All, Getting Started

Getting Started with Portrait Photography

Posted on 14-03-2020
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Written by digiDirect


Portrait photography can be a bit intimidating to learn. While other genres, such as landscape photography, can be experimented with independently, portrait photography requires at least one other person (the model) to be present. This can be stressful if you’re still learning the ropes. But getting started in portrait photography is more achievable than you may realise. What's more, getting started doesn't necessarily require you to rush out and buy a whole new kit or hire a model. Having the right gear helps and we will guide you through what works for this genre. Furthermore, we will walk you through some necessary steps to set up for and capture great portraits.

What is a Portrait?

Portraits involve capturing the likeness of a person either via traditional arts such as painting or drawing or via more modern means such as photography. Before photography, this was done exclusively by sitting for a painted portrait, and would take hours if not days. Fortunately, portrait photography can be set up and completed in a much shorter amount of time! Generally speaking, with portrait photography you are capturing the face and upper torso of a person. It can include photographing the whole body in the frame, or even what is called an environmental portrait.   

Black and white portrait of woman Women chewing gum with neon lights

Portraits can cover a wide range of emotions and styles, but typically involve the head and upper torso of the subject

Different Uses of Portrait Photography

Portrait photography has many great applications. From a formal perspective, many corporate clients request portrait images or professional headshots. This can be to ensure that there is an accurate record of every employee for security purposes. Most organisations today will require every employee to have an ID card with their portrait photo on it. Headshots for presenting a bio of critical stakeholders in an organisation or a marketing team is beneficial. This in turn can help build customer trust in a company that puts executives faces to its customer promises. And then, of course, some choose to have formal headshots taken for social media purposes.

At a creative level, portrait photography is extensively embedded in all forms of media, from magazines to full-size billboards. This level of commercial photography occurs at a professional level in studios. But not all portrait photography has to be at such a high level. Taking portrait images of children and family members provides a historical reference for how people appeared at that time. Our children get individual photos taken at school every year, and as parents, we delight in them. Also, those interested in using models to experiment with portrait photography can do so quite easily. There are many social media community groups dedicated to portrait photography and will often organise for model shoots. If you don’t have a friend or family member who is comfortable with modelling, joining one of these groups can be a great way to get started!

Older man with white background
Corporate headshots can be a good revenue source for portrait photographers

Telling Stories & Conveying Emotions

When getting started in portrait photography, it is essential to know that capturing someone's portrait can be so much more than just a simple picture of a person’s face. The use of creative lighting in portraiture can have a massive impact on providing the composition with a desired mood due to the use of shadows and contrast. A portrait can be shot in black and white in order to give it a more dramatic look than a colour portrait. The location and background of your portrait shoot can help to tell a story and provide some context to the image. Having natural greenery and plants in the background or perhaps an urban laneway can change the meaning in an image. Equally, the way your subject dresses or how they style their hair will make a big difference in the emotion you wish to convey. Imagine an older man with a long beard wearing a bow tie and smoking a long bone pipe. Those few touches add a tone to the portrait and already you can see a creative story forming in the composition. Always be mindful of these options and do not be afraid to experiment. It’s much more than a simple headshot!

Using Shallow Depth of Field in Portrait Photography

Depth of field refers to the amount of the frame that is in focus, which is a function of the lens aperture (among other things). A deep depth of field, commonly achieved by setting your aperture to around f/8 or f/11 (called a small or slow aperture), results in focus across the entire image. This means that the subjects, foreground and background are all in forcus. With a shallow depth of field, commonly achieved by setting the aperture between f/1.2 to f/2.8 (called a fast or wide aperture), only a small slice of the image will be in focus. In portrait photography, it is generally preferable to use a shallow depth of field and have only your subject be in focus, with the background blurred out. The focal plane may even be so thin that the ears and back of head will begin to drift out of focus - although you want to be sure to always keep the eyes in focus, as this is the core of the image. A shallow depth of field in portrait photography can be used to convey a higher level of drama.

