If you’re shooting outdoor portrait photography, using mostly natural light, you’ll need a slightly different toolkit. Goellner’s experience with outdoor weddings has taught her that the middle of the day is the worst time to shoot. She explains, “The sun is right overhead and you’ll have shadows under their eyes. I’m looking for even lighting for portraits. If it’s the middle of the day, which so many times during a wedding it is, you always look for trees.”
Every portrait photographer has their own style, but what works for me 99% of the time is natural light – particular the warm, soft, glowy hues you get during golden hour. Sure, you can spend time getting the precise level and strength of light you want in an indoor studio setting, but there’s nothing quite like the challenge and experience of shooting outside – and working with whatever the weather gives you.
Telling a story through the subject’s eyes.
Eyes can tell us so much about a person – from their demeanour as a person, their approach to life, to how they’re feeling at that moment in time. So they’re a hugely important factor to consider when it comes to telling your subject’s story.
Goellner holds that one of the most important tips for portrait photography is getting a sharp focus on your subject’s eyes: “If you’re focused on somebody’s forehead or fringe and their eyes are out of focus, it automatically kills it,” she says, “unless you’re being really artsy.” Beyond this simple but vital reminder, you’ll want to consider the lens you’re working with.
Goellner says that the best lenses for portraiture will open up really wide. “A really wide aperture lets in a lot of light and lets the background be blurry,” she says. Wide-angle lenses and a shallow depth of field help you to keep the focus on your subject, rather than losing them to background elements that might be less important. Goellner’s go-to portrait lens is an 85 mm lens.
Personally, I find an 80mm lens is perfect if I’m going for a neat portrait crop, but I go longer when shooting full-length images (which I may choose to do if I’m using the backdrop to tell a subject’s story).
You can also adjust your aperture settings to bring more out of your subject’s eyes. For this approach, I’d recommend using f2.8, which isolates the subject from their background and puts the eyes centre stage.
Derek Boyd, a photographer in the Pacific Northwest, suggests trying out even longer focal lengths: “If you have a long focal length and you’re close to your subject, you’ll have very shallow depth of field,” he says. “So a 200-millimetre lens is great for portrait work. Basically, you shoot almost as close up as you can with it and it looks great because the background gets blurred out. And the compression that telephoto lenses cause — it’s a little bit of distortion that’s very flattering to people. It makes noses look a little bit smaller and it makes eyes look a little bit better. It’s just very complimentary. It’s hard to describe, but any time you see a nice tight portrait like a glamour shot, that’s almost always done with the very long focal length. Now, on the other hand, you have your wide focal lengths, so that would be anything 30 millimetres and lower. If you get real close to somebody with a wide-angle lens, it makes their head look really big and everything in the background look really small and you almost get that fisheye effect. It is not complimentary. You can use it for portraits, but it looks silly.”