So, we're into week 5 now. We know the basics of photography, we've learned about lighting, we're trying to incorporate more creativity into our daily lives to inspire and nurture our eye, and we've learned how to break some rules in order to capture some unique and creative images.
What's next, you ask? Portrait photography! And framing your subjects!
Portrait photography is what I live for. I love it. I have never captured a landscape that embodied as much emotion as a portrait. I love the challenge of capturing someone's true essence...what makes them tick, what they are thinking about in a particular moment. There must be so much intention there to capture an image that will show all of this.
I recently went out on a shoot (the behind the scenes video is from this shoot!) to capture images that show how I frame my subjects, and how I attempt to capture them in a way that reveals something about them as an individuals. All the photos from the shoot in the “Portrait Photography” section are unedited (straight out of the camera), because next week we are going to be talking about editing. So we will bring these photos into an editing program and I will show you exactly how I would post-process them. But for now, be aware that nothing has been adjusted on them. There are other photos which were previously taken and edited.
Also, there are many different types of portrait photography: children's portraiture, couples, one person, and self-portraiture. In this lesson we will talk about children's portraiture and single portraiture.
Depth of Field, Focusing, and Framing Overview
There are certain "rules" to portrait photography. But as you learned in Week 4, you can break these rules to create unique images, as long as you have a firm grasp on the rules prior. With portraits, the general rule with aperture is not to shoot wider than a 2.8f. The reason for this is because you will lose focus in facial features. If you shot a portrait at a 1.4f, you may get the tip of the nose in focus and everything else would be softened. A 2.8f really allows most facial features to be crisp and clear, all the way to the ears. This is a good general rule to follow. Although, I often break this rule now! I love shooting portraits at a 1.8f, because I don't mind certain features (especially the ears) not being totally in focus, and actually prefer the way it softens everything but the eyes, nose, and mouth.
Here are some examples of portraits shot at different apertures:
Another important element to portrait photography is focusing. A lot of times when you are trying to photograph someone who is not sitting still and posing for the camera, you may quickly focus on a point on the face just to make sure you can capture the image before it changes, but after you upload it to your computer or develop the film you realize the focus is just not right.
My rule of thumb is to focus on whichever eye that is closest to the light source. Not only does this guarantee at least an eye will be in focus (which is what most people will look at first in a portrait!), but it also helps the eyes to sparkle or reflect the light. When capturing a portrait, especially of someone actually looking at the camera, the eyes are the most crucial part to have in focus.
I'm going to give you a brief introduction on framing your subjects here, but we'll dive into framing more further on in the lesson. The way I personally go about framing my subjects is in a way that my eye naturally sees them. This is why I prefer shooting with a 30mm lens, because it is very comparable to your eyes' natural perspective.
If you are not able to get your entire subject's body in the frame, there are points along the body at which I prefer to crop my subjects at because they are flattering and natural. I made this diagram to show you where I would choose to crop my subjects in a variety of different frames:
The black lines indicate natural places along the body that are good for cropping. Sometimes when I am quickly trying to get a shot before I lose the opportunity, I will capture a portrait that is cropped at another point on the body, and it is almost always unflattering. So much so, that the subject doesn't even like it! If it's a good photo, you can always crop it in an editing program after, but the majority of the time I try to capture a good crop in camera.
Here's an example of a good crop:
It's pleasing to the eye, flattering for the subject, and there is nothing about the crop that distracts the viewer from the primary focus (the subject's face).
As I mentioned earlier, we will definitely get more into framing further along, but I wanted to give you a little overview prior to diving into the different types of portrait photography.
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a common photographic guideline for framing your subjects. The idea behind it is that an image is divided into nine parts, with two vertical lines equally spaced apart, and two horizontal lines equally spaced apart. These lines and points indicate the best areas to position your subject(s) to create a compelling and interesting photograph.
