Portrait Photography – The Essential Beginner’s Guide

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This is when manual focus is better. Most cameras have different autofocus modes. These modes change where the camera focuses. The two basic options are all AF points active and single point active. With all AF points activated, your camera uses multiple points in the frame to detect a subject. It then chooses that subject automatically and focuses on it. With single AF point, you can move your camera around so that the single point is where your subject is. Then press the shutter release button halfway to set focus. You can then snap a photo or move your camera to set your original frame while holding the shutter release button to keep that focus and then full-press the shutter release button to take the photo.

In most instances, using auto focus will result in a sharper image. In particular, if you are doing event photography or general everyday photography, the autofocus is my first choice.

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Another setting in most DSLR cameras is picture styles. On Nikon cameras, these are referred to as picture control. Canon has an additional faithful mode. Nikon has flat and vivid modes. These styles affect how the camera processes your photos during exposure. For example, the standard mode makes images crisp and vivid with a higher saturation, contrast, and sharpening. Portrait mode beautifies skin color tones by reducing edge sharpening for a resulting smoother skin. Monochrome makes your image black and white. Neutral has lower contrast and saturation — great for if you are editing your photos yourself.

Landscape boosts the greens and blues to make skies and green nature look better. Faithful is for shooting outdoor photos with sunlight. Vivid takes standard mode a step further with bolder colors and sharpness. Flat takes neutral a step further and results in a low-saturated image perfect for editing.

If just shooting on a normal day, shoot in the standard mode unless one of the other ones makes more sense. You can even create your own picture style or install picture styles created by other individuals and companies to get a style you like. White balance is the way your camera reads light temperature. Your camera can automatically detect and adjust according to the light. Or you can use preset or manual modes to change white balance.

All light has a temperature that falls on the Kelvin scale. The Kelvin scale goes from 1,, Kelvin K with the lower end being warmer light like candlelight 1,, K or tungsten light 2,, K. Tungsten light is what your traditional incandescent light bulb looks like. On the higher end of the scale, you have bluer or cooler light.

The sun is K while an overcast sky can be between 6, and 8, K. Thankfully most cameras have nice little icons that help us know what to set the white balance to. These include Kelvin the letter K in a box , tungsten a lightbulb , fluorescent a wide rectangular light bulb , daylight a sun , flash electric arrow pointing down , cloudy a cloud , and shade a house with lines coming off the side. When going out to shoot, either set your white balance to AWB auto white balance or to the mode that matches your setting best.

Of course, you can use different white balances to get creative with your shots, as well. Or make it cooler by setting it to tungsten mode. Knowing how to use your camera is only half of the equation to taking beautiful photos. The other aspect is looking at what is in your frame and composing a beautiful photo.

What is your subject? Where are they in the frame?

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What colors are in your frame? Where is the light coming from? What is your background? These are all questions to ask yourself before taking each photo. The rule of thirds is a way of composing our image that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Take a photo, and then add two horizontal and two vertical lines that divide the frame into nine equal boxes. See the example. The rule states to place your subject at one of the intersections of those lines. This means a photo taken using the rule of thirds will have a better impact on the viewer. Basically, it means that you should place the subject to the side of your frame, not directly in the middle and not too close to the edge.

Sometimes your subject is a person that you can move around. Other times, your subject is a stationary object like a tree, car, or mountain top. As always, photography rules are meant to be broken. Centering objects or putting them even further on the side, top, or bottom of the frame can create a striking image. But in general, instead of taking photos with your subject directly in the middle, put them off to the side.

Getting creative shots also means changing your angle. Instead of just standing and taking a photo, get down low to the ground or get up high and look down. Notice what happens to your subject when you change your angle. When looking down at a subject, it feels much smaller and less domineering.

When looking up at a subject, it will look grander and more intimidating. Use negative space to make your subject feel small, open, and free. Negative space is when you have a single subject with lots of blank space in the rest of the frame. This blank space could literally be a blank sky. Changing perspective also means going from wide to close-up. Either move your body to get these different shots, or use a different lens. A wide shot is great for establishing a scene. You can see everything going on, including the subject and its surroundings.

