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16. Portrait Photography

Portrait photography refers to shooting people, both individually and in groups.

In this chapter, we’ll mainly be talking about how you can make use of the settings that your camera and lens offer to get the best looking portrait images.

So let’s get started.

Settings

Most of the times, portraits are shot using a low f-stop number to blur the background.

The shutter speed will depend upon whether your subject is moving or not.

Depending upon the aperture, shutter speed and the ambient light, the ISO is chosen. Also, you can just use Auto-ISO so as to speed up things.

Now let’s go onto some important rules and principles:

Using a Larger Focal Length to Avoid Stretching Your Subject and Compress the Background

This is perhaps the most important principle you’ll ever learn about portrait photography.

It has the potential to change your portrait photography forever so pay close attention to it.

First of all, before we begin, you should know what a larger focal length means.

A larger focal length means a higher focal length number.

For instance, if you are using your 18-55mm kit lens, the largest focal length number would be 55mm.

If you are using a 70-200mm lens, the largest focal length number would be 200mm.

So it basically means you are zooming in.

But referring to it as zooming in might not be too accurate because there are many lenses where the focal length is fixed, which are referred to as prime lenses, like the 85mm f1.8 lens. But it still is a large focal length even though you cannot zoom in and out.

A lesser focal length would mean using smaller focal length number, like 18mm. It can also be called as a wide focal length.

So let’s say you have to shoot a person standing in front of you. If you shoot them using a wider focal length like 18mm, then you’ll have to go close to them. And if you’re shooting them using a larger focal length, you’ll have to go far from them and then zoom in.

In this lesson, we’ll be seeing why using a larger focal length is better than using a wide focal length to shoot portraits.

In other words, we’ll be seeing why it’s more effective to go far away from your subject and then zoom in and shoot as opposed to going close and using a wide focal length.

So let’s see how this works:

I’ll be taking two shots of a person. The first shot will be using a wide focal length and the second one will be using a larger focal length.

Our job is to take these two shots at different focal lengths but by keeping the composition the same. That means that in both the shots we’ll get the same body parts in the frame. For this exercise, we’ll be shooting in such a way that the person’s head and shoulders come into the frame in both the shots. So let’s get started:

  1. For the first shot where we have to use a wide focal length, let’s use a focal length of 18mm. So put on your kit lens and zoom all the way out.
  2. Next, go close to the subject till the time only their shoulder and head appear in the frame. Lock focus on their eyes and then take the shot. You’ll get an image like the one below:
  3. For the second shot, I want you to use a zoom lens in case you have one. Zoom lenses are those that will allow you to go above 100mm at least. Nowadays most camera companies give a zoom lens along with the kit lens. For example, Nikon gives the 55-200mm lens and Canon gives the 55-250mm lens. These lenses allow you to go zoom in more than kit lenses. So in case you have such a lens, I want you to attach it on your camera, then go far away from the subject, and then zoom in till only their shoulders and head are in the frame, just like the previous shot. Try to be above 100mm at least. If you are not above 100mm, go further away and zoom in more. Now what if you don’t have a zoom lens? No problem. You can use your kit lens. Just go slightly far away and zoom in all the way to 55mm.
  4. Now lock focus on the eyes/ face, and take the shot. You’ll get a shot like the one below:
  5. Now it’s time to compare these two images.

    Let’s put these two images side by side for comparison:

Look closely. What differences do you observe in both the shots?

First of all, let’s talk in terms of the subject.

Do you notice that in the second shot, the subject looks more natural? And in the first shot the subject’s face appears slightly stretched and unnatural.

This is because for the first shot we used a wide focal length. When you use a wide focal length and go close to the person you are shooting, it stretches the subject.

This ends up making the subject look “weird”.

The second shot makes the subject look natural because when you zoom in and use a larger focal length, it compresses the subject.

So if you want the subject to look natural and pleasing, it’s always preferable to use a larger focal length by going away and zooming in.

But that’s not the only reason.

