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Design, Photography, & Fashion

Ultimate Guide to Portrait Photography

Written by MasterClass

Aug 10, 2018 • 4 min read

Written by MasterClass

Aug 10, 2018 • 4 min read

Portrait photography is a style of photography that portrays human subjects. Portrait photography has been around since the dawn of photography, when Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in 1839--the same year that Robert Cornelius aimed the camera at himself and took what is widely believed to be the first self portrait photograph ever, laying the groundwork for portrait photography to emerge as its own art form. Cheap, fast, and portable, portrait photography soon replaced traditional hand-painted portraiture, allowing photographers more freedom in documenting the human condition.

Portraits tell stories of not just people but also of time, culture, experience, and place. Whether you’re taking casual photos of relatives or friends, or setting up a professional shoot like for headshots, there are a few basic portrait photography tips and techniques that will ensure a positive experience and successful outcome.

All About Camera Settings

In theory, any camera, from a disposable to a smartphone to digital cameras, is suited for portrait photography. DSLRs or mirrorless point-and-shoot cameras are ideal since they offer manual settings, affording a photographer tight control over adjustments like exposure, aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. The dynamic nature of the subject paired with a wide range of environments, from professional studios to the great outdoors, means there is no one-size-fits-all setting for a camera. What is important to keep in mind, instead, is the relationship between your lens, your subject, and your background.

For experienced photographers, lens choice is a matter of personal preference. For beginners, start with a lens between 85mm and 135mm before experimenting with zoom lenses or longer telephoto lenses for close-up photos. The 85 through 135 range is considered prime for portraits because these focal lengths (or, the millimeters between the camera’s sensor and the lens) provide the sharpest result without widening or flattening the subject too much. These portrait lenses also provide some room to play with blurring the background; you can achieve this effect, known as a shallow depth of field, by widening the aperture to a low setting and maximizing the distance between your subject and the intended focus of the blur.

Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are all related to the brightness, or exposure level, of the image. Factor in the unpredictability of human nature (scratching, sneezing, blinking) along with the infinite variances in skin tone and bone structure, and the task of properly exposing an image may seem daunting. Take your time with test shots, playing with shutter speed and aperture to find the most appropriate light. If you prefer a quicker shutter speed to minimize motion, you might lose some brightness; this is easily re-introduced by raising the ISO.

Photoshoot Environments

The environment you choose to shoot in goes hand in hand with your camera settings. There are two broad categories of environments: indoors and outdoors. Indoors includes homes, places of work, and professional studios complete with backdrops, a full lighting setup (flash and all), and other props. Outdoor settings range from the urban, like city streets, to the natural, like gardens and parks. When selecting an environment, do consider that a soft, diffused natural light from an indirect source is best for shooting portraits. Direct, harsh light or a full sun can cast unwanted dark shadows. A flash can, of course, be used as supplementary lighting, but the resulting images may exhibit a staged quality that contradicts the essence of a portrait.

Getting Comfortable With Your Subject

Besides deftly handling a camera, a good portrait photographer is well-versed in the art of making people feel comfortable. Ideally, this relationship-building begins before a shoot. Consider meeting your subject for coffee and learning more about them: what are their interests and hobbies? What do they do for work, and how does that make them feel? What are some places that hold meaning for them? Could they share any pictures of themselves that they love? This pre-shoot research demonstrates a thoughtfulness that should facilitate a more productive and comfortable shoot.

There may be scenarios, however, in which you won’t have time to do extensive research before taking someone’s portrait. In this case, it is first and foremost important to obtain the person’s approval. Be respectful in your approach and kind throughout the process. Fortunately, unlike buildings, roads, or even wildlife, human subjects have the added benefit of offering a photographer feedback, whether consciously or subconsciously. Some people blossom in front of the camera while others become shy. Some might be willing to sit for hours while others might want to rush through the process. The portrait photographer bears the responsibility of interpreting the subject’s body language and making tweaks to the process as they see fit.

Sharing parts of the process also helps people feel comfortable. If your subject is shy, try suggesting a handful of poses to warm them up. Show the result on camera and ask what the subject thinks, what they like and what they dislike. Offer advice for improving the shot. Making the process collaborative simultaneously empowers the subject and allows the photographer to get not just a great portrait, but also a true one.

Practice Makes Perfect

There are a few simple ways to accelerate your skill development in portrait photography. First, focus on the eyes. Eyes are evocative and powerful; eyes tell a person’s story, reveal a person’s moods. Compose the portrait so that the eyes are a central focal point. Consider blurring the background to place even more emphasis on the facial features.

Next, be mindful of the camera’s angle in relation to the subject’s height. When shooting children, for example, place yourself on their level instead of shooting down (which is the difference in demonstrating equality and individuality versus diminishing the subject or talking down to them). There might be some instances in more creative portraiture in which experimenting with angles will yield interesting results. Get creative, but also keep in mind a few unflattering angles to avoid, like upshots from below the chin. You want to make yourself look and feel good.

Portrait photography is a very intimate art form. It can feel intimidating, especially at the beginning, since the photographer’s goal is essentially to capture the subject’s soul on camera. Start practicing with someone you already have rapport with and ask them to provide you with feedback on your style. A confident photographer knows that there is always more to learn.

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