I need to get better at Portrait Photography, Help!

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by alexxk, Apr 24, 2014.

  1. alexxk macrumors 6502

    Jul 29, 2010
    Hello everyone..

    Going to go direct to the point. I need to get better at taking portraits.

    I'm using a Canon 6D, Canon 24-105 F4, Aperture priority mode, RAW+JPEG

    I'm having a really hard time to get the right exposure. I usually go outside to to take portrait, I don't have access to a studio or anything and usually I go around 3-6PM eastern time. I try to look for a shade area and start shooting.

    The problem I'm having is exposure. When I take a shot of a model and the background is well lit, the model seems to get underexposed most of the time. I've tried spot metering.. but at a distance that doesn't work well, and evaluative what I use the most.

    To fix that I usually go to lightroom and bump up the exposure a bit and shadows/whites but then I bring some noise in dark areas of the shot and that's killing me.

    I've also added a Flash.. with the Flash, at AV mode F/4. The 6D can only go up to 180th of a second overexposing the shot.. if I do HSS then the flash does not add much light depending on the distance and we are back at underexposing the subject.

    What I started doing was, I would aim the camera at her legs, lock the exposure(avoiding the background) and then recompose and focus at her to take the shot.

    I'm giving some examples of different shots.. These are all JPEGS the way it came out of the camera. I usually work with RAW though.. but they too need retouching as they come out darker than jpegs out of the camera.

    What do you guys think of these?? What can I do to get better exposure overall? Are these bad, ok, good??

    F4 ISO100 1/125 No Flash

    F4 ISO100 1/640 No Flash

    F4 ISO 100 1/320 No Flash

    F4 ISO 100 1/320 Flash Fired
  2. Oracle1729 macrumors 6502a

    Feb 4, 2009
    Use the camera in manual mode, set shutter speed to the fastest flash sync speed, aperture to properly expose the sky/background (you seem to be getting that part anyway). Then set the flash power to properly fill in the subject.

    I'd suggest a light meter but with the instant feedback of digital you can get the right settings pretty fast and easily with trial and error.
  3. DUCKofD3ATH Suspended


    Jun 6, 2005
    Universe 0 Timeline
    Two things come to mind.

    1. When taking portrait shots, you're better off using a zoom lens and standing back at least 6 feet from the subject. That gets rid of the facial distortion caused by being too close to the model.

    2. The lighting is awful. And I don't think the flash worked on that one photo that said the flash fired, because if it had, there'd have been much less shadowing on her face. The images are too dark and her face is too shadowed. You might try taking multiple exposures (does the Canon 6D do high dynamic range or HDR?).
  4. alexxk thread starter macrumors 6502

    Jul 29, 2010
    Yes.. but that would cause blurry pictures I think due to taking 3 shots and 3 different exposures.. and one thing I also mind is sharpness.

    The Flash did not work well because of HSS... at 320 shutter speed flash needs to be closer to the subject.. maybe if I had off camera flash on a monopod.. maybe!! But it did fire..
  5. DUCKofD3ATH Suspended


    Jun 6, 2005
    Universe 0 Timeline
    How to Create HDR Images on Your Canon EOS 6D
  6. ocabj macrumors 6502a


    Jul 2, 2009
    It does seem like you have an understanding of metering and using your camera's meter to try to expose for the subject, yet not executing correcting since you're still underexposing the subject (while getting good exposure for the background).

    If spot metering isn't working "at a distance", just get close to do your metering then lock exposure for that, then move to position.

    Or maybe just get a light meter and manually meter on the subject then adjust your camera accordingly.

    I personally don't use AV for portraits when using flash. I'm always at sync speed (1/200s on the 5D3), and adjust my flash accordingly to the aperture I want (or need) to use. But when I do natural light, I'll either use M or AV, spot meter if necessary, and I usually don't have issues.

    I think you should just practice a little more on your technique of metering, but go ahead and chimp. Maybe purists are against chimping, but we have cameras with excellent LCDs to preview our images on. May as well take advantage of them so you don't waste a photo shoot.
  7. alexxk thread starter macrumors 6502

    Jul 29, 2010
    When you say "adjust my flash accordingly to the aperture" what do you mean by that? I just bought a flash.. and took for the first time at this shoot... I read some stuff online on how to use it but I used in ETTL.. I know I can manually adjust the zoom and power.. but can you please share one example when you say "adjust my flash accordingly to the aperture".

  8. AlaskaMoose, Apr 24, 2014
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2014

    AlaskaMoose macrumors 65816

    Apr 26, 2008
    The main problem the OP is having is shooting against a bright background, without enough light on the subject.

