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Portrait Photography tips

How to shoot Better Portraits

You may be taking portraits of your friends or you may have been hired to photograph a group of family, the headshot of a celebrity or a corporate CEO or a complete modelling portfolio of an aspiring model.

You could be shooting in a professional studio or outside in a park or a street, the useful tips that follow, will help you become a better portrait or Fashion photographer.

Shoot at Aperture Priority

Shoot in Aperture Priority mode to control the Depth of field. In this mode, your SLR will automatically set the shutter speed on its own for a correct exposure based on the aperture selected by you.

At Aperture priority mode, a common photography problem while shooting people with light skin tones is under-exposed tones and a bit of an overexposure in case of dark-skinned subjects. You’ll notice this more when shooting close-ups or when there’s lots of white in the scene –people wearing white outfits or standing against a bright source are typical examples.

In such situations, the subject appears to be darker than what he or she actually is, especially in the case of very fair people or if the subject is wearing a white outfit. You can try using Exposure Compensation. Try dialing in up to +1 stop of positive Exposure Compensation to lighten up people’s faces. In earlier times, the cameras typically used to have an "against the light compensation button" to be used in such situations. One of my first cameras, Canon AE1 used to have this button.

For average skin tones, one does not need to do anything as these tones are closer to 18% grey card and the camera's metering is based on the assumption that all subjects are of the same average tone as a standard 18% grey. So the exposure in such situations is generally correct and one does not need to make any changes.

Also while shooting tight portraits with a long focal length lens, there is no need to compensate for the exposure while shooting against the light. The camera in such situations is measuring light from the face and is not influenced by the camera being pointed against the light. No stray light of other areas are included in the frame so "against the light" does not influence the exposure.

Switch to measuring Incident light

The incident light meter measures the light falling on the subject and is hence more accurate as compared to the reflected light reading which is influenced by the tonality of the main subject and well as surroundings.

Move on to Manual Mode - Once you have taken the clue of the right aperture and shutter speed combination, switch over to the manual mode with the right optimum settings which give the correct exposure on the subject. The objective is that as compared to the aperture priority mode, the exposure will not change as you change your angles and composition. For example, in the case of aperture priority, the camera may suggest a different exposure when shooting full-length and close-ups. The meter is being influenced by the tonality of the outfit or the background when the frame is wider. A window added in the frame may just influence the exposure, suggesting to reduce the exposure as more light is entering through the window. Setting the camera on Manual mode will help you concentrate more on the expressions and body language of the subject rather than handling of the exposure with changing composition or framing. This is great when you are about to shoot a lot of photographs in the same area, around the same time, while the intensity of the light source itself is not changing.

However, when you are on a constant move as in with street photography, shooting on aperture priority may just work better, most of the time.

Shoot with an open aperture

When shooting portraits, it’s best to set a wide aperture (around f/2.8-f/4) to capture a shallow depth of field, so the background behind your subject is nicely blurred, making it stand out better. But do keep in mind that do not open so much that the face itself becomes out of focus. With such large apertures, one does need to be careful with focusing and focus at the area which is most important in the portrait. generally, it's good to focus on the eyes. Many photographers are too obsessed with getting an out-of-focus background that they end up having the subject itself out of focus, which they are seldom able to judge on the small screen of the camera.

Photographed by Munish Khanna

Photographed by Munish Khanna

Play around with the Foreground as well

Most of the Photographers concentrate on a blurred background and ignore the foreground. Including the foreground in the frame can help achieve a sense of depth in the photograph. Ensure that an opened aperture is used in this case as well to render the foreground out of focus. Since the foreground is closer to the camera, it will anyways be less sharp compared to the subject. Depth of field is less in front of the subject and more behind the subject. Make sure that you have set the camera on the right focusing mode, where it focuses on the points picked up by you instead of an overall wide focusing in which it may end up focusing at the nearest element.

Photographed by Munish Khanna

Photographed through the space between the car door, the photograph draws the eye on the model without even letting the car be noticeable.

Photographed by Munish Khanna

A little wider frame gives an idea about the car as well.

Photographed by Munish Khanna

The foreground could even be the person herself with the reflection as the main subject in focus.

Shoot with specialised lenses for Portraits

Specialist portrait lenses tend to have even wider maximum apertures (from f/1.4 to f/2.8) in order to blur backgrounds further. 135mm prime is a typical lens quite widely used for portraits. The 85mm prime is another example.

