Being Creative With Your Portraits

In today’s world of instant access to information via the World Wide Web, anyone anywhere can find and learn about almost anything in as much as it takes their computer, smart phone or other web enabled device to locate the desired content. This brief post, is by no means a definitive work on how to take better portraits, but rather one of many ways to do it; and while you have probably read or heard about a number of ways to shoot portraits, the one thing that nearly every “How To” article or “E-book” agree on, is that there are a few simple rules that one must follow in order to get good results, for all types of photography.

For the purpose of this post, I will assume that you already have a basic understanding of photography, and are looking to expand your knowledge base and enhance your technical skills; thus with that basic premise in mind, lets dividephotography into two basic categories, the Technical Approach and the Creative Approach. While both are equally important, this post focuses mainly on the mixture of the two, with the major emphasis placed on the creative aspects of portraiture and what I have found works best for me.

As people, we are all unique individuals with different ideals, beliefs and experiences which makes us who we are; as artist/photographers, it is no different, so whenever I teach, I always tell people to look at the learning experience, as a work in progress, evaluate it, process it, take from it what works for them, and discard the rest, after all part of being an artist/photographer is all about developing one’s own, unique style.

As with all things in life, there is a process to everything, and in photography, there is no substitute for knowing the rules of what it takes to make a technically sound image; proper exposure, sharp focus, correct white balance and knowing the your equipment and its limitations are but a few of the things that go into the making of an image. Yet I believe, and this is my opinion, that the human element is the single most important part of the equation; as without you, the artist/photographer, exposure, sharp focus, and white balance are just terms and a camera and lens are just tools. It is what we do with them to bring our thoughts and ideas to life is what makes the difference; and thus enters the creative process and the passion to create.

The Creative Process

For me the Creative Process and that passion that drives me to create is what determines how I shoot; by the time I pick up the camera and position my subject, I have already envisioned in my mind how that image is going to look, long before that shutter ever cycles through. While I own several light meters and other nifty gadgets, I consider myself more of an artist than a photographer, and seldom use them except for that of an ordinary 18% grey card which will make life easier during post production; I tend to rely more on what I see and how I feel about the image, than what the camera’s histogram tells me. In essence, I learned the rules and then set out to break everyone of them.

The Eyes; Windows to the Soul

When photographing people, the single most important part of any good portrait are the eyes, as it is usually the first thing the viewer looks at. A person’s eyes are the most prominent feature of a person’s face and can, and most often do, convey a powerful statement or emotion which aids in capturing the interest of your audience. They also tend to be the sharpest and most readily identifiable feature on a person’s face; case in point, National Geographic Photographer, Steve McCurry’s image of the “Afghan Girl” featured on the Cover of the June 1985 Issue of the Magazine, gained instant, world wide notoriety, as it captivated the hearts and minds of millions of readers.

Thus, all efforts should be made to ensure that the eyes remain, crystal clear and sharp. The eyes, can convey the unspoken message of fear, humility, tragedy, joy, happiness, grief and countless other powerful emotions, that will captivate the viewer’s imagination and cause an impact on their psyche. This concept can also be applied to animals, as very often the intensity of an animal’s eyes can capture and mystify the viewer’s imagination and draw then into the image.

Focus points and which one to choose

Today’s cameras have the ability to choose the most appropriate focus point for you; all you have to do is set it to do so. However, when you choose that option that tells the camera to select the focus points for you, you severely limit your ability to focus exactly on what you want to focus on. This feature will usually pick and focus on the closest thing to the lens; and in most cases, the camera will identify a group of points and estimate on what to focus on based on the average distance between the points in that particular group. By using one focus point, you will have total control of what you are focusing on and get the shot that you want.

Fast lenses give you great blurry backgrounds

Outside of the fact that fast lenses tend to have a better resale value, they are also the best and easiest way to get great blurry backgrounds. Any lens with an aperture of ƒ/2.8 and below will yield greater shallow depth of field results. As you can see in the image above, shot with a Canon 7D and a 300mm L Series ƒ/2.8 lens, the rider’s face and that of his equine partner are in focus, while the background is smooth and blurry or if you will, great “bokeh.” This effect is not only more pleasing to the eye, but removes any distracting or unsightly items from the frame, and allows the viewer to focus in on the main subject of the image.

Choosing the right lens

Which is the right lens for the job? Well, as with everything in life, that is a matter of personal preference. It also depends on who you ask. Some say you should never go below a 50mm; however, the creative, artsy side of you may want to use a 24mm or 35mm lens, and that’s fine so long as you keep in mind that the wider the angle of the lens you use, the more noticeable the distortion in the image may be.

Some photographers prefer to use prime lenses, like the 85mm ƒ/1.4 or a 135mm ƒ/2.8 for their portraits; while others tend to lean more towards telephotos like a 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 or a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 which will also increase your bokeh due to their compression effect. Nevertheless, the choice is yours and in the end it all boils down to you and what speaks to you as an artist; so experiment, have fun and see what works best for you and your vision, remember this is about exploring your creative side.