Focused Insight Blog

How To Capture The Perfect Portrait Shot

How to Capture the Perfect Portrait Shot

January, 27th 2023

The ultimate goal of a perfect portrait shot is to capture the subject in a way that is visually and emotionally impactful. Additionally, it should also tell a story, and convey a sense of the subject’s character. While also conveying the subject’s mood, personality, and emotions. You’re aiming to make the viewer feel something and provoke a reaction. To do so, you should try to capture the subject in a way that is unique and true to them. I’ll be walking you through a recent portrait photoshoot. I’ll explain how we crafted this and why we chose all the specifics. Going into detail about what was going through my head as far as poses, lighting, composition, emotion, back story and more. My goal is to help you understand and craft beautiful portraits with any camera. To show that you don’t need an expensive camera and lens to get ‘perfect portraits’.

It’s all about how to formulate the shot with what you have. Even if that’s a phone. 

Now, I’ll get into how and why I chose this location and composition. As I said earlier, it has everything to do with the subject.

For this shoot, I had the opportunity to work with Anna Abstraction. An internationally published Ukrainian model. This was a very valuable and enriching experience to work with such an experienced and brilliant individual. 

 

Through all her success, she has remained very humble and natural. As I got to know her more, I was able to get a glimpse of the best way to capture her story.

 

With that, we had a great relationship for this collaboration, creating similar ideas for beautiful images together.

 

So, to capture Anna in a way that paints the narrative we wanted, I chose an avenue with old linden trees in Schloss Allee Schlosswil, Switzerland.

I really wanted to bring out how she came from an underprivileged country and despite the odds, became a goddess in her own right. Schloss Allee Schlosswil is a beautiful and prestigious place with a picturesque castle, lush gardens, and scenic countryside with the symbolism we were looking for. However, I still chose the avenue with the linden trees to showcase a ‘goddess of the trees’ feel. Which I thought went not only with her dress and skin tone, but the symbolism of her story.

 

The old and deep rooted trees spending hundreds of years in the same location. Along with this young woman who can travel from an underprivileged country to distant lands around the world fueled by a deep rooted dream. While never losing touch with her roots.

You’ll see how we brought out the story and added some symbolism for the viewer to gravitate to…

Also, this is a picture that despite all the possibilities we have in today’s modern world, we as humans should never forget our relationship to nature.

We are tied to nature so strongly. Even relying on it… 

Returning to nature on occasion, immersing ourselves and having appreciation for it is not only powerful, but necessary for our mental state.

Just another angle to convey for the viewer to grab onto.

So moving on, here are the 4 main components to capturing the perfect portrait…

The subject/model

Knowing to capture the perfect portrait, we need to convey the subject’s character and tell a story. Their story. So, being more collaborative is key.

Obviously, if you have the privilege of working with an experienced model, that will make your job easier. Even though you’re the expert crafting the shot, collaborations are what’s going to set you up for more success. We need to convey them. So, get to know them a bit. 

If you’re not working with an experienced model, aim to raise your subject’s confidence. Make them feel like they are a model. Help bring out their creativity and collaboration on shots. Encourage them on poses and reassure them of their choices. Then we can guide them to poses we believe will be best with the lighting, composition and story we want to convey.  

When we as photographers can do this, our shots will come out much better as the subject is presenting more confidence and control. Which can actually show up in the composition of their face. It’s incredible.

And their inputs on composition and presentation plays a role in how we build the story with the pictures.

The Location And Composition

Choosing the right location should have a lot more thought than what many people put in. Sure, senior photos and family portraits are one thing. But as I said above, you want to capture a narrative. You want to bring out a story and have some symbolism for the viewer to take in.

For the viewer to see the depth and be able to either see the story or to create a story in their own mind. Almost as if it was a scene from a movie…

You can usually understand a lot about an actor and what the story is about just by seeing one photo from the movie itself.

Have a few places picked out ahead of time. Then as you get to know them and what they chose to wear, you can choose the places you think would either play into the story and/or make for a great story.

Then it’s just a matter of lighting…

Lighting

Lighting is important as it can affect the mood and tone of the image, and also how the subject’s features are highlighted or shadowed.

This shoot was strictly using natural light. No boxes, no flash or anything. We chose to shoot during the afternoon under the trees for an indirect and diffused light source with Anna positioned at an angle. 

Before we get into why we chose this specific lighting, here are some tips to keep in mind for capturing the perfect portrait…

    • Shoot during what’s known as ‘the golden hours’. This is the hours right after sunrise and the hours before sunset. The light is warm, soft and direct at those times.
    • Use open shade. This will provide even and diffused light that will give great character to the shots.
    • Natural reflectors. Such as sandy beaches, light colored walls and sometimes even water. This will help reflect light into the subject’s face and dwindle the shadows.
    • Subject positioning. Position them toward the light or at an angle to avoid harsh shadows. For this specific photo, I positioned Anna at an angle primarily away from the light source.
    • Camera settings. Adjust your camera’s aperture to help control the amount of light that enters the lens and the depth of the field. Adjust the shutter speed to control the amount of time the camera’s sensor is exposed to light.

    As you can tell with this shot, we went with a diffused light source with the tree rows behind her for a nice composition.

    Minimal shadows as there wasn’t any direct light on Anna. Just more of a dull glow, setting a really nice tone for the shot.

    Without any direct light, shadows weren’t much of an issue. To make sure I was getting the lighting I wanted, I set my Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm lens to 150mm focal length, f/2.8s at 1/500 sec shutter speed.

    Even without a lens capable of aperture and shutter speed, you could still capture a really beautiful shot here. The diffused light from the trees during the golden hour would allow you to capture a fantastic photo with your phone’s camera. 

    You could get closer to the subject and maybe add a blur later on in a photo editor.

    The Gear

     I was using my Nikon D850 with Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm lens. No boxes or anything. Just natural light.

    As I was saying above, you do not need expensive equipment and cameras to produce fantastic shots. You just need the idea, vision, subject, location and lighting.

    So, if you don’t have a lens with a wide aperture, there are a few things you can do to still take great portrait shots:

      • Shoot during what’s known as ‘the golden hours’. This is the hours right after sunrise and the hours before sunset. The light is warm, soft and direct at those times.
      • Use open shade. This will provide even and diffused light that will give great character to the shots.
      • Natural reflectors. Such as sandy beaches, light colored walls and sometimes even water. This will help reflect light into the subject’s face and dwindle the shadows.
      • Subject positioning. Position them toward the light or at an angle to avoid harsh shadows. For this specific photo, I positioned Anna at an angle primarily away from the light source.
      • Camera settings. Adjust your camera’s aperture to help control the amount of light that enters the lens and the depth of the field. Adjust the shutter speed to control the amount of time the camera’s sensor is exposed to light.

      There you have it. Some quick tips on crafting the perfect portrait. Once we got to the location, Anna really let her brilliance show with many of her poses. The main pose we’re showcasing is kind of a ‘bathing’ type pose. As if she’s bathing in the forest.

      Which is indeed a practice gaining popularity around the world. Forest bathing is basically being immersed in nature and having true appreciation for it.

      I felt like this played into the story, symbolism and narrative we collectively wanted to portray. 

      In summary, a perfect portrait shot should be technically sound, visually pleasing and emotionally impactful. All with a strong emphasis on capturing the subject’s personality, mood and emotions.

      I hope you’re now getting lots of ideas on how to do the same already!

      Now let’s get out there, and shoot!

      Join me for more tips & insights!

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