uLearn.Photography - part of FilmPhotoAcademy.com

Portraits & People


A portrait shot may cover a range of styles: a business headshot; a candid holiday photo; a glamour or fashion photograph or group and family shots.   There are some key lighting details you need to know and some crucial posing information.

A great portrait will catch something of the personality of the sitter. It can convey strong emotions from happiness to attitude. To create a great portrait you need a really good rapport with your sitter using "soft" people skills. You also need to know how to get the best poses from sitter(s). You will learn how to compose group shots for more interesting images.

The Headshot


We'll start with the classic headshot, maybe for a business shot, or a school year book, or just a pleasant portrait of an individual.

You will need to get the combination of lighting, camera settings, pose and expression right.

Standard Lighting Setups



Single Light Setup


With a single light source have it positioned so it is 30-45 degrees in front and to one side of the subject and 30-45 degrees above the subjects head. Ideally you want a soft light source, if you are using flash then use an umbrella or softbox (covered in the studio section).

In particular you want to make sure there is light in the eyes - a catchlight - that little sparkle. If there is no catchlight then the eyes will look dead. The catchlight should be around the 10 o'clock or 2 o'clock position. Move the light upwards until the catchlight disappears, then drop it down slightly so it re-appears.

Two Light Setup


With two lights, set up the first as above, then the second should go behind the subject opposite to the main light.  This gives a nice shine of light across the hair and shoulders.  This light should not really shine onto the face.



With a reflector you can use one or two lights. The reflector should be positioned in front of the subject on the opposite side to the main light. Its purpose is to bounce light back into the shadow areas to reduce contrast and stop the face looking "heavy".

Interactive Example


Use the slider to move the light position.
Notice that when the light is off-centre and to the front it gives the most interesting yet useful light.
The direct light is too flat - like a passport photo.
The rear lights would more often be used as hair or rim lights with an additional light in front.

Portrait Lighting Setups


Focal Length


The image on the left is shot with a 24mm wide angle lens.  Looks awful (and probably reminds you of camera phone shots).  
The image on the right is shot with a 100mm lens and looks correctly proportioned with no distortion.
Use a focal length of 100mm for the most flattering look.  You can go down to about 70mm but not shorter.  You can go up to about 120mm.   You want an aperture of around f/11 to get a good depth of field for a clean headshot.   For a more artistic look use a wider aperture to throw the background out of focus.  For groups use a smaller aperture (f/22) to keep everyone in focus.

Focus throughout has to be always on the eyes. If you are using auto-focus then the centre point will often be the end of the nose. Either select a different focus point or focus and recompose. If the eyes are not sharp you do not have a picture.

Posing for Women


Start at the feet and work upwards.  The feet should be at 90 degrees away from the camera, in other words the starting point is you are seeing the side of your subject.  Then get them to turn their shoulders back to you.   Give a little kick to the hip by pulling the weight onto one leg.
This gives an overall slimming effect by reducing the width of the shoulders and also lets you see feminine curves around the bust and hips.
Ask for a smile and shoot.

FAIL!  You can see there is a smile here, but you can also see it is clearly fake.
Ok, maybe that smile didn't quite work. The whole key to the smile is that it starts in the mind and works its way out to the mouth and eyes. So, keep smiling and laughing with your sitter. Give them something to think about that makes them smile. Often just saying "that's a fake smile" will bring out a real one. Once they've found the smile ask them to remember how that feels in their mind so they can do it again.

All the time you keep smiling and laughing with them, the more they relax into being happy with you the more natural the smile and the pose will be.

Posing for Men


For a man the pose is a little different.  Starting at the feet have the man face straight towards you with the feet apart.  The shoulders should be square and strong, but not hunched or dropped.  Men have a much harder time smiling in my experience, so a more subtle smile might be more appropriate for a male headshot.

With both men and women when shooting any crop that does not include the hips get them to lean towards the camera a little. This is basic psychology, you lean towards someone who is interesting, so the viewer will subconsciously feel that interest when viewing the picture.

Where to Crop a Portrait


For a portrait, the tighter the crop the better the image.  But you may need to crop at many different positions depending on the situation, the requirement and the clothes.
Try to crop the image so that the eyes always remain one third of the distance from the top.
Portrait photographs tend to be better as an 8 x 10 inches or 4 to 5 ratios.

For a portrait with more of the body you need to aim to crop mid-joint.   Cropping close to the joints makes them look amputated.   
Never crop off the ends of fingers or toes.
Longer shots tend to be better as an 8 x 12 inch print or 2 to 3 ratio.   The person will fill the frame better.

Posing Couples


Use both the poses above and just join them together. The man faces direct to camera, feet apart. The woman turns her body towards the man and turns the face back to camera. They need to put their arms around the back at waist level (don't let fingers sneak up on the shoulders).

