My son’s taking a college photography class, and he came home with an assignment to shoot some portraits. Of course, I wanted to know a bit about the assignment, so I asked a few questions — how did they explain “portraits”, did they talk about focal lengths, lighting, and so on. It turns out they’d covered none of these things, so I tried my best to give him a ten-minute crash course in portrait basics — mainly, showing him a handful of links covering some of the topics I thought he should be aware of.
If you’re starting out, then, here are a handful of basic ideas you want to become aware of. You won’t master all of these right away, but you should at least start thinking about them — be aware of what you’re trying to accomplish as you shoot.
Focal lengths. Portraits are typically shot using focal lengths somewhere around 50mm to 200mm (full frame), and it turns out there’s a reason for that. Your choice of focal length will affect how your subject looks. Here are some great examples showing this effect:
- The Ideal Focal Length for Portraiture: A Photographer’s Experiment
- The Best and Worst Focal Lengths for Portraits
- How Focal Length Affects Your Subject’s Weight in Portraits
Lighting. Along with focal length, the way you light your subject can make a real difference in how your subject is portrayed. Since lighting affects subjects for painters just as it does for photographers, lighting has actually been studied in detail since the invention of the paintbrush. This means, among other things, that there are some well-known named lighting techniques that you can apply to portraits. For the new portrait photographer, I think the most important realization is that you really need to pay attention to how you’re positioning light on your subject — don’t leave this to luck! Here are a few of those well-known lighting setups and terms (not all of these are classical in origin):
- What is Rembrandt Lighting?
- What are ‘broad’ and ‘short’ lighting
- What is split portrait lighting?
- What is butterfly lighting, and when do I use it?
- What is clamshell lighting, and when should it be used?
- What is a loop lighting pattern?
- What is a kicker?
Posing. These guides should help give you some ideas — hopefully one or more of these will help you create the look you’re shooting for: