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6 Basic Principles of Portrait Photography (part I)

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Besides photographing sights and architecture, travel photography is also about capturing portraits, whether it's your travel companions or people you meet along the way. During photo tours, our participants often ask us for some tips on how to capture a good portrait against an iconic background. We have therefore put together some tips to start with, while our photographer Elena kindly volunteered to pose for photos to illustrate the main points. In part I of this article we will cover the basic principles of portrait photography, while part II will provide some tips and tricks on how to make the portraits more interesting.

1. Use longer lens

The choice of lens is essential for a good portrait. For a flattering photo, choose the longest lens you have (anything from 70 mm and up) or use the available zoom to the maximum. A long lens with a good zoom will blur the background nicely and let the person in the photo stand out, as well as help to avoid the distortion caused by wide-angle lenses, especially at a closer distance.

In the examples below, the upper photos were taken using a wide-angle 24 mm lens: the left photo looks busy and Elena seems "lost" in the background, while in the right photo taken from a closer distance bringsย too much distortion. Notice the significant improvement on the lower left photo taken at 70 mm, and the lower right photo taken at 200 mm zoom.

Portrait1 use long zoom lens

2. Shallow depth of field

A good portrait is first of all about a person portrayed, while the background is complimentary. The easiest way to separate the person from a landmark or a busy background with many details is to create a shallow depth of field (DOF) by setting the aperture to a low f-number.

Portrait1 shallow depth of field

3. Focus on the eyes

As the famous saying goes, eyes are windows of the soul. In any photo of a person we tend to look at the eyes first and only then discover the rest of the image. It is therefore crucial to focus precisely on the eyes of a person in front of your camera. While photographing on very low f-numbers, make sure to take at least 2-3 images (refocusing each time) to focus as accurately as possible.

Portrait1 focus on the eyes

4. Place the person in the best light

One cannot overestimate the importance of good light in portrait photography. Plan your portrait sessions soon after sunrise or just before sunset for a soft, dispersed light. If you happen to snap a portrait on a sunny day at noon, take the person to the shade to avoid harsh shadows on their face that almost never look flattering. If there is no shade available nearby, capture them backlit using exposure compensation (+).

Portrait1 find the best light

5. Choose appropriate distance to landmarks

Now that you are equipped with a long lens, your aperture is set for shallow DOF and the light is soft and flattering, it's time to think about positioning the person in the photo. While traveling, we often take photos of our travel companions against famous landmarks. To make the most out of the scene, find the right balance between the person and the sight in the background.

Here are three examples of Elena posing in front of the pyramids of the Louvre. On the left photo, the pyramids are well seen, however, Elena is too far and looks too small compared to the rest of the image. The photo on the right was taken at a much closer distance and looks like a nice portrait, however, the pyramids in the background are barely visible. Finally, the middle photo shows both Elena and the pyramids in the background, slightly blurred as a result of shallow DOF, and therefore works best.

Portrait1 distance to landmarks

6. Crop thoughtfully

There are multiple ways of cropping while taking a portrait. The rule of thumb is to make the person look "comfortable" in the photo. For full body portraits, make sure to leave enough space around the person and not to crop their feet or fingers. For a 3/4 body portrait, crop above their knees and below their hips. In any portrait avoid cropping on joints, such as knees, fingers or elbows.

Portrait1 crop 1

For closer portraits, opt for a head-and-shoulders crop. Hint: in a very tight crop, it's ok to crop off the top of the person's head to bring more attention to the eyes.

Portrait1 crop 2

Let us know how these portrait photography tips are working in practice and share the resulting portraits with us!

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About the Author

Nadia Gric

Nadia Gric

Nadia is passionate about the visual aspect of life and the personalities she meets along the way. Living in the heart of Paris, Nadia never stops exploring the City of Light through her camera and readily shares her knowledge and love for photography.