People & Pets

Portrait photography: technical, artisitic & practical considerations

Written by James Jordan

Keep in mind the technical, artistic and practical considerations when taking portrait shots. Learn why it’s important to communicate throughout the shoot with your subjects.

Technical considerations for portrait photography

Portraits

Photos by James Jordan

Lens focal length

For portraits other than full body, use a moderate zoom or telephoto lens. A range of focal length comparable to 85mm to 135mm on a 35mm camera will give the best results. On close ups and upper body shots, too much of a wide angle will distort facial features, making noses appear bigger, while too much zoom will flatten features.

Indoors during the day

Pleasing portraits can be taken near a window away from direct sunlight. A sheet of white poster board can be used to reflect some light into the shadow side of the subject’s face.

Indoors with flash

  • If your camera accepts an external flash unit, bounce the flash off a white ceiling or use a bracket that holds the flash above and to the left of the camera. Straight-on flash flattens the facial features of your subject and creates unsightly shadows behind the subject.
  • If your camera only allows an on-board flash, use a white index card to deflect the flash toward the ceiling. At the very least, attach several layers of tissue paper over the flash to soften the light.

Outdoors

  • Avoid shooting in direct sunlight. Find a shady location. Overcast days provide ideal light for outdoor portraits.
  • If you have to shoot in sunlight, orient your subjects so the sun is behind them, then increase your exposure compensation by up to two stops, use a reflector to bounce sunlight into their faces or use a flash (softened with tissue paper) to fill in dark areas.
  • Sunlight in late afternoon and early morning is softer and warmer.

Decrease your depth of field

Use Portrait Mode if your camera is equipped with one or shoot on Aperture Priority with a low f-stop. This will blur the background and make the subject stand out.

Artistic considerations for portrait photography

  • Shoot head shots or upper body shots from the subject’s eye level or slightly above. This helps accentuate the shape of the subject’s chin as well as de-emphasize jowls or a large neck if the subject is overweight.
  • Shooting from your subjects’ waist or chest level on full body portraits will give them a more commanding appearance relative to the background.
  • Shoot portraits of kids from their level, or bring them up to your level.
  • But don’t be afraid to try taking portraits from extreme high or low angles, either.
  • Focus on the subject’s eyes.
  • Don’t place your subject dead center in the frame. Employ the rule of thirds.

Posing

Avoid posing your subject straight on to the camera. You don’t want your portraits to look like they were taken at the DMV. Turn the subject’s body slightly, then have her turn her head toward the camera. A slight tilt of the head adds drama.

In a full body shot, have the subject place one foot closer to the camera than the other.

In close ups, experiment with photographing a subject’s hands interacting with his face – resting chin in hand, rubbing his brow, etc. Next to the human face, hands are the most expressive parts of a body. Photographing them together can create powerful photographic statements.

Practical considerations

  • When photographing children, try to photograph them when they are well rested. Come to think of it, this works for adults, too!
  • Be prepared. Know where you will shoot, how you’ll deal with lighting and have the first few poses in your mind before you and your subject arrive at the portrait session.
  • Spend some time getting acquainted with your subjects if you don’t already know them.
  • Get a few posed shots out of the way, then go after informal and candid shots. Return to the posed shots as ideas pop up or suggestions come from your subject(s).
  • Take a lot of shots. People are unpredictable – be ready for those spontaneous one-in-a-million shots.

If the pose looks good, let your subject(s) know. Communicate throughout the shoot.

Have fun!

About the author

James Jordan

James Jordan, Digicamhelp Contributing Writer, is owner of James Jordan Photography in Elgin, IL. His portfolio includes portraits for families, seniors and corporations, events, products, travel and landscape photography. His work has been published in travel guides and lifestyle magazines in the Midwestern U.S. A series of artistic landscape prints will be exhibited in Door County, Wisconsin in the summer of 2009.

1 Comment

  • thank you for a very informative article. I’ve been planning to buy myself a camera to start my endeavor as a beginner photographer with people as my subjects. Though I encounter photography jargon, i think it was fit for a beginner like me.