Trent Chau | Photographer and Instructor

Everything Photography | Pictures, Reviews, Education, and More

Portrait Photography : Tips and Techniques to getting a better portrait (Part 1)

Focus on the eyes, blurring of the background, lighting to create dimension, texture both smooth and rough...these are but a few of things we can dissect that make a portrait stand out.

Focus on the eyes, blurring of the background, lighting to create dimension, texture both smooth and rough…these are but a few of things we can dissect that make a portrait stand out.

I love portrait photography. There’s something about working with another person, having a great dialog with them, and taking memorable photographs that make me a happy camper. I tend to be extremely modest about my work, but can confidently say that portraiture is a strong point in the repertoire. So it’s with great enthusiasm to write this blog about tips and techniques to getting a better portrait.   This blog will break down into it’s elements how to start taking great photos.  Work on one element, or combine them all together to get stronger and stronger photos.

Portraiture can be intimidating. It takes a while to be comfortable with one work, to develop a style, and consistently deliver a strong photograph. Now take into the equation that there is a face on the other end of the camera, a photographer may begin to worry about their subjects expectations also. I have seen this plenty of time, and watched 20 years experienced landscape photographers crumble with worry when a person ask for simple portraits.

So what gets you over this hump? The answer is simple, and universal. Know your tools.

The most immediate tool in a photographers possession is his camera. Camera in it’s simplest form here. A device that records the image as seen and composed by the photographer. One does not need a $10,000 camera to take a great portrait, and if one doesn’t know how to use said $10,000 camera their image appears just that much more worst. What’s most important though is to ask if that camera is able to consistently produce the same results one wants. Does the camera have the manual control and latitude of change that allows the photographer to precisely dial in camera settings to achieve sought after results? More importantly does the photographer understand what settings do what to achieve the look and feel they want?

I won’t go through every nuance of Camera settings here, just what I believe are most important for portraits. A consistently good portrait photographer will be very familiar with aperture, focal length, white balance, exposure, depth of field, and focusing.

Aperture and Depth of field control

A low aperture, long focal length, distance from the subject, and good background distance gives a very shallow depth of field.Canon 5d Mark III with Canon 70-200 2.8L IS II

A low aperture, long focal length, distance from the subject, and good background distance gives a very shallow depth of field.
Canon 5d Mark III with Canon 70-200 2.8L IS II

A portrait photographer should be familiar with aperture because it’s one of the main factors that create the magic of a great portrait. Remember that the main focus of a portrait is the person(s) being shown. Aperture is one of several key ingredients to help isolate your subject from their surroundings. Have a lens that has a faster aperture also allows a photographer to photograph in situations where there is less light, this creates more opportunity for the photographer to get his photo. Lastly there’s a general rule that if you stop down 2~3 stops from the fully open aperture of your lens you will get the sharpest and best results of that lens. For example if you have a lens that starts at an aperture of 2.8, if you go down two stops to F5.6 you will get the optimum results from your lens. This is one of the reasons that it is suggested one purchases the fastest lens they can, so that if a photographer does stop down for optimum results he still can get a low aperture to maximize depth of field. Suggestions for portrait lenses will be listed below.

Depth of Field (DOF) is what I consider the KEY factor in a successful portrait. The majority purpose of a Portrait is to isolate your subject, and draw attention to that subject. Yes they maybe placed in a background, but for all intents and purposes the background is just a suggestion and a small part of the whole image. With that in mind, DOF allows us photographers to control how much of the background and foreground is shown, and up close even if parts of your subject are hidden!

Along with other aspects like composition, and technique, a shallow depth of field is a main stay in my personal style of portrait shooting. I like to give a suggestion of a location, but not the fine details of it. I see it like normal life where our surroundings are actually a blur to us, because of our pace for one reason, but also because we are used to our location it becomes second nature. I commonly remind people that while we walk in the woods we don’t have time to concentrate on every branch and we easily start blurring our surroundings and getting lost in the idea of the forest. And that many of the best looking photos of woods have a single focal point, or a shallow depth of field. I use this same idea to control point of view in portraiture.

