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  • Mar

    portrait photography

    by Chad Neuman

    Portrait photography is an exciting and growing area of visual communication. Businesses hire portrait photographers to take photos for advertisements, promotional brochures, annual reports, and web sites. Individuals hire portrait photographers to capture the personalities of their families and friends in a visual format. Even news publications need portraits occasionally for editorial profiles. I spoke with four professional portrait photographers to get their take on these key areas of portrait photography:

    -Camera and Lens
    -Using a Flash
    -ISO and Aperture Settings
    -Shooting Locations and Times of Day
    -Using Props
    -Photoshop Post-Production
    -Working with Subjects

    brianna moore photography
    © Brianna Moore Photography

    Camera and Lens
    Different photographers prefer different brands or models of cameras, and there are plenty to choose from. “My favorite camera to use is my Canon 7D for both indoor and outdoor portraits,” says Brianna Moore, a Gloucester, Massachusetts-based photographer. “I also use my Canon 40D and am starting to get back into using the collection of vintage cameras I have. I want to utilize the love of film’s uniqueness and developing process that got me so into the art of photography to begin with.”

    “I love my Canon 5D Mark II,” says Dave Lapham, a photographer based out of Nashville, Tennessee. “It just provides an incredible image right out of the camera. The ISO performance on the camera is also amazing. I can shoot outdoors with little light and still capture a great image.”

    Chad Ainsworth, a photographer based in Haymarket, Virginia, prefers the Canon 5D Mark II for its full-frame capacity. “Once I went full-frame, photos from a crop-sensor camera just didn’t look the same to me anymore,” says Ainsworth. “Full-frame really is worth the jump for three reasons: (1) unparalleled low-light performance, (2) much better dynamic range when shooting RAW, (3) most importantly, a 50mm lens produces an image that looks like a 50mm lens shot it . . . No crop-factors to worry about, which results in shallower depth of field and sharper images.”

    dave lapham photography
    © Dave Lapham Photography

    Monika Manowska, a lifestyle and portrait photographer based in Spain, also uses the Canon 5D Mark II and she loves it for the use of high ISO. Lenses offer even more variety. Lapham’s favorite lens for portraits is the 35mm 1.4L. “Hands down . . . I could shoot an entire wedding with this beauty,” says Lapham. “It is wide enough that you can capture of a lot of details yet intimate enough so you can feel the emotions of the picture.”

    For portraits, Moore has was she calls two “go-to lenses”: a Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens and a Canon 17-85mm f/4-5.6 lens. “When shooting from further distances, I also love using my Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lens,” says Moore. “I enjoy the broader depth of field my 50mm and the Tamron macro zoom lenses allow.”

    Ainsworth’s favorite lens for portraits is the Canon 85mm f1.2L USM prime lens. “I only use primes for everything other than ultrawide purposes (I have the Canon 17-40mm f4L USM zoom for that),” says Ainsworth. “The 85mm is built for one purpose: shooting portraits of subjects that aren’t moving very much with very shallow focus at f1.2. You buy this lens to shoot at f1.2 all the time cause it’s so good at producing super sharp images with extremely shallow depth of field. It does the job of posed portraits very well (better than anything else out there in my opinion), but is not good at action, or landscapes, or even headshots (my 135mm f2L USM is better for that).”

    Manowska’s favorite lenses for shooting portraits are the Canon 85mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.2.

    brianna moore photography
    © Brianna Moore Photography

    Using a Flash
    Opinions are varied on using a flash. While it is essential for those instances where the light is so low that a higher ISO, slower shutter speed, or wide open aperture won’t help, it can be used other times as well, such as opening up shadows outside or bouncing the flash off walls for a more subtle effect. When shadows are too harsh in bright outdoor settings, Moore uses a flash to balance out the light. When indoor settings are too dark, she bounces the light and uses diffusers so that the flash isn’t overpowering. She considers it a good rule of thumb in situations when she’s not sure whether to use a flash: “I take test shots with and without the flash to see which works better. I use a Canon Speedlite 580EX II.”

    “I only use flash for commercial work (editorial portraits, musician album artwork, etc.) because it looks too posed and too, well, commercial,” says Ainsworth. “For something like an intimate engagement shoot, natural light works best because it’s not distracting to the raw emotions of the couple, which are exactly what I’m trying to capture.”

