Portrait photography is one of the most thriving forms of photography in terms of rewards; not only monetarily, but also for the soul.
"A good portrait speaks a thousand words and a lifetime of remembrance in the eyes of those who witnessed it" is an accurate phrase in the world of photography and something that Steve McCurry, best known for his portrait Afghan Girl, embodies. McCurry doesn't just simply snap a photo - he captures raw emotion in every picture he takes.
Taking a good portrait requires a fusion of art and science. While the art and aesthetic belong to the photographer (which usually takes time to develop), its science should become a tool rather than a nuisance.
1. Choosing the Right Camera
Before diving into the settings, let us help you understand the role of your camera. Here are a few examples for your camera choices:
- While shooting commercial portraits, plenty of photographers will go for a medium or large format camera. There are also high-end DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that give extreme resolutions. When shooting a commercial, you need a professional camera capable of producing a slightly higher resolution than the results you want to create.
- When capturing street portraits, you might prefer smaller cameras. Mirrorless and crop-frame cameras work well for this. It is also about not intimidating the subject and merging with the background.
- Now onto travel portraits...it is essential to have a camera that is light in weight. You can't ideally carry heavy cameras around, especially since travel photography can potentially take you to places where you need to trek through rugged terrain or simply take a long walk. Lighter equipment and the rule of carrying only the bare essentials will be an advantage during such conditions. Mirrorless digital cameras will help tremendously.
- And last but certainly not least, shooting weddings. For this, you can go for both mirrorless or DSLR, depending on your preference. During weddings, you're going to want to move fast! There's also a big chance you will be working with diverse and challenging light conditions. A full-frame camera with good high ISO or low light performance is a must.
2. Portrait Photography & the Basic Settings You Need to Follow
- The minimum shutter speed rule of 1/focal length or 1/100 – whichever is faster – ceases to exist when we talk about portrait photography. Here, the minimum shutter speed is also dependent on the speed of the subject. Think about taking athletic portraits; talk about an eyesore! If the subject goes faster than your shutter speed, the movement will be showcased as motion blur.
- Shooting portraits requires speed. When shooting in natural light, it is essential to use either the semi-auto modes in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Program Auto. You can be faster while shooting with these settings.
- Shoot manual mode wherever possible. While opposite to previous suggestions, manual mode ensures perfect exposure and great control. It also helps with the consistency of the exposure. If you can, especially while shooting studio portraits or portraits in the same light settings for extended periods, a manual exposure setting is the best to get the exposure perfect.
- Use partial or spot metering to nail the exposure. Metering, as we know, is a tool to help get the perfect exposure. Using spot or partial metering allows us to meter the light as the subject and not affect the background. The camera's meter will underexpose the scene using evaluative or center-weighted metering when shooting in bright conditions. In dark conditions, it will overexpose. Many variables can be reduced when metering directly for the subject.
- Auto White Balance is a safe option when shooting portraits because it can be fixed in post. However, knowing the white balance can be crucial, especially when shooting JPEGs. When shooting portraiture, a gray card can also help in getting the correct white balance. An 18% gray card, when picked in a white balance selector, will restore the colors of the portrait to the original. Usually, when shooting, we take a photo with the model holding the gray card, and it is then used for all the images in the same setup, especially the lighting. The same gray card can also help in metering, so we can lock the exposure with the exposure settings metered from the card using spot metering.
- This is a universal rule, not the rule that is restricted to portraits – keep the ISO as low as possible. Pictures get affected by reducing color dynamics with the increase in ISO. With a very high ISO, it becomes difficult to get clear skin with details. Wherever possible, try to keep ISO around 100-400. Of course, with modern cameras, you can push your ISO even beyond 3200, but there is always some impact of a high ISO, which should be avoided if possible.
3. The Style & Aperture
If you go by the trends on social media and the photography world, you would have come to believe that all you need to do for portrait photography is have a fast lens. Shallow depth of field, background blur, and bokeh is considered synonymous with portrait photography. Nevertheless, there is more to portrait photography than bokeh. Take environmental portraits, for example; these require the surroundings to be visible and understandable. The depth of field is also dependent on the lens used. A macro lens, for example, will require you to close down the aperture as opposed to the standard lens due to the heightened effect of shallow depth of field.
