Portrait Photography: A Story Told through Image

Portrait photography is a form that I don’t practice very often, but I enjoy doing. Portrait photography is great for beginners because one can direct the model and get the best shot out of them, and see the subject at their greatest.

Portrait  photography is great. It’s less chaotic than action and event photography. Portrait photography was one of the first applications for photography, as a replacement for oil and canvas or any other drawing medium for portraits.

On the set of MAD Academy Promo Video, 3/3/17

The first step of taking a good portrait is knowing your model. This is why I would start taking photos of your friends and family before you start telling strangers that you can do a session with them. This makes it so the sometimes long silence while shooting isn’t so awkward and you feel comfortable telling them to pose a certain way or giving directions. Once you’re experienced enough with friends and family and you have your first shoot with a stranger, get to know them. Ask them questions, remember their name. All of the things above still apply with strangers, so get to know them first.

My little sister, Remy. Toro Canyon, November 2016

Another thing about portrait photography is that the photos are for the client, and not you. Ask the client what photos they want, as they will always have something in mind before you start shooting. Be sure to get the shots they are looking for, and worry about the shots you want later.

Avocado Festival, October 2016

Okay, let’s talk about equipment. for portrait photography, the body is no where near as important as the lens, so as long as your body has a decent sensor for decent quality images, you’re set. When you’re doing a photo shoot, you should be up close with your model, and not across the street with a telephoto lens. Personally, I believe portrait photography is characterized by low-aperture, fixed, and macro lenses.

On the set of “I Feel Fine”, 2/3/17

The most versatile lens in your arsenal for portrait photography is a fixed 50 mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens. I have repeatedly said how I love using this lens for multiple reasons and portrait photography is one of them. I have a Canon EF f/1.8 50mm lens. The low aperture on this lens allows plenty of light to come through, even at a  high shutter speed, and creates a small focus window that completely turns the background of the subject into a creamy glaze of blur, making the subject pop out and appear as though it’s trying to escape from the frame and into our world. This lens is also very sharp, and the detail of whatever is in focus is appalling. It is a 50mm, so that means it is a very tight frame and you will have to back up from the subject a lot in order to fully see what you are shooting. Note, this effect is magnified when using a camera body with a cropped sensor, as the cropped sensor on an 80d, for example, zooms in 1.6x compared to full frame sensor camera bodies. So if you’re using a 50mm lens on a Canon 80d (cropped sensor), the zoom level will be as if you are using an 80mm lens on a Canon 6d (full frame sensor).

Canon 50mm f/1.8

Wide lenses are also a great option if you want to not only tell the story of your model, but also the world around them. I don’t recommend going anywhere below 15mm if you don’t want to get a nasty fisheye effect (unless that’s what you’re going for or what the client wants). An 18-55mm kit lens is great for this application because it’s cheap, it probably came with your camera, and it’s f/3.5-5.6 ensures that none of the world you’re trying to see around the model is blurred out. 24mm or 35mm prime lenses are also great options. Plus, Canon and Nikon also make zoom lens from 24mm and f/2.4 for better bokeh than an 18-55mm kit lens.

Macro lenses are great for portrait photography, especially for close detail shots. If you don’t want to freak your model out with a lens in their face, but you want sharp close up detail, macro lenses usually go up to 200 mm focal length, so you don’t have to worry about making your model uncomfortable. If you want a greater field of view, you can use a 50, 40 or 30mm macro lens. Macro lenses are great because they can focus on objects that are extremely close to the lens, unlike most lenses.

I could tell you a lot of stuff about rule of thirds, lighting, composition, framing, golden hour, and a bunch of other techniques and lessons on how to take better photos, but my advice to you is to just go out and experiment, find what you like, what style you like shooting. Learning actual techniques and tricks on how to take better photos is great, and I recommend doing it eventually, but for now, just focus on having fun taking pictures of your friends, family, and when you start taking photos of clients and people paying you, you will have found some of your own techniques and I bet your photos will look great by then. Thanks for reading, see you next week!





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