BetterPhoto Q&A
Category: New Questions

Photography Question 
Kirstie Goodman

Portrait Photography: The Basics!

I have several questions that I would like to ask...
1) What camera setting do you typically use to shoot portraits? Do you use Aperture Priority, Manual, Auto but in Portrait mode, Program... you get my drift. I will be shooting my 1-year-old mostly.
2) What is the typical lens that you use? Again, I know that this varies by photographer, but again just curious.
Thanks for all responses in advance.

To love this question, log in above
4/22/2006 1:30:01 PM

Bob Fately   Hi, Kirstie,
Well, the thing about portraits is usually you want to keep the subject in sharp focus and any distrations in the background blurred - this implies using a fast lens speed (a low f-stop number), which in turn means you would probably want to shoot in aperture priority mode so you can set the f-stop and let the camera worry about shutter speed. Of course, you just want to keep an eye on the shutter speed so it doesn't get too slow...
As for lens, this obviously depends a lot on your shooting style, but the most commonly used lens for "head and shoulder" type shots is the short telephoto. In the 35MM film world, this would be the 85MM to maybe 135MM lens (85 and 105 most common). In DSLR land, you should take into account the "crop factor" of the camera itself, so if you have, say, a Nikon DSLR with a 1.5 crop factor, then a 50MM lens effectively behaves like a 75MM lens, and could be just right.
The reason these focal lengths are popular is because they allow you to be a comfortable distance from the subject (about 6-8 feet, typically) and they offer a pleasing perspective as far as facial features are concerned. While you could certainly use a 400MM lens from 30 feet away, you may notice the face becomes too "flattened" looking. If you choose to use an 18MM lens but still fill the frame with the face, then you'd need to be pretty close and the nose would become exaggerated compared to the cheeks.
So, try a short telephoto. You can, of course, use a zoom, but if you use a prime (non-zoom) lens, you could probably get a faster lens to better decrease the depth of field I described above.

To love this comment, log in above
4/22/2006 3:00:56 PM

Alan N. Marcus   So you want to shoot portraits:
The biggest mistake is using a lens that is too short. With a 35mm camera, the accepted minimum is 105mm. Longer will do just fine. Shorter is OK provided the photographer can overcome a tendency to work in too close. Allow me to explain:
Things close to the camera reproduce large and things far from the camera reproduce small. This effect is normal and to be expected but becomes exaggerated when a wide-angle (short focal length) lens is used, particularly for portraiture. The result is more of a caricature as the whole face becomes distorted, nose too big and ears too small.
The same effect, but less pronounced, happens when a 35mm camera equipped with a normal 50mm lens is used for portraiture. In this case, the nose is microscopically too large and ears a tiny bit too small. Most times, the subject examines the proofs and exclaims, "That’s not me, I don’t photograph well". This is because they are seeing themselves differently than they visualize – kind of like the first time you hear your own voice on a tape recorder. People, particularly women, spend a lot of time at the makeup mirror. This mirror view is their yardstick. To satisfy, and sell portraits, this is the perspective you must duplicate. With a 35mm camera, this perspective is best duplicated using a 105mm focal length lens or longer.
The 105mm is twice (2x) longer than normal lens and it forces the photographer to step back and get further away from the subject when composing the portrait. It is this extra subject-to-camera distance that does the trick. That is why most authorities recommend a 105mm for portraiture. Actually, if you force yourself to step back when using a short lens, you will avoid the error. Technically, the distance span nose to ears becomes less by ratio as the camera to subject distance increases. If you step back, the results yield a head size that is too small but with a more desirable prospective. One must then crop off the excess background to achieve a good looking portrait.
Note that the normal lens for a camera is about the diagonal measure of the film or chip. The diagonal measure of the 35mm frame is about 50mm as the frame is 24mm x 36mm. The 105mm lens is about 2 times this diagonal measure. For other formats, the 2x rule is a good one to know. Use a lens 2x greater than the diagonal measure of the film or chip for portraiture.
As to camera settings:
Always focus on the eyes. As for aperture, use one or two stops down from the largest opening. You want shallow depth-of-field, so use aperture priority. You want the ears just out of focus. Shutter speed falls where it must for accurate exposure.

To love this comment, log in above
4/23/2006 8:05:58 PM

Debby A. Tabb
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/4/2004
  Good morning, Kirstie,
I want to invite you to look up the Studio Photography thread - there are 20 parts but the first 4 alone will give you so much information on Portrait Photography. Here's the link:
Wishing you the best of luck,

To love this comment, log in above
4/24/2006 6:12:35 AM

Robyn Gwilt
BetterPhoto Member Since: 7/15/2005
  Alan and co - good info here - what happens though when you've a couple sitting together? Who do you focus on, using a shallow depth of field, so that the other is not out of focus? Or do you focus lock on the one's eyes, and then shift the camera to the other one to recompose the pic? Very often, if you're not concentrating, you tend to focus in the MIDDLE of the two of them, and then the whole dam thing is out of focus!! What would you say a good aperture would be - I have a F2.8-4.5 lens. THanks all.

To love this comment, log in above
4/24/2006 1:14:17 PM

Alan N. Marcus   So you want to take a multiple subject portrait? Worried that your depth-of-field will not carry? OK, here are the countermeasures.