If the couple are sitting, don't sit them side by side, this will create an awkward separation.  Try sitting them in opposite directions (love seat style) so they can cuddle up together.
Ideally you want the woman's eyes to be level with man's mouth.  This gives a nice composition, gives the fella a little extra height and can bring the heads close in together.  If there is a big height difference it stops it looking like heads stacked on a totem pole.

Posing Groups


The usual group photo is a bunch of heads all in a line - I call this the "Usual Suspects".   Instead you want to try to arrange the heads in a triangular or circular layout.   This keeps the eye tracking around the picture looking from head to head - instead of awkwardly moving from side to side.   It will also fill the frame in a much nicer way.

The relative positions of people in the group are important and should to some extent reflect the relationship of the individuals.  So Grandma and Granddad would be in the centre, Mum and Dad on the sides, children below them.  With Mum and Dad and several children, the parents should be together and central.  Just Mum and Dad and single child then the child can come between them to be nurtured by both.

Candid Photography


Candids are much more natural in their look.  They are taken when the subject is either unaware of the camera or has forgotten about it.   There is nothing more lovely than a candid photograph of a child at play, completely engrossed in their playtime fantasy.

Lost in conversation with each other.
© John Wilkinson

The trick is to keep the camera out all the time, shooting away, even when you don't think you're getting good shots.  After a while your subject(s), be they children or adults, will stop taking notice of you.   You want a longer lens (100mm is good, 200mm can be better) so you don't have to poke the camera right into their face to get the shot.

Candid shots often suffer because of distracting backgrounds, so use a wider aperture (f/4 or less) to make the background go out of focus. Your focussing must still be on the eyes.

If you can, position yourself so the subject has their back to the light.  You want to be shooting into the light.  This is very flattering and also eliminates background distraction.  Don't let the back light cause the face to fall into deep shadow though.  Use fill-in flash or a reflector if you need to.
If you are shooting people in conversation then wait for a smile.  Someone talking will appear to be pulling faces, but a happy smile in response to someone else's words will look very natural.

Shooting Children


Children can be very awkward posers.  Children go through a phase from about 3 to 6 years old where they are incapable of pulling off a natural smile - instead you get some weird grimace.   Natural and candid shots of children are always the best.
Keep the children out of "photography" mode; give them a game or activity to play at.  Something much more interesting that you and your camera.   Set up the game in a way that gives you good lighting and bring the child to the game rather than the other way round.
Shoot quickly, emotions and moments are fleeting with children.  Take a lot of shots, the more you shoot the "luckier" you will get and the child will become less aware of the camera.
You can't force a child to enjoy themselves.  If the moment is not happening then move on.

Shooting Babies


Babies can be pretty easy to shoot; they have no awareness of the camera and don't get self-conscious at all.   Furthermore, everyone looks at a baby photograph and goes "aaaah, bless".
But that should not be an excuse for laziness and not getting the best from your baby shots.

Firstly, don't let a sleeping baby put you off.  You can get some great images of sleeping babies.  If you catch them at the right time of their sleep and go gently you can do quite a bit of manual posing with them without waking them up.

You will find that a baby in sitting position will be very hunched and squashed.  They cannot support themselves yet.  So the baby sitting on the lap is a difficult shot.  The parents need to support the baby and help them hang long.

Better is to shoot the baby lying down. Find a nice floor, whether it is a textured wooden floor or lovely carpet and shoot downwards towards the child. Babies are pretty relaxed about lying on their backs on almost any kind of surface, but don't let them roll off a table!

As a baby gets a little older you can roll them on their tummies so they can lift their heads. Younger babies can only do this for a short while so you need to be quick.

Camera Height and Portraits


If you are shooting a headshot - or anything from chest upwards - then the camera height should be level with the eyes. True whether shooting adults, children or babies. For women you may want the camera just a little higher than the eyes. For men you may want to be just slightly lower.

Using the distortion from a wide angle lens can be fun - but it should be deliberate.
For longer shots where the hips to feet are showing then you want to be more at chest height. This keeps the body in proportion. As soon as you start shooting at high or low angles to the body then you will start to give a visual distortion to the person. This can be used to good artistic effect. Looking down using a wide angle gives a fun "large head small feet" look.

Shooting from foot level upward is a common fashion trick and makes legs look really long.



Find somebody to photograph.
You can choose one person or many.
You can choose a male, female, child or adult.
Some things you might want to photograph:
1) Your partner
2) Your family
3) Your best friend
4) Your work colleagues
5) Friends at a club
6) Young children
If you know other photographers, get together to shoot each other.   Photographers often have no pictures of themselves.