TAKING BETTER PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHS
People photography is not only about the outward appearance of the person, but also about capturing the character and spirit of the person.
Wikipedia describes portrait photography as:
“The capture by means of photography of the likeness of a person or a small group of people, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The objective is to display the likeness, personality and even the mood of the person. Like other types of portraiture, the focus of the photograph is the person’s face, although the entire body and the background may be included. A portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the camera.”
Short telephoto (85mm, 105mm, 135mm). The ‘portrait’ focal lengths are the best choice for head and shoulders photographs. Longer focal lengths allow you to stand further away from your subject, while still filling the viewfinder. This gives a normal perspective without distortion and helps you create a shallower depth of field.
It is imperative that the eyes of the subject are in sharp focus. They are the most important part of the portrait and if they are not sharply focussed, the image will not succeed. Whenever you photograph someone, focus on their eyes. The most difficult portrait to focus correctly is the head and shoulders portrait. The choice of a telephoto lens and wide open aperture means that the area of sharp focus is very narrow – sometimes too narrow.
The tip of the nose and the ears should also be in focus. If this is not the case, you might need to choose a slightly deeper depth of field. It is usually easier to focus when taking three quarter and full length portraits. If you use a more standard focal length and stand further away from the subject, the area of sharp focus on the wide open aperture is much deeper. When photographing groups you should focus on a person about one third into the group, and choose a depth of field that renders the front and back subjects in sharp focus.
Subjects with defined outlines are more easily recognised than subjects that blend into the background. It is therefore very important to separate the subject from the rest of the image. You can do this by choosing a wide open aperture that blurs the background, by including a darker or lighter background, or by using back light (discussed in more detail later in this lesson). Most importantly you must make sure that there are no objects that might distract from the subject when taking a portrait shot.
Everything that is included in the frame must be there for a reason – if it does not support the main subject, then it will complicate the photograph. Unnecessary background or foreground detail distracts the viewer’s attention from the subject. The easiest way to simplify a portrait is to find a camera angle that gives you a simple foreground and background.
If the background is even in colour and intensity, rather than being a mottle of bright and dark colours or shades, the subject will stand out. The other way to simplify the background is to use a very shallow depth of field and ensure that it is far enough away to be out of focus – remember though that even out of focus highlights can be distracting.
When taking their first pictures of people, most photographers tend to place the subject in the centre of the frame – this creates a very static photograph. The best way to improve your composition is to use the rule of thirds and power points where the lines cross. The centre of interest (the eyes or face) should be close to a power point or along a third line.
If the person is looking directly at the camera you can position them in the middle of the frame. Sometimes it might be desirable to place them closer to the third line in the picture. If they are not looking straight at the camera you must place them closer to the left or right hand third and allow space for them to look into. The eyes in a head and shoulders portrait, and the face in a three quarter or full length portrait, are the centre of interest and must never be placed in the middle of the frame, but always closer to the third line.
Format – portrait, landscape or oblique
There are always three ways you can choose to frame your subject – horizontally, vertically or obliquely. All three can work well for a portrait. The vertical composition is the most widely used when photographing portraits of people. This is because it ensures that you include more of the person without having a lot of ‘empty space’ around them. Horizontal compositions are more often used for environmental type portraits where it is important to include background information to help tell a story. It is also used in group photographs where the width of the group exceeds the height of the people. Oblique compositions are usually used to add impact when photographing children or action type portraits.
Point of view
Height should be considered when photographing people, as it can completely change the ‘look and feel’ of the portrait. Try to avoid shooting from your own eye level – rather try to get up to or down to your subject’s eye level. Sometimes shooting from slightly above the subject’s eye level forces them to open their eyes more, giving the eyes a rounder appearance – this works well for people with narrow eyes. Shooting from slightly below eye level helps make a long nose look shorter.
It is important that you are aware of the various aspects of outdoor lighting when preparing to take your portraits. These include:
- Direct sunlight
- The direction of light (front light, back light)
- When to use a reflector
- How to use diffused light (shade or cloudy conditions)
- Diffusing the light
- Maximising the ‘Golden Hour’
- When to use fill-in flash
Shooting in full sunlight does not necessarily guarantee a great photograph – in fact it is the type of lighting that needs the most thought and skill to get the right portrait. Unfortunately, although we would prefer shady/cloudy conditions, a vast majority of the opportunities that we have to photograph people occur during the brightest time of the day. The direction and quality of the light are your most important considerations, rather than the brightness of the light.
The important aspects to consider when shooting in full sunlight are the direction of the light (where the light falling onto the subject is coming from) and where the shadows are falling. Bright sunlight is always going to give you a harsh light with dark and defined shadows. How you handle this light is what is going to influence the quality of the photograph.
A better quality of light for portraiture is the diffused, soft light found on a slightly overcast day or in shade. This softer light makes the shadows less intense, allowing you to produce flattering close up photographs of the subject’s face. Your first choice on a bright sunny day, if you do not have to include the environment in the image, is to move the person into a shady environment. Diffused light does not necessarily mean ‘flat’ light. By positioning the subject in such a way that the brighter light comes more from one side (and above) than from the front, can result in remarkable shaping in your portrait.