portrait photography tips for photographers from consett based photographer Michael Thompson

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Most of today’s finest children’s portrait
photographers use 35mm-format digital
SLRs (DSLRs). Medium and large formats,
once mainstays of the industry, have
almost entirely gone out of use due to the
popularity and flexibility of the DSLR.
The rule of thumb for selecting an adequate
portrait focal length is to choose one that is
twice the diagonal of the format you are using.
For instance, when using a camera with a fullframe
image sensor (equal to a 35mm film
frame), a 75 to 85mm lens is usually a good
With sensors smaller than 24x36mm, all
lenses get effectively longer in focal length.
This is not usually a problem where telephotos
and telephoto zooms are concerned, since the
maximum aperture of the lens doesn’t change,
but when your expensive wide-angles or wideangle
zooms become significantly less wide
A 50mm lens is an ideal focal length to use for a
three-quarter- or full-length portrait. It provides a
good working distance and incorporates the
background nicely into the photo. Here, the photographer
wanted the stucco wall to be rendered
sharply, so he used an EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact
Macro lens at f/11 on a Canon EOS 5D camera.
Photograph by Anthony Cava.a three-quarter- or full-length portrait of a
child requires that you work much closer to
the subject than you would for an adult’s portrait.
This “normal” lens will provide an undistorted
perspective when working at these
The only problem you may encounter with
a normal lens is that the subject may not separate
visually from the background. It is usually
desirable to have the background slightly
out of focus so that the viewer’s attention goes
to the child, rather than to the background.
With normal and shorter focal-length lenses,
depth of field is slightly increased. As a result,
even when working at wide lens apertures, it
may be difficult to separate the subject from
the background. This is particularly true when
working outdoors, where patches of sunlight
or other distracting background elements can
easily draw your eye away from the subject.
(Note: Fortunately, in the digital age, it is a
fairly simple task to diffuse background elements
later in post-processing.)
The Short Telephoto. In adult portraiture,
shooting with a short telephoto lens
helps you maintain accurate perspective. Since
children are much smaller than adults, a short
telephoto has the same effect as a longer telephoto
lens in adult portraiture. A short telephoto
can, however, provide a greater working
distance, which can be useful when photographing
children. It will also soften the background
due to its inherently reduced depth of
Longer Telephotos. You can use a much
longer lens if you have the working room. A
200mm lens or the very popular 80–200mm
f/2.8 zoom (manufactured by both Nikon
and Canon), for instance, is a beautiful portrait
lens because it provides very shallow
depth of field and allows the background to
fall completely out of focus, providing a backdrop
that won’t distract from the subject.
Such lenses also provide a very narrow angle
of view.Focal Point. In a head-and-shoulders portrait,
it is important that the eyes and frontal
planes of the face be tack sharp. When working
at wide lens apertures where depth of field
is reduced, you must focus carefully to hold
the eyes, ears, and tip of the nose in focus.
This is where a good knowledge of your lenses
comes in handy. Some lenses have the majority
of their depth of field behind the point of
focus; others have the majority of their depth
of field in front of the point of focus. You need
to know how your different lenses focus. Additionally,
it is important to check the depth
of field with the lens stopped down to your
taking aperture, using your camera’s depthof-
field preview control.
Your main focal point should always be the
eyes, which will also keep the lips (another
frontal plane of the face) in focus. The eyes are
the region of greatest contrast in the face. This
makes focusing simple—particularly for autofocus
cameras that require areas of contrast on
which to focus.
When the subject’s face turned so that it is
at an angle to the camera, the eyes are not parallel
to the image plane. In this case, you may
have to split focus on the bridge of the nose to
keep both eyes sharp—particularly at wide lens
apertures.Properly focusing three-quarter or fulllength
portraits is generally easier because you
are farther from the subject, where the depth
of field is greater. Again, you should split your
focus halfway between the closest and farthest
points that you want to be sharp in the image.
With these portraits, it is still a good idea to
work at wide lens apertures to keep your backgrounds
Autofocus. Autofocus, which was once unreliable
and unpredictable, is now extremely
advanced. Some cameras feature multiple-area
autofocus so that you can, with just a touch of
a thumbwheel, change the active AF sensor
area to different areas of the viewfinder (the
center or outer quadrants). This allows you to
“de-center” your images for more dynamic
Autofocus and moving subjects used to be
an almost insurmountable problem. While
you could predict the rate of movement and
focus accordingly, the earliest AF systems
could not. Now, however, almost all AF systems
use a form of predictive autofocus,
meaning that the system senses the speed and
direction of the movement of the main subject
and reacts by tracking the focus of the moving
subject. This is an ideal feature for activitybased
portraits, where the subject’s movements
can be highly unpredictable.
A new addition to autofocus technology is
dense multi-sensor area AF, in which an array
of AF sensor zones are densely packed within
the image frame, making the process of precision
focusing much faster and more accurate.
