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Back to basics: portraiture

Portrait photography or portraiture is photography of a person or group of people that displays the expression, personality, and mood of the subject. Like other types of portraiture, the focus of the photograph is usually the person's face, although the entire body and the background or context may be included (source: Wikipedia).

Below are my quick tips for portraiture; rules however are meant to be followed… then broken:

Gear:

  • Use any lens between 85mm and 100mm. This is the sweet spot of portrait photography. I personally love the 50mm fixed f/1.8 as it really blows the background and let the subject be in focus.
  • Use diffusers for shooting in the direct sun.
  • Use windows and reflectors. According to Arthur Hammond, amateur and professional photographers need only two things to light a portrait: a window and a reflector. A white reflector placed at the other side of the window to fill the darker side of the subject's face, will even the contrast.
  • Use a tripod in dim situations.

Settings:

  • Best aperture to work with is f/11. It provides best sharpness and depth of the face.
  • For outdoor however you want to keep the background as simple as possible. To throw the background out of focus use f/1.8 to f/5.6 depending on your camera/lens combination and your distance from the subject and his distance from the background.
  • Always use the One Shot focusing mode for portrait and focus on the eyes (the nearest eye to you) and position the camera at the eye level. Position far at 3 meters.
  • For portrait at sunset: turn off the flash and aim at the sky. Then hold your shutter halfway down to read the exposure from the sky, and while still holding the shutter halfway down (or exposure lock) recompose the shot by aiming at your subject, but now turn the flash on. This way the subject gets fill flash with a great sky behind.
  • Center Weighted Metering mode is usually the best way to achieve proper exposure for most portraits and it is great to use when the subject is strongly backlit.
  • Overexpose by +1 on purpose, it hides details.

Composition:

  • Choose a background no brighter than your subject.
  • Avoid the center of the frame (bull’s eye composition) and place your subject to the side of the frame (use the rule of thirds guides).
  • Choose a longer focal length to eliminate distortion.
  • Don't cut them off at the joints (knees, elbows, etc.)
  • Turn your camera to a vertical position.
  • Get your subject out of the direct sun and into a softer shadowed space (like under a tree)
  • Frame the scene with elements in the foreground (doorway, pathway, etc.)
  • If you are shooting children, get down to their level.
  • Look really close at people or crop in post processing afterwards if needed.
  • Give your subject something to hold for more comfort (example: a painter holding a pack of brushes)
  • Have your subject sit down, they will be more relaxed. Use a posing stool if possible.
  • Have something in front of them like a table.

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Blown away background. Click to enlarge.