Portrait Photography

Documenting the world around us is one of the basic tasks of photography, and recording the appearance of our loved ones or maybe people in general is one of the oldest topics. The most natural object to which the lens can be turned is a human being.

And as many people as there are, as many possible faces and portraits. That is why “portrait” in terms of technique of performance or composition is an extremely versatile concept.

It turns out that in order to render someone’s appearance objectively in a photograph, we will not do without some actions that at first glance falsify reality. Let us not forget that we try to present a three-dimensional object in two dimensions (after all, photography is flat). There is also the fact that the portrayed person moves, smiles, says, means something to us – all this disappears, flattened in the photograph.

Therefore, when photographing people, it is worth covering up certain flaws, not in order to deceive the viewer, but to divert his attention from the things he would not notice during a live meeting, which in the carefully watched photograph are immediately noticeable.The photographer’s task is not so much to reproduce someone’s appearance as to be as faithful as possible.

But to render the impression that a given person makes as faithfully as possible. A good example are mimic wrinkles, which, rendered sharply in the picture, take away some of the charm of the nice lady portrayed, while they signal above all that the person often smiles and it is the smile that should be the most important, because it remains in our memory.

So let’s not get crazy “in pursuit of the truth”, because while photographing, we always make a specific translation of reality into two-dimensional visual language of photography.

Photographic makeup

I hope I have convinced you that a photographic portrait is always a kind of manipulation. Let’s not fool ourselves, however – often the models count on something more and, like the nobility, hope for a subtle (and sometimes even completely unsubtle) embellishment.

Fortunately, in order to fulfill their wish, it is not necessary to cut and bend the image in a computer using a graphic processing software. It is enough to consciously use the photographic knowledge and start by not so much beautifying the image of the portrayed person as trying not to do him a bearish favour by inadvertently photographing him in such a way that he will look worse than in reality.

Comfortable working conditions

When making portraits, we must not forget that we interact in this way with another person (and often with many people at the same time). So what matters is not only the result, but also the atmosphere and comfort of work.

The first step is to choose the right equipment, in this case opting for long focal length photography, thanks to which we will be able to maintain an appropriate distance – comfortable both for the photographer and the photographed.

Before the session, it is worth to warn the model what kind of pictures we want to take, which will allow us to avoid surprises and possible protests already during the shooting. If you want to set it in a specific pose or ask for a repetition of some facial expression or gesture, try not to give orders and limit yourself to tactful suggestions / suggestions.


Like most photographic themes, a portrait can be made with virtually any equipment, but of course some features or functions make it easier to work and achieve the desired results. Users of simple computers can use a portrait program that will take care of the appropriate photo parameters and enable face detection.

If you can use manual mode or aperture preselection, let’s do it. This will give you control over the depth of field that is key to the portrait. A tripod (if you want to make different versions of exactly the same composition).


The best light for a portrait is soft and diffuse light. In interiors, it is easiest to get them from a large window with a curtain that will disperse them properly to avoid deep shadows. In the open air we should choose shaded places – in them we will also find even, soft light.

Sharp sunlight is unfavourable, which not only emphasizes wrinkles, but also creates strong shadows devoid of detail and deforming faces. A good way to cope with difficult conditions is to light up, which allows to a certain extent to eliminate the negative impact of strong light, whether by means of a flash or reflector.

Composition and visual side

One of the strongest, yet easiest to apply, tricks in portrait photography is visual contact. There is nothing that focuses the viewer’s attention on the model as much as the viewer’s gaze. If the photographed person looks at the lens, it is already half of the success – then it is easy to forgive certain shortcomings.

Contrary to appearances, however, even with a small depth of focus the background is very important in the portrait – too “dense” and full of small details will disturb the clarity of the composition. The easiest way to blur the background is if the elements, against which we photograph the model, are located in quite a long distance from the model.

Low depth of field is also associated with a drop in resolution even in the plane of field, so that we do not exaggerate with too faithful depiction of wrinkles. Avoid macro lenses because they are merciless for even the smallest skin defects.

It is worth remembering about the two-dimensionality of the medium and therefore do not emphasize its composition of the image. Therefore, instead of placing the model in front of the lens, facing the photographer (i.e. en face), let’s ask him to turn a little.

Face Detection

When Nikon introduced the “Face Priority” autofocus mode to its compactors a few years ago, no one expected that we were witnessing a real revolution. Initially, the idea was not accepted, but it initiated a fashion for face detection systems that automatically identify and focus human faces in the frame, and now also adjust exposure parameters and white balance accordingly.

Thought of as an aid to beginners, the solution is also useful for advanced users.If it works quickly and efficiently, it performs much better and faster than manual AF field selection, freeing you from the danger of focusing on the nearest subject (not always the person you are shooting) when you choose full AF auto mode.

Ronald K. Johnson

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