Basic Portrait Photography Tips

Considering the entire country is under lockdown and there is nothing much I can do, I was digging through my photography archives and found these set of portrait shots of Carmen Hong that I have taken for the review of Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III quite recently. I thought it would be a good idea to explore simple, lifestyle/casual portrait photography and I can certainly share some tips on how to do that here. Carmen is an amazing friend and a talented photographer herself and of course she uses Olympus system. She has volunteered to be the model to test out the new Eye/Face AF tracking feature on E-M1 Mark III which helped greatly in my review of the camera. Special thanks to Carmen for being such a sport, and also Jackie Loi for some behind the scenes footage of me in action in the video (click here). 

For any portrait photography, it is crucial to maintain a healthy and open communication between the photographer and model. It is important to listen to the model and not get her to do anything uncomfortable during the shoot. I highly encourage the photographer going into any portrait shooting to prioritize respect above all else. 

This is not a professional portrait shooting tutorial, but this may be a good guide for you if you are new to portrait photography. Remember, there is no right and wrong when it comes to shooting people, and my tips are aimed to simplify the shooting process by addressing some critical considerations that a portrait photographer should take care of. 

1) Use longer lenses
I highly recommend to start with telephoto lens for portrait shooting. The longer lens helps to get rid of excessive perspective distortion which can render very ugly looking human images. The perspective exaggeration due to wide angle use normally cause disproportionate looking limbs, legs appearing longer or shorter and also head looking weirdly big in comparison to the overall body size. To maintain a more flattering look on the subject, a long lens helps to minimize any odd perspective. Also, a long lens typically means you have less background to work with, having the compression effect to your advantage, aiding cleaner and simpler composition. On the other hand, a longer lens can create shallower depth of field, able to blur off the background more effectively than wider lenses. My primary lens for this particular shoot was the Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm F1.8 and also 45mm F1.8. 

2) Make Sure The Eye is in Focus
I know a lot of photographers are taught to use center focus and recompose method, but this technique should not be used for critical portraiture work, especially if you use long lenses with wide open aperture. Shooting with, say an Olympus 45mm F1.8 at a close up distance, the risk of miss-focusing due to focus and recompose is extremely high. I highly recommend that you shift the focusing point and place it exactly at the eye of the subject in your frame. Olympus cameras generally have reliable face/eye detect AF, but other than E-M1 Mark III, I still manually move my focusing point each and every time I shoot any portrait shot. For E-M1 Mark III, especially for this particular session, I just relied on the camera's newly upgraded and improved face/eye tracking AF, it nailed the eyes consistently throughout the entire shooting duration. 

All images in this blog entry were shot with Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.Zuiko lenses 12mm F2, 45mm F1.8 and 75mm F1.8

Use of longer lens can render shallower depth of field, combined with wide aperture. 

With a longer focal length, there is less background to deal with, having that "telephoto compression" effect. 

For more "professional looking" result, always opt for longer focal length. I'd highly recommend the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 (or the F1.2 PRO if you can afford that), or the 75mm F1.8

3) Use wide angle lens
This may contradict the first tip, but if you have an interesting background that can add to the story, to create an environmental portrait, then using a wide angle lens, such as at 14mm or 12mm wide end of your lens can be an effective way to tell a story. Just be careful not to fit anything that may not necessarily add any value to the photography, shooting wide angle is challenging because often times you may accidentally include something that can destroy the image. Just watch the frame from edge to edge and corner to corner, and make sure the background builds up the story, not take away the story. 

4) Adopt Creative Composition
To make an interesting portrait photograph, you can always make use of the environment and your surrounding to amplify the impact of your final image. For example, I always like to add reflection into the frame, finding reflective surfaces such as a puddle of water, a window, glass or metal walls to make the image a bit more dramatic. I also play with lines, repetitions, patterns, geometry, light and shadow, or anything interesting within my frame to add something extra to the composition. 

I always find ways to include a reflection to make the shot look more intriguing. 

Whenever there is a repetitive line, it works very well for composition too. 

The neutral grey tone and the vertical lines work very well against Carmen's flesh tone as well as her red dress that pops out of the frame. 

Playing with shapes and framing here, placing Carmen in the middle of the arch opening of the building, creates a natural framing around here. 

Repetition and framing used in this simple composition, Carmen is placed in between two columns, which immediately highlights her in the frame. 

Leading lines is a tried and tested technique, have been overused but is super effective way of drawing attention to your subject. The line of the hand-rail leads you directly to her right arm, which then points to her face/head. 

I don't use wide angle a lot, but if you have an interesting background, wide angle can help make a strong visual story-telling. 

Just be careful not to include distracting elements if wide angle is used. 

5) Lighting
For simple, outdoor portrait, I generally keep my setup minimal and I do not carry a lot of gear with me. I don't quite like to use strobes or flash on outdoor shoots, unless I want to create certain effect or look, or if it is demanded by clients. I also do not like to work with reflectors, I have seen many wrong execution of reflector causing light to shine unevenly, causing very unnatural looking skin tone. When I was shooting Carmen in this session it was an overcast day, the clouds completely covered the sky. The light was flat, even, dull and honestly quite uninteresting. Nevertheless, that meant that I can have very nice and pleasing looking skin tone. Else I would have to find shades to do most of my shoots, and find creative ways to work with harsh light. 

6) Communication, and shooting with LCD screen
Communication is key in any portrait shooting, you have to interact with your model. One way to improve your communication is not to shoot through your viewfinder all the time. When you shoot through your camera's viewfinder, you are blocking your face, the model, posing while looking at you and listening to your direction cannot see your facial expression. There is no eye contact. That is poor communication if you ask me. One simple and effective way to improve this situation is take the camera away from the eye level, use the LCD screen and when you talk to your model look her in the eye and make sure your instructions are clear. Any improved communication can enhance the outcome of the portraits you are taking. 

I hope you have found these sharing useful, and if you have friends who are starting out on portrait photography, why not share this blog post with them? If you have more tips to share about basic portrait shooting please leave them in the comments. 

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