What are one of the key differences between amateur photographers and professionals? Amateurs TAKE good photographs and professionals MAKE great photographs. A professional has the end result in mind before he/she even begins preparing to make the photograph. Today we are going to talk about some of the key ingredients to making a great portrait.
The first thing I do is to ensure that my background will not be distracting to the eye. I want absolutely no attention to be given to the background whatsoever. To accomplish this I employ a number of techniques to make my subject stand out. Firstly I generally use a large aperture to blur the background, generally f2.8 to f 3.5. I like my subject to be properly exposed but with as much of a three dimensional feel to the subject as possible. I like the face to have shadows and highlights to really give that three dimensional feeling. There should be no white patches on the skin anywhere, skin is not white but true skin tones, if any parts of the portrait are overexposed then you will get highlight blowouts causing white patches on the skin. I like to have “just enough” lighting that all the features are exposed and generally like having my light come from a 45 degree angle from the front and either to the left or right. This will produce a more three dimensional effect to the face and if using off camera flash will also produce catch lights in the eyes which are probably the most important feature in a portrait. The eyes must be in absolute perfect focus, each eyebrow should be detectable to really draw the attention to your portrait.
When composing the portrait, it is best to avoid placing your subject in the centre of the frame, rather follow the rule of thirds and place the subject slightly to one side having the vertical centreline of the subject about one third into the frame from either the left or right. If you are photographing someone in a position of power, then shoot from about stomach level looking upwards to the subject, this will convey a feeling of strength and power. As a general rule you should always shoot from eye level, so for a five year old, this means getting down lower. I like my subjects to have their shoulders on a 45 degree angle to the camera generally with their eyes looking into the lens.
In summary I like my subject to be in perfect focus but not my background, my subject to be properly exposed with my background underexposed, and the most important part of my subject is their eyes to be in tack sharp focus with good catch lights.
The author Kevin Bradshaw is a professional photographer and partner at Denis Legg Photography in Port Alfred South Africa.