Free Photography Tutorials, Beginners to Advanced

Portraits - Page 2

Lighting for Portraits

Studio portrait of young girl

As I said in the flash tutorial the worst type of lighting is direct frontal light, such as light from a built in flashgun. So whatever you use as a light source, it could be a flashgun a lamp or a window, the important thing is to make sure that the light is coming from the side and not from the camera position.

Positioning the Lights for Portraiture

Closeup portrait taken on location with studio flash

The ideal position for the main light source is 45 degrees from the camera. There is a sort of arc that runs from beside the camera, but not too close, round to nearly 90 degrees. As you push the light further round you will see the shadows on the face becoming more defined. The same applies to height, aim the light at an angle of about 45 degrees to the floor and push it up until it shines where you want it. If your subject is wearing glasses you will need to push the light round to the side to avoid getting a reflection of it in the lenses. For more on studio lighting see my Studio Lighting Tutorial.

In the picture on the right above the main light is at a 45 degree angle to the left of the camera. There is also a second light on the right of the camera. The second light is pointing away from the subject towards a white wall, giving a softer and less powerful 'fill in' light. The relative strength of these two lights is quite important as that is what determines how dense the shadows are. It's quite easy to adjust the strength of each light just by moving them nearer or further from the subject. (See my tutorial on the inverse square law for an explanation.) If you only have one light to use you can create the same effect by sitting your subject as close as possible to a white wall. I often use large sheets of white paper to reflect light back onto the subject as this gives a more subtle effect.

The second portrait is lit the other way round, with the main light on the viewer's right. To me, it will always look sightly wrong to light pictures this way, and I'll tell you why. In most western languages (I assume you speak English if you are reading this) we read from left to right. So a picture with a car or a train traveling across the frame from left to right will always look more natural to us than a photo where the vehicle is traveling from right to left. Although there is obviously no train here, we perceive the light as a sort of movement across the frame and we are, by and large, more comfortable when the 'direction of travel' is the same direction that we 'read' the picture.

The only reason I took the picture this way round is that I knew it was going to appear in a magazine on the left side of the page, so actually on the page, with the text around it, it looks correct, but here where I have positioned it on the right of the page, it looks slightly wrong.

Studio sPortrait Tip: always put your main light on your left so the picture is lit from left to right. Unless you have a good reason not to.

Posing for Portraits

As with the lighting a pose that is square on to the camera is rarely the best solution. It can work quite well if you want the feel of the picture to be confrontational but generally speaking an angle to the camera is better. The first position I usually try is having the sitter facing towards the light then I get them to turn their head back towards the camera a bit at a time as I take pictures. Different faces work better at different angles, some work better fully facing the camera but still with their shoulders at an angle. Whatever you do it's important, as I said on the previous page, to work quickly an be ready to take a picture as soon as you have adjusted the pose. In the second photo above, I have cropped the face fairly tight so you can't see that the rest of her is actually facing towards the light, but then I posed her with her head facing directly towards the camera. You need to take a few shots and choose the best angle. Both the pictures above were part of a 'mass portrait session' so I had limited time with each sitter but still managed to get about three shots of each one with their heads at different angles.

Even in this very static sitting position it is best to keep the sitter moving to stop them looking stiff. Keep talking to them all the time, "turn your head this way", "turn your head that way", otherwise they lose their relaxed look and go into 'stuffed dummy' mode. That's why the pros are always moving the model into a fresh pose after every shot. Keep the flow going, even if you are just taking pictures of granny on the sofa. Which brings me to another important point.

Cropping the Picture

Three-quarter length portrait

A three-quarter length portrait, cropping just above the knee, fills the frame better than a full length picture.

There are definitely some crops that work better than others when shooting portraits. You should always try to position the head as near the top of the picture as you can. As you can see from the two closeup pictures in this section, I will sometimes choose to cut off the top of the head. This normally only really works well with closeup pictures, although sometimes in fashion photography they will cut the top of the head off in a full length picture to draw the viewer's eye to the clothes rather than the model.

