Portraiture is a fascinating genre of photography but can be intimidating when considering how to get started. The goal of this article is to help guide you in the right direction when considering what you need to create impressive portraits.
Choosing a Camera: Where to Begin
It can be a daunting task to purchase a camera, as there are so many elements to consider. When it comes to portraiture however, there are a few things you can keep in mind when choosing the right camera and lenses for your specific needs.
DSLR vs. Point-and-Shoot/Compact
DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras offer the most versatility when it comes to portraiture as they are based on the original SLR (single lens reflex) film cameras. Compared with a “point-and-shoot” or compact camera, DSLR cameras allow you to change lenses as desired or needed. This affords you much more control over the typical point-and-shoot camera, where you are limited to one built-in zoom lens and less range with f-stop/aperture. DSLR cameras allow you to easily shoot in one of the programmed modes or switch to full Manual mode. Most compact camera models are meant to be used more with the built-in and programmed settings. DSLR cameras tend to be faster with autofocus and shutter release, which helps to capture moments that are fleeting, such as live events.
Additionally, DSLR cameras offer both full frame sensors as well as cropped sensors, while point-and-shoot cameras are almost always cropped. Cropped sensor cameras limit the field of view and essentially increase the focal length of your lens by about 50-60%. For example, in the portrait below on the left, a Canon 5D Mark III was used with a 50mm lens; while the portrait on the right was taken with a Canon 77D and the same 50mm lens. The cropped image on the right has a focal length equivalent of about 80mm.
Both portraits were captured at 50mm. The full frame portrait on the left was taken with a Canon 5D Mark III, while the image on the right was taken with the Canon 77D.
This is especially important if you want to work with longer lenses such as an 85mm prime lens, which is excellent for portraits and headshots. If you want to include more of the scene around your subject, particularly when shooting outdoors or on-location, then I recommend the full frame DSLR as your best option. For candid portraits that are shot from more of a distance than a posed portrait, a cropped sensor camera like one in the Rebel series is great for creating more of an intimate feel with the tighter frame. Just be aware that any lens you mount to the camera will have the appearance of a tighter field of view than compared to a full frame camera.
Using Your Camera’s Shooting Modes
When getting started with portraits, it’s absolutely fine to use your camera’s Automatic or Program modes for shooting. When using these modes that are optimized for different types of images, the camera will use its built-in light meter to decide the best settings for a well-exposed photo. This is a great place to start as it allows you to focus on composition and posing and ensures that you get proper exposures. You can then work up to using the other modes of your camera when you are ready to have more control.
In addition to a full Manual mode, most DSLR cameras feature semi-manual shooting modes like Aperture Priority (Av) and Shutter Priority (Tv). These settings allow you to choose either your camera’s aperture/f-stop (in Av Mode) or shutter speed (in Tv Mode) manually and then the camera will adjust the exposure accordingly as you move and shoot. This ensures that the camera does its best to give you a great exposure.
Top Canon Cameras for Portraiture
In my opinion, if you are looking to begin with a compact camera, the Canon G7 X Mark II is a great starter camera as it offers a variety of programmed modes, as well as full Manual if you want to work up to it. The lens also offers a range for great portraits. The Canon G1 X Mark III is another great option as it features a bit less telephoto reach (24-72mm) than the G7 X Mark II (24-100mm) however yields better image quality due to its larger APS-C sensor (same size as a Rebel series, 7D series and 70D/80D type cameras) and a traditional viewfinder for composing without the LCD screen. This is helpful in bright shooting conditions when screens are more difficult to see.
If a DSLR sounds like a better fit for you, the EOS Rebel series is a great place to start. Rebel cameras are available individually or bundled with lenses as a kit. Kits are great when you are starting out as they save you some money while you decide what additional lenses you need for the style of portraits you want to create. For full frame DSLRs, the Canon 6D Mark II and the Canon 5D Mark IV are excellent for portraits.
The 6D Mark II packs a ton of power for a great price, featuring a 26.2 megapixel sensor and advanced digital processing, to deliver amazing results even at expanded ISO settings The 5D Mark IV boasts a 30.4MP sensor that delivers pin-sharp results, an advanced 61-point autofocus system and 4K video capabilities.
Best Lenses for Creating Great Portraits: My Recommendations
The first thing to consider when choosing a lens for portraiture is the focal length, usually stated in millimeters (28mm, 50mm, 100mm). Prime lenses have one focal length (field of view) while zoom lenses feature both a minimum and maximum focal length, for example 24-105mm.
Longer lenses are great for close-up portraits as they can help to isolate your subject from the background and fill more of the frame. In the example below, you can see how the focal length affects the focal point within each image. The longer the lens, the more the subject is featured versus their surroundings. This is just another consideration when choosing a lens, as it may be to your benefit to use shorter lenses over longer ones if you are shooting environmental portraits or location portraits where it’s important to showcase your subject’s surroundings and not shoot as tightly.
