When shooting a portrait, you are effectively translating a three-dimensional face into a flat plane of space. Positioning the camera in a way that complements the subject’s features and using appropriate camera and lens settings play key roles in the success of a good portrait.

This portrait was taken during the Ice Festival in Hokkaido, Japan, where light reflected from the snowy footpaths filled-in and softened shadows that would otherwise be much harsher with more contrasty lighting.

Human faces are infinitely variable in age, gender and ethnic origins. Translating features like heavy brows, wrinkles and creases, pronounced noses and double chins into a pleasing portrait can be challenging.

1. When setting up, keep everything as simple as possible.

Your aim should be to concentrate on the subject; everything else should either compliment them, or be effectively unnoticeable to the viewer’s eye.

Will you shoot a natural-light portrait or should you plan for artificial lighting? When working indoors ask yourself whether there are clean walls or simple drapery you can use for a backdrop, or will you need to stage-manage the space. Can you produce an ‘environmental’ portrait of the subject(s) within the available space?

Look for soft, even lighting and subtle tones in backgrounds that don’t draw viewers’ eyes away from the subject(s). Make sure horizon lines don’t run through people’s heads.

A common mistake made by snapshooters is shooting from too great a distance. This leaves a lot of space around the subject and creates confusion when the shot is viewed. Often the subject is too small to have any impact and viewers wonder what the photo is about. Move in close and fill the frame with the subject(s) wherever possible, leaving only enough space around them to imply they are relaxed.

Filling the frame with the subject gives the portrait maximum impact, regardless of how many subjects are being photographed

2. Think carefully about how the camera is positioned with respect to the subject.

If you want to make a long nose appear less prominent, a longer lens tends to compress perspective, making the nose shorter and less pronounced and the face seem fuller. Shadows and creases around deeply recessed eyes can be suppressed by introducing a front-facing reflector or using fill-in flash at reduced output power.

Double chins won’t be as visible if the shot is taken from a little above eye level, particularly if the subject’s neck is in shadow. Prominent ears will look smaller if they point towards the camera at an angle of about 45 degrees. Bald patches on heads should be shaded from light sources that can make them brighter and more prominent.

Time spent on experimenting with lighting and camera positions will be rewarded by better results. If you explain your strategies to your subjects, most will be happy to go along with you.

3. Watch out for the colour casts that can result from artificial light sources like fluorescent, incandescent and warm-toned LED lights.

Cloudy days can also add a ‘cold’ tone to subjects’ skin, especially in the late afternoon. Use the camera’s white balance controls to match the ambient lighting type – or make custom measurements using the camera’s sensor. (Check the camera’s instruction manual for details on how to do this.)

Shots taken in the late afternoon on cloudy days often show a cool cast, even on darker skin tones. The white balance control can be used to restore natural-looking warmth to the skin colour.

Don’t rely on the pre-sets in the white balance menu; experience has shown many of them tend to over- or under-correct. Always check exposures after you have taken them and, if in doubt, switch on white balance bracketing (if your camera supports it) or take a series of shots varying the colour balance settings.

4. If you’ll be shooting outside using natural light, consider the time of day and the direction of the sun in relation to how and where you want to pose your subject.

Early morning and late afternoon are the best times for a natural-light portrait, bearing in mind that the warm glow from the setting sun late in the day can introduce colour casts.

Since warm biases are mostly flattering, you may wish to keep the natural warm glow. Many of the latest cameras provide a white balance setting that enables you to do this.

It’s best to avoid shooting at midday when the sunlight and shadows are at their harshest. This type of lighting is usually unflattering. Use of fill-in flash can help to even up the lighting but it will also eliminate subtle tonal transitions in subjects’ faces and produce a bland, unattractive and uninteresting result.

5. When you want a natural-looking portrait in ambient lighting, posing the subject near a window where the outside light can illuminate the outwards-facing side of their face.

Leaving the inner side in shadow is a popular ‘split lighting’ portraiture technique. Don’t be afraid to use it whenever opportunities arise.

Window lighting can provide a large, relatively soft light source for portraits taken with the split lighting technique.

The best time to take a window light portrait is usually the early hours of the day and late hours of afternoon when light is more intense on the window. You may need to introduce a reflector (or two) to boost the light levels on the shaded side of the subjects’ face(s) to preserve details in these areas, particularly when there’s a wide difference in the light levels between indoors and out.  White curtains may be all you need to add fill-in light to shadowed areas.

Positioning the camera slightly to the back of the subject can produce attractive profiles or semi-silhouettes. It’s worth experimenting with different subject angles and reflector positions, especially if your subject is prepared to work with you.

