As photographers, some of us are drawn to shooting landscapes, others to architecture, and some of us enjoy photographing people. Like moths to a flame, a particular genre just calls out to us. This doesn’t mean other genres are beyond our reach. However, for these other disciplines, it will require more focus (if you’ll pardon the pun) to get things right so that you or your clients are pleased with the results. Portrait photography is one area in particular where a little guidance can go a long
way in getting great results. While we can talk about aesthetics, rules of composition, and that sort of stuff until the cows come home, I’ve found some of the “guidelines” here are better stated as rules. Not only do they result in better aesthetics, they are also drawn from the rules of physics.
Originally, the plan was to get our models into a studio environment where we could really get scientific, but in the end we decided to deal with real-world scenarios and shoot these images on the fly. This worked out great because not only did we have a blast in making the shots, but we were able to demonstrate the ability to work with challenging backgrounds (we were behind a warehouse!) when beautiful or staged ones are not always present.
Tip #1: Minimize Distracting Backgrounds
More than anything else, a distracting background can detract from an otherwise excellent portrait session. To prevent the background from becoming a distraction, it helps to keep some distance between your subject and the background. The rule I’ve always gone by is 10 feet (3 meters) or more. The reason for this is because shadows are minimized, and you can get some separation between that and your subject. Take a look at my friend here (Bill). I had him stand in front of an intentionally distracting background - a wire fence with a bunch of tree branches also entering the scene. Not an ideal scenario for sure if you want great portraits. This can be dealt with by moving your subject from further from the background. Look at the difference (below)!
Tip #2: Depth of Field
This ties into physics when you start thinking about depth of field. In general, portraits will usually be shot at apertures somewhere between f4 and f5.6 (maybe f8 if you are bold). This defines the range of sharpness for your subject, which generally starts with their face if you are using auto focus. The smaller the aperture number, the to the background. The result - a blurred, less distracting background! In the gallery for this series, I shot each person at f4, then at f6.7 and finally at a higher f-stop (typically f8 or f11). Our second subject (Chris) is a motorcycle dude. We wanted to go for something of a “bad-ass” look, and the harsh lighting conditions of the afternoon really worked well for that. For the first set, I put him up against a dock railing at the warehouse, with some parked cars in the background. Horrible, right? But look what happens as I both bring him away from the dock (two, five, and then ten feet), while dropping my aperture as well. Even at two feet from the rail, it’s less of a mug shot and something close to a headshot. By the time we are ten feet away from the horrible background (and my aperture is down to f4), we’ve actually got a fairly cool looking portrait. Now in a perfect world, I might want my lighting to be a little less harsh, but the object lesson is well demonstrated here.
Tip #3: Distance to Subject
This will vary based on your lens selection, but I typically use a lens with a focal length range of 100-200mm. The reason here is because the physics of the optics will have a compression effect on your subject, otherwise known as “making the subject a little thinner”. (Hint: Most people like looking thin!) Now it becomes a matter of positioning our subject at an appropriate distance to allow this compression to happen. It also will give you a little room around the edges of the frame
to crop horizontally or vertically if needed. Generally, this distance is in the range of 6-8 feet (2 – 2.5 meters) between your camera and your subject.
When working in a limiting environment, a good rule of thumb is to have your subject relatively in the middle between your camera and the background. If your subject is closer to the background than you like, what do you have to do to maintain that ratio? Move closer!
In this case, that meant zooming my 70-200mm lens in closer. This also creates a nice separation effect from the background by partially removing it from the field of view. Take a look at these shots of Kirsten (above). Our same scenario holds as before, at two feet, five feet, and ten feet from the other railing and a dumpster! Again, a horrible background one would think, but look at the improvement when I positioned her ten feet away, zoomed in nice and tight on the shot, and dropped my aperture to f4 – amazing!
Mind Those Backgrounds, When Possible!
Keep in mind; it’s generally not a good idea to intentionally select poor backgrounds. We intentionally did so here to demonstrate methods for minimizing potential background distractions that may arise in various shooting situations. Bad backgrounds and harsh lighting can be tricky situations to handle, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t get some good shots. The point though is well demonstrated that your portraiture will improve measurably by taking advantage of positioning between you, your subject, and the background, and also by dialing your aperture settings more open to throw backgrounds even further out of focus. It just goes to show that even with photography, you can take lemons and make lemonade!
by Jason Anderson
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