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Portrait lengths - a practical guide

Portrait lengths - a practical guide - Shooting different lengths in portraits affects how the image is composed and perceived, as Duncan Evans explains.

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Category : Portraits and People
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When you are starting out taking photographs, lighting is just lighting and portraits are just a case of standing in front of someone with a camera. As your skills and knowledge increase, so does an appreciation of highlights and shadows, the effects of focal lengths, and composition of the image. When shooting portraits, the length of the image also makes a marked difference to how a photo can be composed and how it’s perceived. There are three main portrait lengths – the head and shoulders shot, the three quarter length shot and the full length image.

a harsh and dramatic portrait
The classic head and shoulders shot, with the head cropped to force attention right into the eyes and face. The subject squatted on the floor to bring his muscles out, while two lights on either side provided dramatic, harsh lighting

Head and shoulders
The reasons for shooting a head and shoulders shot are that it’s right up close and personal. You are concentrating the viewer on the person’s face, expression and character. The background and the rest of their body have become irrelevant and are excluded. As such, it’s an easy shot to set up and requires little expense.

The classic shot is of the subject straight on to the camera, but to carry this off, the lighting needs to be off to one side to create shadows. David Bailey revolutionised portrait photography in the 60s by doing just this, and cropping into the top of the head. This forces attention right into the face and leaves the eyes, on the top third horizontal line as well. If shooting under studio lights, this is likely to be at least f/5.6, but if shooting in available light, you will have the opportunity to shoot at f/1.8 (if you have the right lens). This will create very shallow depth of field, completely blurring the background. Just ensure that you focus on the eyes.

What not to shoot - this is all wrong
This is what not to shoot. A plain sideways profile is dull and more reminiscent of a police mugshot that a worthwhile portrait.
Angled pose, more intricate lighting - yes!
Instead, turn the subject so that although they are in profile, there is a little more of the face visible. This puts it into three dimensions.

An alternative to the standard shot is to change the shooting angle. With a wide angle lens this will distort the image, but it’s still possible to shoot with a 75-100mm lens from above and get a more dramatic image. In fact, once you’ve mastered the standard shot, experiment with angles and with severe crops right into the face.

A variation on the head and shoulders shot is the profile. Have a look at the two photos showing this and you can see what you need to do to avoid it turning into a police mugshot.

Three quarters length
The three quarters length shot is also more easy than the full length shot, but requires more work than the head and shoulders shot. Shoot this by cropping just above the knee so that the attention is drawn to the hips, torso and head. You can include some background, but because the feet are excluded, you don’t have to work the person into the background or worry about how they are going to stand with regards to feet placement. The person needs to be expressive or dynamic, because, as stated, you are not using the background to make a significant contribution. How they stand is therefore important, but it doesn't have to relate to the background. A 50mm lens is ideal for this type of shot, especially on a digital camera, as it converts to 75mm, allowing you to crop in without causing undue lens distortion. Even if using studio lighting, no more than f/5.6 is required for this shot for depth of field.

A bored subject does not make for a good photo
What’s wrong with this image is that there’s too much leg, which could be cropped off, but crucially the subject looks totally disengaged with the shoot.
Angle the body, change the lighting
The length is better here, the subject has turned slightly to present a more dynamic angle, the lighting is more creative and she is pouting.

The two studio shots show this in practice. In the one on the left, the length isn't quite right because the subject was quite tall, but worse still, the lighting is bland and the guy looks totally bored. In the picture on the right, the posing is far more dynamic, with angled arms, hips, a turn of the torso, and the subject makes good eye contact and her best pout.
It's easier to shoot outdoors
It's easier to shoot outdoors when you don't have to worry about the feet.

Taking the shoot outdoors is still easier than a full length shot as this next image shows. It’s outdoors and while the shallow depth of field renders it out of focus, it’s obviously woodland and it ties in with the country look of the model’s clothes and air rifle. The subject is sitting down, but with the floor removed, there’s no problem with foot placement.

Full length
The full length photo allows the most interaction and variation, but is the hardest to get right because how the subject stands now comes into play, and how they relate to the background. Ensure that they don’t look awkward or the pose stilted – standing straight on looking directly into the camera is a no-no. Also, you have to be far more careful with composition and lens selection.

Start with the basics. Unless the subject is in the background or there is a compelling photographic reason to do otherwise, there should be the same or less area under their feet than there is above their head. If there is more space under the feet than above the head, the picture will look like they are cramped and the space wasted.

While the 50mm lens is your portrait friend, on the full length shots, you can experiment more. A 100-200mm lens will allow you to stand further away and zoom. This will have the effect of narrowing the field of view so that the scenery behind the subject will be restricted. This is useful if you are shooting outside and there are lots of people about, or if the rest of the scenery isn’t worth including. The word of caution when using a longer lens is to pay attention to the shutter speed. There’s little point in shooting it if a low shutter speed causes camera shake. The other effect of the longer lens is that there is less depth of field, so that the background can be completely blurred. Be careful about using wide open apertures if standing a little further away than normal as it can be difficult to judge that the focus is perfectly sharp.

dynamic posing and integration with scenery
When integrating people into the scenery ensure the feet aren't planted next to each other, otherwise it look like a tourist photo
Zoom in from afar to restrict the field of view
Here the view is automatically taken from the subject, back up the street behind as she appears to have walked down it. This adds depth.

In this next set of photos, on the left the subject has placed one foot slightly in front of the other and has angled her torso slightly towards the sun so that the pose is dynamic and not staid and predictable. She is also looking looking off into the sunlight, rather than the camera while hair whips past her face. Note that the interaction with the background is complete as the colour of the top matches the heather. This was shot with a 50mm lens (75mm effective on digital).

In the picture on the right the subject is shown walking down the street and because of that action, the street is included, along with the guttering, which leads the eye from the subject in the foreground, right past her up to street into the background, which is where it looks like she came from.

At the opposite end of the lens spectrum is the wide angle lens. Now this is normally frowned upon for portraits, but when shooting full length can be used for more creative effects. Bear in mind that wherever the central point of the image is, that will appear large and what’s at the edges will be diminished. This means that if standing up and focussing on the head then the legs will be foreshortened. The background becomes less important. However get down low and the legs will appear longer and the landscape will sweep away into the background, and is very important to the feel of the picture.

use a wide angle lens for creative effect
This shot used fill-flash because the background was so bright. With the lens at head height, the top half of the subject is maximised, making the legs disappear into the ground. It was shot at 27mm and f/8.
Get down low to make the legs appear elongated
Now the camera is down low and the subject is shot as she walks past the camera. The sweep of the legs is exaggerated and with a clean, patterned immediate background, the eye is taken away to the buildings in the distance.

All pictures copyright Duncan Evans 2007.

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thank you for this invaluable advice, without getting too technical, it underlines the various pitfalls in portrait photography.
indispensable and concise. thanks again !

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