Portrait Photography: All You Need to Know About Portrait Photography

Portrait photography is one of the most widespread and complex genres of modern photography, which came from painting and borrowed many of its artistic techniques. Portrait photography should convey not only the facial features of a person but mood, emotions, inner world, and the environment simultaneously, look into the past and future, and remain in the present.

Portraits in photography are a genre that continues the tradition of portraiture, in which a person or a group of people and animals become the main object of the image. Portraits can be close to glamorous photography, nude, and reportage photography.

The main difference between the genre is the desire to capture photographic features and the character, mood, and inner world of a person. Usually, the subject’s face is the center of meaning, but it can be other parts of the body as well.

A good portrait photographer should be a bit of a psychologist and be able to notice and reflect in one single frame the typical traits of a person’s character, details not only physical but also spiritual. And this is the main difficult part for any portrait photographer.

The History of Portrait Photography

Portrait photography appeared simultaneously with the invention of photographic equipment. The oldest surviving photographic image of a person dates back to 1840 – American John William Draper filmed his sister Dorothy.

First Portrait - Dorothy Catherine Draper
Portrait of Dorothy Catherine Draper. The year 1840. Source: Wikimedia

In the second half of the 19th century, portraits became more and more popular, as they were obtained faster and cheaper than painting. The only long exposure was inconvenient, and this problem was solved with special fixation devices that kept the head and hands in the same fixed position.

Portraits, like other genres of photography, have changed a lot after the massive proliferation of small 35mm cameras. From that moment on, it became possible to shoot a person unnoticed. On the one hand, this has become the subject of ethical controversy; on the other, such images are more vivid and natural. Also, the compact technology makes it possible to shoot anywhere and without preparation.

Philip Halsman. Marilyn Monroe, 1952
Philip Halsman. Marilyn Monroe, 1952.

Throughout the 20th century, as in our days, portrait photography remains one of the most famous photography genres. Its history in many ways repeats the history of the visual arts in general. For example, photographic portraits were created in the style of surrealism or pop art. Many experts made memorable self-portraits. The now-so-popular genre of selfies also belongs to portrait photography.

Features and Varieties of a Portrait Photography

The center of any portrait is a person, and all other things and objects are only of secondary importance, helping the perception and understanding of the protagonist.

It does not matter in which setting a person is photographed: in a household (studio or artistic portrait), during any events, competitions (reportage). The main thing remains – a reflection of the personality of the hero of the picture, the unique features of a person, his character. All events, setting, the environment only complement the views and feelings of the audience.

Portrait Photography

Studio portrait in contemporary photography occupies about half of the genre. The second half is devoted to the reportage portrait, which has proven well in various articles, essays, reports, and journalism. The main difference is that the photographer in the studio has more opportunities to transform a person’s appearance.

It is essential to capture the moment that most fully reflects what is happening in emotions in reportage photography.

Portrait Photography

To create the most accurate portrait, the photographer often uses such artistic techniques as creating a background, the play of light and shadow, a particular position of the camera, and technical parameters of shooting: sharpness and other settings, lenses, as well as the position of a person and his pose.

How Are Portraits Taken?

There are two main approaches to shooting conditions in the portrait genre, each with its strengths and weaknesses. The first is studio photography when the photographer has all the essentials to set up the ideal lighting, make the right background, and work with the model’s appearance.

In the process, you can take your time, try different angles and not worry about weather conditions or outside interference. But when a person knows that he is being filmed, it is as if he ceases to be himself and plays a role. The viewer also understands that the pictures are staged.

Portrait Photography

The second approach is reportage, in which the person does not pose on purpose. He participates in an event or does his day-to-day affairs while the photographer observes and catches the good shots. In this case, lighting and composition may be imperfect; often, foreign objects fall into the picture. But the portrait turns out to be natural – we seem to see a fragment from life.

To achieve the desired effect, photographers use a variety of techniques and techniques. For example, they work with focus. The classic option is to make the subject’s eyes and face as sharp as possible and blur the background. It is essential to properly adjust the lighting so that the facial features are not distorted and do not merge with the background. A studio often uses a three-light setup:

  • Key, or main. It is located slightly to the right or left of the face, sometimes directly above it. Filling, or secondary – It is situated opposite the main one and is needed to highlight shadows.
  • Secondary – A reflector is often used. It separates the shape from the background and helps you create beautiful hair, including highlights and other effects.
Anna Arvidsson. Green, 2019
Anna Arvidsson. Green, 2019.
  • Natural Light. Outside the studio, natural lighting is usually used, which is considered most favorable in the early morning and afternoon. Indoors, it is convenient to photograph people by the window, but a reflector is recommended to reduce the contrast between the illuminated and shaded sides.

Equipment for Portrait Photography

At the preparatory stage, you need to decide what you will shoot and what lenses to use. It is preferable to opt for an SLR camera, which responds faster to commands and makes it possible to change lenses. With it, you will have the opportunity to choose various shooting modes, including manual, which will expand the list of possibilities and achieve the desired result.

