Aperture is very important when it comes to portraiture as it controls how much of the background and foreground is in focus, which has an effect on how much of the focus is on the subject of your portrait.
There is an amount of front and back sharpness in front of and behind the main focus point of your image and this is referred to as the depth-of-field.
The distance between the camera and the subject – The closer the subject the more shallow the depth-of-field. With distant scenes, therefore, there is plenty of depth-of-field.
Choice of lens aperture – The wider the lens aperture (ie /2.8, f/4) the shallower the depth-of-field, and the smaller the aperture (f/16, f/22) the greater the depth-of-field.
Focal length – Contrary to popular belief a wide-angle lens does not give greater depth-of-field than a telephoto lens if the subject magnification is the same. You can test this for yourself. Take a frame-filling headshot with a wide-angle lens (you will have to get close to the subject, so warn them!) and then do the same frame-filling shot with a telephoto – this means backing away from the subject. Use the same aperture for both and you will see that the depth-of-field is the same.
Some cameras come equipped with a depth-of-field preview button, letting you see how much depth-of-field you have before taking the shot, but you can just experiment with depth-of-field and preview the shots on-screen to see what works best if your camera doesn’t have this particular function.
In terms of portraits, especially outdoors, wider lens apertures are often best because they throw the background nicely out of focus. How effective this is depends on the scene and focal length as well as aperture choice. If your subject is standing quite close to a distracting background even shooting at f/2.8 or f/4 will not throw the background out of focus but bringing the subject forward a couple of metres should work nicely.
If you do use a wide aperture for your portraits, do make doubly sure that the subject’s eyes are in focus. With the shallow depth-of-field created by wide apertures, even a small error can mean unsharp eyes and you do not want that in your portraits.
How the background is thrown out of focus depends on the lens. Bokeh is the term used to describe the pictorial quality of the out of focus blur. Lens design and aperture shape play a large part in how effective its bokeh is, so do try it with your own optics. A good test is shooting a close-up portrait outside against a background with some bright pinpoints of light, ie sun glinting off water, car lights, streetlamps etc.
Of course, you might prefer greater sharpness in your backgrounds and that is when small apertures are used. The important thing is to keep your eye on the background and if it looks messy or cluttered use wide apertures rather than small ones.
Lighting dictates an enormous amount about your final image, from mood and feel, to exposure and color. However, whether the light is hard or soft can also make a significant difference, and knowing when to use each is crucial. In this video, learn different lighting setups for each and the benefits of them.
When it comes to lighting any scene — but particularly portraits — there are some considerations. One of the biggest elements to decide is what sort of light you want to hit your subject. I used to gravitate towards soft light because I saw it as more flattering and the images tended to be more pleasing. However, over the years, I realized that soft light was selling my ideas short at times.
Hard light is difficult to get right, far more difficult than its softer variant, in my experience. To get the punchy, high-contrast results that hard light offers is relatively easy, but for them to work within the scene and to look pleasing is trickier. I often opt for harder light when I was a moodier scene, which is counter-intuitive in a way; blasting harsher light at your subject for an image with more shadows that are more pronounced. The key element to remember is that you want to control where the light falls and what any supplementary lights are doing in the scene.
How do you decide when to use soft light over hard, and vice versa?
Canon took their merry time about diving into the mirrorless camera space, but now they are fully submerged. Their four mirrorless bodies each come at distinct price points, but how well does the price of these cameras represent their quality?
I was frustrated when Canon hadn’t released any mirrorless bodies. After trying a mirrorless Leica some years back, I was sold enough on their benefits that I wanted one, but struggled to justify the price of a Leica. I had been shooting with Canon as my workhorse body for the best part of a decade, and although I had no reason to have brand loyalty, I did have a collection of Canon glass. Nevertheless, I knew Canon would have to bring out a new mount for mirrorless, so in essence, changing brand was going to require an adaptor all the same.
I eventually moved to Sony, which I don’t regret for a second, but I still shoot with Canon on occasion and have kept several lenses I refuse to sell. However, the release of the Canon R5 and R6 really pricked my ears up. The EOS RP and R were half measures to my eye, not remotely appealing enough to jump ship, and probably not appealing enough for me to even purchase them had I have stayed in Canon’s ecosystem. But the R5 and R6 are different beasts entirely, with impressive spec sheets, boasting cutting edge performance in places.
