Keys to a Good Portrait (Part 1)

May 05, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

This is such a big subject that I broke it into several parts. If you are the impatient type you can read the complete article here.

There are so many things involved to creating a good portrait that it will be hard to include everything in a single post. Probably many of you will think of additional important elements that have been missed, and that’s OK.

The first things that come to mind for a good portrait are those things that are important in any image. This includes good exposure, focus, and good composition. Without these elements it doesn’t matter if your image has the other elements of a good portrait because it’s not going to work anyway. So for now we will assume that you have those and just talk about what else is involved in making a good portrait.

When shooting a portrait the first thing I think about is the look I want. Do I want it to be dramatic, romantic, happy, festive, etc.? This will make a difference in the lighting, the posing, colors, depth of field (DOF), and expression of the subject. These all have to work together or your portrait will have mixed signals for the mood you are trying to show. Think about this, it doesn’t make sense for the subject to be smiling or laughing when everything else in the image has a somber mood to it.

Let’s talk about lighting first. The idea of any image is to show depth. As photographers, we are trying to make a two dimensional media appear as three dimensional. The way to do this is with highlights and shadows. As the image goes from highlights to shadows our brains interpret this as depth. Think about an individual’s face. Having highlights on the right cheek that gradually turn to shadow on the left cheek shows that the light is partially blocked by the nose indicating there is depth. The light that creates this can come from two places. One is natural light from the sun and the other is from artificial light sources.

Natural light is the best light there is. It shows skin tones in the natural state and evens the light out across the entire scene. When I’m on location I always look for natural light first. The best natural light is when it bounces off of other elements in the scene. This could be the wall of a building, or the concrete of the sidewalk, or even a reflector that you put on a stand. Bouncing the light naturally diffuses it making it very soft and perfect for romantic or dreamy moods. The key with natural light is to be able to see it as it falls on the subject and the scene and to position your subject so the light is directed on the subject in a way that is most pleasing for the mood.

So how do I see natural the light? Seems like a silly question because when you go outside in the daytime there’s light. Right? Yes but photographically you must see the direction of the light. This is what determines where the shadows and highlights will fall on the image.

There are two ways to find the direction of the light. Look for a location where the light is being narrowed into a smaller area. This could be a doorway, a window, an archway, an overhang, or just a large opening in a building. Another place to find light is from reflections such as reflective glass, the side of a building, or even the ground. Once you discover one of these places put your subject in the area of the light and look for the catch lights in the eyes. When you see the catch lights you know you have light on the face. Then just position them for a good composition and take the shot. Always be sure to get light in the eyes. The eyes are the most important part of a portrait and they must pop. Even if the eyes are closed they should be well lit.

Shot in Natural Light in a parking garage with diffused light coming from camera right.

Suggested Practices:

  1. Go outside and look for areas of natural light where you may want to shoot a portrait. You could also do this in your home where there is nice window light or in your garage with the door open where the light is bouncing off of the concrete. It’s best if you have someone with you so you can see how light falls on their face. When you think you see it ask them to be still, then ask then to turn their head slightly and see how the highlights and shadows fall on their face. Look for catch lights in their eyes. When you see these look around at the environment. Where is the light coming from? The catch lights will give you an indication of where to look. Is it bouncing off of a wall, is it being diffused through a doorway, or somewhere else? Try to get a feel of where the light is coming from so you can begin to understand those types of locations. Then you will know in advance that you can get good natural light images.
  2. The next time you are out shopping, or out for lunch, or at work, when you look at other people see if you can find the natural light falling on them (preferably not in direct sun). Look for the shadows and highlights. You will be amazed at how easy it is to see natural light when you are looking for it. Then when you see it, try to determine where it is coming from. Before you know it you will be finding good natural light with ease.

 

Next time we will take a look at the other principles of light.

 

Bob Woodfin
[email protected]

To see more of my work visit:
http://www.bobwoodfin.com/
https://www.facebook.com/BobWoodfinPhotos/
https://www.instagram.com/bwoodfinphoto/

Additional Image Samples:

Light bouncing off of a concrete floor through an open garage door camera left.

 

Diffused window light above and camera left

 

Light coming through huge windows camera left

 


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