Look at the images again:

This time see the differences as far as the background is concerned. What do you observe?

You’ll notice that in the shot where we used a wide focal length, more of the background is seen (you can see the building, trees, sky, etc.) which increases the amount of distractions.

And in the shot where we zoomed in, less of the background is seen. This reduces the distractions and the subject seems more isolated, which is great for the viewer.

Again, this is because a wider focal length shows more of the scene and a larger focal length compresses the whole scene.

So you can see that going away and zooming in results in two benefits:

  • It makes the subject look better and natural.
  • It shows less of the background, thereby making the subject stand out.

See the image below to see how different focal lengths impact a shot:

You can see that the first image on the top left (18mm) looks the most inferior because the subject appears stretched and you can see more of the background. As the focal length is increased, the image starts to look better as the subject starts to look more natural and the background is compressed.

Even if you want most of the body in frame, you still have to move away and zoom in so that the background compresses, like in the shot below:

Here I could have taken the easy way out and just used a wide focal length since it would have made it easy to get her in the frame.

But it would have also resulted in a lot of the background being visible.

Since I have moved away and zoomed in, the background has compressed and you can hardly make out anything even though there were lot of distractions behind her.

So this means that in case you don’t have a zoom lens on you, it’s time to buy one. You can have a look the recommended equipments and accessories section for details.

So now that you know the importance of zooming in, it’s time to discuss few exceptions to this rule. Here are some situations where it’s better to use a wider focal length:

In situations where you want the background to be seen and where stretching the subject adds to the image. For example, see the shot below:

Here, I had two choices. Either I could use my zoom lens and go away and zoom in, or use a lens like the kit lens, to go close to this woman and shoot at a wider focal length.

Going away and zooming in would result in a better image for the woman, but not for the shot.

This is because if I would have zoomed in from far way, I would have been able to compress her face so it looks natural, but the background would have got compressed too and you would not have been able to see her friends in the background.

Since I want to show her entire group, it’s necessary that the background comes into the scene. So I have used a wide focal length.

Now this results into stretching her face wide. But if you actually see, it doesn’t look bad for this type of shot. Because this isn’t really for a glamour portrait purpose. This is more of a candid street shot, where it’s good if the subject dominates the shot.

So it’s a win-win situation, both from the subject as well as the background point of view.

Now what if you want the background to be seen, but you don’t want to stretch the subject?

In that case, use a wider focal length but make sure the subject you are shooting is not too close to the camera. The closer the subject, the more stretched their face will be. So make sure that there is sufficient distance between the camera and the subject, like in the shot below:

I’ve taken this shot at 18mm since I wanted the background to come into the shot. But since I did not want the face to be stretched, I have moved away from her and taken the shot.

Focus on the Eye

In portrait photography, it’s a must that you focus on the eye of the subject. The eye has to be the sharpest part of your shot.

Now that you know of the focus and recompose technique that you learned in the chapter on rule of thirds, here’s how you can use it to make sure you are focusing on the eye.

First, start off shooting with the person in the frame in such a way that the focus point is on their eye, like shown in the image below:

Half press the shutter button to lock focus and then while keeping the shutter button half-pressed, move the camera to your desired composition, like the image below:

And then take the shot.

Of course, you can also move the focus point using the keypad, but it’s a slower process.

Avoid Hard Light

Another important thing you have to remember is to avoid hard light when shooting portraits. Look at the image below:

You can see that the shadows on the subject’s face are very prominent and the visible contrast between the bright and the dark areas makes the picture look very poor.

This is because it’s been shot during afternoon, when the intensity of sunlight is high. As we learned in landscape photography, this type of light is called as hard light.

You can see that this hard light has rendered the part on which it is falling very bright and the opposite side in dark shadows. Even her hair strands are casting shadows on her right cheek and the left one seems underexposed. Even her head is casting a shadow on her left arm.

Now, see an image that has been shot during the golden hours when the light is soft:

You can see that this image looks way better than the first one. The only difference in both the images is the quality of light. This image has been shot during the golden hours and hence the light is soft.