1. Depth-of-field extends 1/3 forward and 2/3 behind the point focused upon. Stated another way, the distant object is more likely to be sharp. The problem is the closer subject. Armed with this knowledge, how about requesting the farthest subject hold up a focus target (hand will do) midway between near and far and then move the target forward (towards the camera) a smidgen.
2. Or, stop down one click for more depth-of-field.
3. Or, step back, depth-of-field is a function of distance. A little smaller head size gets a lot more depth-of-field.
4. Or, use a shorter lens for more depth-of-field.

Odds are, you are worried about nothing.

When eating the watermelon and encountering the seeds just spit them out and keep on chomping.

To love this comment, log in above
4/24/2006 8:43:17 PM

Robyn Gwilt
BetterPhoto Member Since: 7/15/2005
  THanks Alan, but when taking more impromptu shots - especially of teenagers, who you don't really want looking at the camera, as they then pose with fake smiles (!) would you suggest focus lock on one and then re-compose.

To love this comment, log in above
4/24/2006 10:08:35 PM

Alan N. Marcus   Focus lock is OK!
Just set your focus point a little forward of the mid point between far and rear subject. Also, keep in mind that the subject plain is a curve. Take a look at the theater screen, next trip to the cinema. The curved screen maintains a uniform screen to lens distance otherwise the edges of the projected image would be further away from the projector than the center. Sometimes you can pose your subjects along a curved line. This is great advice for a group shot. Such an arrangement minimizes depth-of-field uncertainties.

I think you are worrying too much. Sometimes you got to just do it. Experience is the best teacher. You need to know I was a photo engineer 50+ years (now retired) and not a photographer. I did teach for many summers at the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) School in Wynona Indiana. I taught color print and process however, I sat in a lot on the great portrait teacher’s classes. My approach is mainly scientific. I think about the problems and I think I was a good teacher. Now I don’t have anyone to mentor so you guys are elected.

Photography is both an art and a science. The science is easy; the art requires special people like you. My motto is from Isaac Newton’s writings “If I can see further than other men, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants.

Alan Marcus

To love this comment, log in above
4/24/2006 11:13:47 PM

Kirstie Goodman   Thanks to everyone for the resonses to this thread.
Alan-great tips and info exactly what I needed.
Debby-thanks for the link to the thread.I will definitely be checking it out.
Robyn-thanks for asking the questions I hadn't thought about.

And thanks again Alan for answering them.
I am sure none of us mind if you mentor us. In fact, thanks for doing so.

To love this comment, log in above
4/25/2006 4:38:42 AM

Robyn Gwilt
BetterPhoto Member Since: 7/15/2005
  Ditto Kirsties comments . Thanks for all the help, and Alan, we'll quite happily be mentored, so keep it coming! One more question, I'm thinking of investing in a Canon 70-200 F2.8 IS USM, (it seems there is NO substitute for good 'glass'.) Is this a lens I could use for portraiture and group pix, or would I stil need to swop lenses (bearing in mind I have the Sigma 17-70?) The IS really appeals to me, as I think my 'takes' are pretty much ok in that I often capture the moment/look/feeling/good angle, but then bugger it up with camera movement!! If it means that 9/10 are keepers, it also reduced the amount of time spent in PS?

To love this comment, log in above
4/25/2006 5:41:14 AM

Alan N. Marcus   Looking at your web site (your doing OK) I concluded your camera features a sensor with the following dimensions:
14.8mm H x 22.2mm L. 26.7mm Diagonal measure (correct me if I am wrong).

It is commonly accepted that the normal lens should closely match the diagonal measure. This gives a diagonal filed of view of 53°, said to match the human eye. I hate underhanded facts, like buying a 36 inch TV and finding out that number quoted the diagonal measure. If you set your zoom to 26.7mm you get the promised 53° diagonal field of view, more informative is the horizontal angle will be 45°.

For portraiture it is commonly accepted that you should use a lens twice the diagonal measure. Stated another way, to deliver an image that approximates what is considered the “bread-an-butter” prospective (sells best), use a lens (with your chip) no shorter than 55mm.

Both the Canon and the Sigma fulfill this requirement. For portraiture you don’t need a hard sharp lens. No harm, however, if the lens is razor sharp, software is available to solve all these issues. I can’t tell you how many time I wished for IS (image stability) when this technology wasn’t even a dream. You must mull over cost vs. need. Size and compactness is also an issue. Remember, the camera is just a tool. Don’t fall in love with the tools. A Pulitzer Prize photo was achieved by a press photographer with a brownie box camera purchased in desperation from a spectator when his elegant press camera ran out of film.

When selling photos, stick to the customary, when dreaming up art, follow your heart.

Alan Marcus

To love this comment, log in above
4/25/2006 10:04:27 AM

Robyn Gwilt
BetterPhoto Member Since: 7/15/2005
  Whew, thanks (I think!!) Alan - need to digest this :) I was considering the Canon with IS also because living in South Africa, I love the bush/birds and wildlife and was very disappointed with pix taken using my 28-300 Sigma. We were either hiking 5 hours a day through the bush, or 8 up in a Land Rover, and any tiny movement was magnified, as a result I lost some stunning pix, so I need to know that I won't be wasting my money, and I can use it indoors (weddings, kids concerts) and outdoors - wildlife etc. Your info is amazing. Thanks

To love this comment, log in above
4/25/2006 11:05:00 AM

Log in to respond or ask your own question.