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Guide to Portrait Photography, Step One: Introduction

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Great portraits can be made without any expensive studio equipment.

Portrait photography is one of the most challenging branches of photography for the amateur photographer and the professional photographer alike. This is an introduction--an overview--and just the first in a series of articles that I will be writing over a period of time. You can make great portraits using equipment that you already have. Monorail cameras, expensive studio lighting, backdrops, etc., are nice to have but not needed to get started in portrait photography. I’ll cover all those things in future articles. This article will show you how to move beyond taking simple snapshots to taking some exciting portraits of people.

For the time being, forget about trying to make technically perfect portraits; technical proficiency, mastering aperture, shutter speeds, focal length, depth of field, etc., will come with time. For now, concentrate on discovering and capturing your subject's unique personality. That’s what changes a picture from a snapshot into a fabulous portrait. Every great portrait tells a whole story about the person(s) in it. Great portraits are those that make the person(s) appear in a natural pose as opposed to appearing as having been posed for the shot. We will investigate posing your subject for a formal portrait in a future article.

The best way to get a natural-appearing portrait is to take the picture when the subject isn’t aware that you are photographing them. Candid portraits are always the most natural looking. If you are like most photographers, you always have some sort of camera with you, and your family and friends are use to seeing you with a camera, so catching them off-guard isn’t any real great problem. I’m talking adult friends and family members now, children are an entirely different matter and I will cover photographing children another time.  A good photographer is able to engage his or her subject in conversations that will relax them, put them at their ease. Once they are relaxed, comfortable with you and your camera, start shooting. Once you start shooting, shoot plenty of pictures. In this digital age, you can shoot 100 pictures for what the same cost as shooting one picture. If my subject is really animated, I shoot in the burst mode. If you set your camera to shoot ten or fifteen frames at a time you get some great shots that you would otherwise miss.

Shooting portraits in a studio against a plain backdrop is one of the most popular ways to shoot portraits, but it isn’t the only way. I’ll tell you how you can set up a home studio using inexpensive equipment and supplies later in this series. On the other hand, some of the best portraits are shot not in the studio but in locations that emphasizes the personality of the subject(s). Get to know your subject. Find out about their hobbies and interests. Find out about their favorite places. You goal is to see if you can incorporate any of those things into your photo shoot. For example, if your subject is an amateur ballerina, try shooting her while she's practicing or performing with her fellow amateurs. Wherever you shoot, always remember that your subject should be the main interest in the photo--so avoid shooting in locations where the background will be distracting.

Be careful about getting too close to your subject physically, because the lens will cause your subject to be distorted. Back off and zoom in your subject.  I don’t like to shoot with any focal length under 70mm for that reason. Besides eliminating distortion, the longer the focal length, the shallower the depth of field, which gives me greater control of how much of the foreground and background is in clear focus.

Lighting is important and I will cover that in the next article. For now, if you don’t have off-camera lighting equipment, you can use large, white cards as reflectors to make sure your subject is evenly lit.  Don’t depend on your on-camera flash unit to light your subject adequately. You can use the camera-mounted flash to bring out the subject’s eyes and facial features.

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Jerry Walch

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