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How To Take Great Portrait Photography

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Maybe you’ve had a camera for a while now and you’ve satisfied your initial desires for buying it. You took it with you on that trip to Colorado and took a massive amount of landscape shots, which you now use as your background on your desktop.

Mission accomplished. But now you’re moving on to an undiscovered country, that of
portrait photography. To a layman, it may seem simple. Instead of pointing the
camera at the mountains, point it at a person. But it’s more complicated than
that.

An entirely new set of skills, techniques and terminology is required to maximize your
portrait possibilities. On your own, these skills could take a long time to learn, but with this blog, you can streamline the process by becoming familiar with the underlying basics. Without further ado, here’s how to take great portrait photography.

Make Sure Your Lens Is Conducive To Portrait Photography

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Before lining up your subject or setting up your camera, you need to make sure the settings on your camera are working in your favor. Think of this as setting the table before you have the meal, only in this case, the taste of the food is directly tied to the order of the table.


First of all, you need to make sure you’re using the right lens. For portraits, there’s no need to be using a zoom lens, as your subject is going to be fixed in place.


Unless he or she tries to run away – at which point, you should probably refrain from photographing them – a prime lens is your best bet, as they are set to a specific focal length. While a zoom lens can certainly work, it’s unnecessary and bulkier than the prime lens.


As for what kind of prime lens to use, you’ll want to get something with a longer focal length. Anything over 70mm, but under 135mm, should do the trick. The reason for this is that a longer focal length provides a tighter frame, which is perfect for single subjects.

Portrait Photography Requires ​​A
Specific Aperture

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After your focal length is in order, you should turn your attention to the aperture.


If you don’t know what this is, it’s a small opening that lets in a certain amount of light, depending on its size. It affects both exposure (the brightness of an image) and depth of field (altering the focus between the foreground and background.)


For taking portraits, it’s widely accepted that the ideal aperture is between f/8 and f/16. As the highest aperture is f/22, which creates the most drastic depth of field, these settings will give you a clear foreground and background, but not excessively so.


After all, you want a good bit of depth of field, because your sole subject is in the foreground and his or her face should be the place of focus. The blur in the background created by the aperture setting guides the eye to the center of focus.

Lighting Is Essential For
Portrait Photography

The problem with relying on the light that comes from the camera’s flash is that it creates a flat, two-dimensional appearance. It looks odd and unnatural, if only for the fact that at no point in everyday life is light hitting someone from directly at eye-level.


Light is coming from every angle, whether it’s the sun, the reflection of the sun bouncing off the windows or the light from an electronic screen.


Your portrait lighting should attempt to recreate the natural, three-dimensional look of everyday lighting. It not only makes the picture look more realistic, but it adds depth and shadow, both of which make for a more striking image.


This can be done by way of off-camera lights, which typically stand up and can be purchased for around $$, depending on which model you get. Overall, they’re relatively affordable, even for a starving artist.

man taking a picture in the studio with lighting

Image Source: Pixabay

If you don’t have the money to spend on off-camera lighting, or just don’t to, there are some DIY methods. One of the most popular is to position your subject at an angle from some window light. Instead of moving a light around your subject, you’re just moving your subject around the light.


There’s also a famous story about the notorious, penny-pinching director, Roger Corman, who once had everyone on set drive their cars up to the scene and turn on their brights. That’s one way to do it.

Portrait Photography Invites
Black And White

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Technological advances have undoubtedly made the world a better place to live. But in some cases, advances don’t end up topping what came before.


You could say this is the case for black and white photography. Even though we can take photos and videos using more colors than ever, there’s something about black and white that is particularly arresting.


Because it’s unnatural, there’s a dreamy quality to it. Due to its stark use of color, there’s also a beautiful simplicity, as if you’re condensing something down to its purest essence. Whatever it is, there’s a reason it’s persisted in the culture, despite being “outdated.”


It also happens to be perfect for portrait photography, both for the dreaminess and starkness stated above, but also for the cultural weight that black and white carries with it. For instance, when we think of Elvis Presley, it’s usually in black and white.


Entire historical events are remembered in black and white, like World War II or the March on Washington. You could spend all day listing the great, influential black and white movies that were synonymous with culture for so long.


In case all of this hasn’t convinced you of the power of black and white photography, check out Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests,” which are a series of video portraits.

Release Your Inner Director For
Portrait Photography

boy kid taking a picture of a girl kid

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People aren’t baskets of fruit. They’re not going to stand still for hours upon hours, and they can’t be moved around at your whim.


However, this doesn’t mean people can’t be directed, and for portrait photography, it’s an absolute necessity. You need to be able to accurately communicate with your subject and get him or her to take direction.


Naturally, everyone’s different, so some subjects will be more receptive to direction than others. Nonetheless, it’s on you, the photographer, to get the best possible image, regardless of the subject’s inability to comply.


Before giving your subject direction, it helps to know what you’re talking about. One thing to pay attention to is the subject’s eyes. Naturally, as humans, the viewer’s eyes will gravitate to the subject’s eyes, which immediately makes them worth your attention as the photographer.


Some photographers speak of the importance of having the eyes looking directly at the camera or, if not looking at the camera, facing straight ahead. However, this isn’t a strict rule and portraits of subjects looking in different directions is certainly doable.


As far as how their body is positioned, get creative. However, there are some basic things to avoid. For instance, you want to makes sure that the subject’s jawline is clearly defined. You also want to make sure that the subject looks natural – that could be naturally anger, ecstatic or blissful.

There’s Much To Learn With
Portrait Photography

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You could be a master at wildlife photography, but when it comes to portrait photography, you’re dealing with an entirely different animal – pun very much intended.


Not only does it require a complete overhaul of the camera’s setup, such as finding the right focal length and aperture, but there are also a completely new series of techniques.


One of the most notable differences is the presence of a single, human subject. As opposed to something like landscape or wildlife photography, you actually have to manipulate your subject – respectfully, of course – in order to craft your image. In other words, you’re not capturing a fleeting moment; you’re creating one.


Black and white photography also happens to be perfectly suited for portraits, as it does away with the frills and boils down someone’s essence into a start image.


However you choose to craft your portrait, we hope these tips can serve as a jumping-off point.


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