Medium shots, shots that are closer to the subject, are great for showing action. Medium shots show the subject interacting within the setting. A close-up is great for showing detail. Close-up shots show more emotion and can be very creative. Backgrounds add a lot to the story of a photograph.

The background says a lot! It shows where we are, and adds to the beauty of the photo. This photo would be completely different if the subjects were standing in the middle of a jungle.

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Better yet, if the photographer had moved to the other side of us and the background was the street full of vendors, it would have been a different story. In particular, when taking photos of people, the background is important. Of course, this depends on your style. Pay attention to lighting. How bright is your background?

Is it overexposed? Is it underexposed? Move your subject around to make sure you have a properly lit background. Sometimes this can be hard if you are shooting in the middle of the day with a bright sun. The key concept to remember is that your background is a major player in your photograph. Does it add to or contrast with your subject? Either way, being conscious of what it does helps you to take better photos. Using the techniques in the past few sections, move your subject so you are using the rule of thirds and so they fit right in with the background. See where the light is coming from.

Try shooting with the light coming from behind your subject. It could be an inanimate object, or you could be shooting an event like a concert or wedding. In these cases, it is up to you to change your perspective and angle to make sure the subject is positioned properly. Especially with events, snap multiple photos of each moment. Change your position, and snap a few more. Depth of field can dramatically change the feeling of your photos and how the viewer interacts with your photos.

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A shallow depth of field can focus our attention on a specific part of the frame. Since our eyes are always trying to focus, when looking at a photograph, we automatically look at what is in focus. Pay attention to what is out of focus, as well. Lights in the background that are blurry aka bokeh can add a beautiful effect to your photos.

Blurry colors and textures can also change the story of your photo. Also, having everything in focus can be a creative decision. Wide landscapes are great to shoot with everything in focus. To get a shallow depth of field, there are two ways to achieve this. First, you can open up your aperture to a lower f-stop. Second, you can use a telephoto or zoom lens. Zooming in on a subject at a longer focal length crushes the background and makes it more blurry.

The last concept for creatively composing your photos is to think about the colors in your frame.

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  • Colors create different moods and emotions. Darker grays and blues can give a sad feeling, while bright yellows and greens can feel happy. Choosing to take out all colors and shoot in monochrome black and white can add emotion to the photo. Black-and-white photography forces the viewer to focus more on the composition and lighting. As you can tell throughout this section, we talked a lot about storytelling and how your photos tell a story.

    Just remember that the colors in your frame tell a story too. Light is magic. Shooting at dawn or dusk will make your landscape photos look gorgeous. Try shooting your landscape photos around sunset or sunrise. Use a polarizing filter. Polarizing filters can boost sky saturation and make it look more contrasted. This can especially make clouds pop. Use a deep depth of field with a big f-stop. Make sure that everything is in focus.

    Also, use a wide angle lens. Use a tripod. This will help you stabilize your shot and get it sharp. This will also allow you to increase the f-stop decrease the amount of light entering the lens and use a longer shutter speed. Think about lines. Where is the horizon line? Does the landscape itself have lines?

    Place these lines using the rule of thirds. Go macro.

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    Even without a macro lens, get really close up. Use a zoom or telephoto lens. Or use a wide lens and get really close to the subject. Use a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field. Clean composition. Single out your subject this way. Use auto-focus for animals. Keep your camera on auto-focus to help you. Block lens flares. Sometimes this is a creative choice to include those lens flares. But for clean nature photos, cut them out with a lens hood, hat, or your hand. Be patient and get comfortable. Nature photography will be more fun if you are comfortable photographing.

    It will take time to get great photos of animals. Remember your composition rules. Use the rule of thirds, and put your subject on the side of the frame. Or throw out the rules and center them. Try both. Get a blurry background. Portraits are meant to show off your subject. Avoid having a competing background by getting a shallow depth of field with a small f-stop or telephoto lens. Use a creative background. Place your subject in a position that tells a story about your subject.

