Portrait photography

Portrait photography is, generally speaking, photographing the human face and emotions it expresses. The most important thing is to capture a characteristic pose, expression or gesture of the person we are shooting. Every person is unique and if we manage to convey in some way his or her uniqueness, then we have achieved our goal. This is not always easy, because many people shy away from a camera pointed at them and it is therefore important to predispose them, to win their trust and make them feel comfortable in our presence.

Canon 5DIII, Canon 135/2

A portrait may be of a single person or of a group of people. It may be taken in a studio or under natural conditions. It may be of another person or a self-portrait. It may be only a face or a part of a face, portrait to below chest level, to waist level or a full-body portrait. It may include part of the surroundings and objects related to the person. Such portraits in a person’s natural light tell an entire story, they are emotionally charged and carry much more information about the person, his or her habits, social status, living place and age.

Canon 5DIII, Canon 70-300 DO

We can shoot from up close with the knowledge of the subjects or from a distance without them noticing. We can divide portrait photography provisionally into staged and candid portraits. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages.

The advantage of shooting up close with the knowledge of the person is that the model is emotionally engaged in the photo. The model is usually looking at the camera with the result that the man in the photograph is looking at the viewer. The presence of the model in the frame becomes more powerful. A disadvantage is that some people shy away from the camera and you can tell that when looking at the photos. This is the reason why it is so easy to work with professional models, actors, singers, musicians or generally any people who are used to being in front of the camera. The same goes for acquaintances and friends who feel at ease around you.
When we shoot candid portraits from a distance, the advantage is that the person is not posing, they is as natural as possible, they are themselves, without any pretences or inhibitions.

Canon 5DIII, Canon 135/2

A disadvantage is that the gaze is staring into nothing, without any internal logic in the frame as to what the person is looking at.

The most important thing in portrait photography is naturally the face of the person. That is why it must be the strongest accent in the frame and it should be separate from the other elements. This can be achieved when the face is lighter, while the background is darker. When the face is in focus, while the background is blurred. It could also be achieved through colour decisions – the background can be composed mainly of colours which are not natural skin tones.

The choice of background is extremely important. If the background is too colourful or with too much detail, it will distract the viewer from the main object in the photograph. The background must not be bright if the face is in the shadow.

The type of light which is most suitable for shooting portraits is diffused, soft and semi-soft light. A cloudy day is much better for portrait photography than direct sunlight.

Focus on the eyes! They are the most important thing in a portrait. The eyes are a window into the soul of a person. Be careful not to press the shutter button right when the person has blinked.

We can take portraits with any lens – short, long, zoom or prime, dark or light. However, we need to know how the different types of lenses impact the proportions and the shape of the human face. If the lens is too short, we have to shoot at very close distances if we want to fill the frame and include the entire face within the viewing angle. This will have an impact on perspective and as a result we have very deep faces, the ears are pulled far back and the whole face seems deformed and cartoonish.

The most suitable options are lenses with focal lengths between 60 and 150 mm, because when the frame is filled they capture the proportions of the human face correctly. The classic portrait lenses are 85 and 135 mm with good light power. All manufacturers offer such lenses.

Sony Nex 5N, Юпитер-8 50/2

Using a flash, especially an inbuilt flash in amateur-class cameras, is not advisable when shooting portraits. If the flash is only one, there is a great chance that it will produce a flat and uneven lighting and sometimes even deep shadows on the face. The flash can be used in the open in sunny weather or when we have another source of lighting in a fill-in mode.

Canon 1Ds MkII, Tamron 28-75/2.8

A position where the subject is standing by the window is especially suitable for shooting portraits. On the one hand, you have a favourable semi-soft light. On the other, you might have interesting reflections in the glass.

Sony Nex7, Sony 50/1.8

My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph.
Richard Avedon