Today I organized a portrait photography workshop for the members of the Cambridge Photography Society (PhoCUS). About 20 of us descended onto Jesus Green to do some fun challenges. Since we had people with a variety of skill levels, I just decided to give everyone a series of photographic challenges that they had to complete, both in front of and behind the camera. The goal was to get people comfortable with shooting, instructing models and explaining concepts. The technical details could wait for later! Instead of holding a lecture, I just promised that I'd put together a collection of the best tutorials I know for portrait photography, mainly about posing and shooting with natural light. For complete beginners, I've added a few links at the end that will help you get started with the camera settings.
So here you go, here is what I would consider the ultimate collection of portrait photography tutorials!
One of the most difficult aspects of portrait photography is posing your model. Most people, unless they are experienced models, when put in front of a camera, will just stare blankly into the lens. Similarly, a beginner photographer usually has no clue how to instruct them. But luckily there are ways to fix this! First off, you have to learn to put your subject at ease and giving them scenarios to act out. Instead of saying 'Smile!' or 'Look sad!', it's much better to give them a story which they can relate to and play along. Using props and keeping constantly in motion helps a lot at keeping things interesting.
This short behind the scenes video from one of Julia Trotti's photoshoots shows perfectly how you can do a whole photoshoot, constantly in motion, creating spontaneous-looking, happy photos and playing around in rather simple settings. Julia is an amazing photographer and her other videos are also worth a look. You can definitely learn a ton from her if you are into this kind of spontaneous lifestyle-fashion photography style.
Now of course these are all very wide-angle portraits, showing a lot of the surroundings. So what to do when you want to shoot close-up headshots? Luckily, Peter Hurley comes to the rescue! In the following video, Peter talks about how he gets the most flattering look in his close-up portrait work. If you've watched this and enjoyed it, this video has a second part which may be worth a look if you like his style.
For more of a high-fashion posed look, I really like Clay Cook's first person shooter series on YouTube, because it gives a look into how the shoot is happening from Clay's point of view, with a GoPro attached to his camera. You can hear him direct the model and then at the end of the video you can see the final images. The video below is a good start and his YouTube channel is full of these short, informative videos.
These videos will surely get you started with the poses, but they are only the beginning. Next, try to find behind the scenes videos from the photographers that you like and look at how they shoot and instruct their models. Most importantly, don't just watch tutorials, but go and try things out with some friends and have a small photoshoot!
Shooting with Natural Light
Most of you just starting out with portrait photography will probably first experiment with natural light. However not all natural light is created equal and for example having a nice sunny day, seemingly perfect for photos, might end up in disappointment, because all the pictures have harsh shadows across the models face. You need to understand and work around the light you have available and you can get great photos any time of the day, both on sunny and cloudy days.
My all time favorite tutorial on shooting with natural light is an episode of the now discontinued Framed Network show called 'Film'. It's almost 40 minutes and it gets a bit weird and quirky sometimes if you don't know these photographers, but it is the single most useful tutorial on photography I've ever seen. Totally worth your time! It's hosted by Ryan Muirhead, Tanja Lippert and Tia Reagan, all of whom are amazingly talented people and they walk you through almost all of the lighting scenarios you'd encounter in a natural light shoot.
Seeing good light is a skill every photographer needs and it comes with a lot of practice. If you feel confident about natural light and want to experiment with using artificial lighting, the Strobist 101 blogpost is the place to start. However, after experimenting a lot with artificial lighting some years ago, I'm still drawn to the simplicity and beauty of natural light. Instead of focusing on light modifiers and running around setting up 4 different lights, I can focus on the connection between me and my subject, creating something natural and beautiful.
Choosing the Right Focal Length
A beginner's mistake I often see is that someone will go too close up to take a portrait with a wide angle lens, which will make the face seem wider and give a very unflattering look. That should be avoided, unless you are deliberately going for that comical look. The traditional portrait lenes are the 135mm and the 85mm lenses. These have wide apertures, creating a smooth background blur and have little-to-no distortion, giving the most flattering look to the models. Shorter focal lengths will show more of the surroundings, but you have to be careful about distorting your subject.
I took this picture with my 50mm lens. Going this close with anything wider would have resulted in much more distortion, giving a very unflattering look. However nowdays I enjoy going a bit wider with my portraits, giving a bit more context around my subjects, showing where they are and what they are doing, which is why I most often shoot with a 35mm. However, going this close with that lens, you'd see a lot of distortion.
This photo below was taken on my 35mm lens, which is a lot wider, but since I was farther away from my model, there was no problem with distortion. You just have to make sure you choose the right focal length depending on what effect you want to achieve. There are many videos showing how different focal lengths affect the face of the model, but I didn't really like any of them. This one by The Slanted Lens is pretty good at explaining the issue, however the pictures in the video are absolutely terrible.
Of course, it's impossible to talk about portrait photography without mentioning some gear. To get started in portraits, just use what you have and learn to use it as well as you can. However, if you want that flattering background blur, you will need a wide aperture lens. Getting a cheap 50mm F1.8 lens is probably the best investment any photographer can make and it will teach you a lot about photography, not just in portraiture. If you have trouble understanding the settings and technical stuff, here are a few videos to get you started with aperture, shutter speed and ISO and composition.
Finding people to stand in front of your camera can at first be a daunting task, but it's surprisingly easy to convince friends to play model for you. After all, they are hoping that you will snap them a new profile picture in return for their work! Later, when you become more confident, you can find more experienced models for projects via various Facebook groups, sites like Model Mayhem and through modeling agencies.
Finally, it's just all about practice. You can watch a million tutorials on YouTube, read a ton of blogposts by smartasses like me, yet you won't get anywhere without actually doing the work yourself. So grab a friend, grab your camera and start shooting!