Portrait Photography Basics


Portrait Photography Basics

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Portrait Photography Basics is part of the series “The Value of Hiring a Professional Photographer“. Here we cover the basic concepts in professional Portrait Photography to produce a quality image.

Portrait Photography Concepts

Some people feel there should be no shadows in a portrait, but just the opposite is true. In nature the sun shines in one direction resulting in shadows, but. . . sometimes our eyes don’t notice them. That doesn’t mean the shadows are not there, it just we are so enthralled with another part of the scene we just don’t notice them.  So to have a portrait without any kind of shadow would be unnatural and our brain would know something wasn’t quite right. We might not know what is wrong, just something isn’t right.

Our heads are not square blocks. Our heads are round with varying degrees. Some of us have flatter faces, some of us rounder faces, but we are all the same with varying nuances of hair, complexion, mouth, eyes and nose. In creating a proper portrait we need to see those things and only with light and shadows can we really get a feel of the person.

Another plus for shadows, if placed properly, is we can appear to be thinner in the portrait. The old saying “light enlarges and dark reduces” can be very true here but only through the expertise of the photographer can we really appreciate it. An experienced professional photographer can do both. Make us look larger or make us look smaller in our portrait. Here in this post of Portrait Photography Basics we are covering both parts, shadows and light.

Portrait Photography Lighting

As you can see from the previous section lighting becomes extremely important to achieve our goal. There is a 1000 different ways to do it but considering we are talking about Commercial Portraits in most cases there will be some form of flash involved.  Generally this boils down into 3 options; (1. The flash on our cell phones. Yes, there are people doing head shots with cell phones. But the light they produce is frontal, thereby only lighting the front of the face resulting in what is termed as flat lighting. (2. More common is consumer grade DSLR! These have a pop up flash that we all know about. But they are really no different than the smart phone because the light is strictly frontal. Once again there is no dimension to the light. (3. The Professional method is having the flash system separate from the camera. Usually on a light stand off to the side. This will result in a dimensional light that produces shadows. The secret then becomes the type of shadows.

Portrait Photography Basics

Professional Studio Quality Portrait

The light that a flash produces is generally very “hard” shadows. Meaning very distinct sharp obvious shadows and almost never flattering on its own. For that reason most professional will usually use some type of diffusion to soften the light. Some times bouncing off a wall, ceiling or umbrella. Often shooting through diffusion material. The point is the larger the diffusion source the softer the light will be, resulting in soft shadows that fall off making for a very flattering portrait. I have many diffusion sources to choose from depending on the situation, but I usually use a large 24 x 36 inch soft box when doing portraits.

See the sample to right:

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