Left: 50mm; Middle: 75mm; Right: 105mm
Working with Wide-Angle Lenses
As a general rule, it’s best to choose a focal length of 50mm or higher for portraits. Wide-angle focal lengths include anything below 50mm and aren’t usually recommended for portraits because of the lens distortion inherent to a wide-angle lens. Lens distortion can broaden the look of a person’s face and create unflattering results.
Left: 24mm; Right: 50mm
However, wide-angle lenses can be excellent for full length portraits when you want to convey the beauty of a subject’s surroundings. For more close-up portraits, however, it’s best to choose a minimum focal length of 50mm to avoid distortion.
Left: 50mm; Right: 24mm
The next consideration with lenses is prime vs. zoom. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, while zoom lenses offer the flexibility of a variable focal length. This allows you to quickly change from a wider composition to a tight crop and back again, with minimal movement of the camera. Prime lenses tend to be a bit sharper and faster so they perform well in low light conditions. Zoom lenses are very lightweight so they’re great for travel, but they don’t offer apertures as wide as prime lenses. The choice between prime and zoom lenses comes down to what you think will be more useful for the type of portraits you want to take.
Choosing Your Aperture
When considering what aperture/f-stop to use for a portrait, this first consideration is the background behind your subject. Do you want the background to be in focus, slightly out-of-focus or completely blurred? For beautiful scenic backgrounds that you want to stay in focus, a good f-stop range is anything between f/8 and f/32. If you want to use a natural backdrop but don’t need it to be in sharp focus, like a forest or flower garden, choosing a wider aperture between f/1.2 and f/5.6 will help to blur the background.
From left to right: f/22, f/16, f/11, f/8, f/4, f/1.8
Fastest Canon Lenses for Portraits
The speed of a lens refers to its maximum aperture. “Faster” lenses with maximum apertures like f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2 allow more light into the camera, making photographing in low light possible. Shooting with a large aperture will allow your subject to be in focus while your background falls out-of-focus with a beautiful bokeh (blurred) effect. This technique works beautifully with natural backgrounds and is also a great way to disguise distractions in the background like parked cars, traffic cones and other clutter. Some of Canon’s fastest lenses for portraits include the 85mm/1.2, 135mm/2.0 and 200mm/2.0.
Left: f/4; Right: f/1.8
What to Bring to a Portrait Session
It’s a good idea to bring several lenses with you to a portrait session so that you can make creative decisions on the fly. A good standby lens to always have in your camera bag is the 50mm prime. In the days of 35mm film photography, the 50mm was considered the “standard” lens because the focal length most closely matches that of the human eye. This lens works well for full length portraits and group shots as well as close-ups.
Another excellent portrait lens to have on hand is the 85mm. This lens works very well for headshot sessions as the focal length allows you to easily shoot “shoulders-up” portraits from a comfortable distance. If you like to shoot with tight crops of your subject, a telephoto or zoom lens can also be useful for getting in close without being in your subject’s face.
Reflectors are also a great tool to have on hand for portraits, as they can help bounce light where you need it to soften or fill shadows. This works especially well with natural light, so it’s good to have a few on hand. White reflectors are most common and can be made from foam core board, cardboard or cloth stretched over a flexible aluminum frame.
Left: No reflector used; Right: With white reflector
When natural light is not enough to get the results you are after, Speedlites are your best friends. These lightweight flashes pack a lot of power for their size and can be used for many different lighting effects. Most commonly Speedlites are used for a soft, fill-flash effect. Additional light from a flash can help to ensure sharpness and detail, brighten skin tones and add an attractive catch light to your subject’s eyes.
Both portraits were captured at f/1.8. For the portrait on the right, a Speedlite was added to brighten skin tones, increase details and add sparkle to the eyes.
What to Keep in Your Camera Bag
Having a tripod with you at portraits shoots can help a lot in low light situations. An extra camera battery is never a bad idea to have in your camera bag, especially when shooting away from home. Bring along a small notepad so that you can take notes. While the camera will always record things like the f-stop, shutter speed and focal length (metadata), you may want to jot down your distance to your subject, distance of your subject from the background, etc. Other emergency tools that can come in handy with portraits are scissors, a sewing kit, gaffer’s tape, safety pins, super glue and eye drops.
After you have captured your images and transferred them from your camera to your computer, you can begin to edit them. Digital images pulled straight from the camera can appear somewhat dull and almost always need to be adjusted for brightness and contrast.
RAW files are much like film negatives in that no compression has occurred yet. JPG files are more like prints as they are compressed and sharpened in-camera. Due to this compression, JPG files offer less flexibility with changes to exposure, color and contrast. It’s recommended to shoot portraits in RAW file format whenever possible so that you can “push and pull” the exposure of an image to compensate for over or under exposure as well as change color balance to dial in skin tones.
Canon’s Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software is free to download (from the Product Support page for your camera at usa.canon.com) and allows you to quickly adjust RAW files for exposure, brightness, contrast, sharpness and color balance. If you shoot JPG files, programs like Adobe’s Photoshop® or Lightroom® can help you to fine-tune your images as much as is possible.
Digital Photo Professional software for Canon cameras
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