- Photographers use lenses that go as low as f/1.2. Shooting with a fast lens eliminates the background and foreground and helps create pleasing portraits focusing on the subject. This becomes important when you need to do only a portrait of emotions and essence.
- Shooting portraits around the environment will require you to shoot with a semblance of environment. It is often more complex and requires you to close down the aperture a little, usually around f/4 or lower. This, in addition to good composition and correct focus points, will help you create the stories you want to tell.
4. Nail the Focus Settings
It isn't uncommon for amateur photographers to do everything right and mess it up with the wrong focus. It is especially true when photographers are shooting for a shallow depth of field or bokeh. The line of focus is so thin to the point where it is easy to make a mistake. Some of the ways we can improve our focus are by using the following settings available in your camera:
- Using the center point focus. While cameras are constantly improving, there's also the risk of getting the auto-focus somewhere other than the eyes – the most essential part of a portrait (unless we are talking about specific portraits where eyes aren't visible like in hand portraits or silhouettes, where the focus is also necessary). As any manufacturer would tell you, when in doubt – use the center focus point. It is the most vital focal point. You can always focus and reframe the composition later, but the central focus will help you know exactly where the camera focuses.
- Back button focusing is another way to avoid auto-focus mistakes. When hitting the shutter button, the camera often searches for auto-focus again. When reframing the shot while using the back button simultaneously, you need to either switch off the auto-focus dial or switch on the lens or hope there's no accidental half-press. With a back-button focus setting, you can avoid this problem.
- Switch to manual mode in extreme conditions or when using a macro lens. Manual focus helps in nailing the focus even in situations where the camera's auto-focus fails you. Since the camera's focus mechanism primarily looks for contrast or other areas of difference, subjects often won't focus at the correct focal point. When in doubt, use manual focus.
5. Choice of the Lens
An essential constituent of portrait photography is the focal length and the amount of distortion and realism. Choosing the correct lens can often depend on the subject of the portrait. Here are some considerations to make the distortion non-existent:
- Full-length portraits - A focal length of around 35mm works perfectly. To shoot environmental portraits, you can go 35mm or wider.
- Profile to Mid-Shot - A focal length of around 50mm is ideal. This guarantees the image looks natural and not fattening or distorted.
- Head & Shoulders portrait - A focal length of 85mm or above will nail this shot. This also helps in more compression and a more shallow depth of field.
- A macro lens helps in capturing the details effectively. This is especially useful when shooting specific parts like eyes, hands, etc. This lens allows us to get close to the subject, compose and focus on creating the best portrait.
6. Using Flash Lights or Studio Strobes
- The first important factor to notice is the sync speed when using flashes or studio strobes. Sync speed is a feature on both the camera as well as the light. The shutter speed needs to be slower than the sync speed. For example, if the sync speed of light is 1/250 and the camera is 1/160, you will need to keep the shutter speed at 1/160 or lower. If you go faster than the sync speed, you will get a black or partially exposed image.
- You can also use a combination of natural and artificial lights. Artificial light is often combined in sunset or sunrise portraits. If we expose the background and the sunset, for example, the subject will be a silhouette. We can still artificially add lights to the subject and expose it.
7. Use the Camera Tools Available
Some of the tools available on your camera are great at helping us achieve the perfect portrait. Some of these tools are:
- Burst Mode – We can take pictures continuously, depending on the camera's shutter speed, buffer memory, and card used.
- Histogram – This will help gauge any shadow or highlights clippings; this is a beneficial tool. Remember, histogram - like metering, is merely a guide and may not point to correct exposure.
- Focus Peaking – some modern cameras have this feature that highlights the area in focus and assists in attaining the correct focus.
Let's Wrap This Up!
Shooting portraits can almost be called the study of the soul, which is why we want to exhaust all of the helpful tips and tricks to help you become a successful portrait photographer. Portraiture is an art that helps capture the soul of the subject on a film or sensor. While the art and, subsequently, the light part of the portrait depends on personal styles and aesthetics, it is helpful to know that the hiccups and mess-ups regarding technical issues of photography can easily be avoided. It is essential to know about the genre of shooting, what you intend to shoot, and the subject before deciding on the other important aspects like metering, focus, and exposure.
We hope our guide answered any questions you may have. Want to pick our brain even more on the world of photography? Keep checking our blog for more valuable tips and tricks to help you become a pro at photography, just like Steve McCurry.