In this video, Irene Rudnyk, a superb portrait photographer, tests each body for portrait photography. This isn’t a technical comparison, but rather a use-case.
Which body would you go for? Is the R5 the standout winner, or do some of the more cost-effective options make more sense?
So much of portraiture is of women that you would be surprised at just how much posing knowledge you might have without trying. However, for many reasons, with men, it’s trickier. This video goes into some tips, tricks, and mistakes when posing men for portraits.
I distinctly remember my first shoot with a male. I had an idea for a shoot — which in retrospect was something of a trope of portraiture — where I would have a male wearing a suit smoking; think something akin to pictures of The Rat Pack. For all of my creative flaws as an inexperienced photographer, I had another lesson due to me: I had no idea how to pose males.
It wasn’t a problem per se as I had a good relationship with my subject and so there was very little pressure to get it right. I was also an amateur and the shoot was for fun. However, it wasn’t until he was stood in front of my camera, I had got the lighting how I wanted it, and we had sorted the wardrobe and details, that I realized I wasn’t sure how he should stand. I’d looked at so much portraiture of women over the years on websites like Flickr and 500px as well as in magazines, that I had immediate ideas. With men, however, my coffer of poses was dry.
This video by photographer, Jerry Ghionis, is a brilliant brief education on the topic. While some of his tips are useful, what I think many will benefit from is his understanding of what doesn’t work and mistakes you can avoid.
Neon signs give off a unique light that can make for some stunningly colorful, glowing photographs. But the same properties that make them look magical to the human eye can also make them difficult to photograph.
In the video above, I show you how to utilize neon lights to create unique portraits that transport your subject to another world. I’ve included some behind-the-scenes footage from a few of my actual neon portrait shoots, and I have some of the final images posted below as well as my top ten tips for getting the best out of neon light portraiture.
1. Use Complementary Colors
Neon lights come in a variety of colors. I’ve found that using complementary colors is a great way to introduce color contrast in your photographs. Blue & Orange, Purple & Yellow, Red & Green — all opposites on the color wheel that tend to create the best contrasting hues.
As a quick side note, actual Neon gas creates a reddish-orange glow. Various gasses such as Helium, Argon and Xenon, are used to create other “neon” sign colors like Orange, Purple, and Blue. To avoid any needless confusion in this article, we’ll still refer to all multi-colored gas lights as “neons.”
2. Don’t Use Yellow Neon Lights
As a personal rule, I avoid yellow neon signs. Using any single-colored sign (just like a single gelled light source) will appear as if your white balance is incorrect in your photos. Yellow, even when combined with a complementary color, can be tricky to white balance and I’ve never been a fan of the result. I encourage you to go experiment for yourself though, and you’ll quickly find your favorite (or least favorite) hues to work with.
3. Expose for Your Subject, Not the Lights
Your subject should undeniably be the most important part of your photograph, whether that’s a mountain, dog, coffee cup, or in the case of a portrait, your person. Unfortunately, there are some photographers out there who give the advice that you need to be underexposing your portraits by what I consider to be a ridiculous four to five stops in order to preserve your highlights (Highlights that they will end up clipping in post-processing later anyways).
When you are photographing in a studio, do you meter for your subject’s face or for the bulb of your strobe? The answer seems fairly obvious to me.
While I’m not opposed to underexposing by maybe one-stop, don’t take this to the extreme. This will save you from grainy images and therefore the need to use excessive noise reduction later on.
4. Don’t Clip Your Highlights, Add Light
“Hey TJ,” you say. “This tip goes against what you just said in tip number three, right?” Well no, not necessarily. More than anything, pay attention to your histogram during your shoot.
If there is such a difference between your light source and your subject, this could be a great opportunity to add additional light to your scene. That can be as simple as a reflector to fill in shadows or even a small strobe or speedlight.
5. Make Sure That Eyes Are in Focus
When the eyes are in focus, your portrait is in focus. Conversely, when your subject’s eyes are out of focus, the whole image is out of focus. We all know the saying, “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” and that’s especially true for portraits.
