Intro to Portrait Photography (with gear you already have) - Part 3 of 3

The Image

Your subject is on site, the background is set up, your lights are on their stands but how are you going to pose your subject? How far from the backdrop do they need to stand? Where do the lights need to be placed? Where do you focus the lens? What aperture do you use? These are the factors that can take a portrait from mediocre to a masterpiece. From posing your subject to setting your exposure, portrait photography is defined by details.


85mm ISO100 f8 1/125th


Let’s start by breaking down the image above. This is Evan Hammond, a professional opera singer from Alabama; as an opera singer, his portrait needs to sing where he cannot. He was looking for a serious image that showed off his character and stoic personality while displaying his ability to captivate an audience with his stage presence.


This image has two defining factors: the pose and the light. The human eye likes two things: lines and bright areas in an image; therefore, we want to use these visual cues as guides for posing and lighting. Evan is placed on a stool which allows his legs to play a greater role in the pose. The stool also allows him to have a slightly off centered, almost slouched pose, adding character and a sense of drama to the image. The spread of his legs allows for a place for him to rest his hands while keeping his shoulders broad, opening and framing his torso. This also exposes the white of his shirt, providing a visual guide for the eyes to follow through the image. His eyes are placed on the upper third with his head slightly off centered. The viewers attention is immediately drawn to Evan’s right eye and the right side of his face helped by the dramatic lighting and the placement of the eye on the third. The light on his right arm and the inside section of his left arm frame out his torso and build while his hands placed on the lower third provide a place for the eye to finish after traveling thought the image, carried by the white of the shirt.


Now we understand how the pose and the light play a role in defining the image. But how do we get Evan in that pose? How do shape the light to be where we want?


The Pose

Posing is the single hardest aspect of portrait photography. You can have best equipment money can buy but the image will still come down to how your subject was posed or their facial expression – or both. The most important step in getting your subject to pose how you want is clear, calm communication. So how did we do this with Evan?



85mm ISO 100 f8 1/60th


It always starts with test shots. Your subject may think you are just fiddling with buttons on your camera, but what you are really doing is shooting astonishing candid shots. Check out this picture of our Violist friend Addie Funderburg. This image was not posed at all, she was adoring her beautiful viola when voilà lights went off, shutter closed and out came this masterpiece!


Test shots accomplish three things:

1. You need to set your exposure and light power

2. You can get some incredible candid shots (it is nearly impossible to pose a candid shot)

3. You set your subject at ease


By taking an amazing candid shot, you can pull some of the pressure off your subject. They can see in the LCD the “dang, I can look good for a portrait” shot you just created; now when you are going about the business of posing them, they stay comfortable and are excited to see what they can do next. It’s a win-win.


A disclaimer with test shots, always be sure to communicate when you are taking test shots. There is nothing more unsettling to your subject then when the lights flash, you start taking pictures and they have no idea what’s going on. Tell them what you are doing so they know they can relax, and you can pull off those candid shots.


In general, there are three styles of posing:

- Commanding: telling your subject what you want, then having them do it

- Mirroring: You put yourself in their shoes, so they can see what the pose is supposed to look like

- Molding: You are moving the subject around as they sit or stand


As you pose people, you will develop your own personality for posing. Each of these carry their advantages and disadvantages. Commanding can lead to miss interpretation but is easiest to do from behind the camera. Mirroring takes up a lot more time but can be more descriptive. Molding gets your subject exactly how you want them but can look a bit stale and some people don’t like to be touched.


Back to Evan. To get this shot to work, we use a combination of commanding and mirroring. We started by mirroring the pose, then moved to having him practice getting into the pose and fired off a few test shots for him to see what he did and did not like. For us behind the camera, this was the time to correct things we did not like: lifting the chin, pulling the shoulders back, smile with the eyes. It is important to work with your subject; you are the photographer, yes, but this is their image and they are in front of the lens. Once we start getting to a pose we like, we had Evan stand up, shake out then sit down into the pose – having him shake out kept the pose from looking stale. Once he got in the pose, I immediately began pressing the shutter, having him make minor corrections between frames.


Posing is about being inspired. You are creating an image that is going to represent who a person is, that should inspire an image in your mind that you need to bring out. The best way to get good a posing is to…pose people; it’s really a trial and error type of skill. Be bold, be creative; don’t be afraid to say, “Hey Evan, lets try this.”



ISO 100 f8.0 1/125th, This was one of those “Hey, let’s try this” shots. Don’t be afraid to take those!


I final note on posing, a tripod is an invaluable tool for the posing phase. Your camera is always pointed where you need it when the moment strikes. You can step away to move stray hair or get a different angle without being tied down. Tripods also allow you to step to the side and have a conversation with your subject without the camera coming between the two of you. The camera can be a daunting barrier for some people unfamiliar with having their portrait taken, this is a great way to sidestep that.


Shaping Light

Far and above, this is may favorite topic in portrait photography. If you look at the portrait work of people like Joe McNally, Sean Tucker, and Mark Mann, their images are defined by their lighting – it also helps that they shoot people like Benedict Cumberbatch. This section is going to be about lighting, yes, but mainly how I go about creating my style: dramatic lighting.


I typically run a one or two light setup with a 62cm gridded octabox (an eight-sided soft box) and a 6” gridded bell. (Remember my picture from Part 1?)


The grids on a soft box and the bell help contain the light and keep light from bleeding all throughout your frame. Check out this example of the difference between an umbrella and a gridded soft box.