6. Extra care is required when shooting at night because you’re likely to be reliant on artificial light sources.

Note that sodium street lights can introduce colour casts, as can many fluorescent lights. If you decide to use flash you will probably need to take a few test shots to see what strength of flash balance light is needed and how the flash (which is usually daylight-balanced) blends in with the ambient lighting. More information on using flash can be found in the next chapter.

Indoor lighting over which you have little or no control can cast unattractive shadows across a subject’s face, as shown in the left side picture in this pair. If you can’t alter the lighting, you can cut back unattractive shadows by editing the photograph post-capture, as shown in the picture on the right.

7. Indoor ambient lighting often produces poor conditions for portrait shots, even though most of the light will come from above the subject and, thus, simulate a natural direction.

However, it can be harsh and its direction can produce unattractive shadows. Where fill-in lighting is unavailable – or prohibited – you may need to resort to post-capture editing, as shown in the illustration above.

8. Rim lighting involves lighting the subject, who is usually in profile or semi-profile, from behind so some light spills over onto the face and/or hair.

By itself, rim lighting works best if you’re looking to create dramatic, low-key portraits.

Rim lighting can also be used to add depth to a portrait that is lit from the front. In such cases the backlight should be stronger than the front lighting if it is to have any impact.

Rim lighting is also possible with natural light, especially early or late in the day. This late afternoon portrait shows angled sunlight illuminating the off-side of the subject’s face, adding drama to an otherwise straight action portrait.

Camera settings

Focus and exposure controls are critical to success. Make sure you read your camera’s operations manual so you know what adjustments are provided.

Many recent cameras include face recognition technology that prioritises human faces, even in moving subjects. Find out what your camera offers and take advantage of it whenever you can.

If you’re using a camera without face recognition, stick with single-shot AF and set the focus mode to measure focus around the centre of the frame. Closing the lens aperture one or two stops down from the maximum aperture makes it easier for the camera to capture the subjects’ eyes in focus, whatever AF mode you use.

Metering exposures is important, especially if there’s a significant difference in brightness between the subject and the background. We recommend using spot (or for Canon cameras, partial) metering, which measures the exposure level on a small area in the frame. This works well regardless of whether the subject is against a bright or dark background and is also effective for night portraits.

Partial metering was used for this shot to obtain the best balance between the subject and the bright background. It was also recorded as a CR2.RAW (Canon proprietary format) file, which provided scope to ensure a good tonal balance.

ISO sensitivity is very dependent on light levels although, generally it’s best to use the lowest couple of settings in the camera’s native (not extended) range. Most cameras, even models older than about five years, can produce noise-free images at ISO settings between 100 and 800 – and recent models often perform well at settings as high as ISO 6400. Using the auto ISO setting and defining the available range takes the hassles out of this function.

Exposure compensation may be needed when you want to produce high key or low key portraits. Over-exposure by a stop or two should provide the characteristic light-and-bright atmosphere for high-key shots, while under-exposure by the same amount can usually create the dark and moody aura needed for a low-key portrait.

Don’t be afraid to experiment – and take plenty of shots, particularly when you have a co-operative and engaged subject. But don’t be totally reliant on what you see on the camera monitor’s screen. For starters, it’s too small to make quality assessments. It may also be unable to accurately reproduce the hues and tones recorded in the image.

Handy reflectors

Reflectors allow you to direct light into shadowed areas to create a more even spread of illumination across subjects’ faces. They provide a cheap and easy way to stop shadows becoming too deep and emphasising wrinkles and creases.

There are plenty of things you can use as a reflector, ranging from immovable objects like walls through to portable objects like mirrors and sheets of fabric or cardboard. It’s important to be aware that the colour of the reflector influences the colour of the light it reflects onto the subject. The best reflectors are usually white – or very close to white in hue.

The white sheets in the background combine with light streaming in from the subject’s right side to reflect the light around the scene and compensate for what would otherwise have been very harsh lighting with deep shadows on the subject’s left side.

Mirrors can be used as reflectors but care is needed because they tend to be very specular and can reflect ‘hot spots’ of light that look unnatural. Many photographers prefer using crumpled aluminium foil, which is spread out to cover a rigid surface, like a piece of cardboard. This can work well in many situations. White curtains and sheets can also be used as reflectors, although they’re not quite as easy to use as solid surfaces.

Reflectors are especially useful for bounced flash shots (which are explained in Chapter 6 Studio Portraiture, in our Portraiture guide). We’d recommend experimenting with resources that come readily to hand before purchasing specially-designed accessory reflectors, which can be purchased from professional photography suppliers in capital cities around the country.

(Feature image source: Camera House.)

Useful links

Make the most of available light

Focusing and exposure in low light levels

Excerpt from Portraiture pocket guideby Photo Review tech editor Margaret Brown.

Portraiture pocket guide Partner: