Join Ben Long for an in-depth discussion in this video Exploring basics of a good portrait, part of Introduction to Photography.
- In this chapter I'm going to ask you to study portraiture for a couple of different reasons. One, most of us just end up shooting a lot of portraits throughout the course of our photographic life, whether they're simple snapshots or more formal pictures that people ask you to take. They're also a great way to study, because they require all of the things that any other type of photograph requires: good composition, attention to lighting, attention to lots of different kinds of detail, good exposure theory. And, there's probably someone around you so it's easy to find subject matter. I'm going to give you a few very basic rules of portraiture that you can start to work with and later you can add on top of those and build up to a more sophisticated level if you find that portraiture is an area of photography that you'd like to pursue.
Right now, you're looking at a decent head and shoulders composition of me. I'm being cut roughly in the middle of my arm. That's your first rule. In general, it's good not to cut people at joints. As viewers we find that disconcerting to see someone's joints kind of amputated in the middle. So break between joints is a good rule of thumb for any type of composition. Personally, I think that the biggest problem that beginning photographers face is the headroom question. Pay attention to what's up here.
Watch what happens if we go really nuts with the headroom. This is something you very often see in snapshots. People will put their subjects face in the dead center of the frame, which leaves all of this space up above. What's this doing? It serves no purpose. You want to fill the frame with your subject. This is true with any type of photograph. This is a much nicer use of the space in the frame, of the pixels that I have on my sensor. If I'm facing in a particular direction, it's better to lead me with empty space, rather than packing then empty space back there.
If we shift so that the empty space is back there, it's kind of weird, because why are we paying attention to this back here when I'm looking over there. It can sometimes even be a little menacing. With space behind me we expect something to kind of come fill it, and so that can lead to a very weird psychology in the image. So those are some very simple, very basic compositional techniques for portraits, but they're the things that you're going to worry about in any portrait that you take. I've got Stephen here, and I'm going to take his picture now. I've done something right off the bat here that you may have been told not to do, which is, I have put his back to the Sun so that I am shooting into the light.
I'm shooting into the Sun here. But I've done that for a reason. That is, it's giving him this wonderful backlighting. His hair is all lit up from behind, his shoulders are lit up, it's really separating him from the background. The background I've chosen is one that is in dark shadow, so that's going to make him pop out even more. I'm going to face a couple of problems when I do this, and I think you're going to see them right away. I got my camera in full auto mode here. I'm going to frame up my shot, and half-press the shutter button. Now when I did that, the first thing that happened is my flash popped up.
That's because my camera is smarter than I am. This is great news. It has already figured out, "Uh oh, this idiot's shooting into the light. "That means that his subject's face "is going to be in shadow." And sure enough, it is. And so the camera's decided, "You know "if I pop up the flash, we can throw "some extra light on there, and fill in "that shadow and make a good exposure." So this is great. It effectively means I'm shooting with two lights for free: the Sun is giving me this nice backlight, my built-in flash is popping up to give me this light on the front. If your camera doesn't have a built-in flash, you can either add one, or try to brighten it up later in post, or decide, well, I can't shoot into the Sun like this without an extra flash.
I've got to find a different composition. Fortunately I have it. I'm going to frame up my shot, and the next thing I notice is because I'm shooting into the Sun, I'm getting a really bad lens flare. Lens flare are these lines that appear, let me just grab a shot of this so you can see... See all that stuff in the middel of his face? That's lens flare. That's the light bouncing around in the lens in a way that the engineers didn't intend, and it's creating these ugly artifacts. I'm going to tighten up a little bit, which gets rid of some of the flare.
I'm also going to shield the lens a little bit, and I can actually see the change in the viewfinder. I'm actually seeing a little bit of darkening. Now what I'm worried about is my hand casting a shadow from the flash, so I'm trying to keep it out to the side here. This is looking pretty good. Stephen, can you tilt your chin down just a tiny bit? He's taller than I am, so that's making me shoot up at him a little bit which is rarely flattering to anybody. Now, the flash is doing something else here that can be very very crucial in a portrait.
It's putting a catch light in his eyes. Just a tiny little reflection. Without it, his eyes can look kind of dead. I'm going to shoot one without the flash. To do that, I have to switch the camera to a different mode here so that it doesn't pop up the flash. Look at the difference in his eyes here. The difference between this kind of flat eyes that don't have a catch light and eyes that do. If he was facing the other way with the Sun shining on him, then that would be giving him a catch light. That's something you really want to look for in your portraiture, just that extra little bit of twinkle in the eye. Stephen, you've got it most of the time, anyway, this is just a lighting issue, that's all.
Finally, the last thing you do with portraits is you shoot a lot. It's very difficult to nail an expression the first time. Tiny changes in facial expression can carry alot of meaning. The more you shoot the more relaxed your subject is probably going to get, until you take too long and then they're going to start to get angry and tense, and so then you've gone too far. But it's good idea to shoot quite a bit, just because you don't know what's going to happen as you start interacting. My light has changed here.
Interesting, my light has changed, oh, no it hasn't. The camera still thinks it needs the flash. So because I'm working with flash, I'm going to wait between shots a little bit to be sure the flash has time to recharge. Still keeping an eye on flare, trying a few different compositions. OK, Stephen, give me a bigger smile now, there we go. I don't know what I'm going to like better, the open mouth smile or the closed mouth smile, so I'm trying them both. As you go along, if you're talking to your subject you can kind of get more rapport going, help them relax, and end up getting better portraits that way.
So, head out now, grab a stranger off the street or someone you know, and start practicing just these basic portrait composition things. Remember, you're still half-pressing the shutter button, you're still making sure that it focuses in the right place, and you're still paying attention to shutter speed through all of this. Those are the habits you have to have no matter what type of shots you're taking.
Then it's time to take to the field and examine the rest of the factors that influence the quality of your photographs, including light metering, focus, composition, and flash. Ben also introduces techniques for shooting portraits and shows what you can do with an image editor in post. Last but not least, he'll provide a roadmap for learning more with the lynda.com extensive library of photography training. The path to becoming a better photographer begins with the first step. Start here!
- Exploring cameras and lenses
- Understanding media
- Controlling exposure
- Composing with autofocus
- Shooting portraits
- Understanding form and geometry
- Exporting and editing digital images