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A dummies guide to studio portraiture


A suggested framework for studio portraits:

  1. First of all, you need to understand WHY you are taking the photo.
  2. THEN decide WHAT style/theme/context you need to create to try to get the best outcome for that purpose.
  3. Evaluate the subject's features to determine what will be the best poses, lighting, etc to achieve your outcome. What happens to their features when they change expressions such as smile - assess this from both front on and from classical 2/3rd face viewpoints. Are there any negative or distracting features at certain expressions or angles?
  4. You then need to use your creativity to imagine a fabricated scene that will suit the style including approximate positioning of the model, what props will be used if any, the approximate camera position required and what sort of background you need.
  5. The model's makeup, hair styling & clothing need to be selected and applied.
  6. Set up the background with the backdrop you feel will most suit the theme
  7. Set up the approximate positioning of model & props
  8. Adjust the position of the camera to ensure you will get the appropriate viewpoint, ensuring that the backdrop will completely cover the frame.
  9. Decide on a exposure setting to be used and remember to use a good lens hood as lens flare will adversely impact most photos, especially low key styles.
  10. Set up the lighting for the backdrop.
  11. Set up a fill light for the subject
  12. Set the model's pose so that the following lights can be adjusted precisely for best effect
  13. Set up the main light:
  14. Set up hair light or kicker lights:
  15. Consider a reflector below the chin to add light to the eyes, but beware:
  16. Re-check that there is at least one catchlight in each eye - but if there is more than one and it is complicating the image, re-adjust the lights to simplify it if possible.
  17. Ensure the lights are not directly hitting the camera lens - use cardboard, etc to block them if possible
  18. Final position of subject's face, ensuring lighting is hitting it correctly
  19. Choose the best camera angle to enhance the subject's features:
  20. Focus the camera - usually need to focus on the eyes for best impact.
  21. Now that all is ready you need to take your head away from the camera a little and get the model to give you the facial expression you need. If the model is to be looking "at the camera", get her to look into YOUR eyes with your eyes just to the side of the camera - eyes look best when they are looking at another person rather than a camera.
  22. Don't feel stressed out when you can't get the shot that you had envisioned in your head all day, go with the flow. If you are stressed out, your subject might start to think it is their fault. Some of the best portraits are complete accidents. Consider having the model pose in a very relaxed manner even if the position of arms, legs, etc are not aesthetic, if the model is relaxed you can go for a tight head shot which may just give you a great shot that forced poses don't give you, and then you can move on with more confidence. One of the keys to successful portraits is the photographer conveying confidence - after all, the model tends to mirror the photographer. If you are getting stiff expressions, try the technique of getting the model to look away then when you are ready, to turn head and look back towards the camera with the attempted expression.

Exposing for skin tones: