Portraiture Tips with South Kildare Camera Club
It’s been a while since I’ve shot pure portraiture as in the past year or so I’ve been very focused on my AIPF and FIPF panels, which were predominantly fine art nude images. But portraiture is really where I started out with my photography and I guess it’s what I’m still best known for in certain circles. Well I was invited down as a guest speaker to South Kildare Camera Club to do a workshop on portraiture. The format was very different to what I’m used to in that it was a Powerpoint presentation giving tips and examples. Well since I went to the effort of putting this presentation together, I thought I may as well share it here too
If I were to offer some basic portraiture tips they would be:
- Keep it simple
- Watch your focal length
- Shoot at eye level perspective
- Apply the classical rules of composition
- Light your portrait, don’t just expose it.
Keep It Simple
I think there is beauty in simplicity. The simpler a portrait is, the more effective it can be. Where possible, you should try to avoid cluttered backgrounds. Watch out for any distractions that maybe in the frame, particularly things like lamp posts or trees growing out of your subjects head.
Where possible, I tend to shoot very shallow, usually around f:2.8. This helps throw the background out of focus, bringing attention back on to your subject. Obviously the shallower you shoot, you need to watch your focus as it’s easy to misfocus and have the eyes soft.
Colours can also be a distraction particularly if you have bright contrasting colours in things like clothing or indeed the background. Try and keep your colour scheme neutral or indeed consider converting an image into monochrome if this isn’t possible.
Avoid bright objects in the background. Our eye is naturally drawn to the area of highest contrast, so if you have large bright specular high lights in the background, it can draw the viewers attention away from the subject, something to be avoided. Some of the shots below help demonstrate some of these concepts.
This is an ambient light portrait taken on the street of Dublin of a Romanian Gypsy. Shot at f:2.8 to throw the background out of focus, I also applied vignetting to burn in the bright spots in the background.
This shot is another natural light portrait, again taken at f:2.8. Shot around 140mm, this combined with the aperture help throw the background out of focus. In terms of colour, the background wall and subjects skin tones are more or less one tone, helping to keep the colour scheme simple.
Watch Your Focal Length
The distance between subject and lens will dictate how much “perspective distortion” there is in an image. If you are using a wide angle lens, in order for you to fill your frame with your subject, you need to be much closer to the subject than if you are using a telephoto lens.
The “ideal” shooting distance for portraiture is about 4~5 feet. Any closer than this and you will start to distort the features of your subject. Obviously the closer you get, the greater this distortion and the more apparent it becomes in your portrait.
The generally accepted ideal focal length for portraits is anything between 85mm and 105mm. It is better to err on the longer side of this than shorter.
This portrait was taken in my living room using natural light from a window to the left. It is shot on an 85mm prime lens at f:1.8.
There is enough distance between subject and lens such that she fills the frame, but without displaying any perspective distortion. As per the tips in the previous section, shooting at f:1.8 ensures that the depth of field is very shallow, throwing the background out of focus.
Shoot At Eye Level Perspective
In pretty much every other photographic genre, I try to avoid shooting at eye level. As humans, we’re used to seeing the world from eye level, so photographs taken from this perspective tend to lack impact and drama. But for portraits, this rule generally applies. In order for us to engage with the subject, we generally want to be at the same eye level as them. This particularly applies to when we’re shooting children. Even slight variations from this, i.e. a little above or a little below can really change the feel of a shot.
I don’t care how stupid I look or what lengths I need to go to, I will always endeavour to look straight down the lens at a subjects eyes. This has involved kneeling or even lying on the ground, or indeed using a step ladder.. what ever it takes to get the shot.
The traditional rules of composition apply to portraiture as much as any other genre. Rules such as the rule of thirds, golden mean, fibonacci curve all apply. I’ve written an article on composition in portraiture already, which may be worth a read? I guess the trick is to familiarise yourself with these rules and apply them. Once you understand them, it becomes second nature to compose a shot. My main tip would be to place the eyes on compositional hot spots.
I think another mistake people make, especially those new to portraiture is that they include too much empty space or unwanted detail in their shots. I always try to get in close and fill the frame with your subject. Now be careful ❗ If you’re using a wide focal length you can distortion by getting too close, so ensure you’re using longer focal lengths to achieve this. If the frame is filled by your subject, there is nothing else to distract the viewer.
Don’t be afraid to crop. It’s obviously a personal taste thing, but I like closely cropped portraits. I never think twice about cropping into the forehead of a subject. I’ll do what ever it takes to make the composition feel right. But if you do crop, make sure the crop is a good distance into the subjects head, so the crop feels deliberate more so than accidental. Generally it’s advised not to crop at the chin (although rules are always made to be broken).
Consider orienting your portraits in landscape format. Just because you’re taking a portrait, does not mean the shot has to be oriented in portrait format. For a lot of my work, I often shoot portraits in landscape format. Again my focus is always on what feels right and if landscape format feels right, then that’s how I take the shot.
Even the most entry level SLR or compact camera can expose an image correctly. But only a photographer can light a shot. It is light that we actually photograph. It is light that shapes an image.
Dealing with ambient light, I would first suggest that you avoid shooting in open day light. On an overcast day, the light is diffused and comes from all directions, so your shots will be flat. On sunny days, the light will be harsh and difficult to control. So instead, seek an area of open shade or use window light. In this way, the light is directional allowing you to control how it falls on your subject.
If necessary use a reflector to fill the shadow side. Another really useful tip is to wear white clothing so you yourself act as a reflector 😉
Don’t be afraid to break some rules too ❗ It’s often considered a photographic fau pas to shoot into the light. Doing so can reduce contrast, and sometimes causes lens flare. But it can also produce some magical images.
Introducing flash opens up a lot of creative possibilities. Now we have the ability to control the light in a scene. With the ability to control the direction of the light, the quality (harsh vs. soft), colour and fall off, comes the ability to create an image as opposed to simply capturing it. I’ve already written a few articles on how to use flash (technical & practical & flash in use) as well as how to mix flash with ambient, so I won’t address them again here. Suffice to say, with flash and a little bit of imagination, you can pretty much create what ever shot you want.