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A Practical Photography Guide To Portrait Lengths

Learn how using different compositions in portrait shots affects how the image is composed and perceived by your audience.

|  Portraits and People
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Portraits

Photos by Joshua Waller 

 

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. Here, we'll look at three portrait lengths: the head and shoulders shot, the three-quarter length shot and the full-length image. 

 

Head And Shoulders

The reason for shooting a head and shoulders shot is that it’s right up close and personal. You are concentrating the viewer on the person’s face, expression and character, making the background and the rest of their body less relevant or even excluded which makes this shot easier to set up. 

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 60's 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 a very shallow depth of field, completely blurring the background. Just ensure that you focus on the eyes.

 

Female portrait

Photo by Joshua Waller

 

Once you’ve mastered the standard shot, experiment with angles and with severe crops right into the face. Another variation on the head and shoulders shot is the profile but do take care when setting the shot up as you don't want to make your model look like they're posing for a police mugshot. Try getting your model to turn their head towards the camera when their body is more side-on to give the shot a 3D feel. 

 

Model

Photo by Joshua Waller 

 

Female portrait 

Photo by Joshua Waller

 

Three-Quarter Length

The three-quarters length shot is also easier to master than the full-length shot but requires more work than the head and shoulders shot.

Shoot this by cropping around the knee level 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 feet placement but do remember how they stand is important. Also, encourage your subject to be expressive or dynamic as you still want them to be the focus of your shot, not what's behind them. Think about angling arms and hips, turning the torso, changing the facial expression, giving good eye contact etc. Tieing in your model's clothes and props with the background can work well, too. 

A 50mm lens is ideal for this type of shot, as it converts to 75mm (on an APS-C DSLR camera), allowing you to crop in without causing undue lens distortion. Even if using studio lighting, no more than f/5.6 should be required for this shot for depth of field.

 

Portrait

Photo by Joshua Waller

 

Portrait

Photo by Joshua Waller

 

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, also, 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.

Portrait in the woods

Photo by Joshua Waller


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.

Again, dynamic poses and not always looking directly at the camera will add variety and character to your photos and matching outfits to surroundings will make it easier to tell a story. In the woodland shot below, for example, Lucy is wearing clothing you'd associate with fitness and going out for a walk outdoors and a woodland area is where many people do head when they're off out for some fresh air and exercise. 

Also, when integrating people into the scenery ensure the feet aren't planted next to each other, otherwise it look like a tourist photo. 
 

Portrait

Photo by Joshua Waller


Full Length With Wide-Angle Lenses

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. In these shots, the background becomes less important but when you get down low so the legs appear longer, the landscape will sweep away into the background and is very important to the feel of the overall picture.

 

Model

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