Portrait of woman with shallow depth of field Woman with foreground flowers

Shallow depth of field is commonly used in portraiture to keep the subject in focus while background or foreground elements are artfully blurred

Lenses for Portrait Photography  

Wide or Telephoto

In portrait photography, it is ideal to be able to achieve a compressed image where your subject fills the majority of the frame. Wide lenses exaggerate distances (the opposite of compression) and distort your subjects features similar to a funhouse mirror. They also will result in too much of the background in your image, therefore reducing the focus on the subject. In contrast, telephoto lenses are excellent for portrait photography. In addition to compressing the background and your subject’s features, both desirable, the longer a lens is the more shallow depth of field it will exhibit at the same aperture. So telephoto lenses will also help attain the “shallow depth of field look” discussed above. You don't want too long of a lens though, and generally mid-range telephoto lenses are preferable in portraiture, in the range of 50mm - 200mm. Anything beyond this will require you to stand extremely far away from your subject!

Prime or Zoom

A prime lens is a lens that is only one focal length. This is in contrast to a zoom lens, which you can zoom between a range of focal lengths. While zoom lenses can provide some nice flexibility, prime lenses are generally the best choice for portrait photography. The reason for this is that a prime lens will generally have a much faster maximum aperture than a zoom lens. With only a few exceptions, zoom lenses won’t have a faster aperture than f/2.8. Prime lenses generally have at least an f/2 aperture, and many go as low as f/1.4 or f/1.2 (the lower the number the wider the aperture).  As discussed above, the wider the aperture the more shallow depth of field is achievable, which is generally desirable for portraits. As a related upside, it also means the lens has better low light performance, which will allow you to shoot in more varied lighting conditions. A prime lens such as the Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM is a great example. This lens is relatively inexpensive and compact and is a great starter lens for this genre. Many other brands offer similar 50mm equivalent lenses that have fast apertures and a reasonable price. 

Man in car with cowboy hat and gloves
Portraits can use different framing, and don’t necessarily have to be shot in portrait orientation. The use of props and clothing can also impart information about the subject

Don’t get us wrong, zoom lenses can certainly still be used for portrait photography. But the f/2.8 aperture means you won’t get quite as much shallow depth of field as from a prime. The advantage of zoom lenses are that they are very flexible, and you might use them for applications other than just portraits, reducing the amount of lenses you have to purchase. If you are starting in photography and want a versatile lens that is great for a portrait but equally useful for other genres, then the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8E is an excellent lens. It has a relatively fast aperture, and the long focal length also will increase your shallow depth of field. For more suggestions, read our Portrait Lens Buyer’s Guide.

Camera Settings 

The camera settings you are going to use for portrait photography are going to vary considerably depending on the subject you are shooting and the environment you occupy. Let’s have a quick discussion of some of the most important settings.

Aperture

As discussed previously, preferably use a wide aperture (f/2.8 or below) as this allows you to use shallow depth of field to separate your subject from the background. Stick with that when getting started in portrait photography, but don't be afraid to experiment with that further as you gain confidence. Shallow depth of field in a portrait isn’t a rule, so feel free to break it!

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed will significantly depend on your subject. If you are going to be shooting children or animals, then you are going to want to use fast shutter speed. A fast shutter speed freezes movement, and so is desirable for fast moving subjects. Children are incredibly mobile and especially younger children may have trouble sitting still for a portrait shoot. Being able to capture them quickly at the moment is critical to obtaining a blur-free shot with your subject in full focus. When photographing more stationary subjects, you will have more breathing room to use a slower shutter speed, which can be particularly beneficial in lower light conditions.   

