From the selfie enthusiast to the wedding photographer, portrait photography has weaved its way into our everyday lives. On Saturday morning, I took a group of five students to further explore the ins and outs of this everyday skill. We started with an indoor review session, going over camera basics and exposure. After we went over ISO, aperture, and shutter speed (extra emphasis on aperture and depth of field), we moved on to lens choice and composition. But it wasn’t until we stepped outside to photograph our model, Jasmine, that were were able to put all these skills to use.
As always, we started with some light tests. Working with direct sunlight is always more difficult than it seems, and lucky for us it was a nice sunny day—a perfect opportunity to practice. We started with positioning Jasmine directly in front of the sun. While this may seem ideal, it was difficult to get a natural expression from Jasmine, as she immediately squinted and had trouble looking up. We then switched to side lighting, and while her squinting immediately went away, we encountered another issue: shadows. Half of Jasmine’s face was lit up brightly, while the other half was completely shaded. Our final position was backlighting. We positioned Jasmine so that the sun was behind her and the harsh sunlight suddenly became soft, indirect light. On top of that, there was a nice rim light on Jasmine’s dark hair, giving her a nice outer glow. Soft, indirect light can be achieved even when in direct sunlight; we just have to be willing to position ourselves and our model to find it!
Next, we moved on to finding pleasing backgrounds. As much as I love Aperture Academy Headquarters, it is not the ideal place for portrait photography. It is the ideal place to discover that a good portrait can be taken anywhere, even outside an office building. One of the most underrated tools in portrait photography is the telephoto lens. It does more than just magnify the subject from a further distance. When used properly, a telephoto lens can compress the image and enhance background blur. We tested this by photographing Jasmine from the waist up, but backing up and zooming in until the foliage of a single tree filled our entire background. It was interesting to see how the environment can be so easily manipulated through simple angles and the correct lens!
We also practiced another aspect of getting more out of the background than what we see. The camera’s dynamic range is nowhere close to what our eyes can see. Because of this, a dark, unattractive wall behind our subject, can really be a nice black backdrop. The same concept can work when we place our subject against the sky. Suddenly, areas with a high contrast of light can work as studio backdrops. We played around with poses and angles, having Jasmine sit and even lie down to get her to relax a bit, and then I tagged her out for a demonstration on head shots. I have a horrible habit of throwing my head back when I laugh, and while candid shots are my favorite, this natural pose can be unflattering. This is why photographers must pay special attention to the position of their subject’s head when photographing head shots. The secret is to turtle your head out, which allows the light to wrap around your model’s jaw. It might feel uncomfortable for them as first, but the results are well worth it!
We headed across the street after to practice framing. Natural frames are all around us—it is again up to us photographers to find the perfect angle to create these frames. We positioned Jasmine under a tree, using the negative space between the trees to frame her and the row of trees behind her as a leading line. Afterwards, I became the assistant and showed the students how subtle a reflector can be. We ended with some images of Jasmine walking down a path, and then the students were off! I hope that they not only took a lot away from this class, but that they will continue to practice and put the skills to use.
Until next time,
Mary and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team!
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.