Duane Keeling | About Portraits

About Portraits

December 22, 2013  •  1 Comment

I am not known for my portrait photography. Let's face it, portraits are intimidating. People are very critical when it comes to what constitutes a "good" picture of themselves and are usually less than thrilled with having their portrait taken.  So, to start with, you're often working from a negative perception by the subject and it can be challenging to get them to relax IMG_2727-Edit-EditChris & SarahA side by side and over the shoulder pose works well with couples by keeping both faces in the same focal plane. enough to coax the best expression from them. And, as much as I might embrace failure as a learning experience, I still don't like it.

In the spirit of "confronting your fears", I decided to set up my portable studio at the family gathering for Thanksgiving at my Mom's house. I forewarned everyone, of course, which accomplished two things: first, I couldn't back out at the last minute, and second, everyone would show up mentally prepared and dressed a little better than normal.

For the unfamiliar, let me explain the concept of a "portable" studio: the key elements of a "permanent" studio thrown into a big-ass, heavy bag. I got mine on eBay and it came with a backdrop stand, three light stands, 3 fluorescent soft-box lights, 12 light bulbs and 3 different cotton backdrop cloths. Throw in some extension cords and clamps and you're "good to go" - mostly.  

There are a few problems, starting with fold lines in the back drops.  You can usually handle that by placing your subject far enough in front of the back drop that it's not in focus and the lines disappear.  But, guess what? Portable studios are usually set up in tight quarters - spare bedroom, office, etc. and there is not much room to work and fewer choices still about where to place the backdrop. And then there's usually some window with a small amount of ambient light that ends up highlighting the creases.  You just have to deal with it so be prepared to spend some time in PhotoShop.

IMG_3477-Edit-EditJessicaHaving the subject look up can be effective in opening up the eyes. It also minimizes reflections from eyewear.

Because you're in such tight quarters, the temptation is to use a wider lens. Maybe 50mm or even less. Don't - you may not notice the distortions while shooting but they will become painfully evident in post.  I prefer a 200mm for portraits because of the flat field, shallow depth and you are far enough away that the subject isn't uncomfortable. But a 200mm will almost never work while shooting 8 feet away unless you're going for the "mug shot".  I try and stay as close to a 100mm lens as possible.  It still works in tight quarters and is sufficiently flat.

Aperture is the next most important thing to the lens itself. A 2.8 aperture, or better is preferred but 4.0 still works. Don't be afraid to shoot wide open. Aberrations or softness at the edges will probably get fixed in post through a lens correction filter, cropping or vignetting. A wider aperture provides a shallow depth of field and keeps the attention on the subject, not the background.  There is a huge problem with this approach though. Too shallow of a depth of field will cause parts of your subjects face to be out of focus as well.  And, though that can be desirable at times, you never want the eyes to be out of focus.  The eyes are almost always what pulls the viewer into the portrait.  So, if you are shooting with a wider aperture it is important to focus and re-focus, keeping the focus point on the forward or best illuminated eye of the subject.  Easy to say, not so easy to do. I usually don't use a tripod for portraits. That allows me to move around and get different angles quickly and easily.  My subject will move as well - tracking with me or at my direction. This means my focus may have changed as well.  This happens most often when the subject is more animated by laughing, making faces or hair tossing.  It's not so much a motion blur problem because you can address that with a faster shutter speed or using flashes, it's that the subject's face (and eye) is moving in and out of the narrow focal plane.  Auto focus doesn't address the issue fully unless you can keep the focal point specifically on the eye.  Otherwise, you get shots with forehead in focus, the chin in focus, the cheek in focus, etc. - but not the all important eye.

IMG_3452_HDRMichaelStarting with an HDR image gan give a gritty feel to the image and often works well with men. So what to do if you have that great shot but the eyes are not in focus? If the eyes are not too far out of focus, you can add a little sharpening, clarity and brightness in post to just the eyes and it will make them appear to be in focus - sometimes.  If they are too far out of focus, it's usually the trash bin. There are exceptions, of course. Shots with glasses, sunglasses or where the eyes are hidden or obfuscated and another part of the subject becomes the primary viewer focus (e.g. a smile).

That brings me to my next point: it's all in the details. Make sure that your subject has clean teeth and gum line, mascara that has not clumped, combed or, at least, non-frizzy hair, no lint, clean glasses, clear eyes, etc. You can fix a lot in post but it's best to start with as little as possible that might need "fixing". I am a big fan of re-touching, but not re-forming.  Everyone has blemishes or skin aberrations that come and go.  Anything that is not a "permanent" part of their facial features is ok to fix - up to the point that it no longer looks "real".  What I don't like to do is to reshape the jaw line, elongate the face, widen the eyes, etc.  When I first began playing with those things, I thought it was "cool" but, as soon as I started flipping between the before and after images and I was "startled" by the difference, I realized it was just "too much".

Now for the all-important lighting. I said, my "portable" studio has three lights so it makes a 

IMG_3311_HDR-Edit-Edit-EditChrisA hollywood style with a more rugged look. A warmer tonality makes the image more appealing and the eyes are bright and clear.

great three point system.  I can also turn each soft box on to "half power" to adjust the lighting without moving the lights further back.  This is not only important because of the often cramped quarters but also because the farther away a light box is from the subject, the harsher the light becomes. So, for the softest light, you want a larger light box placed closer to the subject. Usually, I have two lights at 30 - 45 degree angles to the subject and another higher up and somewhat behind the subject as a "hair light". Light boxes can be unstable - especially when fully extended - so I hang weights on the stands, toward the feet. If you don't have sandbags with handles laying around, I've found that a grocery bag with a heavy object in it works well. I ended up using cloth grocery bags with fireplace logs the last time!  Also, watch out for the extension cords. They are easy to trip on and hurt yourself, your subject or your equipment. Keep them out of the way and tape them down, if possible.

IMG_3886-Edit-Edit-Edit-EditJonathanUsing a slight angle in the pose can bring the subject's posture more upright and forward, into the frame. Of course you can also use flash - open, umbrella or boxed. I'm "on the cheap" right now so I only have the one flash and it "does not a system make" so I only use it for "fill" in a "studio" environment. I tried using it to light my subjects from a lower angle in order to soften some shadows but it didn't work out as well as I hoped. It made the subjects faces flatter overall while also darkening some shadows in the upper face, around the eyes. In general, lighting from below is usually not flattering in a portrait and should be avoided. Again, there are always exceptions and one of the most fun things to do with your photography is experiment!

From my other posts, you know that I use Lightroom, Photoshop and Perfect Photo Suite.  I have rediscovered Black & White photography as part of my post-processing with the introduction of Perfect Black & White 8 from OnOne Software. I am particularly fond of the "Hollywood" styles and have tried them on a number of my recent portraits.  They add tone, softness and a glow to the image that is reminiscent of Hollywood in the 40's and 50's. Great stuff - I am looking forward to trying out more filters as I continue with MY experimenting!

I love fine art and landscape photography but, as a friend of mine recently noted, pictures of people are more "interesting".  He has a point.


All I can say is...wow! I really really like your portraits. I didn't realize how much work went into getting it right. Nice tutorial, too. You are awesome, Duane.
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