    Also, avoid clustered or very busy backgrounds such as the brick wall behind the subject. Move the subject away from the wall, or move the subject to another location where there is nothing behind the subject, and the light is illuminating it. If you don't have the proper lighting to illuminate the subject, at least shoot with the light on your back. All you are doing is shooting against the light, in which case you would need a stronger fill light.

    For portraiture, a 50 to 85mm lens would be best from close-up work, and from a distance a 135mm f/2L would be perfect. Try this the next time, just for the heck of it :)

    Move the subject to a shaded area or location where the light illuminates her face, and the background is far behind and dark (like a forested area). With your camera on Av mode, open the lens as far as it goes to decrease the DOF, and shoot-away.

    -If you want to isolate the subject, don't have a clustered background by the subject, and reduce DOF
    -If you want an illuminated subject and don't have the proper lighting, at least don't shoot against the light
    -You have to decide what you want as the primary subject (the model, I assume). A busy background takes away from the subject
    -In a portrait, if the face of the model is what you want, focus on the face, not the whole body plus everything in the background

  9. acearchie macrumors 68040


    Jan 15, 2006
    There’s already a lot of good info. here.

    I thought I might as well throw my opinion into the ring. I’m by no means a pro so don’t take any of this as ‘fact’.

    Exposure does seem to be an issue. Were you not noticing this in camera? If you are content shooting in AV mode then start whacking in some exposure compensation. There is nothing wrong with blowing some highlights if it means that the subject is properly exposed.

    In terms of lighting, for the moment, I would scrap the flash. If you are shooting on your own it will be more of a hassle than a help. Learn to find great natural light and natural modifiers. I would also suggest going out a bit later (depending on your time zone I’m not sure when the magic hour would be). The magic hour will mean that the light will be more diffused as the sun disappears and when it is still up you can get a great golden backlight.

    There aren’t any real ‘rules’ when it comes to photography but I always like to backlight my subjects when I can.

    In your current conditions, shooting in post-midday sun but in the shadows will really be pushing the sensor to more than it is capable of. Is there a specific reason you are shooting like this?

    Composition wise the framing is not bad. You have an eye for finding interesting situations around you. One aspect I think that can be improved is the interaction with the model. I think she could look more ‘comfortable’ in the shots. There’s no perfect solution to this but maybe just hanging about and chatting for the first half hour might get her more relaxed rather than jumping into shooting. Maybe this is something you already tried? With such a fast shutter speed in daylight you can afford to keep shooting as she moves through poses. You probably already do this, but tell her that every time she hears the shutter she should alter her body, expression, weighting, etc. Then you have a variety of pics to choose from and not just one expression in one location.

    What focal length do you find you are using most on your zoom? You’ll find you get the best background separation and the least amount of unflattering perspective distortion at the tighter end. You then also won’t be so close to the model which may again work in your favour.

    Initially that’s all I can think of off the top of my head. I think the biggest thing to think about straight off is lighting. I know it can be tempting to buy something new (the flash) and then feel like you have to use it in every shot but this definitely isn’t the case. Next time you are out and about try and find some great natural reflectors, interesting colours on walls, different scenes and angles and you’ll be well on your way!
  10. Meister Suspended


    Oct 10, 2013
    - lighting is terrible
    - background is distracting

    - proper use of flash
    - shooting at a lower f-stop with a 85mm lens
    - and everything else written in the posts before

    Good luck and post the new results :)
  11. alexxk thread starter macrumors 6502

    Jul 29, 2010
    I did noticed.. some shots I had to aim the camera at a different area and lock the exposure.. other times I would just overexposed and blow out highlights. I'm just finding hard to get a good balance.. maybe it's really that hard to get it during that time of the day. I'm relying too much on the camera reading.. since this is a modern camera I would expect the metering to help me better.. Maybe by buying a light meter and placing on the model face I would get a better chance of getting it right.

    I work overnight so usually it's hard to go out for a shoot during magic hour..only on some weekdays but then the model might not be available.. you know..
    I do try hard to get it right. but I'm finding just "too hard" to get exposure right.. again.. portrait photography is the one thing I was not doing for the past 1 1/2 years using my DSLR. I usually do landscapes and night photography/long exposure.

    Good tips on making the model feel more comfortable. I use a 24-105 and because I like bokeh I try to shoot F4 and 105mm most of the time.. that's not the best lens to get that kind of a look, I will in the future purchase a 85mm 1.8.