Read this blog post here to learn about Depth of Field control, this is critical for great portraiture : Introduction to Depth of Field Control

Focal Length

Longer focal lengths give a great representation of the subject without exaggerating too many features.

Longer focal lengths give a great representation of the subject without exaggerating too many features.

 

Focal length is a major factor in the outcome of a portrait. Immediately I’m going to mention a general rule about portraiture. The typical focal lengths that deliver a strong portrait start at about 80mm (50mm on a crop DSLR) and up to about 200mm (140mm on a crop). The reason why those numbers are thrown out is due to perspective distortion and compression. If a photographer tries to shoot a portrait up close with a wide angle lens (24mm in this example) proportions tend to be exaggerated outwards. Noses look bigger, foreheads get wider, and limbs start looking like the person is related to Gumby. On the other end of the equation working with distances of 300mm or more, a photographer doesn’t have any issues with perspective distortion, he just loses any ability to communicate to his subject on a personal level as he is standing almost 30 feet or more away. At a focal length of 80mm to 200mm, the subjects features begin to pleasantly compress and look more appealing. Because the subjects features are compressing don’t confuse that with losing dimensionality, as this is created more by lighting which will be covered later.

Along with perspective, focal length is also another factor in depth of field. A longer focal length creates more separation from the subject and his foreground and background. It’s so strong that using a long focal length lens with a fast aperture can almost render the background obsolete into a mass of abstract color, something that can make a portrait pop!

With the knowledge above, note that you can take a strong portrait with a wide lens and super long lens. Just like life, it’s easier to break rules if you know what they are and why they exist. Also most importantly if you are ever caught in a situation where you have to revert to your most basic of photography instincts, it’s great to know a general area to begin in. Sometimes you never know what someone may ask you to shoot, and being mentally prepared is awesome. I’ll repeat this mantra later, but wanted to introduce it early.

In my own experience I tend to use a focal range of 35~50mm for full body portraits, and zoom from 85~200mm for anything that is stomach/chest/shoulder up. I have found 35mm (particularly the 35 1.4L) a great focal range to get stunning full body portraits with, as shown with this example.

Maryn - Melpomene

It avoids too much distortion but allows a pleasantly large point of view. If I get close to the subject though there is exaggerated distortion so I tend to avoid human subjects closer than 3 feet to the lens.

Lighting – Diffused Light

Large light sources create smooth gradation from light areas to shadows.

Large light sources create smooth gradation from light areas to shadows.


Repeat after me, remember this, make it so entwined that it becomes subconscious:  “The bigger the physical size of the light source, the softer and more diffused the shadows”

The size of the light source affects the shadows, not the difference on the right on the subject and the shadow casted.

The size of the light source affects the shadows, not the difference on the right on the subject and the shadow casted.

It’s that simple when it comes to lighting.  The large the size of the light source (note: not the brighter, that’s a different attribute) the softer the shadows.  One way to make a light source bigger is by physically getting closer into it.  For something like that sun which is 93million miles away on average, this isn’t really possible.  The other way is to diffuse the light by placing material in front of your light source that intercepts the light and now becomes the light source.  This process is called diffusion.  You see this happen say when a cloud gets front of the sun.  The size of the light source gets bigger because now the cloud is the light source.  It’s material that diffuses the light and makes it that much bigger.  See diagram below.

When material is transluscent and large, it will start diffusing the light source and making it bigger.

When material is translucent and large, it will start diffusing the light source and making it bigger.

This is why waiting for a cloudy day can be great for portraiture, that soft light makes shadows less intense and creates very pleasing headshots.  You don’t have to wait for a cloudy day, by shooting in the shade, or by using material to diffuse light you can make a giant light source that’s absolutely pretty.

Shooting in the shade put Marissa in a very large soft light source.

Shooting in the shade put Marissa in a very large soft light source.

A large light source does create pretty soft light, it might not always be what you want effect wise.  Small lights do create an awesome feel if used correctly.  This is normally mixed with another aspect of lighting which is directionality of the light (this is covered in part 2).  Here’s a sample of using a smaller light source to create a portrait.