Photographed by Munish Khanna

1/100 at f2.2

Photographed by Munish Khanna

Canon 50mm on 5d mark III at f2.2 ~ 1/60th sec. Although 50mm is not really for portraits but being a very versatile focal length, when used correctly, it can give very effective results.

Having a large Maximum Aperture ( Small in Number) allows you to shoot at fully opened Apertures but this does not mean that you always have to do so. The other benefit of such a lens is that it lets you see a brighter view through the viewfinder as compared to the ones who's Maximum aperture is not so open.

Do not let the shutter speed drop low

While shooting at Aperture priority, the camera automatically sets the right corresponding shutter speed but do ensure that the shutter speed is higher than the focal length of the lens being used or at least above 1/60th of a second.

As a general rule, make sure your shutter speed is higher than your effective focal length. For example, at 200mm use a 1/250 sec shutter speed or faster.

Use the Right focal length

You can get away with slower shutter speeds when using a wide-angle lens – such as 1/20 sec with an 18mm focal length. However, do not use a wide-angle lens very close to the subject as that will lead to distortion, unless you are looking for it, intentionally. A wide-angle lens will capture more depth of field compared to a telephoto lens. This is also one of the reasons why telephoto lenses are favoured over wide-angle lenses for portraits, as they further knock backgrounds out of focus to make the persons being photographed more prominent in the scene. If you are shooting an environmental portrait, you may want to include a lot of other areas in the frame besides the person you are photographing. You may still opt to shoot with a longer focal length lens unless there are space constraints or you are looking for the perspective of a wide-angle lens.

Photographed by Munish Khanna

A long focal length has helped throw the background out of focus even though the aperture is not completely opened.

Focal length 210 mm ~ 1/60th sec at f5.6 Phase One P30+

Release the Shutter at the right moment while taking candid portraits.

People move around a lot as they’re photographed, not to mention blink and constantly change their facial expressions – and there’s nothing worst than a photo of somebody half-blinking with an odd expression ! Learn to anticipate the expressions and movements of the subjects you are photographing. This will help you release the shutter at the right moment when the expressions of your subject for a portrait are most pleasing.

Use a Flash

To prevent motion blur, you’ll need to use a fast shutter speed which is relative to the motion of the subject.

This will also help to ensure sharp shots and avoid camera shake as mostly you’ll be shooting portraits handheld. Alternatively, add a flash as well and mixing and balancing it with the natural existing lighting.

Photographed by Munish Khanna

Photographed by Munish Khanna

Continue shooting even in low light

During low light situations, while in Aperture Priority mode with a wide aperture, if you still need to increase your shutter speed increase your ISO in small increments just to reach the right shutter speed (for example from ISO100 to ISO400 instead of straight away increasing it to 1600). In very low light (indoors and outside), you may need to increase it to ISO800, 1600 or even 3200. A little grain is infinitely better than a blurry, useless photo. You may add a flash in such situations but I would always prefer an off-camera flash instead of attaching it on top of the camera. Adding the flash is not always a practical choice especially while you are travelling or on a holiday and not exclusively doing photography. One needs to understand light and should be capable of balancing the ambient and the flashlight.

Make the best of the Golden Light

you can achieve very good deep skin tones at the Golden hours when the sunlight is warm and Golden. many photographers make it a point to specially shoot portraits during these golden hours.

Photographed by Munish Khanna

Photographed by Munish Khanna

With the direction sunlight coming from one side at a low angle, Reflectors help in filling up the other side of the face. Adding an existing element, like this car here help in posing better even though they have no direct role to play as such.

Go Tight - Frame tight portraits.

This helps exclude the areas not required or which are disturbing the main subject. A tight frame also helps focus and concentrate on the fine expressions and detail of the face.

Photographed by Munish Khanna

Go Wide!

Contrary to what i just mentioned, If there is more than just the face of the person being photographed include the space around the subject in the frame. It helps add character to the portrait. It also helps to know more about the person being photographed. The character and the environment, he or she belongs to.

Photographed by Munish Khanna

The photograph of the lady in Ladakh gives an idea about her activities and livelihood through this photograph.

Add a prop or two

A prop as simple as a stethoscope conveys that the subject is a Doctor.

Dr. Shikha Sharma photographed by Munish Khanna

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