These AF zones are user-selectable or can all
be activated at the same time for the fastest AF
Image Stabilization. Image-stabilization
lenses optomechanically correct for camera
movement and allow you to shoot handheld
with long lenses and relatively slow shutter
speeds. Canon and Nikon, two companies
that currently offer this feature in their lenses,
offer a wide variety of zooms and long focallength
lenses with image stabilization. With
this feature, when using a zoom with a maximum
aperture of f/4, you can still shoot
handheld wide open in subdued light at 1/10 or
1/15 second and get dramatically sharp results.
You can also use the light longer in the day
and still shoot with higher-quality ISO 100
and 400 speed settings.SHUTTER SPEEDS
Your shutter speed must eliminate both camera
and subject movement. If you are using
available light and a tripod, a setting of 1/30 to
1/60 second should be adequate to stop average
subject movement (the tripod eliminates camera
Outdoors. When working outdoors, you
should generally choose a shutter speed faster
than 1/30 second because slight breezes will
cause the subject’s hair to flutter, producing
motion during the moment of exposure.
Handholding. If you are handholding the
camera, the general rule of thumb is to select
a shutter speed setting that is the reciprocal of
the focal length of the lens. For example, if
using a 100mm lens, use 1/100 second (or the
next highest equivalent shutter speed, like 1/125
second) under average conditions. If you are
very close to the subject, as you might be
when making a head-and-shoulders portrait,
you will need to use a faster shutter speed
(higher image magnification requires this).
When farther away from the subject, you can
revert to the reciprocal shutter speed.
Moving Subjects. When shooting moving
children, use a faster shutter speed and a wider
lens aperture. It’s more important to freeze
your subject’s movement than it is to have
great depth of field for this kind of photo.RETOUCHING
While retouching is far less necessary in most
children’s portraits, it is a necessity for older
kids, like high school seniors. There are also
many instances of infant acne, which can manifest
itself as early as three weeks from birth
and linger for months. Because a baby’s skin
is so sensitive, there are no real remedies (such
as creams or lotions) that can be used. You
shouldn’t even cleanse the skin too often, according
to several infant web sites.
There are many different ways to retouch
these skin problems. One of the most unique
products I have discovered, from talking with
senior expert Tim Schooler, is a Photoshop
plug-in called Portraiture II from Imagenomic
(www.imagenomic.com/pt.aspx). This plugin
intelligently smooths and removes imperfections
while preserving skin texture and
other important details, such as hair, eyebrows,
eyelashes, etc. The Portraiture plug-in
uses an auto-masking feature to create an optimal
skin-tone mask for the image, helping to
automate the effect. Additionally, the software
features a size parameter, allowing you to optimize
the retouching to match the size of the
print. Soft-focus, warmth, and brightness/
contrast controls are also available with this
plug-in—as well as a glamour effect. This is
by far one of the best tools I’ve seen; while
tweaking each image might still be needed, it
eliminates hours of tedious retouching.THE BODY
First and foremost, do not photograph a child
(or adult) head-on with their shoulders square
to the camera. This is the mug-shot type of
pose and, while it is acceptable in close-up
portraits, it is generally not recommended.
The shoulders should be at an angle to the
camera. This is easily accomplished by arranging
any posing stools, chairs, or blocks on an
angle to the camera. Then, when the child is
put into the scene, the shoulders are already
turned. This technique introduces a visually
pleasing diagonal line into the composition.
The Head-and-Shoulders Axis. Step two,
which is often a function of luck with children,
is to turn the head to a slightly different angle
than the shoulders, introducing a second dynamic
line in the composition. In male portraiture,
the head is traditionally turned the
same direction as the shoulders; with women,
the head is usually turned to an opposing
angle. The only reason this is mentioned is so
that you are aware of the difference.
You can often redirect the line of the child’s
head by having your assistant hold up something
interesting within eyesight of the child,
then move it in the direction that turns the
child’s head slightly. By turning the shoulders
and face slightly away from the camera, you
allow the frontal planes of the face to be better
defined with light and shadow.
Arms and Hands. Regardless of how
much of the child is visible (i.e., whether it is
a head-and-shoulders, three-quarter-, or fulllength
portrait), the arms should not slump to
the child’s sides. Often, giving the child something
to hold will encourage them to raise
their hands to more closely inspect the object.
This creates a bend in the elbows and introduces
more dynamic lines into the composition.
Not only are a child’s hands interesting,
but having them visible means that the elbows
are bent, thus providing a triangular base to
the composition, which attracts the viewer’s
eye upward, toward the child’s face.
A child’s hands are delicate and beautiful
and should be included whenever possible.
While it is basically impossible to pose children’s
hands—other than by giving them
something to hold—you can gain some control
by varying the subject distance and focal

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