I find that, unless there is a good reason, full length pictures never work as well as three-quarter length. The place to crop the picture is just above the knee for three-quarter length, knees are generally pretty ugly things even on the best looking of us. This crop sort of gives the impression of being full length but the subject, either one or two people, fills the frame a lot better.

Never crop at the waist, this looks awful. Either go three-quarter length or crop halfway up the chest. In other words either show us two thirds of a person or one third (there's that rule of thirds creeping in again).

The next crop would be just below the neck, this is when you might consider chopping a bit of the top of the head off. After that go as close as you dare but, as with the full length shot there should be a good reason to go closer. Normally an ultra close-up shot will not please the sitter very much.

Suitable Chairs for Portraits

The sofa is actually not ideal for a decent portrait, in fact it is the worst place to photograph someone sitting because they usually lean back which looks awful. Your pictures will look much better if you use a dining room chair or, even better still, a stool with no back at all. I always use a stool if I have one to hand as I have found that a chair back can fill the background of your picture with unnecessary clutter. Obviously there will be a lot of exceptions to this, I am not suggesting that you shouldn't be spontaneous and inventive with your posing and props but have a stool as a fall back option for the straight forward sitting portrait with a nice clean background.

Backgrounds for Portraiture

The top shot on this page was taken in my studio with a special background cloth that you can buy which makes it look as though the background was painted. Unless you intend to do a lot of portraits you won't want to shell out for one of these. The second picture was taken against some curtains. Not ideal but, if the curtains are plain, this is quite a good option, I will often use a plain wall as well. The important thing is to make sure that your background is not cluttered with distracting stuff, especially brightly colored stuff. Make sure you check in the corners of the frame as you are taking the picture, It is easy to forget to do this in the heat of the moment.

Outdoor Portraiture

Here are a couple of outdoor portraits to illustrate the importance of viewpoint to the mood of the picture. Looking up at the woman on the right reinforces the effect of the stern posture and the formality of the occasion. The child on the left also benefits from being at eye level, when I photograph children I always try to get down on the ground to photograph them. As you can see in the picture on the left, the brightly colored red t-shirt is quite a distraction even though it is out of focus. I would have done better to wait for him to move out of the frame but then I might have missed the picture altogether.

Also you'll notice that the picture on the right breaks my 'never crop at the waist' rule. Which just proves that it's OK to break the rules sometimes.

Baby portrait on horseback Portrait of horse rider

These pictures also illustrate one of the main dangers with outdoor portraiture and that is the cluttered background. Even though the background of the photo on the left is out of focus the red shirt is still very intrusive, whereas the photo on the right not only has a very out of focus background but it is also washed out and over exposed. We have just about enough information to see that it is a street scene but there is no intrusion into the main subject. If you're taking pictures in a crowd be bold and set the camera up to use a wide aperture then be careful where your point of focus is, you can get some stunning effects where everything is out of focus except your main subject. You will, of course, get some out of focus failures as well but that's life.

Fill the Frame

Finally, a quick word about filling the frame. I see so many pictures of people with a massive amount of empty space above their heads. Make sure you crop the picture so that the top of the subject's head is near the top of the frame. Leaving space above a person's head just makes them look shorter than they really are. Also notice that all the photos on these pages are in upright format. Turn your camera on it's side to fill the frame with your subject.

Other tutorials in this section


A few tips for the budding wildlife photographer.

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Lighting and perspective.

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What you need and what to watch out for.

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Extended Depth of Field

For perfectionists.

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All the settings you need.

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Photograph flowers like a professional, what you need to know.

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Focus Stacking

For when you need extra depth of field.

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Macro 1:1

How to get those ultra close-ups in focus.

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Shooting a panned sequence of shots and stitching them together to make a panorama.

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Techniques to help you capture those golden moments.

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Photography in the Snow

Getting the exposure right in all that white.

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Sports & Action

Tips on how to capture fast action.

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Travel Photography

Take better holiday photos without losing your sanity.

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Wedding Photography

A complete 'how to' for weddings, with an accent on crowd control.

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Working with Models

Bribing people to sit for you.

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