    Regarding the flash, I already bought a Canon 430EX II 200 bucks used though.. I tried to use a bit to fill in light but that was the first time I tried and I'm not that Knowledgeable with it. I still have much to learn about flash. I also have a 5-1 reflector but no assistant LoL

    Thanks for the post.. I will try to pay more attention to areas with a better light balance.. where I dont need to deal with very bright background or busy ones.
  12. snberk103 macrumors 603

    Oct 22, 2007
    An Island in the Salish Sea
    You are on the right track... and there is a lot of good info here... but there is one key piece missing. Except for the first shot, range of light way too much. The bright bits are very bright and the dark bits are very dark. The human eye has a much greater capacity than a camera to properly register the details in high contrast scenes.

    Go look at a bunch of magazine ads with people shot inside (ignoring for the moment the ones shot outside in bright sun). What they will have in common is that use a relatively narrow range of light from highlights to shadows. Even the ones that look contrasty will have been created with a narrow range of light. Typically about 3 to 5 stops. When you are shooting outside on a sunny day (similar to your imager except for your first shot) the range can be 7 to 9 or more stops.

    The closer you are to noon, the worse it gets. Shoot just before/after sunrise or just after/before sunset. The sky acts like a giant reflector, filling in the shadows. The sky is still very bright ... but at least the shadows are not as dark. You still need flash or other source of light like a reflector in all likelihood.

    Professional photos of models on a sunny beach involve a crew of folks whose job is to create and aim a whole bunch of light (artificial or reflected) so that 1) the range of light on the model falls within the 3-5 stop zone, and so that range of light on the model vs the background is also within that zone. Then they have a bunch of professional retouchers who fix it anyways in post production.

    My advice... that wall in the first shot is great place to start. It looks like open shade to me, so that means your WB is going to be cool... just warm it up in PP. Pull the model away from it, and through it out of focus. Use it as a reflector... Get a flash going.... I don't know the area - but it looks like a good place to experiment.

  13. The Bad Guy macrumors 65816

    The Bad Guy

    Oct 2, 2007
    You've got a 6D...whack up the ISO. Good to go.
  14. TheDrift-, Apr 28, 2014
    Last edited: Apr 29, 2014

    TheDrift- macrumors 6502a


    Mar 8, 2010
    +1 on the lighting (also listen to acearchie i've seem some excellent portraits from him over in the POTD thread)

    I would also try spot metering on the model, which should help in the back lit shots, although you might blow out some details, at least the subject will be correctly exposed.

    As other have said other than improving the exposure on the subject they are very good shots..so maybe look at using spot metering and exposure compensation and just looking for nice light.
  15. phrehdd macrumors 68040


    Oct 25, 2008
    You seem to be really on the right track in your efforts to deliver a nice image with a person as the subject. Perhaps you should consider the following -

    Grey Card and a simple colour check card
    A simple light meter for incidental/reflector readings
    As you are already doing, learn how to use fill flash thoughfully (including diffused, bouncing off a reflector etc).
    Take notes when shooting (whether written, recorded etc.) This may come in handy during post processing. Some items may already be included with your RAW files (if you shoot RAW).

    If you shoot in a shady area, that is the only area you should be concerned about and thus set your ISO, f-stop (DOF to be considered) etc. Be aware that often when shooting in shady/shadow area, there may be a colour of light bias meaning that items within the shade or shadow will not read with the same colour balance as areas outside the shadow/shade. Sometimes it is almost non-apparent and sometimes it is noticeable.

    While there are all sorts of ways to handle "blown out" backgrounds, most of this in the digital world may be handled in post processing.

    How subjects/models are posed is an entirely different topic.
  16. Meister Suspended


    Oct 10, 2013
    I also wanted to add that I think these are some really, really nice shots! Really nice! You seem to have a good eye for photography and that is much more important then anything else because talent is harder to aquire then some basic lighting ajustment skills.
  17. Oracle1729 macrumors 6502a

    Feb 4, 2009
    Just....wow. There's no words to describe that.
  18. tcphoto macrumors 6502a


    Feb 23, 2005
    Madison, GA
    Put the flash away and concentrate on natural light. Learn to find flattering light, manipulate it and pose your subjects.
  19. ChrisA, Apr 28, 2014
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2014

    ChrisA macrumors G4

    Jan 5, 2006
    Redondo Beach, California
    The above is good. Other advice you are getting here is just non-sense. HDR for portraits?? Higher ISO?? That is kind of nuts.

    What you need to understand are two things (1) getting the overall exposure correct and (2) the lighting RATIO. The ratio is the number of f-stops between the darker shadows and the lighter parts, all of the subject's face. With digital, you expose for those highlights and fill in the shadows with light. You can use a flash but you will get nicer looking results for way-less money if you use a white reflector. Something like a 4 or 5 foot wide white cardboard reflector can bounce sunlight onto the subject. But you need a person to hold the big reflector.

