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.
Head and shoulders
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
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
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.
This is what not to shoot. A plain sideways profile is
dull and more reminiscent of a police mugshot that a worthwhile
Instead, turn the subject so that although they are in
is a little more of the face visible. This puts it into three
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.
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 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 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
with the floor removed, there’s no problem with foot
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.
When integrating people into the scenery ensure the feet
aren't planted next to each other, otherwise it look like a tourist
Here the view is automatically taken from the subject,
back up the street behind as she appears to have walked down it. This
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.
This shot used fill-flash because the background was so
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.
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.
pictures copyright Duncan Evans 2007.