    Get serious. Try a serious pose. A lot of beautiful portraits are serious photos. Have your subject stick their neck out a bit, and tilt their neck up. This will help separate their face from their body, and this is more flattering. Shoot candid. Let them be silly. Let them be silly first, then ask for the smile. Use ambient light, not the flash. Flash photos make a washed-out flat image. Get creative and use the natural light to brighten your photo.

    Get up close. Stand a foot or two away and shoot with a wide lens. Building your camera kit is a process that might take some time, and will definitely take some money. Aside from your camera, there are lots of accessories that can help you take better photos. Before we dive right in, recognize that building a camera kit takes time.

    Choosing a brand is important before you start to build a kit because most camera accessories like lenses, batteries, chargers, etc. But it is highly recommended to go into your local camera store to see the cameras in person. Many people ask what the best camera brand is. While Canon and Nikon are the go-to brands, Fuji, Sony, and many others make high-quality cameras that are just as good. There is no right or wrong choice. Of course, you can often get converters that allow you to put Nikon lenses on a Canon body, for instance.

    But this just adds another expense that you might not want at the beginning of your photography journey. Sometimes they come together in a kit. Other times, you can purchase the body and lenses separately. Using Canon as an example, camera bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes with a range of quality and features. Of course, there is a range of prices as well. The Canon Rebel series is a great introductory camera body for your entry-level photographer.

    The Canon 5D and 7D are the more professional bodies that have bigger sensors and more features. The original Canon 7D made shooting video with a DSLR camera the next best thing since sliced bread, while the Canon 5D has remained one of the most popular models among professionals. On the high end, the Canon 1D X is the flagship model in the Canon line. In between these models are a variety of other bodies, each with their own pros and cons.

    Some may be better at focusing. Others may be quicker at processing. And of course, this is just the Canon brand. Nikon has a similar range of DSLR cameras with similar features. The main thing to remember is to try to go to a store and get a feeling for the camera body. Will it be too heavy? Does it feel comfortable? Does it fit your hands? These are all things to consider when purchasing a camera body. Camera lenses come in two types: zooms and primes.

    A prime lens is fixed at one focal length, while a zoom lens has a range of focal lengths. The focal length is the distance in millimeters from the optical center of the lens to the camera sensor. The larger the focal length, the further zoomed in the lens will be. For example, a 24mm lens is a lot wider than a mm lens. The other thing to note about lenses is the aperture. Remember, the aperture is how much light the lens allows to pass through into the camera.

    As lenses get more expensive, the aperture gets lower. The lower aperture allows you to take pictures in lower light situations. Also remember that aperture affects the depth of field. So faster lenses will also have that beautiful bokeh blurry background that comes with a low aperture. A good starter lens kit will include a wide, a medium, and a telephoto lens. A telephoto lens has a longer focal length. Whether you get primes or zooms is up to you.

    Primes typically have better glass and a lower aperture, while zooms allow you to zoom in and out from a subject from wherever you are standing. Having extra batteries allows you to stay out all day without worrying about your camera dying. While you can purchase knock-off batteries for your camera that might work, it is suggested to only use batteries of the same brand. So if you have a Nikon, use Nikon batteries. There are a few tools that are great for stabilizing photos. A tripod has three legs, meaning it can stand on its own.

    Tripods are great for long exposures, studio setups, and portraits. Combining the use of a tripod with a shutter release remote is great because it gets rid of any camera shake that might be caused by your hands. The best real-world scenario for this is night photography when you are using a long exposure. A monopod has one leg and is a great support for your camera. The more points of contact with your camera you have, the most stable it will be.

    So using a monopod will increase the points of contact by one. The monopod is great for on-the-go photography. It is smaller than a tripod, and great for event photography. There are other types of stabilization, but the main point to remember is that having steady hands is important to capture sharp, non-blurry photos. An external flash unit is a wonderful tool for photographers who take a lot of indoor photos in low light. Many wedding and event photographers use external flashes because it is simply too dark to take beautiful photos.

