Portrait Tips - Viktor35mm

Portrait Tips

20 April 2018

" Every portrait is a war between the sitters vanity, and the photographers guile "

All Smiles - Ho River, Hoi An, Vietnam.

Before I jump into the nitty gritty, I'd like to preface this (first ever - woo!) entry by outlining my reasoning behind it a little.

I have never written a blog before, nor am I by any metric a professional photographer. I'm just a casual noob who loves the craft of photography and is constantly hungry to learn more and improve in any of its facets. With that hunger I tend to overconsume metric tons of 'tip' sheets, forums, Youtube videos, blogs and even spend far too much time trawling through photographs taken by the greats (and end up questioning why I even bother, become thoroughly depressed at my ineptitude and cry a little inside).

Most of the time I'll head out, try out the tips and come up with some pretty nifty stuff, only to subsequently forget to apply certain techniques in situations when I get too caught up in the moment of it (goldfish memory doesn't help).

So that's where this post comes in, something I intend to update through time and something that comprises of a lot of ideas, methods and sources to act as a (probably overtly long) cheat-sheet for shooting portraits. In total honestly it's a place for me to store all these tips for my own use - if it ends up of use to anybody out there - great :).

1. The Gear - Lens Selection Tips for Portrait Photography

Now you're going to see a lot of 'Your gear DOESN'T MATTER' out there, which for the most part is absolutely true, though I am of the belief that your tools do serve as an effective baseline to your photography.

Now I'm not going to do the old 'You don't need $$$$ lenses to produce $$$$ results'. That's been done to death and it's very clear that skill trumps gear. My intent here is to talk about what effect your gear has with your INTENT in a portrait.

For example - You can absolutely head out there and start photographing nostril close ups with an 8mm lens. If your intent is to produce distorted imagery of people, their features and/or see things in whatever funky way, then more power to you. Provided that is your intent with the image and you want to capture a little 'shock' factor.

The point I'm trying to make here is  that there is no perfect portrait length, that different lenses can help produce different feelings and that is what you're trying to capture after all: a feeling, not just a photograph.

So this section serves as a quick guideline as to what lenses to use for what situations and how some of them can give a varying context and different feel to a photograph.

Flame on - Aberdeen, Scotland.

For wider shots, that show subjects in the context of their surroundings, anything from around 24 - 50mm (35mm equivalent) works well for more 'environmental' portraits.

Most typically take the best of both worlds and settle on a 35mm. It's just wide enough to give a lot of background context to a photograph highlighting a subject as well as their scene.

Used typically in street photography, travel photography etc., the added bonus of a wider lens like a 35mm, is its immense versatility - not only does it allow you to 'fit in' more, it can also work really well where there is limited space to play with, i.e. indoors.

Rather than using an incredibly shallow depth of field with a longer lens (85mm @ F/1.2 for example), you can also use the width of the lens to isolate your subjects in a different way - using your background in a minimalistic sense to give more impact to your point of focus, the subject.

At the end of the day though, different things work for different people - so it's important to experiment where you can.

For tighter shots, close ups, head shots etc. Anything from 70 - 135mm works beautifully. The most popular here again is most likely the 85mm as it strikes a good balance between versatility, compression (so your subjects aren't distorted with curvature towards the edges) and decent shallow depth of field. Particularly if you're lucky enough to have a 1.2/1.4 to play with.

As a massive bokeh fanatic, I'd love to invest into something like a 135 f/2 for the extra special subject isolation, but I can personally see limit use cases, so I tend to stick with 85 as it gives me a more 'journalistic' focal length in my travels. One day for sure though ;).

Anything beyond that, say 200mm onward tends to give too much of a 'disconnected' look to me, where it feels like you are surveilling (is that a word?) your subject, rather than connecting with them intimately. Now it's important to note this is just a personal feeling here and I'm sure if somebody chucked a currently non-existing 200mm 1.4 I'd probably love them forever and run around sniping all day.


24-35mm close-up tends to give a more exaggerated feel to the features of a person, good for in-your-face, dramatic, dynamic shots which can be to your advantage depending on what you're trying to say with the photograph (also helps in tight spaces and for environmental portraits).

50mm will give a more honest representation of someone and their features.

85mm for a little compression (giving slightly more pleasing features), most common portrait focal length.

105-135mm, great for further subject isolation, model shoots, even creamier bokeh than an 85 etc.

~200mm, extreme subject isolation, more for paparazzi, voyeurism and wildlife (personal opinion :D ).

2. Make the Eyes your Focus

Probably the most common of all tips here - though I don't just mean making sure the eyes are IN focus, rather, as the photographer, focus on what the eyes of the subject are doing.

If they are looking away from the camera, it feels more like a slice in time of an event, emotion, or feeling. The photograph is more 'in-situ' and feels more honest - it also prompts the observer to maybe imagine what the person is thinking, or feeling. Less obvious emotions tend to come across well here.

On the other hand if the subject is looking at the camera directly it feels more confrontational, i.e. the viewer is looking directly at the viewed and vice-versa. This can be particularly impactful if there is a more obvious emotion (laughter, anger, sadness etc) attached to the subject which will communicate directly to the viewer. Without a predefined state agreed with say, a model, this is often the most difficult way to capture an honest view of the subject, as many will inadvertently pose, or can often look like a deer caught in headlights. Though I'll expand on this a further a little later on.

In terms of group photos, the tendency is to capture everyone in the group looking at the camera at once. However this often means each person in the photograph loses their sense of individuality i.e. they tend to blend in. This isn't a bad thing per say, but it is very different to when you capture a photograph of a group looking away from the camera (or all in different directions) - as in the Cartier-Bresson example above. Here you are instead capturing a 'scene' as an onlooker, which tends to once again look more 'honest' as well as dynamic.

Another nice example is where everyone is looking in a different direction except for one person who is looking directly into the camera  - the viewer tends to make an instant connection with that one person and they become the viewers' route into that scene(Winograd example above) i.e. their eyes are drawn to that individual almost instantly.

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