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Updated: Perfect portrait photography

Updated: Perfect portrait photography


Portraiture is the genre that keeps on giving as there are always new skills to learn, new faces to shoot and new looks to achieve.

Our guide takes you through setting up your camera for moving subjects, lighting for both inside and outside portraits, editing and much more.

Portrait headshot

1. Master the headshot

From the neck down, one person may be indistinguishable from another. It’s what’s up top that marks us all out as individuals. Our faces are our most expressive feature; a good headshot should celebrate this.

Compared to some kinds of portrait, the humble headshot might seem a tad rudimentary. But there’s an art to getting it right, and it’s an important feather in any portrait photographer’s bow.

In some ways a headshot is a simple thing: you needn’t think too much about composition or the background, as the head dominates the frame. But simplicity brings its own challenges, as it means you need to get the basics of lighting, depth of field and focal length absolutely spot-on. There’s nowhere to hide with a headshot.

However, the technicals are secondary here. More importantly, we need to coax something interesting out of our subject…

Portrait depth of field

Headshots: Depth of field

Wide apertures restrict depth of field and lead to blurred backgrounds – but how wide do you need to go? Here, the difference between f/2 (on the left) and f/5.6 (on the right) is just enough to blur the distracting background. You might think f/5.6 – the typical maximum aperture of a standard kit zoom – is fairly wide, but for beautiful blur it’s often not wide enough. As such, a prime lens with a wide maximum aperture like f/2 can prove useful for portraits.

Lighting headshot

Headshots: Lighting

If you’re using natural light, a window or shady spot is ideal for headshots. However, a flash kit will give pro results. A home studio kit is ideal, along with a plain wall or white sheet for the background. For a simple, attractive ‘clamshell’ lighting design, position one light (ideally fitted with a softbox or umbrella) above the face and camera, with a reflector held below the chin to bounce light back upwards. If you’re using a second light, direct it onto the backdrop.

Headshots exposure

Headshots: Exposure settings

When the subject is moving (as people almost always are), you’re restricted to faster shutter speeds. Here’s a good stock setting for outdoor headshots: set Manual mode, Auto ISO with shutter speed at 1/250 sec and the aperture at its widest setting, such as f/4. With flash, use a similar setting but with ISO 100. Take test shots to work out the best pairing of aperture and flash power.

Headshots posing

Headshots: Posing the head

Even small adjustments can have a big impact on the look of the face. All subjects are different, but in general a slightly side-on stance works well. As you can see here, asking the subject to roll back their shoulders and push their head forwards slightly will tighten the skin and reduce double-chins. Camera height is important too: having the camera level with the eyes creates a strong connection. As with any portrait, it’s vital to put the subject at ease, so chat to them as you shoot, perhaps put some music on to help them relax and, vitally, offer lots of encouragement.

Natural light

2. Natural light

When you’re starting out, there’s no need to go out and buy a host of expensive lighting gear when you already have a source of free light that offers endless variety. Direct from the sun, light can be a bit harsh, but when diffused through clouds, or bounced off different surfaces it can take on all kinds of wonderful qualities. Then there’s the fact that it moves position and colour throughout the day, from warm and low in the morning to cool and overhead at midday, then back again. The great advantage you have with portraiture is a movable subject, so you can place them where the light looks best.

Portrait reflector

Natural light: Reflectors

Light, inexpensive and hugely versatile, a simple reflector is one of the most important items in the portrait photographer’s kit bag. It acts almost like a secondary light source by letting you bounce light into shadows on the face. Here you can see the difference it makes: with the sunlight coming from behind, the reflector helps to bounce light back towards the face, evening out the contrast and adding catchlights in the eyes for a punchier, more saturated portrait (right).

Window light portrait

Natural light: Window light

Window light offers soft, directional illumination that can fall beautifully over a face. North-facing windows are best (north of the equator) as they don’t see direct sunlight. Try having the subject side-on (perhaps with a reflector to bounce light into the shadow side), or shoot with their back to the window and expose for the shadows for a high-key feel.

Portrait contrast

Natural light: Seek contrast

In most good portraits, the subject stands out from the background. One way to do this when shooting outdoors is to look for contrasting lighting between the subject and backdrop, either by having the subject in shade with a bright patch behind like this, or finding a spot where the light falling on them is brighter than the backdrop, like a doorway.

Portrait avoid sunlight

Natural light: Avoid sunlight

When the sun is out, you may think it’s the ideal time to go out and shoot portraits. But sunlight can be unkind on faces. This is because light that comes from a small source is harsh, like a bare bulb; and while the sun is huge, for us it’s a small spot in a big sky. So avoid direct sunlight. It casts shadows of the nose across the face, shows up spots and makes subjects squint.

Portrait shade

Natural light: Look for shade

A cloudy sky or spot of shade is much better for portraiture than direct sunlight. In the shade, the light is far softer. It’s also less strong, which might mean increasing ISO, but that’s a worthwhile compromise for flattering light. If there’s no cloud, look for a spot in the shade of a tree or wall. Alternatively, shade the subject with your reflector.

Using flash

Off-camera flash

3. Using off-camera flash

When you shoot portraits purely with natural light, you’re usually restricted to one ‘correct’ exposure. But when you start to mix natural light with flash, then you can manipulate the exposure to suit your artistic means.

Any time that you work with two different light sources, the key is all about the ratio between the two. You can’t control the power of the sun, for example, but you can change your speedlight power to alter the ratio between the two – as we’ve shown here by overpowering the midday sun for a dramatic moody portrait.

Notice how the boy’s hair has the look of a studio portrait with a nice hair light to bring out detail and texture. But this is in fact sunlight. Posed with his back to the sun, the natural light hits his hair, making it shine. By underexposing the shot for natural light, we effectively transform the sun into our secondary light source. Then we simply lift the face with our flash. Here’s how you can achieve similar results in just a few steps, with the help of an off-camera flashgun and the sun…

Step 1: Set up

All you need for this is a speedlight fixed to a stand with a silver umbrella attached, plus an ND filter and a means of triggering the flash off-camera, like radio triggers, a sync lead or your camera’s wireless flash system. (We used Nikon’s commander mode with the SB-900 here). Direct the speedlight into a silver umbrella for soft, diffuse light.


Step 2: Expose for ambient light

Don’t turn on the flash yet. Instead, set the camera to Manual mode and work out an exposure for the ambient light. If it’s very bright, start with ISO 100 and a shutter speed of 1/200 sec, then adjust the aperture in further shots until the face is correctly exposed. Here we had f/4. With his back to the sun, this correctly exposes the face but blows out the sky.


Step 3: Underexpose with filters

Next, underexpose the ambient light. You could do this by tightening the aperture, but then you’d also increase depth of field, and in this case you want it shallow to blur the background. So instead, add an ND filter and a polariser. The two filters combined block out about four stops of light, which makes the sky look better but leaves the face far too dark.


Step 4: Light the face

Now you can turn on your flash. On a sunny day you’ll be working at the power limits of most speedlights, so start in Manual at full (1/1) power, then reduce if necessary. We positioned our flash (bounced off our silver umbrella) directly above the face here (about a metre away), with a silver reflector placed on the ground to bounce light back up into the shadows.

Final face



4. Retouching

Love it or hate it, Photoshop has changed the way portraits are created – and it’s also changed the way we perceive portraiture as truthful or not. With a few skills, anyone can transform a portrait into whatever they please. But when you can get rid of every wrinkle, drop three dress sizes and remove every imperfection, the real skill is in knowing when to stop.

The art to good retouching is making subtle, almost imperceptible alterations. The three tricks explained here will help. First we’ll use two tools cherished by retouchers – Heal and Clone – to tidy up marks and spots. Then there’s a skin softening technique that works wonders, softening and smoothing out skin while still retaining the delicate skin texture that so many inferior methods obliterate. And finally is a useful trick for reducing eye bags that lets you lift dark tones without losing detail.

Professional retouchers might spend hours working up a single image, but thankfully, these tricks take much less time to achieve…

Tip 1: Heal and clone

Photoshop’s Spot Healing Brush lets you remove spots, blemishes and stray hairs by painting over them. Switch to the Clone Tool when you need to blend untidy patches or rough skin. Set the tool to 20% and Alt-click to sample a clean area nearby, then gradually clone over the problem area. Both tools can be set to ‘Sample All Layers’, so it’s best to use them on a new empty layer to preserve your original image. That way, you can change your mind later…

Heal and clone

Tip 2: Reduce bags

Add a Curves Adjustment Layer, then click on the Curves layer thumbnail to deselect the mask. Double-click the black point eyedropper in the Curves settings, then sample a clean skin tone. Click OK, then click over the dark eye bag. The shadow tones will change colour to match the first sampled tone. Now you simply mask it to cover just the bags. Highlight the mask thumbnail and press Ctrl/Cmd+I to invert, then paint with white over the eye bags.

Reduce bags

Tip 3: Soften skin

Duplicate the background layer then invert it with Ctrl/Cmd+I. Set the layer opacity to 50%, and change the Blend Mode from Normal to Linear Light: your image should now be grey. Go to Filter > Other > High Pass and set the Radius to around 9px. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and set it to around 3px. Finally, Alt-click the Add Mask icon for a full black mask, then paint white over the skin to reveal the softening effect.

Soften skin

Tip 4: Dodge and burn

Dodging and burning might seem more suited to landscape photography than portraits, but a little selective lighting and darkening can have a huge impact. Here’s one way to do it: Alt-click the new layer icon, set the Blend Mode to Overlay and tick the Fill With box, then paint white or black over the image.

More important than the method is where you dodge and burn. With a few subtle strokes, you can emphasise the contours in the face in much the same way as a make-up artist. In general, aim to lighten the centre of the forehead, the area below the eyes and the chin; then darken the hairline, below the cheekbones and underneath the chin.

Dodge and burn

Source: Techradar

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