Great portraits are not just made with a great camera or a great lens. There are several elements that need to be considered when creating portraits. Here are some of the most vital elements to consider.
Lens Choice Lens choice is one of the most important elements to a great portrait. The reason is simple; distortion. If you are using a full frame digital SLR camera, the normal lens is 50mm. This means that if you bring to your eye and take it away, objects are about the same size through the viewfinder or without. If you are using an APS-C sensor camera, the normal lens is around 30mm. This also is the division between wide angle and telephoto focal lengths. If we use wide-angle lenses for portraits, it will distort the features of your subject. If we are trying to flatter our subject this isn’t the way to do it. With a full frame camera the 85-105mm focal lengths are considered some of the best for lack of distortion and usable working distance. If you use longer focal lengths, the subject will be more compressed against the background (not a bad thing) but the subject will be further away creating a problem for communication between the photographer and model.
Aperture The f/stop that we choose is important for the look that we are trying to achieve. If we need to remove clutter from the background or foreground or just want it blurred, then the lower f/stop, such as f/2.8 or f/4, will do the trick. Smaller f/stops such as f/5.6 and f/8 will blur the background but we need a combination of a longer lens and a longer distance from the subject to background. There is also the possibility of an environmental portrait. Is we are trying to show a model in their environment, then the smaller f/stop will work great.
We have three basic camera angles that we can choose from. These angles are down, level, or up. The first two are generally the best. If we tilt the camera and lens down to photograph the subject then we are make the head the closest feature to the camera therefore thinning the body. Level camera angles, even when moved up or down, is a good option as well. This angle, when moved down, gives more power to the model and is commonly used in fashion photography. The upward angle is not common and is not good for flattering your subject. This will actually put focus on the body and not the eyes.
When we look at lighting for portraits, we need to be able to see light first. Seeing light is recognizing the quality of light and how it is shaped. Direction of light is the first element of portrait lighting. If the light is coming from the camera position then we have flat lighting. Flat lighting will create a lack of dimension and shape to the face. There are uses for this but generally portrait lighting is not good with flat light. Directional lighting from a 45 degree angle and slightly up will be a great option for light. The highlight of the lighting in the eye will be out of the pupil and create a nice light pattern on the face. Notice with the sample images here the direction that the light is coming from creates shadows. The shadow of the nose is never angled up. This would be a clear indicator the lighting position was too low.
These are four vital tips for creating a great portrait. When taking these into account, you are well on your way to becoming a true portrait artist!
Ryan Brown, M. Photog. Cr. CPP