This is a great guideline to keep in mind when out shooting subjects or even landscapes! Here are some examples:
Because I have a little one, most of my daily photos are of her. Now, I'm lucky to have such an enthusiastic and willing model (most of the time!), but sometimes it can take children a long time to warm up in front of the camera. I've done many portrait shoots where the kids don't really feel comfortable to be themselves until the last 10 minutes of the shoot (and it's already been almost 2 hours!). This is why I typically never direct the children. I always shoot on location, so many times I will suggest a place to shoot that is either their home where they are already comfortable, or a park or playground where there are a lot of fun things to take their attention away from my camera.
There are many different ways to go about photographing children, and I can only explain what works for me. Shooting daily portraits of my daughter is like second nature: she is used to it, I'm used to it. I'm pretty sure neither of us think much about it at all. It's just part of our daily life. But going out on a shoot with children I've never met is entirely different. There is an initial "warm up" phase (lollipops ALWAYS help) where I play with them a bit, allow them to kind of see what I'm like and how much "fun" photography can be. Then after the warm up, I try to be a fly on the wall. I want to just be as invisible as possible so that they are not simply hamming it up for the camera, or trying to hide from me, or just in general, not being themselves. So I slip back and let them do their thing. The key as a photographer is to be aware of everything that's going on every second. You can't miss a beat, because if you do, you'll likely miss an incredibly good shot.
It's always fun to watch photos of children evolve throughout the shoot. The beginning of the shoot is typically when the children are a little shy of the camera. One particular subject was very shy, so I followed him around doing what he was doing, capturing images that didn't necessarily have his face in them, but I knew he was aware that I was photographing him. And he was okay with that:
After doing this for a while, they sometimes warm up enough for you to capture some "shy" images of them, like this:
In the above photo, you can tell he's still shy, but he's enjoying the attention. You have to be aware of their energy and back off if they seem to be getting too overwhelmed by the camera. But if they are shyly playing with you, that's a good sign. I find that with shy children, using my 30mm lens is not a good option. It's more of a wide angle and I have to be pretty close to their face in order to frame them the way I would like. So this is when I bring out my 85mm, which allows me to be further away from them, but still capturing a pretty close shot of their face. It gives them a little space, and I'm a lot less intrusive.
Another way to start out a shoot with children is to have some activity that they are engaging in. Whether that be bubble blowing, hula hooping, skipping rope, riding bikes...it all helps take their attention away from the photographer, and then they are much more natural. One particular family had a giant blueberry field across the street from their house, so we started the shoot there. All four kids were picking away and eating berries, and they basically forgot I even existed. Even the most shy one was too interested in eating berries to bother being upset that I was photographing him!
Your perspective is also important when photographing children. There are a couple of ways to do it:
1) Get on their level. This is really good for capturing their size, but also allows the subject to be level with the camera lens.
Above is a diagram I put together to show you what happens when you don't move yourself around to get level with your subject. You are shooting from a distance, and at a greater height than your small subject, and that creates an awkward angle that isn't very flattering or interesting.
But if you get level with your subject (you crouching, or putting them up higher on something), the result is a very natural and pleasing portrait:
2) The other angle to photograph children is from directly above. This is different from being a few feet away or further, because you will be hovering over your subject and having them look up into your lens.
I love photos from this angle because it is how we adults see a child from just naturally standing next to them.
Another thing I love to focus on in children's photography are the little details: hands, feet, curls, profile shots, etc. In a typical shoot, I'll have at least 40-50 final images that I want to present to my clients. These images are either presented in a book, slideshow, or prints. You want variety to your photographs...you want many pieces to put together to tell a story. A client just doesn't want to remember what their little one's face looked like at age 2, but also their hands, their tiny features, their mouth when they giggled, the way the wind blew through their fine hair. All of these details can be captured and put together to form a beautiful story of the subject.
