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Portrait tips from the professionals

Portrait tips from the professionals - Anyone can take a picture of a person but to take a really great picture of someone takes practice, patience and a little bit of know how. We spoke to three professional portrait photographers to see what tips they have for taking better portraits. Here's part one.

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Category : Portraits and People
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Photo by Michael Biellat
 Photo by Michael Alan Bielat.

Any likeness of a person, in any medium is how portrait is defined in the dictionary. You are trying to capture them, their character, their thoughts and feelings all in one picture. You can do this in a variety of places and in many ways but one thing you will obviously always need is a good camera and a set of lenses.

"I'm currently shooting everything from weddings to landscapes with Nikon D700 DSLRs. I did just purchase a Nikon D90 to offer something unique to my portrait clients with that camera's video capabilities. I really fell in love with full frame sensors when I was a Canon shooter using the 5D. Once you go full frame you don't go back I guess," explained Michael Alan Bielat a photographer who's based in the US.

Chris Hanley also uses Nikon, His current favourite is the D300 while portrait photographer Rod Edwards, who's just written a book on portrait photography uses Canon, the EOS 1D, 5D and 5D MkII.

"I'm of the opinion that to achieve the best you must invest in the glass," explained Chris. "My favourite portrait lens is the 24-70mm f/2.8 Nikkor. I also use a 55mm macro f/2.8 Nikkor. The clarity and sharpness are fabulous. The 55mm also gives me a fantastic shallow depth of field which offers a different look and feel to my work."

Due to the focal length prime lenses are a popular choice for both Rod and Michael.

"I currently have the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF-S, the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED-S, the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED-IF-AF-S VR and one prime lens which is the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. For portraits, I think it's best to use focal lengths in the 70mm range and up. The reason for this is that it minimises any potential barrel distortion seen more commonly in wide angle lenses.

Photo by Chris Hanley
This was taken under a viaduct by Chris Hanley.

Using wide angle lenses tends to make your subject look wider than what they are which won't sell to well! The 85mm f/1.8 prime lens is one that I make sure to break out when shooting an individual. I shoot with the lens wide open in the f/1.8 or f/2.0 range and auto focus on the eyes so they are tack sharp. From there, everything starts to fall out of focus and creates a really dramatic picture with the subject popping out of the page. Other than that, I juggle between the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm lenses," said Michael.

For any type of photography light is important and you can't get much better than natural light. Not only is it cheap, once you know what light looks like at different times of they day you can use it to your full advantage.

"I tend to work on location rather than in a studio so I carry as little extra lighting as possible and concentrate on capturing the character of my subjects rather than getting too concerned with very fancy lighting. The softness of available light is wonderful for portraits. I also like Lastolite products particularly their portable reflectors, I also use Elinchrom's Ranger, it's an amazingly useful bit of kit," explained Rod.

Chris also specialises in location portraits so the majority of the time he is on the lookout for flattering daylight.

"I like to exclude toplight preferring the light to be directional but soft. A good example would photographing under a railway viaduct. The top light is excluded and the light falling onto my subject is the equivalent to a large softbox. The other end is a sort of kick light."

Photo by Chris Hanley
Chris Hanley took this with off camera flash.

If Chris uses artificial lighting then it is normally off camera flash which is used to create drama in his portraits. Typically he uses zoomed speedlight on a stand which gives a fashion feel to his images something which is popular with younger clients. If he needs a background light or hairlight he uses a Lowel video light, something which is used when working with interiors that have lots of accessory lights like a hotel room for example.

Where Michael lives the weather can get very cold so a studio space is a must. He likes candids and lifestyle portraiture that's natural. He uses a mix of old Tjl strobes and Alienbees. He also recently purchased a Westcott Spiderlite and uses umbrellas and soft boxes to modify the light.

"When on location indoors, I either use off camera lighting or mount a speedlight on camera and bounce over my shoulder to simulate ambient light or window light. One big tip for speedlights is to use gel filters on them in order to get the same light temperatures. Otherwise, you will have a tough time in post processing trying to eliminate different colour casts from say incandescent lights and your daylight balanced flash. By putting a incandescent gel filter over your flash, you take the Kelvin temp of the flash from say 5500K down to the 3500K range and then set your white balance accordingly to eliminate the colour cast. A five in one reflector is also a useful tool. It can make or break a shot. It can make one light source turn into two or it can even diffuse or block out unwanted light. It also makes for a great tool to hand off to a parent and get them to do a mindless task in helping you instead of being over your shoulder bossing their child around!"

Composition is another aspect just as important as good lighting but this is often overlooked. Rod started off shooting landscapes so he knows how important composition is and is something which is always at the forefront of his mind. Michael chooses to shoot different compositions as not only does it save time it means the client has more than one option to pick from which never hurts. A full body shot, a ¾ length one and a head shot are all good, safe photographs which should easily please a client.

Photo by Michael Bielat
 Photo by Michael Alan Bielat.

When it comes to framing positing your subject or even yourself differently can be the key to a great image. If you're photographing someone larger for example turning them slightly to the side and by placing their hands on their waist will naturally slim them down. Whereas if you're photographing a man placing them straight onto the camera will make them look broader and stronger.

"I post my subjects differently depending on their figures. For larger subjects, I do a lot of shots where I shoot down on them to eliminate any double chins. I also use my 70-200mm more with them to reduce any lens effects that might widen them more. Other than that, anything goes," explained Michael.

Rod added: "As discussed in my new book, I like to position my subjects in a natural way. If it feels uncomfortable, it sure as hell will look uncomfortable in the final image so always keep this in mind. Framing is again dependent upon the scenario, but sometimes breaking the more traditional rules of composition is the key to a successful portrait."