A small light source creates quick transitions into shadows with little gradation from light to dark.

A small light source creates quick transitions into shadows with little gradation from light to dark.

White Balance

Incorrect white balance can really change the mood of a photo.  Adding warmth creates a more inviting photograph

Incorrect white balance can really change the mood of a photo. Adding warmth creates a more inviting photograph

Light has a temperature measured in Kelvin. The temperature doesn’t correspond to how physically hot (boiling water, etc) the light is but instead to the color quality of the light.
I can continue on a long little diddy about white balance, but here’s an article at Cambridge in Color that explains it.  It’s a a pretty good idea to learn white balance and nail it down as a photographer.  Its less post processing to worry about and you can even expand it further if you know how to manipulate it correctly.

Here’s the trick I wanted to tell people though. Humans have a lot of red/yellow (warm tones) in our skin tone. It makes us look more alive and natural (even in pale people). That’s why there’s the nice gold side of a reflector. It gives warmth to a person. So in practice you can add a little warmth to an image by increasing your white balance by a couple of hundred kelvins up.

So lets say you are shooting someone with a studio strobe rated at 5500 degrees Kelvin. Try setting your white balance manually (if you can, some cameras only offer preset white balance) to about 5800 to add some warmth to the skin tone. This is a great quick thing that can make your images glow as soon as you see them on the LCD. Yes you can do this in post easily, but what if your subject wants to see an image, showing them one that looks great off the bat can really help.

This is part 1 on portraiture.  In the future I hope to write more about portraiture.  Please support this website either through using the affiliate links below or even donation of whatever you can via paypal to trent@trentchau.com,

_____________________________________

Disclaimer

Howdy, thanks for looking at the site.  I’ve been doing photography for a decade now, and teaching photography for over half a decade.  This photo blog will always be free; this is a passion of mine.  I do have a little daughter to feed though and whatever extra that this blog can make is always appreciated and applied to either my family, or to further improve my photography and share what’s been learned.  Thank you for anything you can contribute either via using the affiliate links located below, or even straight donation (please mark it as such) to my paypal at trent@trentchau.com.  It’s really an honor and a privilege to share this information and more about my life and love with you guys.

Thank you so much.

About trentchau

Photographer, videographer, and photography instructor in Atlanta. Born in New Orleans. I love food more than photography, but do love photography quite a bit.

7 comments on “Portrait Photography : Tips and Techniques to getting a better portrait (Part 1)

  1. firthefirst
    March 21, 2010

    been following your blog for a little while now, and I’m really excited to see where this post goes. you do some really amazing portraits, especially your full-body and environmental ones in the woods. nice to see you get the deal with B+H, keep it up

    • trentchau
      March 21, 2010

      Thank you! Looking forward to writing more on it.

  2. julieharnage
    March 26, 2010

    Well I tried your tip on shooting at 2 stops down (soooo not my normal) but the results were AMAZING. I shot at my usual 2.8 and yes, it was acceptable, but when I went to f/4, the eyes on this baby just came alive and look like glass. Im sure people think I’ve tampered with them in photoshop, but honestly this picture was almost straight from the camera!

    Thanks again for your blog and your tips! Keep em coming! 🙂

  3. Chris Oh
    August 23, 2010

    Continuation, por favor!

  4. Bryan Agoncillo
    November 28, 2010

    These are some amazing shots.. I have the 70-200mm lens for the Nikon and I get some good shots like these ones…

  5. Pete Smith
    November 22, 2012

    Thank you for sharing your photos and techniques. I study your photos all the time to try and figure out the lighting and techniques used. Please keep on inspireing us.

  6. chris
    February 21, 2013

    jeebus! do work son! Great job on updating this!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on February 21, 2013 by in Portraiture, Techniques for photography, Tips and Tricks.

Affiliates – Please support this blog and it’s free content

This blog is fueled by these affiliates, please check them out.


Trent’s Tweets

%d bloggers like this: