Lots of photographers think there’s a formula for shooting portraits: You need a fast, 100mm lens. You need a gray card. You need to shoot eye level to your subject. And the truth is, these are all good techniques — but these rules can be broken, and with great effect. Here are some simple tips where you can both take advantage of the great results to be had from classic portrait techniques, while also taking a few creative liberties of your own to produce a look that stands out.
First, you’ll need a backdrop.
Backdrops are an inexpensive way to keep your creative integrity while producing that classic portrait look. To create a specific mood, you’ll need to choose the right backdrop material and color.
Be sure and have a clear concept in mind before you do this; otherwise, you’ll find yourself constrained by what the backdrop seems to require of you as you shoot. Vivify your dream before you make your purchase. Brainstorm. Take your time. Once you’ve done this, consider the following options:
Pipe and Drape. This is composed of two stands with a crossbar in between, and a cloth draped over the bar, secured with A-Clamps. Muslin is the type of cloth most commonly used in pipe and drape setups; often referred to as the ‘Rodney Dangerfield’ of backdrops, muslin can add a rough-around-the-edges look to your photos. Velour on the other hand, drapes in elegant, languid, velvety ripples. Your concept will help determine which material is best for you.
Background Paper. Cheap and simple, and often referred to by a common brand – Savage. Also known as seamless, or wide-tone paper. Paper can be taped to a wall, or draped over a bar. One thing to keep in mind: unlike fabric, most paper will reflect a fair amount of light, so plan accordingly.
Foam Board (aka Foamcore). This is the stuff you might have used for presentations in grade school – inexpensive, light polystyrene. This is a great option if you’re looking for a glossy background, though its paper coating will reflect light, and it’s relatively fragile, to can damage easily if being transported.
I used pipe and drape for the portraits below, with almost half the cloth behind the crossbar to keep it from slipping off. For full body shots, I had to let out the draped cloth and clamp one end to the crossbar using A-clamps. With my clamped cloth draped to the floor, I then rolled the cloth out towards my tripod.
You’ll always need more cloth than you think; for a full body shot, consider at least a 10’x12’ foot cloth. To gauge this, consider the height of your subject, plus the distance you will be shooting from, in addition to how much space they’ll have within the frame.
Then, you light the scene. Here’s how I got these shots (and you can too).
I used three (almost four) lighting techniques for this shoot (there are obviously many more for the motivated). They start with the simplest, least gear-intensive, and work their way up.
Split lighting: This was used to make the dramatic, almost taunting look you see in the red photograph of Masha below. The sun had reached its pinnacle at noon and was shining directly to the subject’s right through a window. The same setup was used for the soft purple shot as well as the blue shot of Masha’s face.
The rich colors are easy to produce – they come from colored gels placed over my light source. You can read more about using them here.
A split lighting setup can be a versatile, and I got several different effects from it. Including:
Rembrandt Lighting: Named for the famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt lighting alludes to the painter’s famous technique in which the eye on the shadowed side of the face has an inner light, with sometimes a small triangle of light below the eye as well. The effect is dramatic; the red photo of Masha can almost be considered Rembrandt lighting. I consider this shot the nucleus of the other photographs in the gallery, as its drama keeps the theme of the image sequence clear.
Chiaroscuro Effect: Chiaroscuro is a technique in which a subject is lit with an emphasis on a strong contrast between light and dark sections. The technique goes back to ancient Greek and Roman art, though Leonardo da Vinci is an artist known to have used it to full effect. Because of its intense moodiness, chiaroscuro is also popular in noir and mobster movies. To take full take advantage of this effect, consider shooting outside and at night. For the chiaroscuro-esque self-portrait below, I fired an external flash off camera, partially lighting the side of my body.
Shooting flash wirelessly: For most studio shoots or professional outdoor shoots, photographers use an external light source in order to gain more control of their light.
The cheapest and often best lighting option is an external flash. It can be used to create great portraits, wedding photographs, or night shots. Having one in your photographic arsenal is a must if you are becoming familiar with your camera, and it has a hot shoe to which you can attach it.
An external flash (also called a Speedlight, slave, or fill flash) is usually mounted to the hot shoe, the tiny metal plate that is built into the top of your camera. Try removing the flash from the hot shoe and synching it to your camera wirelessly. This allows you to have an external light source off camera, one which can be placed practically anywhere so long as the infrared or radio receiver is not obstructed.
With the help of a radio transmitter and receiver (often called a PocketWizard) shooting this flash off camera can be done without complication. A Pocketwizard will speed up the synching process, but it’s not necessary — you can also synch your external flash using your camera settings. (A quick YouTube search of the make and model of your external flash will show you how to do this).
For my dark purple self portrait, my external flash (a Canon Speedlight 580EXii) was placed on the ground and to my right and tripped wirelessly out of frame.
Going the extra step: Some photographers find artificial light aggravating, while others absolutely love the control. I encourage you to explore some of these lighting techniques until you find a couple that suit your taste. Even a complicated technique becomes less burdensome with practice.
A good example of this is the blue photo below – something that manifested simply by playing around with a few of these techniques. I had time to experiment for this portrait, and decided that adding a prop to the equation would be a good way to spice up the classic portrait look.
Using a video light (a continuous light source as opposed to a flash), I produced a very harsh, tungsten light on my subject’s face. Then, with the help of an assistant, a strip of black lace was held up to this light, projecting the shadows you see on Richard’s face.
With these techniques as a launching pad, what creative effects can you come up with? Go and find out — and happy shooting!