ISO

Finally, your ISO setting will depend on the lighting conditions of the environment. As a rule, you pretty much always want to keep your ISO as low as possible. Increasing ISO increases the sensitivity of your sensor, which is helpful in dark situations, but it also introduces unsightly noise and grain. If you are outdoors and there is ample lighting, simply keep your ISO low. However, if you are indoors and there is poor lighting, you will likely have to boost your ISO somewhat in order to set your aperture and shutter speed properly. This brings up the balancing act of managing your ISO at a higher level so that you can shoot properly without creating excessive noise in the image. ISO can be a tricky balance to achieve, even with a wide-open aperture. One way to relieve some of this pressure is to introduce flash to illuminate your subject.  

Using Flash in Portraits

A popular technique for creating compelling portrait photos is to introduce the use of a flash. Flash photography involves using powered flash units that emit a pulse of controlled light. This light fires in sequence with the shutter on your camera and illuminates your subject. The use of flash photography can be a great aid in allowing you to sculpt the feel and tone of your image, or provide more light if you are in a dark situation. Even with a single flash bounced off the ceiling, you can create dramatic shadows and contrast that wouldn’t be present with simply natural lighting. Such action further enhances the separation between your subject and the background. With portrait photography, it is vital to invest time in understanding how flash works. It can make the difference between good and great portrait photographs. Note that your camera may have a built-in flash, but generally speaking these are not very high quality and won’t do much in the way of improving your portraiture. 

Dark portrait of woman with red hair Black and white portrait of woman

Using flash and lighting creatively can lead to very interesting images

On-Camera Flash  

On-camera flash is where you have a single flash unit attached to the top of your camera via the hot-shoe. There is an electronic connection between your camera and the flash. The link allows you to control the amount of light generated by the flash via the camera. This way, you can fine-tune how much light your camera can capture while calculating the inclusion of light generated by the flash. On-camera flashes can typically be rotated and you can accessorise them with bounce cards, diffusers, and similar for various effect. An example of this is the popular Canon 600EX II-RT, which can also be used as an off-camera flash.

Off-Camera Flash

As you increase your experience with both portrait photography and the use of a flash, you could move to off-camera flash. With off-camera flash, you can position single or multiple flash units around your subject, typically mounted on light stands or similar. Control of the flash units is via a trigger that attaches to the hot-shoe of the camera. With this trigger you can wirelessly control when each flash unit will fire and also how much light each will emit. Many on-camera flash units can also be utilised as off-camera flashes. The benefit of moving the flash off the camera is that the light is now coming from a different angle from that of the camera itself, which allows for much more creative applications. There are many ways to use off camera flash, and it doesn’t have to be as complex as you think!

Posing your Subject  

When you are starting with portrait photography, almost everyone you photograph will have zero experience modelling and posing. Aside from posing for the odd selfie, most people can be nervous on their first time. Be sure to make your model feel comfortable by guide them throughout the process. To get them to understand your directions, use yourself as a point of reference. Then, when you say to the subject 'look at me directly' or 'look over my right shoulder' they have a clear idea of where to look. It is equally essential to provide direction for where your model should look with their eyes versus where their head points. Making this clear distinction can lead to a more dramatic look. The key is constant communication and encouragement. You should replicate how you want them to stand and pose. Celebrate when they get the desired look just right, and you will have them wanting more. Read a bit more about posing tips here.

Portrait of man with red paint on face Women with black hat in black and white

Don’t be afraid to get creative!

Portrait photography is a style that is available to anyone willing to give it a try. You don't have to be a seasoned professional photographer to practice this style of photography with a friend or family member - or even with a self-portrait! As you gain confidence in the settings of your camera and how the depth of field affects your composition, you will be able to make progress. Photographing children presents its challenges, but most are easily convinced to take part for a short time. We do not doubt that with enough patience and practice that portrait photography will become second nature to you. Before long, you will be advancing into the use of flash and a more professional set-up for your portrait photography.

If you are looking to get into portrait photography but don't know where to start, the friendly staff at digiDirect can help. Contact us today to get great advice on lenses, flash, and more for your budding portraiture photography!

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