    “I honestly hate flash, so if I don’t have use it, I don’t,” says Manowska. “But when it comes to dark places or late evenings at a wedding, well then, yes, I like to play with it although using it on slow shutter.”

    dave lapham photography
    © Dave Lapham Photography

    ISO and Aperture Settings
    Different photographers prefer a few varying modes of shooting. “I shoot mostly under P [Program] or M [Manual] settings,” says Moore. “For indoor I usually set the aperture to as big as it will go, i.e., f/4 or f/2.8, and set the shutter speed to around 1/60. If need be, I use my external flash and bounce the light. The ISO can go anywhere from 200-400 depending on how bright the space is, but I try to keep the ISO low so there’s less grain/noise.”

    “On a sunny day, I’ll set the aperture to f/16 and keep the ISO low at 100 or so,” says Moore. “On a cloudy day or in the shade I’ll use f/8 instead.”

    Monika Manowska Photography
    © Monika Manowska Photography

    “For outdoor, I’m on AV [Aperture Priority] with an ISO of 200,” says Lapham. “I also shoot on the lowest aperture available. Once I get a good shot with the lighting, I’m back to manual and shoot until the lighting changes. When indoors, I set the ISO as low as I can and keep the aperture low. I can usually get away with the shutter speed getting down to around 1/40 without it getting blurry.”

    For indoor portraits, Ainsworth never shoots with a shutter speed lower than the current focal length of the lens he’s using. “For instance, if I’m shooting with my 135mm prime, 1/160 is the lowest shutter speed I’ll use to prevent motion blur from camera shake,” says Ainsworth. “It’s a general rule of thumb that works for any lens at any focal length (1/50 or higher for a 50mm lens is another example). ISO will vary heavily (never above ISO 4000 though), and I always shoot at f/2 or faster… usually at f/1.2 if possible.”

    “Outdoors is pretty much always ISO 50, f/1.2 if possible (the L lenses I have are built to be used wide open like that, even out in bright sunlight), and shutter speed will vary,” says Ainsworth. “I’m a fanatic of high aperture, so if possible I will use f/1.4 but to be sure it gets right, about f/2,” says Manowska.

    Monika Manowska Photography
    © Monika Manowska Photography

    Shooting Locations and Times of Day
    Finding a good location for an outdoor portrait shot is essential, and shooting at different times of the day will have different outcomes. “I’m lucky to live on the beautiful north shore of Massachusetts, where it’s hard not to find perfect outdoor locations,” says Moore. “I do try to match the location with someone’s personality. That can be hard to define on paper, but it’s pretty straightforward. If the portrait is quirky or fun, they might want to be shot next to some ruins. If this is a professional shoot, the shoreline with just the blue sky might work better.”

    “I also look for how much shade there is, possible lighting issues (Is there water or glass that could reflect sunlight at the wrong time of day? Are there busy backgrounds that could clash with the subject’s clothes?), and any distractions that might be present,” says Moore. “A shoreline might sound perfect for a lawyer’s portrait, but if it’s perpetually crowded with kids, it won’t work. The time of year (seasonal) and time of day (lighting) also play factors into choosing the perfect location.”

    Lapham always scouts out a location before doing a portrait shoot. “The first thing I’m looking for is interesting scenery and where the sun will be setting,” says Lapham. “I love to have cool looking trees and open fields so I’m usually searching on random back roads for the perfect location. I’m also looking at the variety that the location offers. Can I get a full shoot out of the location? Is there only one spot that I love? That kind of stuff. Basically, as long as there are trees and fields, I’m happy.”

    chad ainsworth photography
    © Chad Ainsworth Photography

    “It depends of the shoot, but I really love the beach, the space and a romantic spot on a hill with some lovely trees,” says Manowska. Ainsworth finds a few good spots and uses them for various shoots. “If the client(s) don’t have a location of their own picked out (and they usually don’t), I’ll use one of three locations I always use,” says Ainsworth. “I’ll just shoot their photos from different angles and whatnot to create the illusion that it’s a different location than what I’ve used before.” When shooting outside, Lapham either shoots at sunrise or sunset: “Both offer an incredible glow that you can’t capture when the sun is overhead. If the sun is too harsh, I will just wait until it sets a little more. I would rather shoot in the shade, but if I have to shoot in direct sunlight, I make sure that I’m backlighting my subjects.”

    “I’m a big fan of shooting in natural light,” says Moore. “Late afternoon/early evening is my favorite time of day to shoot because the sun has a beautiful soft glow, heading into sunset. I often find that shooting in the shade works better than shooting in direct sunlight, especially when it’s midday. When it’s too bright, people tend to squint, and the shadows on their faces are too harsh. Shooting in the shade helps soften the light, so I utilize shaded areas quite often.”

