Lessons Learned: Portrait Photography

These are some things about portrait photography that we have learned from our research, reading and experience.

1. Composition

Before taking the photo, visualize the scene in your mind. Think about the composition that will translate what you see in your mind into a photograph.

  • Rule of Thirds – Place important elements on the thirds. Golden ratio and golden spiral are also great composition tools.
  • Leading Lines – leading lines that point to the subject, zig-zag shapes that lend interest, or perspective lines that draw the viewer into the scene.
  • Fill the Frame – If you have a dominant element that is very interesting, fill the whole frame with it.
  • Use Frames – Frame your shot with an archway, a window, foreground foliage, etc. Watch the edge of the frame to make sure nothing unwanted is there.

2. Light

Light is incredibly important. The golden hour and hours around sunrise and sunset are great, but filtered light can also be nice. Even when the sky is overcast, there is still diffused light.

Where there is light, there is also shadow. It’s important to consider how light falls onto the subject to create shadow. The contrast between light and shadow, the transitions in between, and the way that light and shadow interplay can greatly change the visual dynamics.

Black and white photos can clearly show the contrast between light and shadow.

Try to create hair or rim light so that the person’s hair lights up against the background. Near sunset hours, shooting into the sun can create natural hair lights.

When using flashes indoors, bounce off ceilings or shoot through diffusers to soften the harsh direct light. Alternatively, place the flash off-camera on a light stand and shoot through a large umbrella, and use a remote to fire the flash.

3. Eyes

Get the eyes in focus. The eyes are the first place that a viewer looks, and they should be razor sharp. It’s a good sign if you can count the eyelashes.

The eyes are highly reflective and will often have small points of reflections called catch lights. Try to get catch lights in the eyes with flashes, reflectors, or constant light sources. Keep in mind that the sky makes a great natural reflector.

The continuous eye AF feature on the Sony camera is great for getting the eyes in focus. Another common focusing technique is focus-and-recompose, putting the autofocus point over the subject, focus, and then move to the desired composition to take the shot.

4. Pose

In order for the portrait to look natural and to bring out your subject’s personality, make him or her comfortable. Spend some time before starting the shoot to get to know him or her better.

Experiment with poses. Tilt the chin down or up, change up the smile, or in the case of young children, let them play and take candid shots.

Details of the human body such as hands, feet, or object details can also make great photographic subjects, as expressions of ideas or emotions, or as a way to say something about an individual.

5. Shooting

As a general rule, the shutter speed should be higher than the focal length for sharp photos. However, when taking photos of kids, motion blur can show even at 1/100th of a second. If the subject is moving quickly, it can be necessary to take photos at 1/250th or above.

Take lots of shots. People have micro-expressions that can change in milliseconds, and capturing the best expression involves taking multiple photos of the same subject.

6. Perspective

Change up the angles, poses, and perspectives. Don’t always shoot at the eye level. Position the camera high or low, and pose the subject high or low.

Check every detail. Blinks, stray hairs, awkward hands, hair ties on wrist, wardrobe issues, and other small details that can detract from an otherwise great photo.

7. Depth of Field

Shallow depth of field with a blurry background is visually pleasing for portraits. Shooting a single subject with a low aperture, like F1.8 or F2.8, can result in great portraits.

If you can’t keep all of the faces near the same focal plane, stop down to a higher aperture, F4 or above. Don’t shoot at F1.8 or F2.8 if someone’s face will be blurry and out-of-focus.

Sometimes the environment is so beautiful that you want to have everything in focus. In that case, use F5.6 or higher aperture to ensure everything looks sharp.

8. Gear

The compression of features from farther away is generally flattering. Use at least 50mm lenses for headshots. 85mm and 135mm are classic portrait focal lengths, but longer can sometimes work, too.

When using a wide-angle lens to photograph a group, be careful and ensure that the people at the edges do not look distorted.

When taking photos in people’s homes or workplaces, carry as little gear as possible. Minimize the disturbance your presence causes.

During outdoor shoots, being light on your feet can help you get to different locations quickly and take several sets of photos with different backgrounds.

9. RAW

Always shoot in RAW to ensure the most latitude and dynamic range for post-processing. Post-processing is a whole subject unto itself.

10. Story

Try to tell a story, convey a mood and inspire emotion.

Portraits are about people. Every person has a story, and a good portrait should tell part of that story and reveal something about that person.

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One response to “Lessons Learned: Portrait Photography”

  1. pk says:

    Stumbled on your site because of your article on the a7ii vs a7rii. I just wanted to say that I love your photography. Really well done.

    You stated in one place that neither of you are professional photographers, that may be, but I work with a lot of pro photographers, and you’re definitely ‘pro’ whether or not you charge for it.

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