is the rule of thirds, and it's a pretty simple idea. You basically split up your frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. These lines will create nine boxes and intersect in four places, as you can see from the example on the left. Our eye is generally drawn to the points where these lines intersect, so you want use this as a guide when choosing where you put your subject's eye line. The upper points of intersection are generally best used to cross at the bridge of the nose (where the gold star is in the example). This draws the viewer's eyes to the centre of the face. If you can manage, try to use the point of intersection beneath the one crossing the bridge of the noise to cross at the subject's lips to help keep the eyes on all the key parts of the face. While the rule of thirds isn't a rule you must follow for effective portraits, it is an easy way to keep a person's attention on the parts of your portrait that you want them to see.
Think About Colour, Even if You're Shooting for Black and White
Nowadays it's much more common to find colour portraits, but sometimes black and white can be very striking and effective. Regardless of whether or not you plan to actually have a colour photo as the final product, you need to be aware of the effects those colours will have in a black and white photo. Think about the edges of your subject's face. If your subject is comprised mostly of light colours (e.g. a light-skinned blonde man or woman) a darker background will provide more contrast and help the subject stand out. If you're taking the photo in colour, choosing a colour that compliments your subject is a good idea as well. Light-skinned blondes tend to provide more yellows and reds, so blues and greens (respectively) will make for a more compelling background. If your subject has particularly vivid eyes, making use of their eye colour in the background is also a good choice. Regardless, you'll want to try multiple options and see what you like before making a commitment. For more information on colour compliments and other aspects of basic colour theory, check out our guide on getting the best colour out of your photos.
Problems arise when when you start ignoring darker parts of the background. It's less troublesome in colour, but your subject starts to get lost when you make the conversion to black and white. Either way, you want to watch out for these elements so they don't interfere with your photograph. Mildly backlighting your subject (more on this later) can separate your subject from your background. In the event you don't have the luxury of a proper lighting setup, the best thing you can do is try and avoid these items. Unless you have an artistic reason for losing your subject in shadows or making them blend in with other elements in the photograph, your goal is to make them as prominent as possible. Keeping an eye on what's in your background can make a big difference.
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
This light has to be the brightest because it's doing most of the work to light your subject. If you have professional lights, we're not talking about bring out the 1Ks or anything, of course, but for those of you without the professional stuff just get as bright as you can. This light will look pretty harsh on your subject, however, if it isn't diffused. There are a few DIY ways to soften a light, such as using a white umbrella, but the easiest thing you can do is just adhere a sheet of parchment paper in front of your light. Parchment paper does just fine against heat in the oven so it can withstand the heat of the lights. It also isn't waxed, so nothing is going to melt off of it and drip on the floor.
All you really need to do is clip the parchment paper on to your light. You don't want it to actually touch the bulb, but close proximity is necessary to help more of the light pass through the paper. This will make the light softer, but not too soft. You don't want to eliminate all shadows, but just enough so they serve to define the features of your subject's face and not to create unpleasant spots of darkness where you don't want them. An important note: lights are hot, so be careful when handling them. Use works gloves if you can. Don't burn yourself, and don't handle bulbs until they've had a chance to cool!
Your fill is a very simple concept. All you need is a large piece of white foam core that you can use to reflect the light. Get it standing up and facing the side of your subject (as pictured in the diagram) and it'll fill in the other side of the face so the lighting on your subject is more even. Alternatively, you can use another soft light here instead of a fill that is a bit weaker than your main light, but foam core is cheaper and works just fine.
Your Back Light
Your back light needs to be the weaker of the two lights because its only job is to separate your subject from the background. You barely need any light to do this, so as long as the beam is aimed at your subject's back — more specifically, the area you'll be photographing — it should do its job just fine. This is not a light you really need to soften, but if you find the beam is too direct or too strong, your parchment paper may come in handy here as well.
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!