Notice how in the small apartment, the umbrella allows light to get everywhere (upper photo). The direct light on a subject will be softened through the umbrella, but all the fill light under the chin and on the right side of the face is all bounce light from the walls and ceiling. Compare that to the gridded soft box that directs the light and prevents lighting the entire frame. The grids turn light to clay you can mold with your hands. Pure magic!


Now it’s about placing the lights. My starting point is 45° off center and 45° directed down towards the subject. The target to go for is the triangle of light on the dark side of their face. Notice how in our portrait of Evan, his left eye is framed by a small triangle of light, highlighting his cheek. This is typically referred to as Rembrandt Lighting. This is just a starting point. The closer the light moves to being inline with your subject, the more dramatic and pronounced the lighting becomes – the light being directly to the side of your subject creates full shadow on the dark side. The more you pull the light closer to the lens, in front of your subject, the more even lighting you achieve.


When looking at a portrait either on a monitor or on your LCD backscreen, an easy way to tell where the light is in relation to their subject is by looking into their eyes. Notice in this close-up of Evan’s eyes how there is a single light is in the top corner. This tells me that I was only using one light and, being that the light is so far in the corner, I was trying to get a greater disparity between the two side of his face.



85mm ISO100 f2.8 1/160th


Notice how with this image of Addie, the light is more centered vertically and is closer to her iris. See how much brighter this image is and how there is more light on both sides of her face? For this one I brough the light closer to the front of Addie’s face at a lower angle.



85mm ISO 100 f8 1/125th


The main reason I have a second light is to work with hair. Let’s take a look at his image of my lovely wife and ever gracious assistant. Pay close attention to her hair. She has dark brown hair so with a dramatic or dark image, her hair can tend to blend into the background. This is where I use the gridded bell light. Rather than pointing the light directly at my subject’s head, I tend to fire the light 1’-2’ behind my subject and 1’-2’ above their head, and allow little bits of stray light to catch the hair. This gives the image a highlight feel without adding too much extra light to the image. Notice the golden glow towards the top of her head. The setup for this shot can be displayed in the lighting diagram above.


Exposure & Depth of Field

As if the relationship between ISO, aperture, and shutter speed was not already hard enough to understand, we have added two more factors into portraits 1) your light meter is useless 2) you added a flash.


Why is your light meter useless? If you are shooting indoors with lights, the first thing you want to do before setting exposure is find the slowest shutter speed possible that will give you a black frame. This means that all the light in your frame comes from your flash. This gives you maximum control over the lighting. Your light meter has no understanding of what is happening when the flash goes off. Hence, your meter is useless.



24mm ISO 100 f5.6 1/160th


Now this is not necessarily true for outdoor portraits. Typically, with outdoor portraits, you start by setting the exposure for the background – keeping your desired aperture in mind – then let the flash handle the exposure on the subject. In this circumstance, the light meter is helpful for setting the exposure for the background. This exactly how I went about setting up the shot above (notice that this is a portrait shot on a 24mm lens at f8! An 85mm lens isn’t perfect in all situations!).


With those few facts in mind, how do we set exposure? You start by finding your minimums. With an 85mm lens, I like to shoot at no less than 1/125th to keep a sharp image. This will serve as my minimum shutter speed. As far as ISO, we want as low as possible, 100 always being the goal. For portraits, ISO and shutter speed do not play much of a role in creating the image. Aperture, however, can change an image entirely.


Aperture is used to introduce bokeh, the silk-like, soft backgrounds that pull your subject out of the frame (I know aperture does more than introduce bokeh; but for simplicity, we will leave it at that). Bokeh is created by reducing the depth of field. It can be a dangerous game searching for more and more bokeh: as the bokeh increases, the depth of filed decreases. As an example, an 85mm lens at f1.4 has a 0.5” depth of field when focused at 3.5’. That’s half an inch of acceptably sharp image. For a headshot, that would have your subject’s eyes in focus with their nose and ears blurry. Make sure you have enough depth of field you keep everything you want sharp (use your depth of field preview button).


Your depth of field needs to suite the image. If you want just their eyes in focus, great, use a crazy low aperture. But if they are holding an instrument and you want that sharp as well, you may need to open up to f5.6 or f8 (look at some of the images above!). My general starting point for aperture is f2.8. This keeps the background soft and the face sharp.


Remember, the farther your subject is from the background, the softer the background will be. As a rule, when using a backdrop, I start my subject standing 4’-6’ away. This allows any imperfections in the backdrop to be easily corrected through bokeh or in post.


Once I find the aperture that works for the image, I begin introducing light and fluctuating the power of the light to create the effect I am going for. Since all lights are different, I cannot give you a real solid place to start. With my 200 watt/sec light I normally start around 1/32nd to 1/8th power. If you have a 400+ watt/sec light, you will be on a lower power.


Once I have my ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and flash power set, I normally only change aperture to adjust depth of field and flash power match. The shutter speed generally stays the same throughout the shoot.


Wrapping up

Here are a few quick things to remember:

- Watch your depth of field! Too shallow is not good!

- Take your time

- Talk to your subject. Use clear, calm communication

- Focus on your subject, not the image

- Be prepared day of the shoot!

Now you have all you need to start making portraits! Enjoy developing your style and playing with the tools you have. Grab a friend and some equipment and go create something!

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Salem, Oregon (and anywhere the journey takes us)

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