Brooke Whistance
by on January 16, 2020

Have they made a portrait? We mean doing it intently, with the clear idea that they are making a portrait and not about taking a passing photo. It is about making a portrait, knowing what they are doing.

It is very different when we become aware of what we are doing and stop to think about what it represents; to see it seriously, to see it from a more technical perspective. We’ve all shot portraits either with a camera or phone, but not everyone knows what the most common mistakes are when we don't know what we are doing. Imagine asking a passerby to take your photo, they often don’t think too much about it and end up giving you a poorly created photo.

To learn about this, we take into account the advice from an established photographer like Ivan Wong. The LA and NYC-based photographer is a Sony Alpha Imaging Collective ambassador and specializes in different forms of photography including portraits and light trail photography. He has credible advice for portrait photographers who are looking for some useful knowledge in this regard.

  1. A bit of theory and history

Following the same line as the painting, photography was used to remember and celebrate the personalities of the time. So it's easy to understand why politicians, artists, and everyone who was famous was worthy of being photographed since photography was only accessible to professionals and the rich.

At the time, it was uncommon to take photos of important events, such as armed conflicts. The reason was that anyone who had a camera could be classified as a spy. Over time the situation changed, and documentary photography became a style that exists until today and is used by news and event photographers who tell a story with their work.

  1. The different styles

Those of us who are attracted to portrait photography know that there is a wide variety of styles, from studio photography with a white or black background to outdoor photography, with natural landscapes. Even these styles may have different ways of addressing the challenge.

Capturing the perfect exposures requires technique, capturing the best angle requires experience, but capturing the essence or emotions of the person goes beyond the technique, experience or skill of the photographer and is not easy to achieve. Each photographer will ultimately have their unique style of exposing these emotions with the model whether it be with lighting effects, costumes, expressions, and/or angles.

  1. Framing the portrait

An ordinary portrait can become beautiful and interesting by changing the way it’s composed. Framing helps emphasize the subject, drawing the viewer’s eyes to what’s important. Portraits can be captured in multiple ways to frame the subject: capturing only the face, head, shoulders, half body, whole body, etc. Another way to frame the subject is using opportunities in the environment that help creating leading lines, but don’t distract from the main subject. This can include through trees, doorways, tables, architectural lines like walls and rails, etc. Common mistakes people make with framing is cutting out fingers or not leaving enough “breathing space” in the portraits between the subject and background.

  1. Shooting with angular lenses

A portrait should make the person look their best, without deformations created by the optics, angle or perspective. Some believe that they can use wide angle lenses to shoot portraits, and while this does create interesting lines with architecture, it can end up distorting the subject. Problems that entail includes stretched legs or distorted faces, especially the closer the photographer gets to the subject.

Recently there is a tendency to make full-length portraits with wide angles where the people are small in frame to show their scale with the background. The stage steals attention, and people remain in the background. This is perfect for wide angle lens from a distance where they aren’t shooting at odd angles.

Otherwise, for close up shots, the recommendation is that they should not use angles, the ideal is to use lenses from normal (35mm for DX or 50mm for FX) up to the longest lengths.

  1. Forgetting to focus on the eyes

The eyes are the windows to the soul. As a general rule, if you are making a portrait then the eyes should look sharp; to achieve this, it is best to locate the focus point on them. But this simple action is not enough; the second point to consider is the depth of field. If we are not careful, we could end up with a photo where the eyes are out of focus. This is where relying on autofocus can lead to unreliable results and manual focusing may be needed to ensure a sharp image with every shot. Granted this may be painful if the subject is constantly moving, but this is where a balance with aperture is important. Newer cameras like Sony’s Alpha lines have eye auto-detect which can help mitigate the frustration with out-of-focus portraits.

  1. Too much depth of field, waste the bokeh

To prevent our portrait from finishing with the eyes out of focus, some photographers use a medium aperture, that is, about f8, this will create a sufficient depth of field to make a face look crisp.

This is valid and even recommended if we are in a studio, and we are using a white or black background. After all, there is nothing interesting in the background.

But if they are using a texture as the background of the portrait or if they are outside, where we can include textures, landscapes or lights in the form of a bokeh, then it would be a mistake to use a too large opening because we would end up washing out the background and miss the opportunity to create a unique portrait between subject and environment.

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