Notice how these detail photos tell so much about the subject without seeing their face:
Every inch of a child can capture so much about them as an individual, and I love that! There are so many opporunities to tell a story and capture a unique image. But I will say, children's photography is the most challenging type of portrait photography for me. I think because there is little direction you can give a child, there is no real posing or setting up a shot because a child will not relax in a circumstance like that. You have to be completely in the moment, and you also have to get the child to warm up to you quickly. It's a very challenging form of photography and I have a lot of respect for children's photographers!
When you're working with a teen or adult, I find it much easier to capture their personality much earlier in the shoot. This is my favorite type of portrait photography because I absolutely adore directing my subjects, while also standing back and seeing what they do naturally.
When starting a shoot, I typically start out by chatting with my subject. I show them what equipment I'll be using and explain how each camera works. Then I ask them a bit about themselves and I start shooting while we chat. This allows them to warm up in front of the camera.
For the most part, if my subject is feeling comfortable and we are at a certain location, I won't direct them because they will usually naturally stand a comfortable way, or turn their head just so, or smile authentically because we have been chatting. But if I need them to do something specific, I don't hesitate to position them in a certain way.
Now, just like with children, the level at which you are shooting at makes a big difference. I rarely take a photograph of a subject who is less than ten feet away from me while standing up. I'm always crouching down. I typically have my camera level with their waist, focus on their face, and then from there shift my camera down to the frame I want. Shooting with your lens at level with their head does something odd to the shape of their body, I find. Once again, I think it has something to do with the angle. It almost distorts the image.
The following shots were from the shoot for the behind the scenes video. These are all unedited and straight out of the camera (SOOC). For each of these shots I'm going to tell you exactly what I did and why. This will explain how I choose to frame my subjects, where I put my subject in relation to the light source, what locations and setting I look for when taking a photograph, and more!
This was the first shot I took. I always look for symmetry when shooting out and about. I love doorways that naturally frame a subject. In this instance, I used the garage next door to my house. I wanted to place my subject in the middle, but you could play around with putting them on the left or the right, but I would always make sure they were lined up with something in the frame. The most important thing is leveling your image. Make sure any linear part in the photo is lined up with the top and bottom or sides of your frame. In this case, it was mostly the clapboards I was wanting to line up. Otherwise, I find it distracting when something is off-kilter. This was also a nice shady spot, the sun being behind the garage, so she was evenly lit.
For this next shot I wanted to shoot through a tree. I positioned my subject on the stairs where there was even light and asked her to look at a house in the distance. I then moved my lens around trying to frame my subject through the leaves. Because of the way her hand was placed on her knee, I knew I did not want to crop her any other way. The crossed arms would have looked awkward without the hand there.
For this shot I wasn't super interested in having my subject be the primary focus, but I also didn't want to lose the fact that it really is a portrait shot. So I placed her in the middle and told her to slowly walk down the dock. I wanted to show a good depth of field, so I focused halfway between my subject and I on the dock, and then took the picture. This is one of those photos that's nice to have with the many other portraits because it helps tell a story.
I often look for ways to show the setting. For this shot I asked her to stand near the edge of the dock. The sun was to her right, but a cloud had covered it up so I didn't have to worry too much about lighting. I love shots where I can almost cut out the foreground and it seems like my subject is standing in the midst of nothing. This is another example where you want to make sure things are level. I'm also aware of how she's standing. I really like arms down to the sides and looking straight ahead for shots like this.
I did a series of shots like this and it's one of my favorite ways to capture a subject. Usually shooting from below can be unflattering if you are trying to capture the entire body of your subject, but here I wanted to just capture her head. Instead of shooting straight on, I wanted to add an interesting point of view, so I chose to crouch below her and crop the image at her neck. We were chatting at this point and making jokes, so I got a lot of genuine smiles out of her which was great! I typically tell my subjects to only look at the camera when I ask them to.
