My name is Bryce Funk, I am the owner and photographer for High Sierra Collective. My focus in photography is on people. Whether I’m in the mountains or in a studio I am constantly looking for ways to photograph people and bring their personality and character out in an image. These are my thoughts and what I have learned as I have honed my craft of taking dramatic studio portraits.
Part 1: Equipment
Whenever I’m perusing YouTube or reading how-to articles, I am always leery of the Equipment section or the “WHY YOU SHOULD BY THE ______” videos (they are always in all caps). I’m not about telling people, “You need to buy the top of the line thing because…”, that’s just not my style. The work is about the craftsman not his tools. That said, this section on equipment is more about why you should consider using certain equipment – specific focal lengths – for portrait photography and why you should avoid using others.
The Lens: Focal Length
Portrait photography is all about accurately and genuinely portraying the appearance of your subject; that said, there are certain lenses which accomplish this better than others. Let’s look at Figure 1.
The left most image was shot at 17mm. Notice how oblong and elongated the head is vertically? The distortion from the glass warps the back of the head almost into the background. Specifically note how the object closest to the lens, usually the nose, looks disproportionally large. Believe me, this is not how my wife looks in real life. Moving from left to right, we are increasing the focal length of the lens from 17mm, 35mm, all the way up to my favorite focal length, 85mm. As the focal length increases, the shape of the head becomes increasingly proportional. There is good reason that 85mm/105mm have been choice focal lengths for portraits since glass was formed.
I personally shoot on a NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4 (retails $1,449.99). Don’t let that scare you, I’m not telling you to go out and buy a fat chunk of glass. The best lens is the one you already have. If you’ve got a lens that already has 85mm-105mm, great! Start with that! If you’ve got a 24mm-70mm or 50mm or even a 35mm, great! I’ve got plenty of examples of situations where a 50mm or a 35mm lens were better suited for the shot. For headshots or the torso up length, lenses in the range of 70mm-105mm are highly recommended -- for two reasons. The first reason: These focal lengths accurately portray the proportions and appearance of your subject. The second reason: You have more distance between yourself and the subject. When shooting a waist up photo of a subject, an 85mm lens forces me to be about 12 feet away from my subject -- giving both photographer and model room to breathe.
The Lens: Is Aperture Important?
Good question! I could say, “the faster the better” but what does 'fast' even mean? Fast or bright lenses have a wider aperture diaphragm or entrance pupil. That wider diaphragm is associated with lower f numbers. These lenses are referred to as “fast” because that wider diaphragm or entrance pupil allows more light through the lens allowing faster shutter speeds. A wider aperture seems to be desirable, but there are situations where the aperture can be 'too' wide.
I shoot with an 85mm f/1.4; however, I almost never shoot at f/1.4. In fact, 60% of my shots are around f/2.8, maybe 20% are shot at f/1.8 (we will talk more about why when we talk about Depth of Field).
Truthfully, one of the greatest benefits of “fast” lenses is the massive advantage that you have when shooting at twilight or indoors at say a theater or sporting events.
But to answer the question: Is Aperture Important? If you want to have greater control over your ability to shoot in low-light and create that blurry (bokeh-heavy) background, you are looking at a lens capable of shooting at f/2.8. But don’t worry if you don’t have that! I’m going to show you some portraits that were shot a f/8! (GASP!)
Lighting Gear: Let There Be Light
I love shaping light; it is one of the most fascinating aspects of portrait photography. Luckily, you don’t have to spend a fortune to have a small studio setup. I have two lights and usually only use one. My main light is a Godox AD200 (retails $299), the secondary light is a Nikon SB-800 speedlight (retails used between $100-399). The Godox can run a bare bulb or a Fresnel head, adding versatility. At 200 watt/seconds the AD200 can battle a midday sun when shot at half to full power, perfect for outdoor portraits.
The AD200 is radio triggered and can support a multiple lighting setup. Radio triggering is really helpful if you plan on placing a light far away or around a corner out of line of sight.
The lights themselves are simple but what really makes the lighting kit work are modifiers. I have a 62cm octabox with a removable grid and a 6” bell with three removable grids. Depending on what type of portrait photography you prefer, shoot through or bounce umbrellas are an option for a fuller, wrap around light. For natural light, using bounce screens, are helpful to fill in shadows under the chin our on the side opposite the main light source.
So, what else do you need? Here is a short list with short explanations:
- A Camera: Go with what you have. If you are in the market for a camera, consider choosing something with an OLP (Optical Low-Pass Filter) or Anti-Aliasing (AA) filter. Portraits, even with an OLPF, can encounter this interesting phenomenon known as moiré (link is to an article). Interestingly enough, I find the crazy high-resolution cameras make portraits too sharp. But that is my personal preference.
-A Tripod: sturdy and stays in place, capable of reaching up to your eye level.
-A stool: for your subject to pose or rest on
-Light stands: if you are using lights, light stands are a must. You can find inexpensive ones that get the job done. The nice ones provide extra height and rigidity. If you have nice lights, I recommend nice stands.
-Grey Card: these 18% grey card stock are inexpensive and save you lots of time in setting color with your portraits in post.
Setting up Your Camera
In general, I shoot both RAW and JPEG. The RAW files I use for editing, the JPEGs are to give my client or viewer an image with some in camera processing providing some semblance of what the final product may look like. My RAW files are set to the max bit depth and uncompressed.
Though it should not matter at the shutter speeds we shoot at, the flash is set to rear curtain sync. White balance is set to flash, though this too does not matter; I use the grey card and curves to set the white balance in post (post = editing).
If your flash is not equipped with HSS (High Speed Sync) be sure to know what your max sync shutter speed is – usually around 1/200th of a second. If you are unfamiliar with HSS, check out the figure below.
See the black line at the bottom of the frame, that is the flash casting a shadow from the shutter. The shutter speed was too fast and therefore began to close while the flash was still firing. Flashes supporting HSS can usually handle shutter speeds up to 1/4,000th of a second.
Minimum Shutter Speed
If your flash supports HSS or you are not using flash, you are only worried about the low end of your shutter speed. The rule of thumb is to not shoot at speeds less than 1/focal length. Hence if you are shooting with an 85mm lens, you don’t want to shoot slower than 1/85th of a second. In practice, to maintain the sharpest possible image, I do not like to go below 1/125th.
As for shutter speed in general, if you are shooting at 1/60th of a second or longer, make sure to use that tripod! Keep blurry shots to a minimum by utilizing your tripod any time you get into that 'danger zone' of 1/60th.
As far as focusing goes, if you are shooting mirrorless, chances are you have eye detection autofocus, if so, use that mode. It is quite accurate, and if you paid for that feature -- make sure to use it!
If you are shooting on a DSLR, I recommend single point, continuous focus. This allows you to focus on the eye and maintain that focus while pressing the shutter.
Now you have your gear, but how do you use it? That is a question for another article, which is coming soon! Keep on the lookout for part two where we discuss planning and running a successful portrait shoot! Feel free to contact me with any questions!