    “I do use shade a lot, says Manowska. He admits that not all people are available to shoot at the perfect time, which for her is one hour before the sunset. When using just natural light, Ainsworth prefers the magic hour of before and after sunrise and sunset: “just after sunset is by far my favorite!”

    Monika Manowska Photography
    © Monika Manowska Photography

    Using Props
    Sometimes props can add personality to a portrait. “I love using props, as you can see from some of my example portraits,” says Moore. “I love bringing out the uniqueness of couples’ and children’ s personalities through props that fit them individually. Using props can also make your client feel more comfortable in whatever setting you’re shooting. Most importantly, props let them have fun. Forced smiles never look as good as real, natural laughter. The best way to make your client look natural is to get them at ease and help them have fun.”

    According to Lapham, you have to be careful with props: “I think a lot of photographers go over the top with props. It has to be done if a very tasteful manner. I usually only use props if there is a stylist there though. “I love using props that the couples bring to give their photos even more personality,” says Ainsworth. “I really just look for a good portrait where the model can be relaxed and trust me. Sometimes using props helps,” says Manowska.

    Chad Ainsworth Photography
    © Chad Ainsworth Photography

    Photoshop Workflow
    Photographers often use a variety of post-production workflows, including using Adobe Photoshop to adjust levels, lighting, color, or other settings before sending the photos to their clients or uploading to their portfolios. Moore goes through a couple rounds of editing. “First, I sift out any error shots (people closing their eyes, making weird faces, etc.),” says Moore. “Then I go back through and deal with light balance and color balance. I next move on to more in-depth changes and edits, like correcting blemishes, removing unwanted marks (whether it be on clothing or a distraction in the background), and making sure the horizon is straight. Then I go through one last time to make sure there aren’t any edits that I overlooked/missed.”

    Lapham uses Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop as well as Apple’s Aperture: “I love each tool for different reasons. Each one of them does something better than the others. I always edit ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) after putting the images through the first two stages [Lightroom then Aperture].”

    “I import all the photos into Apple Aperture 3 on my MacBook Pro, organize all the shots, trash the unusable ones, and apply a subtle preset I’ve developed over the years that fits what I like, tweak any other things that need it manually, then export the photos as JPEGs with 100% size and quality,” says Ainsworth. “I give those to the clients, but the ones I upload to my photoblog I import into Photoshop and apply these customizable actions I found at (resizes them to 900 pixels wide, sharpens them for being viewed online, and places a white border around the frame of the photos with your logo embedded in the border- all automatically, so it saves a lot of time).”

    Manowska uses Lightroom and then later edits them in Photoshop, depending on the feel of the photos. Sometimes all she does is convert them to black-and-white, while other times she may enhance the color.

    Chad Ainsworth Photography
    © Chad Ainsworth Photography

    Working with Subjects
    For portrait photographers, establishing trust and rapport with the models is key. According to Moore, besides using props, setting is also important (quirky vs. professional, natural vs. urban). “I like to let people pick out their own clothes for a shoot, but don’t be afraid to make suggestions,” says Moore. “And most importantly, be personable. The best way to make someone look natural, is to have them be natural. Make them comfortable, let them be themselves, and their personalities will come through.”

    “Try to create a story with your photo,” says Lapham. “I learned this little trick from a friend of mine and it really helps. Come up with the look in your mind then create it in the camera. It is simple thing that takes patience and a little bit of creativity. Anyone can do it; you just have think how you would tell this story.”

    “I would recommend conveying the subject’s personality in the photos by provoking laughter while they’re in front of the camera,” says Ainsworth. “Props help too. Just don’t impose a fake personality in your photos that doesn’t represent your client’s personality.”

    Dave Lapham Photography
    © Dave Lapham Photography

    “I try to see and notice a special characteristic in the face. If it’s eyes or lips or a special way of looking at me. You want to bring out the special feature the person has,” says Manowska.
    “I always want to show the eyes,” says Manowska. “The eyes are the door to the soul. I think you need to make some connection with the model; let it take some time. Make them feel comfortable, sometimes it will take five minutes sometimes thirty. I believe finding a style is just to do photography over and over and learn from your mistakes, and don’t listen so much to the crowds on internet at different forums. Do listen if it’s constructive criticism, but be true to yourself and follow your heart.”

    Check out their portfolios:

    Chad AinsworthMonika ManowskaDave LaphamBrianna Moore

    Photoshop Tutorials and Tips is a Photoshop Tutorials web site, Photoshop Tutorials YouTube channel, and Photoshop Tutorials Facebook page that features original tutorials in video and text/photo format on Adobe Photoshop as well as InDesign, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, and photography.

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