Monday, November 17, 2008
The Portrait Equation
Five steps for better portraits
3. Choose The Right Lens
Lens choice is important in creating a strong portrait. Traditionally, the best lenses for photographing people are in the 80mm to 200mm range. Why? These focal lengths are flattering to facial features, rendering a pleasing, non-distorted look. Longer lenses narrow the angle of view in the background, eliminating distracting elements. Using telephoto lenses also allows you to position your reflector or lights closer to the subject. Telephoto lenses give your subject more “breathing room” if they don’t like being photographed close-up. Wide-angle lenses, when used too close to your subject, can stretch out facial features.
Still, while you can’t go wrong with a moderate telephoto, wide-angle lenses can be a great choice for many situations with some practice. My globe-trotting friend Mirjam Evers frequently uses wide-angle lenses with her portraits, and her work is stunning (see “Making A Connection,” PCPhoto, June 2008). Wide-angle lenses allow you to shoot at extreme angles to your subject and include more background, great for environmental portraiture. These lenses offer a fresh perspective to the classic telephoto portrait, and I find myself frequently using my 24mm for portraits.
4. Use An Effective Aperture
Once you decide on a lens, the next question is what aperture to use. Often, portraits are taken of static subjects, and freezing the action isn’t a major concern. What really becomes important is aperture choice and the depth of field in the image. If you’re using a telephoto lens and are zoomed in close to your subject, make sure the eyes and nose of the subject are sharp. Using an aperture of ƒ/2.8 results in very shallow depth of field and may not provide sharp focus for all of your subject’s face. If you’re using a wide aperture, check your focus to be sure important features are sharp.
Another consideration is how close the background is to your subject. When possible, I like to have my subject positioned away from the background. This creates separation, eliminates clutter and allows me to light my background separately. I like to use a focal length of 100-200mm and an aperture of ƒ/5.6. This aperture gets all the facial features in focus and gives the background a soft, pleasing look.
5. Create Nonlinear Compositions
Now that we’ve determined the location, light, lens and aperture, we need to compose an interesting image with our subject. For most portraits, the last thing you want to do is have your subject face the camera and stare straight at the lens. This usually will look like a police mug shot instead of an interesting portrait!
I like to focus on what I call nonlinear compositions—portraits that have less straight and perpendicular lines, and more curved lines. Start by slightly angling your subject toward the camera, with one shoulder closer to the lens. This breaks up the flat (perpendicular) body position created when your subject directly faces the camera. Next, try having your subject slightly tilt his or her head, as this breaks up another straight line and often results in a more interesting shot. Another trick is to add a slight angle in your composition by tilting your camera about 10 degrees. Try giving your subject a prop to hold on to or use in some way that contributes to the image context, as this will add more interesting angles to the final shot.
Decide if having your subject “camera aware” will result in the right effect for your portrait. Some images are best with your subject looking at the lens; other images are stronger if the subject is looking away.
I recently did a photo shoot that incorporated all these steps. I was photographing a kayaker for a magazine, with my assistant. First on our list was finding an interesting location, something that would relate to kayaking. Water was the obvious choice, so we decided to put the kayaker neck-deep in a lake. The water was cold, so we had the subject wear a wet suit for the shoot.
Next up was figuring out the light. We wanted an upbeat shot—a little stoic, but fun. We decided twilight would work best, especially if we had some puffy cumulus clouds floating in the background. To light the subject, we anchored a lightstand in the water and used a single Speedlight SB-800 shot through a Lastolite Ezybox lightbox. To create more mood in the image, I used tungsten white balance and gelled the flash orange to give skin tones the right look.
I chose a wide-angle lens (24mm) to include a lot of the sky and clouds, and an aperture of ƒ/9 to keep my subject sharp. This aperture rendered the clouds slightly soft, perfect for the image.
The last step was creating an interesting composition. We had the kayaker hold a paddle to add color and to create interesting lines in the image. I had the subject look off-camera with a slight tilt to her head to get the right mood.
By far the hardest part of this shoot was standing in cold water for an hour getting the right image. Everybody was freezing by the end of the shoot! The things you do for a good portrait....
For more portrait tips or to check out his upcoming workshops, visit Tom Bol’s website at www.tombolphoto.com.
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