With a DSLR, you can tackle any creative challenge and shoot in a wide variety of conditions, even in low light.

Choosing Photographic Equipment for Portrait

When a suitable camera is selected, you can proceed to the choice of lenses – that is, the lens that best “captures” a person in the frame. The type of portrait you’re going to create will determine which camera lens you need to use.

In total, there are three main types of portrait photography:

  • close-up, where only the face is in the frame;
  • medium plan or half-height to the chest;
  • the general method in which a person is captured in full length.

For each of these types, you can find your ideal lens. Correctly selected, it will never distort the picture and most accurately convey the forms and proportions.

Lens Selection for Portrait Photography
Lens Selection for Portrait Photography

For close-ups, it is worth looking at lenses with a focal length of 70 to 135 mm; for medium shots – from 50 mm, and for full-length photographs, choose a lens of 30 mm. Of course, these figures are only an average version because, in photography, there is always a place for experiments and unusual solutions in any other form of art.

Choose lenses with soft-drawing optics – they help hide facial irregularities and emphasize the model’s facial features such as mouth, eyes, forehead.

Camera Setting for Portrait Photography

The portraits should be shot with settings that create a shallow depth of field. It means that the aperture should be open, and its value starts at f/2.8. It is necessary to make the person in the frame sharp and the background blurred as best as possible. It would help if you also remembered the distance at which you shoot the model – the depth of field of the frame depends on it.

Camera Settings for Portrait Photography
Camera Settings for Portrait Photography

Usually, in a classic portrait, sharpness is added to the eyes and the whole person’s face. For a picture with several people, it is recommended to close the aperture down to f/8 – f/11 or even more – this will make each participant in the photoshoot sharp.

Women Portrait
Women Portrait

As for the exposure, when shooting people, it should not be too long, especially when it comes to a photo session with children who are remarkably mobile and restless. Since no one can stay in the same position for a long time without breathing, the risk of getting not the sharpest photos with long exposure is very high.

Another argument in favor of a short exposure can be called the psychological unwillingness of many models to stand for a long time, waiting for the readiness of the frame – this can be very stressful.

Nastassja Kinski, actress, Los Angeles, June 14, 1981
Nastassja Kinski, actress, Los Angeles, June 14, 1981

To capture a short moment with truly genuine facial expressions, choose short values ​​and end up with sharp and exciting photos. For children, you should select a value no more than 1/250 s, and for adults – a little longer. Remember that the lighting in the frame affects sharpness.

When adjusting the ISO, do not raise it too high. An ISO of 100 is acceptable. For portraits, focus on the eyes, not on nearby parts of the face such as the nose, forehead, or mouth. It is necessary to use the manual focus point selection mode to achieve this result, which will help focus the viewer’s attention on the model’s gaze.

Lighting for the Portrait Photography

Lighting in the shot is one of the most important parameters to look out for in portrait photography. Correctly set up, it transforms the face and figure, highlighting all their advantages and removing disadvantages into the background, and vice versa – mistakes in the selection of light entail the creation of low-quality pictures.

The rules in working with light should be observed not only for black and white photography lovers, in which lighting errors are most noticeable, but also for adherents of color photographs.

Lighting for the Portrait Photography

For the result of photography to surpass all expectations, I recommend taking test shots of the model in a wide variety of lighting conditions. This way, you will study the features of a particular face and figure, allowing you to adjust all the parameters more accurately.

You can use natural light sources and flash in shooting portraits – the second is more challenging to work with since the chances of getting a flat face with uniform light and rigid boundaries increase.

1. Natural Light (Daylight)

An easy and effective way to take good portraits is to use natural daylight. Better to shoot in the morning or early evening. Natural lighting is somewhat easier to set up and adjust to suit yourself than a flash.

You can change the light intensity, temperature, color gamut, frame depth, and other parameters using some additional accessories. With this kind of lighting, you are sure to find a point at which the photos will turn out with the required volume.

Portrait Photography in Daylight
Portrait Photography in Daylight

In such a photo, you can try different shadows, both hard and soft – you get the opportunity to use your imagination to the fullest. The only drawback, perhaps, can be called the fact that the photographer has to adjust to natural light conditions.

2. Artificial Lighting

With this kind of light, you won’t have to monitor changes in weather conditions and light levels constantly. Neither the photographer nor the model will be distracted by external factors and will continue working calmly, not paying attention to what is happening outside the window.

Soft Boxes

Don’t forget to use manual mode for flash portraits – it gives you a lot of creativity and doesn’t let your shots be the same.

Shooting in the studio allows you to take your time and work on all the basic settings that create perfect shots: aperture, ISO, and others. Also, make sure you have reflectors and soft-boxes available to help smooth out highlights and sharp angles when photographing people with flash. You can use other objects, but already in the composition of the frame, which will help to reflect the light and illuminate the figure and face of the model from all sides.