Take the time to ensure your subject’s eyes are tack sharp before snapping that shot. Nothing is worse than getting home and realizing all of the photos are focused on the tip of the nose or the ears.
6. Don’t Kill Your Highlights in Post
This tip is all about post-processing. I see a ton of new photographers jump into their post-processing software of choice, and their first step is to drag the highlight slider to -100.
The reason this is so detrimental to neon photography is that the data containing your that lovely neon glow sits squarely in your highlights. You’ll see that by playing with your highlight slider that you are adjusting how much glow your sign is giving off. Why shoot beautifully glowing neon signs just to kill any life it gives in post?
7. Bring the Light and Your Subject Together
The closer you can get your subject to the light source, and the more they interact with it, the better your portrait will be. It’s a general rule in photography that the closer your light is to the subject, the softer the light will be. As you can see from the example in the video above, the more your subject “interacts” with the light and poses with the light in mind, the more colors wash over your subject in unique ways.
8. Manage Your Shutter Speed
Similar to other light bulbs, neon signs flicker; usually at a high enough frequency that it’s a continuous stream of light to the human eye… but not to your camera! Try photographing a neon sign at a shutter speed of 1/500th, and you’ll see your camera produces some ugly flicker which is usually represented by big dark bands across your photos.
I try to keep my shutter at 1/125th or lower. This may vary slightly depending on the sign’s refresh rate, but it’s a good place to start. You may need to utilize a tripod, monopod, or sturdy wall to help stabilize your camera if you don’t have a steady hand.
9. Don’t Over Edit
Don’t kill your photos in post, but by no means am I saying don’t tone your portraits. I see this trend among many photographers: Highlights -100, Shadows +100, Clarity +100, then cover up all the noise you just created with Luminance Noise Reduction +100.
All RAW photos inherently need some toning but take care not to process the life right out of an already beautiful neon portrait. Take a step back, come back later with fresh eyes and ask, “did I make this image look better or worse?”
10. Use Fast Primes
We all love our fast prime lenses! Shooting at wider aperture values like f/1.4, f/1.8 or f/2, will allow the most light through your lens and therefore to your sensor (or film). Remember, the more light you’re getting through your lens, the lower your ISO will need to be, which means less-noisy photos!
Shallow depth of field also creates a soft, dreamy look that’s great for emphasizing the glow of neon lights. I find that my personal “sweet spot” is around f/2 to f/2.8. Sure, my lens may not be at its sharpest, but with proper focus (Tip #5) and a steady hand, it will be as sharp as we need. As long as the eyes are in focus, the rest of the background can blur out into nice bokeh to complement the neon.
Bonus Neon Portrait Tip!
I call my Nikon 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm prime lenses my “portrait lens trifecta.” If I’m going on a portrait shoot, these are the minimum lenses that I will have in my bag.
As we discussed in the previous tip, fast primes lenses are great for allowing the most light into your camera. I typically use the 35mm for shooting head-to-toe full body shots. For waist-up portraits, I’ll throw on the 50mm, which will give me a bit shallower depth of field and some great bokeh. I use the big gun (85mm f/1.4) for tight head and shoulders shots and in instances where I want to blur everything behind my subject into oblivion.
About the Author: JT Armstrong is an award-winning military photographer and is currently the video director for the U.S. Space Force. He runs the Youtube channel RunNGun Photo that focuses on sharing photography tips, tricks, and hacks. This article was also published here.
Adding vibrant colors to your portraits with gels is something every photographer ought to know how to do, but more than that, it can create some truly stunning results.
When I first started using flashes, I didn’t really understand gels. It’s not that I didn’t know how they worked or what they did, I just didn’t like the results. I tried it a couple of times and I found the colors to be washed out, and I had lost control over the general tonality of my image. As I progressed, the years rolled by, and I started to understand more about the use and manipulation of light, they became crucial to how I work.
A magazine shoot at the start of this year, before the pandemic (what a time that was,) I had decided I needed to do something special to get anything out of some testing conditions. I had an hour with my subject, no assistants, and I was given a meeting room to conduct the shoot. I can tell you now with absolute certainty, had I not used gels, the images would have been so bland I doubt I’d have ever published them. Instead, the results were exactly what I wanted and ended up being printed in a multi-page spread. It’s important to remember that you’re not limited to red and blue, or orange and teal, and you can just use one color to strong effect too.