I do a lot of shots of my subjects laying on the ground and me hovering over them. One thing to remember when doing this is always have your camera strap around your neck! The last thing you want it to drop your camera on their face...! When doing shots like this, you literally stand directly over them, my feet were on either side of her head. I like to crop the image at their neck, which means you can have your camera at the same horizontal plane as their body. I do not tilt my lens at all, because that would put my subject at an angle.
I absolutely adore shooting through windows. The reflections add so much to an image. In order for this to work, make sure the sun is not reflecting off of the glass. Find a nice window or door in a shady area. Your focus can get a little funky here because sometimes your camera is trying to focus on the reflection and not the actual subject. So I often put my focus on manual here. Metering through a window can also be tricky, so I always take a test shot and then adjust from there. I find that mostly I need to under expose in a shot like this.
This is an example of shooting from above your subject. It's a very flattering way of photographing an adult. I always have them sitting with me standing above them, and I angle my lens at a 45 degree angle and focus on their eyes. This photo is also a good example of framing. I wanted a unique crop of my subject, so I chose to shoot her from above and off center. I made a point of getting her hands in the frame.
Another detail shot. I love this one. For this, I stood behind her and shot from above. I am often thinking about a series of shots that go together like a puzzle to create an overall storyboard. Again, we are tucked away in the shade so I don't have to worry about spotty light. It's all nice and even which makes it easy to expose properly.
For this shot I collected a yellow flower and held it directly up to my lens (like we learned in Week 4!) to create that soft yellowish hue to the left. I also love shooting against a wall because it shows such a great depth of field. For this, I asked my subject to lean against the wall. I do the same and focus on her face, but then shift my camera into the wall (it pretty much looks like I'm taking a picture of the wall at this point) and snap the photo. The result is pretty swell, and I always love how the wall really shows the depth of field in the photograph.
This shot was taken using the Rosco gels we talked about in Week 4. I chose this white wall as the backdrop because I knew the gels would pop! I positioned the gels on my lens in order to frame my subject.
I saw this wooden door and immediately was drawn to the colors and textures. I knew that the greys in the door would make her necklace and orange shirt pop against it. I wanted to shoot from above but I didn't have anything to stand on, so I held my camera up above my head, pointed it towards my subject and took a bunch of consecutive shots. I love doing this. I often do this at weddings of people dancing on the dance floor. Typically I get a few great shots by doing this!
Another way to position your subjects is to have them lay on the ground with their head turned towards you. As the photographer, you have to get on the ground too. I was laying on my stomach for this one and shooting through the grass. One thing to note when taking photographs is what's going on in the background. You want to be aware if something is distracting from you subject. If I had turned her 45 degrees to the right, I would have had a bunch of telephone poles behind her.
This is an example of what you can do with a setting sun! For this shot, I positioned my subject in front of the sun. I used a f9 aperture because I wanted a nice flare. For this shot, I just moved myself in order to get the sun in the curve of her chin. I then metered off of her and took a test shot. I wanted her semi-silhouetted, which I achieved in this shot.
For the final shot I wanted to do something fun! I found a hill (we learned what can be done with hill top shots in week 4) and positioned her at the highest peak. I then positioned myself below her about 20 feet away. I was laying on my stomach in the grass and shooting up at my subject. In this kind of situation, you want to remember to level the bottom of the ground with your frame. Also, I like to crop the foreground out so I'm getting mostly sky. I then yell up to her to jump on the count of 3 (which we try multiple times!) and I take shots of her jumping. If you're using a DSLR, some of them have a "continuous shooting mode" option which allows you to shoot multiple frames in a row while keeping your finger down on the shutter release button. That helps in these situations.
Using Your Location Creatively
Location matters a LOT in a shoot. I really like to get a feel for what my subjects are like, because depending on what I know about them, I will decide to photograph them in an urban setting or rural setting. A pleasing background free of distractions and something that compliments your subject will instantly make for a better image.
I always look for little doorways and alleys to tuck into in an urban setting. These provide shade on a sunny day and offer a lot of even light. I look for objects that naturally frame my subject, whether it be a doorway or two trees on either side.
