The art of portrait photography is built on a strong foundation of multi-tasking. On Saturday morning, I reviewed the many tasks at hand with four amazing students here at Aperture Academy’s Natural Light Portrait Photography class: 1) finding great light, 2) posing our model in attractive ways, 3) working with our model for great candids, and 4) finding the right background for our shot.
Before we went out to practice these tasks, we still had to remember our cameras basics, i.e. exposure and focus. We did a quick review session on ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and how they play a huge part in portrait photography. Balancing the three will get you sharp subjects isolated against blurry backgrounds. We also discussed pros and cons on the holy trinity of lenses (wide zoom, mid zoom, and tele zoom), and how the telephoto lens does a great job compressing the image and creating a soft background for portraits, whereas a wide angle would unflatteringly distort the subject. After some final examples of composition—using rule of thirds and proper framing—we headed out to practice photographing our model Kayla.
Once outside, our first task was to find some amazing light. Luckily, it was slightly overcast which made our job a bit easier. There’s a common misconception that sunlight equals great light for photography when in fact direct sunlight can be very harsh and unflattering. It not only causes discomfort when directly in the model’s eye, but also creates harsh shadows on the face, resulting in a high contrast photo. So when working with direct sunlight, backlighting the subject is not a bad idea, but a good solution to getting that desired soft lighting. As the sun peeked out sporadically, we made sure to position Kayla so the sun would be behind her, and then moved on to task number two—making sure our background was not too distracting.
Being at an office complex, it gave the students a perfect learning environment. There weren’t many areas that would be considered a great background to the naked eye, but with the right lens and angle, the opportunities multiplied. The telephoto lens is an underrated tool that can compress the backgrounds in photographs, really isolating a small area and amplifying the blur. I demonstrated this by angling myself so that a bush was behind Kayla, and when I zoomed in with the telephoto lens, that bush became the entire background, cutting out the fountain, pole, and office windows that were also behind her.
One of the hardest jobs as a portrait photographer is getting your model to be comfortable in front of the camera. We tried a couple different poses that automatically gave the illusion of comfort: shifting weight onto one foot, leaning against a tree, and even sitting/lying down. But in order to get the best combination of a flattering pose and natural expression, we had to constantly talk to Kayla. Making a subject laugh gets easier the more you do it; and some of the best shots come from the candid moments in between dialogue.
We ended by working on two techniques: framing and movement. I showed the students ho easily nature can act as frames for your subject—all you have to do is look for them. We also practiced eliminating head room in a photo, as it is very common for beginners to place the subject’s head right in the middle of the frame rather than using the top rule of thirds line. For movement, I had the students change their focus mode from AF-S to AF-C for continuous focus (One Shot to AI Servo for Canons). This way, as Kayla strolled toward us, our focus point would continuously focus on her rather than lock in place. The secret (and challenge) was to keep the focus point on her at all times. After a few strolls down the walkway, I was super impressed on how the students nailed freezing movement as they each got sharp photos!
Before I knew it, it was time to wrap up with our group picture and off they went! My last piece of advice was to practice their craft to continue learning and growing.
Until next time,
Mary and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team!
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