Capturing great portraits has more to do with the setting than the subject does and there are dozens of ways to get the right setting. The right equipment is subjective and depends more on where you will be taking the picture.
For example, a beautiful outdoor portrait can be achieved with a good background, an on camera flash, and a couple of reflectors. A great indoor portrait requires more equipment and the knowledge of where to put that equipment.
Las but not least, you need to be able to take control of the shoot and be comfortable giving your model/subject orders on how to stand, where to place their hands, which way to look, and numerous other variables.
Let us start with looking at the different types of equipment.
- The best focal length for portraits is arguable, but I have found 85mm to be around the best. However, unless you are using a professional, full-frame DSLR, you will be using a 50mm lens to get the same effect.
- This is because the frame of most DSLR cameras is cropped in to a factor of 1.6. What this means to someone with a 1.6-cropped frame, is that a 50mm lens acts like an 80mm lens.
- The other arguable point is the best focal length depends on your depth of field and your distance from your subject. Moving farther away from your subject, and zooming in with a telephoto lens, will make your subject appear thinner.
- An inexpensive, but very sharp lens, is the Canon 50mm f/1.8 ($105.00 on amazon.com). This lens is very sharp but is priced so low because the casing is made out of plastic.
- Reflectors are your friends outside when you have to combat shadows and do not have enough flashes to make it up.
- A collapsible 5-in-1 reflector is indispensable when in the field and they come various sizes. Impact has a 22” circular filter for $24.95 on bhphotovideo.com.
- If you will not have someone to help you, there are also a number of stands available to hold your reflector while you take pictures.
- It is best to have the reflector a good distance from your subject for two reasons. The first is they are incredibly bright to look at and the second is that moving them away from your subject will allow the light to cover them evenly.
- If you have never heard of this technique before you are still in the majority. The Strobist community is storming the world with their ideas of using multiple camera flashes, controlled by the camera, to create a studio lighting set in the field.
- As everything runs off batteries and wireless technology, you can literally activate any number of flashes as far out as your wireless unit will reach. For this process, you need a multiple number of flashes, along with a multiple number of receiving units, and a single transmitter.
- The flashes do not have to be expensive but keep in mind that less expensive flashes typically have longer recycling times. The only transmitter/receivers I would ever use are Pocket Wizard Plus II Transceiver/Radio Slaves ($169.00 each on bhphotovideo.com) as they provide great distance, are multi-channel, and work both as a transmitter or a receiver.
- You can go with a Strobist type setup indoors as well as outdoors, but most people use dedicated light sets for indoor photography. These light sets can be strobes or continuous lights but it is important to keep the color temperature of the light consistent.
- When purchasing light kits, like purchasing any camera equipment, you get what you pay for. Things to take into consideration are the quality of the lights, the length of the bulb life, the availability of replacement bulbs, and the total watt power of the set.
- While you can take a photo with a single light, most portraits will require a Key Light, a Fill Light, a hair light, and a background light. However, the lights alone will not be enough; you will also need light modifiers.
- Light Modifiers consist of grids, screens, soft boxes, and reflectors. We spoke about reflectors in outdoor portraits, but they also have a number of uses in the studio as well.
- Soft boxes are used to diffuse the light and make it softer, while grids make the light more specular and direct it at a specific point.
- Screens work great with lights that are putting out too much power. One more modifier that adds some fun to portraits is a gel pack.
- Gel packs allow you to color the lights. I have found that video gels work better than photo gels as they handle high temperatures better.
- Finding a good background in doors is usually very hard to do. However, background creators have more backgrounds than you could ever need and they vary in size, texture, color, and price.
- Props are also available to complete and accent your scene.
Settings and techniques vary across the board but there a few tips and tricks that apply to portraits no matter where you are taking them.
- Get Lower: When taking a picture of someone who is shorter, or in a seated position, lower the camera so that the lens is level with your subject’s eyes.
- Straight Back: A subject that slouches will be un-happy with the final product. Have your subject sit up straight and have them raise their chin a little.
- Back Away: As I mentioned above, zooming in on your subject will help make them look thinner. Back as far away as possible to where you can still communicate with them and your lens is zoomed all the way in.
- Stay Comfortable: An unhappy and uncomfortable subject will not produce a good picture. Keep the atmosphere light and have fun with the shoot. Capture the candid pictures as well as the posed. You may find you both like the candid better.
- Depth of Field: For an individual portrait, a depth of field of f/4 is a great starting point. For a group portrait, a depth of field of f/9 to f/11 (or more) will be required so you can get everyone in focus.
Do not be afraid to experiment, but if you are being paid for a job, stick to what you know. You do not want to be wasting someone else’s time and money.
How To Shoot Black And White Photography
Black and white photography, or monochrome photography, is more about contrast than anything else is. The composition and exposure are always important, but a dramatic and dynamic black and white photo is about contrast.
When you are looking at a monochrome photograph, you are seeing many shades of gray between black and white.
Black is considered the addition of all colors at once, where white is considered the absence of color (and in digital photography, the absence of information).
Detail, noise, and feel of the image are completely in the hands of the photographer. However, depending on your camera and the file-type you are shooting, your black and white image may be converted back to full color when you import the files to your computer.
The two basic file-types for digital photography are RAW and JPEG. A JPEG is a compressed version of the actual image and is much smaller than a RAW image.
The smaller file size is due to a selective deletion of like pixels. To put it a bit easier to understand, if two pixels are similar, the JPEG setting will get rid of one of them.
A RAW file keeps all of the information in tact but is a much larger file-size. Which one to use for black and white photography depends entirely on you.
- With most DSLR cameras, if you photograph a black and white image in JPEG, it will stay as a black and white image when you transfer the image to your computer.
- If you photograph a black and white image in RAW, the image will convert back to full color when you transfer it to the computer.
Settings for black and white:
- For black and white photography, the settings really depend on what you are trying to achieve.
- A somewhat derelict look can be achieved by photographing during mid-day with full sunshine. You will still want to expose for the highlights, which will make the heavy shadows much darker.
- There are no special lenses or cameras required for black and white photography, but I still prefer to use a professional level Canon like the Canon 1D Mark IV ($5000.00 at bhphotovideo.com). The brand of camera is simply a personal choice.
Dramatic colors also make dramatic black and whites:
- Any type of scene that has a high level of contrast in either light or color will produce excellent black and white results.
- If black and white photography is your goal, you will learn to see a colorful scene as it would look in black and white. It takes a little bit of practice, but once you know what you are looking at, you will be able to pass-by the trial and error phase.
- The best black and white photographs can be achieved inside of Photoshop. This allows you to shoot a color image, and remove the saturation to your liking in Photoshop. RAW photos will give you the greatest range for making adjustments in Photoshop.
While black and white photography has lost a bit of its edge in everyday photography, it has gained a large following in fine-art photography.
Most people, who go the way of fine-art photography, will either buy a digital back for their film cameras, or shoot black and white film. Either way you decide to go, black and white photography is a captivating art.