Do you use gels? Show us your favorite image using them.
There are many tips that have improved my portraiture, but if I had to pick one, it would be this.
The title hopefully implies that this is not an article for seasoned veterans of photography. This is instead aimed at newer photographers who are looking for advice on how to improve their portraiture. So, what is this simple tip?
Before you have a wealth of shoots under your belt, any type of photoshoot can be a little overwhelming. You might be trying to gauge settings, pose, lighting, as well as myriad other non-photographic factors. With all that in mind, you can forget to move your feet. It might sound like odd advice — to move more — but the dynamism it will add to your shooting and your results will pay dividends.
One of the reasons I — like many others — prefer to shoot using prime lenses, is it forces you to move to get a different style of shot. I still use the classic 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses, albeit begrudgingly, for events and certain shoots where constantly moving isn’t always an option or there isn’t the time to do so. But if I am free to choose a lens, it’ll be a prime. So, what are the benefits of moving during portrait shoots?
The first and possibly most powerful is it will change your images. I will often move left and right, but then get down low to the ground, or climb on something and be high above my subject. I will hide behind objects to obscure part of the frame. I will try every angle — no matter how bizarre — just to see how it looks.
Shooting face-on at eye height isn’t bad by any means, but if you’re looking to shoot several different images, they’ll lack any diversity and become dull. By moving in all directions and shooting from every angle you can think of, you’ll find some interesting shots you might not have thought of before starting. You’ll likely end up with loads that don’t work, but that doesn’t matter. Get up high, lay down on the floor, be that photographer if need be.
A sense of depth in your portraiture can be achieved in a number of ways. The two most common methods are the angle and aperture. When you move, you are constantly changing the angle of the shot. Images of people taken square on — particularly against a background — can appear flat, which is often boring. By moving to be at an angle to the subject, you’re allowing the scene to appear more three dimensional. Generally, this is far more interesting to view and can tell more of a story.
When it comes to aperture, there’s a common mistake that I have written about before: wide open isn’t your only option. When we spend so much on fast glass, the temptation to shoot every portrait at f/2.8 or wider is always there. While this can offer great subject separation, it limits you. Moving around will throw one of the subject’s eyes out of focus, or the background will become distracting. Instead, try shooting at more narrow apertures like f/5.6 or above. If you get close enough, the background will still soften out even if it doesn’t become gooey bokeh, and you’ll find that you can be more creative with angles, and the scene around you isn’t lost.
The most limiting factor of standing still too much during a shoot is with your composition. Asking your subject to move around is good practice and necessary, but your composition will seldom change. By moving around, you can develop and even discover new compositions and not end up with a shoot full of centered subjects. It is also a lot easier to guide the eye with tools like leading lines, such as the classic headshot technique of having someone lean against a wall, and the photographer shoots from against that very wall, using the lines between bricks to guide the viewer’s eyes to the subject.
Division of Responsibility
Ask any model: they’ll tell you that a lack of direction is a big and common problem, particularly with newer photographers. The problem is if the photographer just stands there and expects the model to do all the work, it’s unlikely to be a good shoot. And that’s models. Most subjects you photograph won’t be agency models with experience, offering a multitude of poses and ideas. By moving your own feet, you can bounce off your subject. I’ve photographed agency models and I’ve photographed people on their first shoot, and by moving, you instantly offer a division of responsibility. The onus isn’t all on the subject, and people of all experience levels will have ideas and experiment with different poses as you change your angle and composition.
It also makes your shoots more fun, which shouldn’t be undervalued!
The enemy of a creative, enjoyable, and fruitful portrait shoot is stagnation. By moving your feet and experimenting with different angles, distances, and heights, you’re likely to come away with a more varied collection of shots. Moving around during a shoot is one aspect of being a portrait photographer that many beginners overlook in preference of concentrating on the settings or the lights, which can impact the quality — not to mention the variety — of your final images.
Do you move a lot during your shoots? Do you have any tips when it comes to movement while shooting? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.