Venturing into Portrait Photography

| December 28, 2011

Call me a nut. I like trying to figure everything out. Painting, photography, drawing, traveling, woodworking, and home building. When will it stop? Hopefully not for a long time. Within photography there are many disciplines just like any other art form. I have focused primarily on landscapes for the past several years and I don’t plan to give those up anytime soon. I have, however, become increasingly fascinated with portrait photography. I love the complexity of the task which includes posing, manipulating natural and artificial light, retouching, and effects processing. But more importantly, I like the challenge of storytelling and trying to tap into the heart and soul of a person through a picture. That will take lots of practice, which is where the fun starts.

To get some practice in, I made good on a promise of making pictures of my sister’s kids for Christmas. This post includes a few of my favorites from our outing. It was fun to take the available light and add reflection and artificial light to light the scenes. For the head shot of my lovely niece at the top, I used a combination of the sun and a large white reflector. If I had not used a reflector to the left of her face, the shadows would have rendered too dark. Shadows are nice for describing shapes and forms, but I envisioned a higher key look for the shot and needed the reflector to kick some light into the naturally created shadows.

For the window shot above, I used available light, which was a combination of shop lights and sun coming in through a large garage door. My primary challenge was to find an angle that would prevent reflections in the window. It was not that hard. I just walked around a bit until the reflections were gone and posed my niece for the shot from there.

I used the same white reflector for the head shot above. I like how the sun on the tree contrasts against her dark hair to draw the eye to her face. Eyes are very important in portraits. I was careful to always focus on her eyes. They are the widow to the soul and it is a good idea to keep them as sharp as possible.

Contrary to what we may believe, the sun is actually a small light source when it comes to photography because it is so far away. Unless it is diffused by clouds to make it bigger, it casts sharp and contrasty shadows. The reflector reduces the small light phenomenon and creates more balanced illumination when needed.

Above is my nephew. His eyes were very sensitive to the sun and I could not keep him from squinting. How can we get to know him with this eyes closed? We can’t. So, the best thing was to pull him into the shade. No more squinting! The problem from a lighting perspective was that, in shadow, he would be too dark compared to the background and there was no light to easily reflect on him. Enter my Canon speedlite flash.

I used the flash to light my nephew and balance him against the bright background. The problem with a speedlite flash is that it is a small light source just like the sun, which usually means harsh and unflattering shadows. To make the shadows softer, I had to make the light source bigger. How did I do that? I used a light modifier called a Gary Fong Lightsphere. A Lightsphere is basically a Tupperware-like thing that attaches to a flash with a snap-in reverse dome on top. Just Google it and you will see what one looks like and find a ton of videos on how to use it. I pointed the reverse dome directly at my nephew and, as you can see, he is nicely lit with no dark and unsightly shadows.

Another key to these photos is using shallow depth of field to blur the background. Blurring the background allows the subject to pop as the center of focus while maintaining visual interest and an sense of place for the scene. The shot of my nephew above was shot at f/7.1 at focal length of 125mm. If I were to increase the f-stop, the background would increasingly come into focus. How much blur is a matter of personal preference. Just play with your f-stop and focal length to get just the right amount!

To wrap up, I have an engagement shoot scheduled soon and I want to be the best I can be for the young couple. I don’t want to just take nice pictures of them. I want to tell their story. To do that, I will need to get to know them better. What do they like doing together? Where did they meet? They are in love, no doubt, and I need to say that with photographs. The prospect of doing this well is a bit scary and exciting at the same time.

When I asked what the bride to be what she would like to say with the pictures she said, “I want people to know we are here in Colorado now and this is where we are starting our lives together.” With that in mind, I am planning to do the shoot on a 500-acre ranch near my home. Perfect!

Category: Photography

Comments (3)

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  1. A.Barlow says:

    I feel your pain man, I;m in the same boat. I think people call us indecisive creatives, lol. Either that or the ADHD is so powerful we need something to keep us busy. 🙂

    Nice shots here. That 2nd shot looks like it has a just a hint of tint to it. The POV to the subject and the eye direction make it interesting.

  2. LeavesOfCrimson says:

    I love seeing you expand your photography to people, Lee, and I like what you said about the photograph giving hints to the person’s thoughts, heart, mindset, etc. I just heard of a photographer of old, I believe it was Edward (or was it Robert?) Steichen and did a bit of research on him. Absolutely stunning photos! Had you heard of him?

  3. Tracy Brech says:

    Thanks again Lee! You did a superb job and you captured your wonderful niece and nephew completely!