Ah, portrait photography. Never has something looked so simple, yet never ceases to confuse and confound. Portrait photography is just as complicated and intricate as any other type of photography, but it's extremely rewarding.
Technology advances in digital photography have made it possible for many more people to buy the tools of the portrait trade, and a lot of folks become interested in picking up skills in portrait techniques, to gather better images of family and friends.
Some want to make a career, others just want better photos. Whatever your ultimate goal, taking a workshop can greatly boost certain skills, or help gain confidence with the skills one already has. One of our most popular workshops here at the Aperture Academy is Perfect Portraits & Processing.
Most professionals will tell you that creating beautiful photographs is not just about taking the image, it's also what you must do with that image in post processing to make it final. Hence, the "& Processing" part in the workshop description.
Professional portrait photographer, Mary Cheung, and I met our group of photographers on a typical sunny day at our facility in San Jose. After a short round of introductions, we dove into a presentation about the do's and dont's of professional-level portrait photography. Our presentation covered everything from the exposure triangle, lens choices, body cropping, to composition. Then, after we'd met our model for the day, Ryan, we all stepped outside and began the lessons.
First, a portrait photographer must be keen on the light. If you don't know how light affects the subject, and where to place them using the light you're given, you're going to have a long and unsuccessful shoot.
Our first lesson was where to place our subject to take advantage of the best light and its direction. For example, turning the subject away from the sun's bright light will envelope the subject's face in even light and provide a natural rim light to break them away from the background. The objective in direct sunlight is to literally get your subject out of it; the harsh light on the face isn't pleasing for them, and the harsh shadows created by their features aren't pleasing for your photo.
Next, we took a look at subject placement. A good photographer can make any location look absolutely amazing with a few clever tricks. We had our group work with different backgrounds, placing Ryan in front of dark or light places, and having them physically move around to hide distracting things or gain a better and more pleasing composition.
Once these two concepts, light and placement, are learned, we can start adding other things in, like reflectors to add light to a part of the face; using an object really close to the camera to blur it out and add color to the scene; and changing the background to add repetition or isolation.
And finally, we worked on natural movement of the subject. Candid shots always look the most natural; posed shots are challenging to make them look natural. So we asked Ryan to constantly move throughout our last series of images to give our pictures a more natural look.
Once you put all that together, you still need to process them! So, after a short break, while everyone's images were downloading, we did just that. Using Adobe Lightroom, I began to go over the basics of processing these images.
The two most important things in processing portraits are white balance and tonal adjustments. Setting the correct white balance ensures that the subject's skin tone remains believable to the viewer. And enhancing the tonal values helps to sweeten the image and get it closer to the photographer's intended look. After only a few adjustments, one can see dramatic improvements over the base image.
After the basic adjustments were made, we moved on to using the adjustment brush to help heal some areas on the face. I talked about skin softening, teeth whitening, and eye enhancing, all using the features in the basic adjustment brush, where one can effectively "paint in" selective adjustments. From there, we talked about creative cropping, and sharpening, to further sweeten the image. And finally, we went over a basic (and sometimes overused) enhancement... the fade.
It's kind of like an Instagram adjustment where you can take the darkest parts of the image and raise their tonal values, thereby not allowing them to be so dark. The effect on the image can be a pleasing, natural, light and airy look; it basically makes the whole image look less harsh and more inviting.
After a few extra questions, we wrapped up our session and said our goodbyes. Many thanks to our intrepid group of photographers, and especially to Ryan, our model, for providing everyone with a great experience, and some great photos!
Until next time,
Scott, Mary, 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.