When working with children it's hard work trying to frame them. They will rarely stand still and you will have a constant battle on your hands if you try to get them to follow insturctions. The best way is to create the shoot into a game, as Chris does. By kicking a ball into a pocket of light they will chase the ball and at the point where they turn back round with the ball, be prefocused and ready to get some great shots. Getting children to collect things and assemble them is another good way of placing them in the right light. For example getting them to collect some sticks or stones to spell out their name on a beach  makes for a great photograph. This way you get nice action shots as well as close ups of them concentrating.

"For adults I'm looking at their clothing, the colours, where the light is, shapes, texture and form. For example, a girl wearing a smart overcoat and a turquoise woolly hat and scarf my look great in a scene with a similar colour in it. Old walls or window frames with peeling paintwork. make great backgrounds or for contrast a yellow background with someone wearing a blue t-shirt works well."

Backgrounds are particularly important especially for one you are shooting in a particular environment, because as Rod said: "the location is effectively part of your subject."

photo by Chris Hanley
The wooden panels compliment the model's hat.

"Backgrounds place a person," explained Chris. "They give the viewer information, so if you are shooting business portraits then you need to choose them carefully to create the appropriate message. Simple backgrounds out of focus, with reflections or colour work when you want to emphasise the subject. Textures, wording, shapes and colours are great to give structure to location portraits. I'm also looking for colours to compliment or be strikingly contrasting. With children it tends to be throwing the background out of focus concentrating on the child and expression, leaving the light and colours to enhance the picture, whereas for couples or young people I may want to create a sense of time and place.

Colour is very much in vogue again. Digital imaging has allowed people to be more creative. A primary colour in an image and two accent colours work great and give an overall pleasing look. If it's drama you're after go bold, blues on yellows, greens on purple. Have a wander down any high street or browse clothes shop displays in shopping centres and you'll get a good idea of what colours are popular and go well together."

Michael added: " For me, colour is very important. I love vivid colours and it really helps to draw the viewer in. For me, good colour starts with a proper white balance. I use a Whi-Bal grey card in every location and use that as a reference. I also use the Kelvin temperature white balance setting and set it so the subject has accurate skin tones with a touch of warmth so they look nice and healthy instead of white. I do shoot in RAW so if I miss a white balance then I can always resort to that grey card as a reference.

Photo by Michael Bielat
 Photo by Michael Alan Bielat.

Proper white balance is crucial for portraying accurate colours. From there, you can add pop with a saturation boost in certain channels. I have recently been going back to black and white images. That is one thing I miss with film! It's easy to convert an image to black and white but really tough to do it the right way how it would look on black and white film. Nik Silver Efex Pro does black and whites really well! I really only use black and white images for children and baby photography. Parents always want their kids to stay young forever and black and white images seem to give parents that timeless look that they will be able to appreciate for all time."

Backgrounds can make or break a photo and for this reason Michael chooses the less is more approach. If the background doesn't compliment the image then he blows it out of focus or chooses another location all together. You also need to be aware that things in the background are not intersecting your subject too. "There's nothing worse than having a street light looking like it's coming out of your subjects head!," Added Michael.

Locations you shoot in are your background and finding the right one can cause a real headache for photographers.

Photo by Chris Hanley
 Bright bold colours make a great background.  Photo by Chris Hanley.

"Locations are really important for good portrait images and finding the right one can cause a real headache. No definitive rules apply here so it's just a case of personal taste. For instance, it may be a great idea to shoot a beautiful young woman / fashion type image in a decadent, window lit old house with peeling paint and plenty of atmosphere, but when your subject is an old woman in the same location, the picture then starts to tell a very different story perhaps of hardship, poverty etc. Ultimately, it's important to try and decide what you want your location to say about your subject before you decide whether it's suitable or not," said Rod.

Shots which are eye level may create a good photograph but they aren't very interesting. This is particularly true when you're photographing children.

"So many photographers fail to shoot kids from a lower perspective and, by doing so, distance themselves from their subjects. The sitter (child in this case) is your 'hero' and by adopting a low viewpoint you will effectively create a more powerful image where the camera is looking up to the sitter. This is very effective and worth the extra effort - and muddy knees!" Explained Rod.

Pictures on angles isn't something Chris is a big fan of but like Rod when photographing children it's something that can not be avoided.

"Photographing children at their eye level gives a sense of perspective from their view point. From a high view point and getting the child to look up is a great way to accentuate their eyes and make them look large and bright. I'm always looking for alternative viewpoints, whether that is low or high. Then of course you have to consider your angles carefully when you have different subjects of different shapes and sizes. Which is a whole new topic in itself!"

Shooting at eye level may not be encouraged but focusing on them is. The eyes are usually the most important feature on which to focus. When working close up, Rod always uses autofocus on the eyes and then recompose the image while holding down the shutter button.

"Focus is also an incredible useful technique to apply to your portraits. Shallow focus from a long lens and wide aperture can isolate your subject from a distracting background and has saved my bacon on more than just a few occasions. This is where fast prime lenses come into their element as they work better than zooms."

Photo by Michael Bielat
 Photo by Michael Alan Bielat.

Michael added: "Focus on the eyes. End of story. Worse case scenario, if locking AF is tough due to poor lighting or poor contrast, I then focus on a belt buckle or waist since it is relatively in the same focal plane as they face and eyes are. It isn't a full proof method but it can mean getting the shot or not. I try to shoot at wide apertures from f/1.8  to no more than f/4 for one subject. If shooting a family portrait then I choose f/5.6 and f/8 so I can get everyone in focus. Wide open apertures completely blow out the background and make all the emphasis on the subject and it really gets them to pop off the page. The subject starts to blend in with the background otherwise."

Vist Chris Hanley's , Michael Alan Bielat's and Rod Edwards' websites for more details.

See part two for more tips and advice.

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