Woman Portrait
Portrait of A Woman

Perhaps the most favored angle for portraits is where the model is half-turned three-quarters towards the photographer. There are a couple of popular lighting methods for it, which many famous professional photographers use:

Loop. Here the object of light is located slightly higher than the model’s eyes and 40 degrees from the camera (you can adjust the angle depending on the features of the face). In these shots, the nose shadow does not touch the cheek shadow.

Rembrandt. The great artist loved to use a scheme in which the light is above the model’s head in his works. But it is worth considering that this option is not suitable for everyone, but only for people with pronounced cheekbones and a not too small nose.

How to Create a Composition in Portrait Photography?

In portraits, as in other genres, the classical compositional rule of thirds applies, which implies dividing the frame into nine identical squares, where the gaze falls on four central points. Of course, everyone has the right to decide what his photographs will be:

  • it is essential for someone to show the beauty of the model,
  • for someone – colors and shadows,
  • and someone wants to draw the viewer’s attention to the background other details.

It is perfectly acceptable to add something of your own to the composition of a photograph, but remember that the frame must be harmonious and balanced.

Composition in Portrait Photography

Place objects on an imaginary “grid” so that essential elements are on the winning points.

Do not forget to work on the background: most often, a neutral or monochromatic backdrop without variegated spots and many colors is suitable, which will not distract from the main thing. But the photographer’s idea may be such that the background turns out to be one of the key elements of the photograph: in this case, it is simply necessary to make it noticeable and abstract.

To correctly fill the frame, pay attention to the direction of the model’s gaze. When a person is looking to the left, try to leave as much space on the left as possible so that their gaze does not rest on the edge of the photo.

Correct Cropping of A Portrait

If the photo and the subject’s body are cropped without following the basic cropping rules, then the output is a photo that can seem sloppy and unfinished. For portraits of different plans, there are peculiarities of image cropping:

  • A close-up with a picture on the shoulders is removed approximately up to the chest and in no case up to the neck. The head can be cropped a little, and the eyes can be positioned at the top of the grid line. In order not to make a person higher or lower, but to show his figure as neutral, keep the camera at the level of his eyes;
  • The mid-shot with a waist-length portrait is cropped at the hips. It is essential to leave some space above the model’s head so that its absence does not put pressure on the silhouette. For correct transmission of the height and proportions of the body, it is recommended to hold the camera at the level of the model’s shoulders;
  • The general plan with a full-length portrait is a full-length photograph. So that the frame does not seem cramped, it is required to leave even more space around the model than in previous cases. The gaze is best placed in the upper third or slightly higher. The camera must be held at chest level.

Try to use a variety of plan sizes in a photoshoot with one person and experiment with them – then the photographs will not turn out to be of the same type and boring.

Correct Cropping

The most important rule of thumb with cropping any portrait is not to crop the photo at the joints: elbows, knees, and hands, as well as the neck. Crop either above or below these lines. It also includes waist-deep photographs – you shouldn’t take them either.

World’s Leading Portrait Photography Experts

It isn’t easy to find a photographer who has not tried his hand at this genre. The first cameras are usually bought to take pictures of loved ones and yourself. But some photographers reach such heights that they take the art of portrait photography to the next level. Here are some of the most famous masters of portrait photography:

Philip Halsman. Albert Einstein, 1947.
Philip Halsman. Albert Einstein, 1947.

Philippe Halsman. He is an American of Lithuanian descent who has been friends and collaborators with Salvador Dali. Even people far from art know his pictures of Marilyn Monroe, photographs of Albert Einstein are also known.

Yusuf Karsh. Roaring Lion, 1941
Yusuf Karsh. Roaring Lion, 1941.

Yousuf Karsh. Canadian photographer of Armenian descent who became one of the most influential portrait artists of the 20th century. The image of Winston Churchill created by him under the name “Roaring Lion” became a textbook.

Arnold Newman. Igor Stravinsky, 1946
Arnold Newman. Igor Stravinsky, 1946.

Arnold Newman. In the heyday of small-format photography, Newman preferred large format. He called the portraits human biography, which should be of interest to the viewer. His most famous work is the portrait of Stravinsky, which the client did not accept.

Richard Avedon. Brigitte Bardot, 1959
Richard Avedon. Brigitte Bardot, 1959

Richard Avedon. This photographer has left a bright mark on the fashion industry. It was said about him that the heroes of his portraits turn into symbols of themselves. Portraits created by talented authors are valuable art objects.

Cindy Sherman's Self-Portrait
Cindy Sherman’s Self-Portrait

Cindy Sherman. Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait sold for $3.9 million – one of the most expensive photographs in the world. It is convenient to purchase works of art and masterpieces of antiques at auctions regularly held on various photography websites. The portal also provides an opportunity to buy works directly from contemporary artists inexpensively.

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