Better Photography, Part II: Portraits

By Ryon Graf
Staff Writer
If you own a camera, chances are you like to shoot photos of your friends and family. Everyone can easily shoot portraits with the following tips. To really take advantage of this guide, you should use, buy or acquire a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera. The best type of lens to use is a 50 mm or 80 mm prime (non-zoom) lens. Both Canon and Nikon produce very good 50 mm f/1.8 lenses for less than $100.

Don’t use a flash: Practice shooting your camera without a flash. A direct flash can cause facial reflections and demon eyes. It can also lead to disgruntled subjects. Your goal should be to get a photograph that does not look like a stereotypical MySpace photo. If you must use a flash, make sure it is diffused well.

Use a low ISO: Set your camera to shoot in ISO 100 or 200. Lower ISO creates an image with more fine details and less grain, or ‘noise’.

Use an f-stop between 4.0 and 2.0: Turn the dial on your DSLR to Av (aperture priority) and select a value between 4.0 and 2.0. A larger aperture (indicated by a lower f-stop value) lets in more light, and it also makes the depth of field smaller. Depth of field refers to how much of your photo is in focus. A narrow depth of field caused by a large aperture lets you make the background appear out of focus while keeping the subject in focus. This is a classic, universal technique used for many types of portraits. However, be careful. If the depth of field is too narrow, parts of your subject’s face might not be in focus.

Focus on the eyes: When choosing your focal point, always try to focus on the eyes, instead of the nose or forehead and eyes. Having the eyes out of focus will ruin any quality picture.

Shoot at around 50 mm to 80 mm: How telephoto or wide (close or far) your subject appears to you is caused by the distance between the innermost and outermost optical element of your lens. This value is given in millimeters. If you shoot with it too wide (i.e. wider than 35 mm) your subject’s face can be distorted. This is why many people don’t like point-and-shoot photos (i.e. the ‘MySpace’ look). Fifty mm is close to the normal ratio that we see with our eyes. Using a number beyond 100 mm can have a ‘flattening’ effect that some may find flattering.

Shoot with soft, diffused light: Diffused, soft light makes great portraits. You can accomplish this by having your subject stand near a window or in light shade with natural light. You can also use a large sheet of white paper as a diffuse reflector for an even better effect. Have a third-person angle the reflector on the other side of your subject’s face to help fill in shadows. If you absolutely need to use a flash, try to bounce it off of the white paper or put a few pieces of very thin, white paper between the flash and the subject. Avoid shadows at all cost, and diffuse the light so as to help to fill in details on your subject’s face. If you are using natural light (from the sun), either directly or indirectly, plan to shoot during the morning or late afternoon. These times of day produce more diffusing light and more flattering colors.

Go out and try it! Go get your friend, girlfriend/boyfriend or just a random good-looking passerby, plan a location and bring along a helping hand too. Shooting portraits is fun and can be a great social activity. It can also be a great way to meet members of the opposite sex. But remember, the subject should always know he or she is being photographed. No one likes a stalker.