Have you ever wondered that regardless of all the exotic reasons that might have drove you to buy a DSLR camera, photographing your near and dear ones have always been the primary use of such a camera? As a matter of fact at least 1 out of every 5 photos that you ever make will always be a face. Interestingly, not even half the images are as sharp and technically good as they can be. It shows amateur and sometimes even serious photographers don’t know what to do when photographing faces. In some cases they might actually know a few tricks but end up not using them in a hurry to click the shot. In this article we shall be going through some of those important tips and tricks. If you already are aware of some of them it can still be a worthwhile exercise in refreshing your knowledge.
Choose the right focal length / right lens
The right focal length is of critical importance when shooting portrait images. The right focal length will make the facial features of the individual you are photographing appear ‘normal’. The right perspective is of paramount importance and that depends on the right focal length. A portrait image is best shot with a lens that has a focal length of 85mm or upwards. My personal favorite is the 135mm f/2 DC, which I recommend all the time. I like it particularly because of the soft defocus control feature. Anything 50mm or less and you would have a tough time making a tight crop without distorting facial features. This is because with a wide angle lens you will have to take a few paces forward to fill the frame. Wide angle lenses tend to stretch facial features around the corners as well as the center when shot from a close range.
Choose the right aperture to shoot with
The right aperture is important because it controls the depth of field. There is a wide misconception that to make great portrait images you will have to use a wide aperture and blur the background. This is not always a necessity. While it does not make sense to use a lens like the Canon 85mm 1.2L and not make use of its bokeh capabilities, you can make perfectly good portraiture with a small aperture (big depth of field). The reason why you should opt for a shallow depth of field is to override a busy background. In a situation when you need to use the background, such as when shooting portraits at a workplace, etc., you will not only have to use a small aperture but also use background light to illuminate the background.
Choose the right metering mode
I prefer shooting with center weighted metering whenever I shoot portraiture, because I use a Nikon system. For Canon systems the comparable metering mode would be partial metering. The reason I insist on a smaller metering sampling area (but certainly not as small as spot metering) is that when photographing faces you need to put emphasis on the ambient light falling on the face. Selecting matrix metering will take into consideration the whole of the scene, not just the face. It can make the face appear darker or brighter, depending on the ambient light. If you select spot metering the same thing happens. Only with partial metering a larger sampling area (compared to spot metering and commensurate with the average size of a face) is taken into consideration for metering. If you want to read up more in-depth explanation of metering check out our Camera Metering Modes Explained article.
Choose the right AF area mode
Auto-focus area is basically all about choosing the right focusing parameter for faster and more accurate auto-focusing. I always use Single-Point AF. I prefer not to use the focus and recompose method when shooting portraiture. Rather I compose through the viewfinder and select the AF point that overlays the eye closest to me. In other words I prefer to shift through the AF points till I find one that matches or is close to the point I wish to focus on. That allows me to compose and shoot instantaneously. It also helps that I use back-button focusing for keeping the focusing and shutter release functions separate. That’s the reason I also use single-shot auto-focus and not continuous auto-focus. If the subject moves I will simply switch to the AF point closest and not have to change my composition. This technique tend to work better when I am hand-holding though you can also do this on a tripod as you get better with practice.
Use a flash / strobe
A flash or strobe fired during an exposure tend to freeze the movement of a subject and produce a sharper image. The practical uses of a flash however transgresses a low light situation. You can use a flash even in bright sunlit condition. e.g., when shooting in bright conditions you can fire a flash to fill-in shadows.
Choose the right sync mode when using flash
Choosing the right sync mode can mean the difference between a shot that ended up being blurry and one that was sharp. The thing about the sync mode is it determines when the flash fires, right after the first curtain opens or right before the second curtain closes. If the flash fires right after the first curtain opens, there would still be time left for the first curtain to close and the second curtain to both open and close. If the subject moves in between the final image will be blurry. You will see a bright image of the subject and then a blurred one superimposed on it. On the other hand if the flash fires right before the second curtain begins to close the image will be sharper. The blinding flash will overpower any blurry movement of the subject.