As learned before, soft light makes the contrast between highlights and shadows lesser and hence everything looks smooth.

But let’s say you cannot shoot your subject during the golden hours due to time constraints and you are forced to shoot during times when the light is harsh. Then what do you do?

One way out of hard light is to find some shade and shoot the subject. Look at the shot below:

You can see that in this case the subject is in direct sunlight and the image does not look good.

Just a few steps ahead of her was a shady area, so I just asked her to take a few steps forward. Let’s see how this changes the shot:

You can see that just by taking a few steps forward and getting her into shade, we have eliminated the problems that hard light brings. Here is another shot where I was shooting at afternoon but managed to solve the problem by finding shade:

One problem with using shade is that you have might have to settle for a less than satisfactory composition. Like in the shot above, I have been able to blur the background effectively because we were lucky to find a spot that was in shade and where the background was far away as well. It’s not always easy to find spots where both these criteria will be fulfilled. For instance, in the full body shot below, we were unable to find a spot where there were less distractions in the background:

You can see there are a lot of things in the background which makes the shot less appealing. So even though the location had plenty of spots where we could have had better results, we could not use them because the sunlight was falling onto those areas.

Overcast days solve this problem as they guarantee shade everywhere.

Another way out is to shoot against the sun so that the harsh light of the sun does not fall directly on the face of the subject. So the photographer will be facing the sun.

This eliminates the problem of harsh sunlight falling on the subject’s face, like in the shot below:

You can see the sun hitting her hair, neck and shoulders from behind. But at least it does not fall on the face which is the main part of the portrait.

These type of shots are referred to as backlit shots.

They can sometimes cause the subject’s face to become a bit dark as the light is coming from behind.

We’ll see how you can solve that problem in the next section where we discuss backlit portrait photography.

Backlit Portraits

One of the best ways to avoid hard light is to shoot during golden hours.

And one of the most famous golden hours shot is when you let the setting sun is behind your subject, so the light produces a very pleasing looking golden glow on the subject’s hair, like in the shot below:

I’ve taken this shot with the setting sun behind the model. The rays can be seen penetrating her hair and producing a nice looking glow and a rim around her hair and body.

Here is another shot that uses the same backlit technique but this time I have used an external flash by placing it behind the model:

This time the glow is even stronger on the hair as the flash was very close to her. External flashes make it possible for you to change the direction of light as you can place them anywhere off the camera. Hence they are always preferred over on-camera flashes. But we won’t go too much into it since external flash photography it is out of this books scope.

Now as mentioned before, one problem you can face with backlit shots is that the subject may come out slightly darker because the light is behind the subject.

This problem arises in side-lit portraits too since one side of the subject becomes darker than the other.

To correct this problem, you can use a reflector. This is how a reflector looks:

Just hold the reflector in the direction of the light and find the angle where it reflects back from the surface of the reflector onto the subject’s face, like shown in the image below:

You’ll see the glow of the reflection on the face. The light that reflects back from the reflector fills the shadows and you’ll get a nice looking shot.

Below is a comparison between two shots, where the subject was shot against a bright background that rendered her in shadows.

In the shot on the left, a reflector wasn’t used and hence the shadows could not be filled in. In the shot to the right, a reflector was used and it has sufficiently filled in the shadows. You can even see the reflection (called catchlight) of the reflector in her eyes which is another advantage of using a reflector.

Another thing you can do is to use the flash to fill in the shadows. Though you can use the on-camera flash for this purpose, an external flash is recommended because an external flash can be moved around and fired even when it’s not attached to the camera, from whichever angle and distance the photographer wants. However, assuming that you don’t have an external flash, use the on-camera flash and if you feel it’s too strong on the subjects face, you can always use the flash compensation function that your camera offers to reduce its power.

Even if you don’t do all this and your subject does come out a bit dark, it doesn’t mean that your shot is wasted. As you’ll see in the chapter on editing, you can raise the brightness and shadows to correct this problem during the editing process.

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