The Portrait Equation

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Wouldn’t it be great if there was a simple formula for creating striking portraits? There is! Follow these steps, and be on your way to making better portraits on your next shoot.

1. Find The Location
The first step of the portrait equation is photographing your subject in the right location against the right background. Locations can add mood and meaning to an image. Imagine a hurricane survivor after the storm. What makes a stronger image: photographing the survivor against a plain brick wall or photographing him in a pile of debris and broken appliances where his house once stood?

Sometimes your goal may be to photograph your subject in a studio against a simple background, such as seamless paper. This background won’t add any distracting elements and can create a strong mood, depending on the color of the seamless paper. Remember, don’t let the location and background be a random choice. Choosing the right location is a critical step in creating a strong portrait.

Other times, the location will inspire a portrait. I once drove past a skatepark with interesting concrete shapes and loaded with skaters, a fabulous spot for an environmental portrait. I returned later and photographed a skater in the bottom of one of the pools.

Great portraits tell a story. The quality of light, the location, the props, the subject’s expression and composition all play a role in the narrative. Compare the image at left to the one above, and you can see clearly by contrast how these factors affect the final impression.

2. Get The Light Right
Photography is all about the light, and lighting is what makes or breaks an image. If you photograph an incredible subject in boring light, the shot will be mediocre. If you photograph the same subject in incredible light, the image will be eye-catching. Choosing the right light doesn’t mean using elaborate strobes and lighting ratios; rather, it means choosing the best light for the overall effect you’re trying to create.

Imagine the hurricane survivor previously mentioned. You want to choose moody lighting that will convey the loss and sorrow of the subject. If you’re photographing children playing in a park, you want your lighting to reflect hope and joy.

What type of light conveys what mood? Lighting has certain characteristics, including color, quality and direction. Color is your first choice. Warm, rosy light conveys hope and love versus cool blue light that symbolizes cold and bleak emotions.

Light quality can be divided into two types, soft-diffused and hard-edgy. Soft light occurs when skies are overcast or by using a strobe through softboxes. It’s very forgiving and often flattering in portraits; faces have less shadows. This is a good choice for upbeat, positive images, especially with warm colors. Hard-edgy light occurs in direct sunlight or when using non-diffused flash. This type of light casts strong shadows and creates stark, moody portraits.

Finally, direction also affects the mood of a portrait. Classic portrait lighting high and to the side of your subject creates a pleasing, “safe” look. But imagine what effect using a flash directly below a subject’s chin would create—a very striking, almost scary headshot!

Experimenting with light characteristics will improve your portraits. You’ll learn new tools to use in creating a portrait. Your technical skills will help you achieve your artistic vision.

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Controlling the light is one of the most challenging parts of the portrait equation. A simple reflector is worth its weight in gold and often is sufficient for controlling unwanted shadows, provided you have good ambient light with which to work. In lower-light situations, additional light sources will be needed. If the setup at left looks daunting, a simple diffuser over your standard flash is a good alternative.

3. Choose The Right Lens
Lens choice is important in creating a strong portrait. Traditionally, the best lenses for photographing people are in the 80mm to 200mm range. Why? These focal lengths are flattering to facial features, rendering a pleasing, non-distorted look. Longer lenses narrow the angle of view in the background, eliminating distracting elements. Using telephoto lenses also allows you to position your reflector or lights closer to the subject. Telephoto lenses give your subject more “breathing room” if they don’t like being photographed close-up. Wide-angle lenses, when used too close to your subject, can stretch out facial features.

Still, while you can’t go wrong with a moderate telephoto, wide-angle lenses can be a great choice for many situations with some practice. My globe-trotting friend Mirjam Evers frequently uses wide-angle lenses with her portraits, and her work is stunning (see “Making A Connection,” PCPhoto, June 2008). Wide-angle lenses allow you to shoot at extreme angles to your subject and include more background, great for environmental portraiture. These lenses offer a fresh perspective to the classic telephoto portrait, and I find myself frequently using my 24mm for portraits.

4. Use An Effective Aperture
Once you decide on a lens,

the next question is what aperture to use. Often, portraits are taken of static subjects, and freezing the action isn’t a major concern. What really becomes important is aperture choice and the depth of field in the image. If you’re using a telephoto lens and are zoomed in close to your subject, make sure the eyes and nose of the subject are sharp. Using an aperture of ƒ/2.8 results in very shallow depth of field and may not provide sharp focus for all of your subject’s face. If you’re using a wide aperture, check your focus to be sure important features are sharp.

Another consideration is how close the background is to your subject. When possible, I like to have my subject positioned away from the background. This creates separation, eliminates clutter and allows me to light my background separately. I like to use a focal length of 100-200mm and an aperture of ƒ/5.6. This aperture gets all the facial features in focus and gives the background a soft, pleasing look.

5. Create Nonlinear Compositions
Now that we’ve determined the location, light, lens and aperture, we need to compose an interesting image with our subject. For most portraits, the last thing you want to do is have your subject face the camera and stare straight at the lens. This usually will look like a police mug shot instead of an interesting portrait!

I like to focus on what I call nonlinear compositions—portraits that have less straight and perpendicular lines, and more curved lines. Start by slightly angling your subject toward the camera, with one shoulder closer to the lens. This breaks up the flat (perpendicular) body position created when your subject directly faces the camera. Next, try having your subject slightly tilt his or her head, as this breaks up another straight line and often results in a more interesting shot. Another trick is to add a slight angle in your composition by tilting your camera about 10 degrees. Try giving your subject a prop to hold on to or use in some way that contributes to the image context, as this will add more interesting angles to the final shot.

Decide if having your subject “camera aware” will result in the right effect for your portrait. Some images are best with your subject looking at the lens; other images are stronger if the subject is looking away.

I recently did a photo shoot that incorporated all these steps. I was photographing a kayaker for a magazine, with my assistant. First on our list was finding an interesting location, something that would relate to kayaking. Water was the obvious choice, so we decided to put the kayaker neck-deep in a lake. The water was cold, so we had the subject wear a wet suit for the shoot.

Next up was figuring out the light. We wanted an upbeat shot—a little stoic, but fun. We decided twilight would work best, especially if we had some puffy cumulus clouds floating in the background. To light the subject, we anchored a lightstand in the water and used a single Speedlight SB-800 shot through a Lastolite Ezybox lightbox. To create more mood in the image, I used tungsten white balance and gelled the flash orange to give skin tones the right look.

I chose a wide-angle lens (24mm) to include a lot of the sky and clouds, and an aperture of ƒ/9 to keep my subject sharp. This aperture rendered the clouds slightly soft, perfect for the image.

The last step was creating an interesting composition. We had the kayaker hold a paddle to add color and to create interesting lines in the image. I had the subject look off-camera with a slight tilt to her head to get the right mood.

By far the hardest part of this shoot was standing in cold water for an hour getting the right image. Everybody was freezing by the end of the shoot! The things you do for a good portrait….

For more portrait tips or to check out his upcoming workshops, visit Tom Bol’s website at