Portrait Photography

Portraits are so much fun and can say so much about a person you are taking pictures of.  It can portray their likeness and can display some aspect of their personality. 

There are a lot of variation of portrait photography, like Traditional portrait that is very much about the face and expression, Candid, Lifestyle, Glamour, Surreal/Conceptual, Formal, Street style, Close-Up, and Abstract.

We use portraits in our everyday lives. Most of us have a portrait on our professional and work websites. Most are shot at two-thirds, and sometimes at full-body. Generally, it is meant to portray someone as they are. Strong eye contact is usually important for a lot of portraits.  A Formal portrait is a carefully arranged pose under proper and professional lighting conditions, that are mostly used for business and professional use portrays.

Lifestyle portraits are often used in advertising and can be aspirational. Candid portraits are harder to get as they can invade people’s privacy. It is taking images of people at what they are up to. The best is to set yourself up with your camera in one corner, so people can see that there is a camera and if they want to be themselves, so be it and get the image, and in a way, you are not pulling out your camera the minute someone trying to do something. It can look awkward and backfire on you.

Close-Up portraits are seen mostly in fashion, politics, fame, and magazines. They can look intimate and very important. Some may say, one can see though the soul of someone if it is done right.

Surreal/Conceptual and Abstract portrait photography is considered fine art. It is in a different league and not everyone’s cup of tea. Surrealism is part of it to take a picture to another level that one cannot see. The Abstract portrait is usually part of someone that we take an image of and can be portrayed in various ways. Black & White is one of the most favorites to portray the latter. For examples of the above-mentioned styles please click on the links provided.

Street portrait style can be posed or candid (see also my previous blog, Doctors With Cameras). You must immerse yourself in the people around you.

Some argue about the best lenses for portraits but there are few I recommend using. A lot of professional studio photographers use the latter two as it allows you to be close but not so close at the same time with the subject you are taking photographs of. You can also shoot awesome Portraits with a Zoom Lens like a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 USM. The picture of our Quarter Horse, Sonny below with the cows in the background was shot like that and so was the picture on the website page with our Daisy, the only “Daisy Duke” I know who actually made it to Duke University Campus to pose for that pic. I hope she is playing in the fields with her sister Indie over the rainbow bridge. I still miss their souls. We lost them last year within 4 weeks apart. Their memories are always with us.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM Lens.

Canon RF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS USM Lens – Jack of all Trades!

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM Lens

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens

I would recommend setting your camera setting to Aperture Priority (A) when you do portraits. The sweet spot for me is f/2.8 to f/4. Lenses with larger Apertures like f/1.2 can produce amazing images with beautiful creamy Bokeh (more on this below) and you can shoot them handheld in low lights as well.

If you are shooting outside, the best lighting is soft natural lights like on overcast days, but sometimes we do not have any options and we end up shooting on a sunny day which creates hard shadows on people’s faces. So, what do we need to do next? Well, we need to use Reflectors, and someone else needs to hold it or it needs a Reflector with a stand. For Headshot pictures, it is best to hold your lens at the level of the shoulder of the subject as it gives them power. You do not want to look down on the subject with the lens, although with kids it is harder to achieve. So “camera height” is important to produce amazing headshots which include shoulder and up. Engage with your subject, make them feel natural, say silly things. Don’t say “Are you ready” or “1, 2, 3” before you take an image of your subject because you ruin it. For the best headshot portrait, make sure you pick an Aperture that makes part of the hair and ears out of focus, which creates the best portrait.

Some sample portrait images I have taken mainly from my family and dogs with my professional camera, some look a bit creative and you can play with it.

Smartphones have come a very long way and with their AI built in them, they can produce magnificent portraits as well. It is usually my to go to when I walk with my wife and dogs. It does a splendid job doing portraits and you can change the background, or so-called “Bokeh” as well using the software built in them. Bokeh is the Japanese word for “Blur”, which is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in out-of-focus parts of an image. 

Some sample iPhone “Portrait Mode” below.

The best lenses with the lowest f-stop can make the picture so “creamy” in the background because of the shallow depth of field they can create for these situations and awesome for low light photography as well. They are very expensive (see above lenses) but as I said iPhone for instance can do a superb job for day-to-day portraits.

For comparison, iPhone Wide-angle lens offers ƒ/1.6 aperture but with help of AI, it can mimic f/1.4 Aperture creating the shallowest depth of field. iPhones usually take the portrait at f/4.5 automatically, but you can change that to lower f-stop to be even more dramatic and emphasize your subject and increase the Bokeh (blur) of the background. Sample are below with a short video showing you how to change the Aperture resulting in a much nicer Bokeh in iPhone.

The left image below is done at f/16, the middle at f/4.5 (automatically chosen on iPhone), and the right one at f /1.4.

Open the photo you took in “Portrait Mode” on your iPhone. Click on Aperture f and toggle to the left all the way to f/1.4 and all the way to the right to f/16. See which background Bokeh (blur) you like the best and save the picture or you can save multiple versions of it by screenshotting it, which will save as a good quality JPEG on your phone as well.

A quick video to show you how to change the Aperture in iPhone after the image is taken in Portrait Mode to increase the Bokeh.

Happy Shooting!

Author: Kouros Farro

I am a family physician, educator, and photographer who loves landscape photography.

3 thoughts on “Portrait Photography”

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