    If you use flash as a fill-in light you need a way to manually adjust the power of the flash.

    One thing that is counter intuitive about out door daytime fill-in flash. You need a VERY powerful flash and even then you can't use it at long distance. The reason is you want the flash to be (say) 1/2 or 1/3rd as bright as the direct sun light. This is MUCH more power then you need to take a picture at night. But if you want to move the lighting ration to about 1 stop or 2 stops that flash needs to be really bright.

    That is why (I think) you tried to use the flash and it had little effect. It was not powerful enough to "compete" with the sun. Full body shots with a medium telephoto in daylight need a BIG flash unit, certainly not the built-in flash. Do the math using the guide number and see for yourself.

    Next you will find that on-camera un-defused light of any kind is ugly. It is to "hard". The fill-in reflector makes for softer light.

    The cheaper option is to wait for better natural light. Wait for a cloudy day. or better wait until about 30 to 60 minters before sunset, or 30 to 60 minutes after sunrise. The warm light is perfect.
  20. alexxk thread starter macrumors 6502

    Jul 29, 2010
    Thanks for all the responses thus far. Much appreciated..
  21. snberk103 macrumors 603

    Oct 22, 2007
    An Island in the Salish Sea
    This is all very good advice. Great Advice, even. I also kinda said it, but ChrisA says it much better and more clearly.

    Photography is about Light - not technology. Some of the most iconic portraits were taken decades ago… way before technology changed what we do. It was all about light then, and it's about light now… still.

    Check out some of Karsh's old BW portraits. Sublime.
  22. Scepticalscribe, Apr 29, 2014
    Last edited: Apr 29, 2014

    Scepticalscribe Contributor


    Jul 29, 2008
    The Far Horizon

    To the OP, you strike me as having a pretty good understanding of composition, but very little understanding of light. And light matters, in art and photography. My personal favourites in art, the Flemish/Spanish schools of the late Renaissance and the Impressionists, are all about the control of, depiction of, and mastery of, light.

    Natural light falling on your subject is the 'look' that you need to try to master. And while we are on the topic of your subject, she doesn't seem to me to be terribly relaxed, and some of the poses she has been asked to strike are, frankly, ludicrous. Ask her to sit, relaxed, in a cane chair at one of those French style coffee tables, looking away from you (but towards the source of light), may work a lot better.

    Anyway, as snberk103 so rightly says, it is all about light, the mastery of light, the manipulation of light, the direction of light and the use of light to create mood and atmosphere.

    Go to an art gallery and take a long hard look at some of the portraits of the Renaissance era, (and the era which immediately followed; some of the sombre portraits of the Flemish and Spanish schools are really striking in their control of light, light sources, and their depiction of stark and startling contrasts of light and shade) where light was used to create atmosphere and the impression of three dimensional depth.

    Likewise, if possible study The Impressionists - when I write 'study', I mean think about what they did and how they did it. The Impressionists also played with light in much of their art; indeed, for an example of a sort of forensic study of the effect of light you could do worse than to take a look (here, Mr Google will help if you cannot see them in person) at the series of pictures Claude Monet painted of how the play of light affected the way he was able to see - and paint - the west front of Rouen Cathedral.

    For my part, if I am photographing somebody, I try to forego flash entirely, even if I am photographing indoors, and try to have them placed where light from a window, or other source, falls on them.
  23. sim667 macrumors 65816

    Dec 7, 2010
    The biggest issue here is your lighting.

    Go and do a lighting course, it will be a game changer for your photography.
  24. PolloLoco32 macrumors newbie

    Oct 26, 2012
    You're flash did not fire in the shots, the cameras shutters will not fully expose the sensor at speeds beyond 1/200 (I think I heard Nikon can do 1/250). If your flash did fire, you would get a darker bar running down your photo.

    This animated gif should help explain. http://digital-photography-school.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/fastshutteranimation.gif

    In the example, the "slow" shutter speed is 1/200 or slower as the sensor is fully exposed. Anything higher will be the "Medium" or "Fast" shutter speeds in the animation. You're camera most likely won't even allow the flash to fire at that speed as manufacturers are aware of this. If it does, the lighting will not be even.
  25. alexxk thread starter macrumors 6502

    Jul 29, 2010
    You can with High Speed Sync.. the shutters will appear when you don't use HSS and you use some kind of external studio flashes that your camera does not control or something...not sure how to explain.. but yes some shots I was using High Speed Sync with my flash..and I you can shoot at 1/500, 1/1000th if you want.. your flash needs to support it though, my Canon 430 EXII does... this is actually great when you want to "overpower the sun" and get light into the subject.. but the flash needs to stay very close to the subject on a monopod and set using a wireless trigger.

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