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The 5 Basic Elements of Portrait Photography — Quick Start Guide

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Phone cameras have made it much easier for us to photograph ourselves and our loved ones and, for us who like to make street portraits, even strangers. In this tutorial, we will learn the five basic elements you need to create great photographic portraits.

Photo Portrait Basics

There are many ways in which we can learn about portraiture. Let’s start with the first five elements you need to consider when making a portrait.

  1. Background
  2. Lighting
  3. Position of the subject (standing, seating, pose, close of far)
  4. Position of the camera (perspective, lenses)
  5. Color or B&W

As you see the examples, check each one of these elements to start recognizing them!

1. Backgrounds 

The background is sometimes one of the most invisible elements when making portraits. We think we should focus only on the person and sometimes forget that they are part of an environment.The background can say a lot about the person, or sometimes it doesn’t say much — like a plain background — allowing us to highlight the person's face, body and expression.

Changing the Scene, the Perception and the Outcome

One rule of thumb when making portraits is to first look at the background, then take a picture and imagine your subject there. This way you can start composing your image and understanding areas where you wouldn’t want your subject to stand and others where you would.

2. Lighting — It Can Make (or Break) a Picture

Light is another element that most people don’t see until they start learning photography. We have it everywhere around us but sometimes it is hard to see it. The direction of the light and the type of light changes completely how your subject will look. 

One simple way to find the best light for a portrait is to use your hand as a stand in, and check how the light is falling on it. Imagine your hand is like your subject, so you can first check where the light is coming from, and then place your subject according to where you want your subject to get the light from.

3. Position of the Subject

For some people this is the element that they are most used to, while for others this is the most awkward part of portraiture. Standing in front of a camera can be fun and nerve wracking at the same time. The good thing is that we can always find ways to pose or not to pose so the person being photographed feels comfortable.

Standing, Sitting, Pose, and Distance

One thing to consider in connection to element #1, background, is how far or close you want your subject to be to the background. If the subject is close to the background then you will see the background as sharp as your subject, whereas if you greatly separate your subject from your background, then your background will look blurry. This already creates two very different portraits.

As you can see, when you bring your subject close to the background, the background looks sharp, and as you bring your subject close to your camera and far from the background, the background becomes blurry.

In the following example you can see that when you include less information around your subject you can focus more on them. On the contrary, when you frame with a much larger and busier background your attention gets diverted. This is neither good nor bad, it depends on your goal and where you want the attention to go.

4. Position of the Camera

The fourth element relates completely to you, the one holding the camera. Where you stand and what combination you chose to use in your camera to compose your picture will determine how many elements we see in the picture. 

Changing Perspective and Lenses

For this one, it is recommended to play around a lot. Move up and down, come close and far, change your camera lenses, try everything so you can see the amount of options you always have. Experiment, and with experience you will start to prefer certain lenses and certain distances according to the type of portrait you want to create.

5. Color or B&W

And the last one, but not the least important, are you using color or black-and-white? This is not an easy decision to make but most photographers will tell you, first record in color, then pick if you want to change it to B&W later. While you can envision an image in B&W it is always good to have the full range of color as later in post production you can even change the intensity of those blacks per color!

Choosing color will allow you to play with color pallets, styles and use color theory for making more striking images. Choosing black and white will set a tone that is usually associated with the past, but will also enhance the expression of your subject, making anything else less important.

Quick tip: if your background is color noisy, then turning your image to black and white can help you solve that distraction.

Making photographs is a lot of fun, and sometimes it is also a lot of work, but once you remember by heart all these elements you won’t even think of them, they will come naturally to you.

Next Steps

Once you get comfortable with the fundamentals, you can start exploring all kinds of portraiture. Here are a few more free tutorials and resources to help you study up on portrait photography:

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