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Chapter 16

The Portrait

Portraits are a wonderful thing. If you take the time to notice them you will find portraits in all sorts of places. There is a market out there. There always will be.

A General Comment or Two

  • Talk to the person! What they like, you like. If he or she is a Yankee fan, you are a Yankee fan. If they like antiques, you like antiques. Keep the customer happy and he or she will enjoy working with you.

  • If the customer does not like you, he or she will not like your pictures.

  • Spend some time fussing over the equipment. Adjust this and that. Even if you put the settings back to their original position. Never just have someone sit down for a minute while you do little more than make an exposure. Let them see you working.

Tell the customer that you will have their pictures in double or triple the time you need to turn around the processing.

And don't forget that you can shoot portraits of animals too.

One of my favorite pictures is of a friend's dog named Eric. He was a truly magnificent animal. His picture hangs in my study to this day. The original, in color, was given to his owner many years ago. My picture is black and white, I printed it myself on Panalure paper.


Lighting means everything in portraiture. The direction, intensity, shadows, all this is referred to as modeling. Good lighting produces spectacular results and will only be seen by knowledgeable persons and then only to say nice things. Poor lighting will be noticed by everyone.


While we are talking about lighting let's mention pinkeye. This is the red color found in the eyes of persons and animals usually when photographed by a camera that has the flash located close to the lens.

The retina of the eye is very richly endowed with blood vessels. And, as blood is red, when light bounces off the retina the color of the light that comes out of the eye is red. So you get red eyes in the photograph.

So, do not have a flash or other light source near the camera's taking lens and you won't have pinkeye.

You will notice in the graphics that follow that none of the lights are located on the camera. On camera flash can be fine, just do not aim it directly forward into the eyes of your subject.

Main light and reflector.

Here is a basic main light and reflector.

Main light, fill light, and reflector.

Here is a main light with a fill light and reflector. You generally set the fill light approximately two stops less than the main light.

Main light, fill light, background light, and reflector.

Here is a main light, fill light, background light, and a reflector. The background light separates the subject from the background. This is especially important if the subjects clothing is similar in color to the background. The background light is low, just a couple feet off the floor.

Main light, fill light, background light, hair light, and

Here is a main light, fill light, background light, hair light and a reflector. The hair light provides highlights and modeling. The background light is low, just a couple feet off the floor.

You can do portraiture indoors, outdoors, with sun light, with incandescent light, electronic flash, or any combination. Be careful here and make sure your film or filtration is for the predominate light source.

  • Note: When working indoors sheer white curtains make an excellent diffuser. Also use a book. Yes, a book. When in someone's lap if is a wonderful reflector adding lovely fill light to the face.

The Outdoor Portrait

As outdoor lighting can have reduced alternatives let's start here.

In bright sun you will need to fill the shadows created on your subject's face. For this you can use your electronic flash very effectively. You can also use reflectors made from tin foil placed on cardboard. Crumple the tin foil to make a non-smooth surface. Then spread out the foil and place it on cardboard. There are professional reflectors you can use as well.

Reflectors can be made from white material as well. Do not use colored reflectors as their color will contaminate your results.

For soft lighting you can use a white umbrella to shoot your flash through.

Here is a good trick . Want light on your subject's face? Use a book or magazine as a prop, its white color will reflect light very nicely.

Be sure your shutter is set at the flash synchronization speed or slower .

With a fully automatic camera just turn on the flash and shoot. For everything else or for creative control:

  1. Determine the exposure at the flash sync speed.

  2. Remember the flash is not to be set to supply light for the entire exposure, but to provide fill only. The flash is to fill shadows only.

  3. Make the exposure. Bracket by changing the flash power or the aperture. And don't forget that if you change the shutter speed faster than the sync speed you ruin the results. The flash will not expose the entire frame. This is followed by people not saying nice things. So let's avoid this.

For more information on electronic flash, follow this link here.

A portrait will fall into one of these loosely defined categories.

  • The head shot
  • The upper body shot
  • The full length shot

The Head Shot

Focus on the eyes. Always.

Expose carefully for skin tone. When using color film be sure that the color temperature of the film matches that of the light you are using.

You do want to sell this remember. For your portfolio, well Okay that's different, be as creative as you want, but for a customer render the skin toned faithfully.

To maintain a comfortable working distance use a 100mm lens on a 35mm camera. That is, a lens of about twice the focal length of the normal lens.

A lens of shorter focal length will require you to get to close to be comfortable for you and for your subject.

If possible, mount the camera on a tripod.


Look closely at the person's face and play down any obvious negative features.

  • A large nose? Point it straight at the camera.

  • Bad skin? Adjust light so as to fill the depressions and not enhance them. Or use an umbrella, reflector, or diffuser to soften the light.

  • Get the idea?

  • Also consider makeup. Yes even for a man. Politicians and other public figures do this all the time.

Go take great portraits.

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