Also, look for unique colors that make your subject pop and add a unique twist to your photographs!
When I photograph subjects in a rural setting, I use the grass, trees, and rocks to add dimension to my photographs. In the above image, I was laying on the ground to get this shot.
This is another shot that was taken in a field, and I use the grass to add to the image. I was crouching down to be on the same level as my subject and shooting through the grass.
Again, I'm always looking for interesting color! These gingko leaves on the ground immediately caught my eye. I asked my subjects to lay on the ground, and I framed the image in a way that allowed the gingko leaves to be a big part of the image.
Don't forget to look for things in an urban setting that you can shoot through: fences, iron gates, doorways, I've used scarves hanging outside from street vendors...there's so much! This picture was taken through a teeny tiny opening in a big gate in an alley.
I love looking for reflections in windows, doorways, car windows, puddles, and more. Being aware of everything that is going on around you is extremely beneficial when going out on a shoot. You will start noticing many other creative shots! The way I think when going into a shoot is that I want to capture an image in a way that nobody else would think to capture it! Having that intention keeps me aware of everything that's going on, and I see things that I may not have noticed.
Don't be afraid to be bold too! These two sisters had amazing, outgoing personalities. I wanted to show a little of that, so I placed them in the middle of the road (obviously making sure no cars were coming!) and I love what a bold statement this makes about them. The actual setting in which you place your subjects in can also permeate their mood, allowing them to get a little more into character, which adds so much to the overall image.
Details are also a unique and quirky way to showcase your subjects. Just like with children, you can help tell a story by capturing bits and pieces of your subjects throughout a shoot. It's also a good way for your subjects to warm up in front of the camera.
As you can see, these little details are just as intimate as the rest. So don't be afraid to focus on something other than your subject's face!
Creative ideas and having some type of theme in your photographs can add a nice element to a set. I always try to come up with some ideas for clients to do on a shoot that I can put together to form some type of "storyboard" (a series of images put together that all relate to one another).
In the following photograph, I first had the clients look at me, then look to the right, left, up, down, etc. When I put them all together, it turned into a really funny series!
Also, I love finding ways to pair photos up. Be on the lookout for two different shots that can be paired together to compliment one another:
Another way I love showcasing photos is showing a series of expressions of a subject (or subjects):
I love watching how their faces change! It creates such an interesting series of portraits. One good way to prompt this with two people is to have one of them whisper something in the other one's ear (for a couple in love, I usually say to whisper what they love most about the other person).
And movement is a great way to capture a series of images that can be strung together. For the following photos, I had the subject twirl around. I already had the idea in my mind that I wanted to showcase them all together:
A different form of movement, but with a simple wink of an eye, two photos can add so much to one another:
Flipping your subjects around but keeping them in the same positions compliment one another very nicely:
Or another way to do it is to keep your subjects in the same position but to shift the focus between the two: (Photo by Maria Northcott)
Taking pictures of two individuals separately, then piecing them together can be a lot of fun:
So whenever you are photographing a subject, keep in mind what would make a good grouping when you're putting the final images all together.Intuition and Intention
To wrap up our lesson on portrait photography, I would say that the most important thing to portrait photography is using your intuition. You have to be confident in your ability to capture your subject(s) in a way that truly represents who they are. And for you to do that, you need to be prepared for a shoot, have ideas already in mind, and feel very comfortable with your camera.
In addition, your intention going into a shoot is enormously important. What are you intending to capture and how? What is it about your subject that inspires you? Does the location speak to you? What do you want to say about your subject(s)? What message do you want the overall shoot to convey?
Being in the moment, honoring your intuition, and setting some intention for your photography in all aspects (not just portraits!) will benefit your results greatly. Portrait photography is so wonderful because a single image can speak so much about a subject. It is a true gift to be able to represent someone so intimately!
So get on out there and photograph somebody! And have fun!