    External flashes have adjustable intensities and can swivel. This will create a washed-out photo that looks amateurish. A better idea is to swivel the external flash so that it is bouncing of the ceiling or a wall to the side or back. This will create a softer, diffused look — great for portrait photography. Another way to make your flash better is to use a diffuser like the Gary Fong Lightsphere or Puffer. One way to use the flash creatively is to do so during the day. Position your subject so that the sun is behind them, and use your flash as your key light i.

    Pelican makes heavy-duty cases that are weatherproof and can protect your equipment from accidental falls. There are many camera backpacks that have customizable pockets and slots perfect for your multiple lenses, flashes, batteries, and other gear. The key concept is to get something that will protect your equipment. It all starts with the right app, and culminates in sharing the photos with your friends. If you actually take a photo with your camera at its widest setting, then crop afterwards, your photo will be sharper and not as distorted as it would be with digital zoom.

    Ditch the flash. Try not to use the flash on your phone because like all flashes, it will create a washed-out, flat look. Get closer. Surprisingly, the iPhone and other smartphones can do decent macro photography by getting just inches away from a subject and manually changing the focus by tapping on the screen where your subject is. Remember your composition and background rules. Use the rule of thirds and simplify your background for a better shot. To take full control of your smartphone camera, use manual. Manual gives you independent control of the shutter, ISO, white balance, focus, and exposure compensation.

    You can even use a rule of thirds grid that helps you take better composed images. If you are using the standard photo app on your phone, try shooting in HDR mode. HDR high-dynamic-range gives you more information to edit with. The way it works is that your camera actually takes three photos: one exposed properly, one underexposed, and one overexposed. When editing the photos, it gives your more room to play with.

    Great situations in which to shoot in HDR mode are landscapes, low-light situations, and portraits in sunlight. Know, however, that HDR images will take longer and use up more space. Place subjects in the center. Centering your subject tends to look better in a symmetrical square image. Take detail shots. Shooting detail shots, rather than wide scenery shots, will result in better photos on an Instagram feed. Both Canon and Nikon offer fairly priced 50mm lenses that outperform any kit lens, and which many photographers completely overlook.

    No matter what, do your homework before buying lenses for your kit. Lenses vary wildly by zoom level, aperture size, and—of course—price, as well as use: a lens might be made for macro photography, images taken from a great distance, rapidly moving subjects, or discreet shots. In regards to memory cards, the major differentiating factor is size.

    Cards with larger capacities hold more images, but smaller cards are cheaper. I recommend starting with multiple smaller cards in the 8—16GB range. Between backpacks, shoulder bags, and suitcases, you have several options. My advice? Buy something new, lightweight, and waterproof, with padded dividers. Clients expect you to post-process their images, so if you intend to work as a photographer you need access to editing software. Photoshop remains the norm, and many professionals supplement it with Lightroom—another Adobe application that allows you to organize your work, create presets, and batch process your images.

    If you have some room left over in your budget after buying your camera, lenses, memory card, carrying case, computer, monitor, and software, think about purchasing one or all of the following:. Duplicate gear may seem wholly unnecessary, but consider what would happen if your camera broke, your lens cracked, or you lost your memory card. What did we miss? Lenses As most professional photographers will tell you, your lenses are a bigger deal than your camera. Memory Card In regards to memory cards, the major differentiating factor is size.

    Editing Software Clients expect you to post-process their images, so if you intend to work as a photographer you need access to editing software. Other Essentials If you have some room left over in your budget after buying your camera, lenses, memory card, carrying case, computer, monitor, and software, think about purchasing one or all of the following: off camera flash a tripod an image editing tablet and pen an external hard drive or cloud storage e. Dropbox plan backup equipment Duplicate gear may seem wholly unnecessary, but consider what would happen if your camera broke, your lens cracked, or you lost your memory card.

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