Fellow photographer DeAnna Roberts and I took a group of eager students through the world of natural light portrait photography on a cool Saturday morning. Whether it is the occasional selfie or snapshot of loved ones, portrait photography has infused itself into our daily lives. Understanding light, posture, and positioning can really step up one’s portrait game, and that was our goal for the students by the end of the class.
We started off with a review of the basics: exposure triangle, depth of field, and composition. Having a strong foundation on how aperture, ISO, and shutter speed can change exposure and affect the visual outcome of your photograph makes every photographer’s life easier. We discussed how we normally want a shallow depth of field in portrait photography—getting that nice blurry background—to isolate the subject and draw a viewer’s focus in. But we also want to make sure that we are making conscious decisions and not just following rules. If there are multiple subjects in a photograph, maybe a smaller aperture is necessary to ensure everyone is in the range of focus.
We got to practice this skill when we went out to photograph our model of the day, Jasmine! Since we were working with one model, the students set their apertures to the biggest possible in aperture priority. We practiced working with direct light at first, testing front, side, and back lighting. Back lighting was the only one which gave us soft, even lighting on Jasmine’s face, which is always a surprise to some. One of the students pointed out haze in the photo from back lighting right away, and DeAnna and I showed them the simple trick of just blocking the sun from entering the lens, which eliminated it all together.
Next, we demonstrated the underrated power of the telephoto lens. Using a telephoto lens compresses the image, essentially bring the background closer to the subject and amplifying the blur we got from our big aperture. This also allowed us to use a specific part of the area as the entire background of the image, which is always helpful when trying to avoid distractions in the background. Students with prime lenses, however, would use a different strategy. While they weren’t able to achieve the same success of using a single bush as the entire backdrop, they did have the advantage of getting that extra blurry bokeh at f/1.8. So instead, they moved Jasmine as far away from the background they intended to use, and in turn, got some beautiful background blur.
We worked on posing next, giving the students an opportunity to direct Jasmine and experiment on their own. With office windows and a fountain taking up most of the space, they had to be creative. They experimented with angles, having Jasmine sit and lie down, all while keeping lighting in mind. One student had a brilliant idea of photographing though some leaves, which created a whimsical and artistic effect.
DeAnna then tagged out Jasmine for a lesson on head shots. The goal was to create the most flattering portrait by simply tightening the subject’s jawline—which DeAnna demonstrated flawlessly! As awkward as it may feel, having the model turtle their head toward the camera can create a slimmer look, and with some patience and coaxing, you can end up with a gorgeous head shot.
We ended the class with a brief lesson on autofocusing—picking a single focus point, locking on our subject, and then recomposing. We practiced on some extreme close-ups of Jasmine and then before we knew it, we took our group portrait, and the students were off! DeAnna and I were lucky to have such an amazing and engaging group, and we hope that they continue to put their portrait skills to use in the future!
Until next time,
Mary, DeAnna, and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team!
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.