Although any photograph of a person (or pet) could be called a portrait, there are some standard techniques for taking them. There is no reason you must use them, but they can be useful if you are willing to spend some time controlling your lighting, choosing your focal length, and other variables.
Actually, before discussing lighting, it might be worth discussing lenses. The focal length of a lens & the distance between the camera and subject will have an effect on the shape of the model’s face. If you use a very wide angle lens & get very close to your subject you will end up with exaggerated noses, lips, etc. On the other hand, using a long telephoto lens and moving further away from the subject will produce flattened portraits. Actually, it isn’t the focal length of the lens that causes the change – it is the distance between the camera & subject. Of course if you frame your image in the viewfinder or on the LCD so that the subject’s face fills it, you will need to get closer with a wide lens & further away with a long one, so although technically the focal length of the lens doesn’t make a difference, in practice it does. What is the correct focal length? For the most natural image you want something in the range from 85mm to 135mm, (35mm equivalent). Although this will produce the most natural portrait, you might want to make use of the change of perspective longer or shorter camera to subject distances produces to “improve” your subject’s face, for example, a longer lens to flatten a prominent nose. One last note on focal lengths – if your subject is very nervous about being photographed, a longer focal length lens will move the camera further away which may help relaxing your model.
The most important step in producing a good portrait is to control the lighting. You can completely change the shape of a model’s face, control the mood of the image, and/or make anyone look great or awful by your planned (or unplanned) choice of lighting.
There are four basic lighting sources used in a formal portrait:
- The Key Light – This is what its name implies, your primary light source.
- The Fill Light – This is used to fill the shadows created by the key light. Without it your shadows may be too harsh.
- The Hair Light – This serves two purposes – to light the hair giving it some life & to help separate the subject from the background. In some cases, an additional light is used to provide the separation of the subject from the background – it is usually referred to as a “kicker”.
- The Background Light – Lighting the background prevents the subject from appearing in a void. Of course interesting portraits can be made with the subject against a black background, eliminating the need for a background light, however in that case you may still need to provide a light source aimed at the back of the subject to outline the model’s shape.
Even in a studio, these do not have to be individual lighting instruments – many photographers use reflectors to provide fill lights. While lighting instruments or flash heads can be useful in outdoor portraits, you may have better results using natural surroundings and/or reflectors rather than man made light sources.
A couple of points about light sources – Unless you want harsh lighting for dramatic purposes, a diffused source, particularly for the key and fill light is a must. If you are using actual lighting fixtures, either cover them with frost or bounce them off a reflector or photographer’s umbrella. Remember, the larger the diameter of a source the softer the light. Although it is difficult to frost the sun, you can use clouds, shade and nature’s reflectors to soften your sources when shooting outdoors. A second point – try to have all your lighting sources provide the same color temperature (white balance). Although it may be possible to do color correction in post processing, mixed color lighting sources are difficult to correct. Be careful of mixing incandescent lighting with either strobes, flash or fluorescent sources, and, when outdoors, mixing direct sun or sky light with shade provided by green leaves, etc.
Next time in Portrait Photography, Part 2, I’ll describe some of the specific lighting techniques & suggest when you might find them useful.
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I am constantly wowed by John’s knowledge and always read his articles on photography! POlease keep up the education of we neophites…
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