© Ashley Beolens http://www.fatphotographer.net
For me there is no greater medium for capturing a person?s character than photography. It may at first appear to be a single shot only capturing the moment, but done well it will tell you more about the person than any other medium. This is my attempt to give advice on how to shoot portraits. Although many of my tips may well be written about in more details, this will be an overview.
Many tutorials I have seen start by telling you, the reader, what camera or lens to use; and while camera equipment may be important it is by no means the number one factor in taking a good portrait. No, for me THE most important practice to consider when looking to take great portraits is to get to know your subject. Personality is what makes a great portrait, not a camera or lighting (although these do help).
In order to take your portrait, your first steps should be in planning what it is you want to capture. If your subject is a fun, quirky person, then look to pose them in a style fitting of the imagery to truly capture their personality, if they are serious then alter your style. These are what will make the subject (or their friends/family) really think wow! There is no point trying to get a shy reserved person jumping all over the place or acting the loon, all you will achieve is a awkward picture that neither you nor your subject/client will be happy with.
Once you know the persons personality, then taking the photograph becomes easier. But you next step will also help, there are two places you can take someone?s portrait, 1) in a studio setup 2) in a natural environment. Now just to be clear, by studio set-up I mean equally in your plush all singing studio as using fixed backdrops in someone?s home. And by natural I don?t always mean outside (although you do then often get to use the greatest natural light we know), someone sitting at their work desk or watching TV is equally as natural as lounging on the beach or stood in an old archway. Natural to me means in their (for want of a better word) habitat. It is all about comfort, if the person is most comfortable being photographed in a studio, then use it, if they would be more relaxed somewhere else then that is where you must go. Again the personality comes into play, most parents I know would much rather have a stunning image of their kids at play in the local park than sat stuffily in a studio as it captures their essence and that is what good portrait work is all about.
With that established you need to look at lighting, there are basically three styles of lighting most people will look at, Low-key, where there are a lot of dark colours and shadows that come in to play (basically the emphasis is usually towards the darker colours in the image), High-key, where it is all eliminating shadows (often with stark white backgrounds and vibrant colours), and then more medium tones where most of the subject is clear but there are still high and low lights. Some excellent information on these tonal styles can be seen at http://www.diyphotography.net/lighting-high-key-and-low-key . Whichever you choose of these will also aid in the style of the image, usually Low-key is down beat, High-key is upbeat and normal will be in between.
Right so we know who we are photographing and what style we want to shoot are we ready? Well not quite, as with all photography it is personal choice that will dictate what happens next, because now is where you start to look at posing and composition. For intimate portraits it is essential to consider eye contact, while looking away from the camera (while facing the lens still) will give an impression of coyness. Looking into the distance will emphasis thought, or facing a second person will often be used to imply affection or a bond. It is well worth investigating other images to see which sort of impression you wish to give, and see how that will work with your subjects. There are many books or websites dedicated to positioning poses.
On similar notes to posing you will want to consider positioning in the image, it doesn?t have to be the person in the centre of the image, in fact it is often more impressive if there is space around the person, giving a feeling of room for the main subject (either to look into or move into, depending on whether it is only a head/shoulders photograph or a full body picture). I hate this expression, but thinking outside the box will usually result in stunning photographs. There are too many examples of what I mean to explain them all here, but think about the person looking up from the bottom of the image into a large space or jumping while being photographed at an unusual angle, these will help your work stand out, but do remember it will only work if it suits the person (or you have an adaptable model).
As I said this is starting to appear quite a long tutorial, but there is a lot to cover (even when done briefly). Another way to change your portrait photography is to consider depth of field, many tutorials will talk about setting middle F/Stops (often around the f/11 mark) and while this will work in many cases, keeping the face/focus of the portrait in sharp focus, doing things slightly different will again give your images something different. A very narrow depth of field can be used to highlight a single feature only, or increasing the depth so the background is in focus will again change the whole feel of the image.
One final point to emphasise is that it is all about experimenting, play with what you do and see what you find works for you and your subject, but most importantly, make sure your chosen model is comfortable in what they are doing, it will be obvious in the final photograph if they were not.
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