Photography On A Shoestring: Portraiture

Photography On A Shoestring: Portraiture

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As an addition to the guide for starting photography on the cheap (see my previous one on Product & Macro), we are going to dive into more specific genres so you can have more options and therefore a larger creative grasp.

Portraiture focuses mainly on the model and the light, allowing you to make do with very few lenses without any issues. When it comes to portrait you are controlling the shape and amount of light, you need neither high ISO nor extreme 14 stop dynamic range.

Yes, they would be a welcome addition, but they aren’t a bare necessity.

Before we begin, why not invest in yourself and your photography skills by checking out this great guide: The Art of Portrait Photography. Learn tips from the pros and how you can advance your skills, faster and more efficiently!

Ideal Focal Lengths To Use For Portraiture

If you would like to keep the point of view (perspective) as close to the human eye, you should seek out a lens around the 35-50mm range. For a more flattering portrait, a lens that is more in the telephoto range will be required, which is something around 135 – 200mm give or take.

These figures factor in the crop factor of the APS-C cameras.

Shot with Helios 44m-4 vintage lens. Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.
Shot with Helios 44m-4 vintage lens. Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.

As mentioned in the previous article, the nifty fifty is a great solution for portraiture. Being 50mm, it comes down to 80mm on the crop sensor, which sits somewhere in the middle between natural eye perspective and the telephoto range.

85mm lenses are one of the “preferred” lenses for portraiture, right after the 200mm ones (on full frame cameras).

To solve the longer lens problem, you can approach it in two ways. You can go for the 55-250mm stabilized lens, which costs around $100 (used, and it is a great lens), or you can look for manual focus vintage lenses which will be a bit sharper and will have wider apertures.

For example, the 135mm f/2.8 Pentacon is a great lens. The price for it varies depending on the condition and seller, but you can get one for around $60-70.

To summarize:

  • 50mm f/1.8 autofocus (80mm on APS-C sensor)
  • Pentacon 135mm f/2.8 (216mm on APS-C sensor)
  • For 35mm range, you can get away with the kit lens set to 24mm.

Light – How to Use It & Modify It

Investing in flashes can get really expensive really fast. Therefore, it is best to start out with natural light. Not just because of the price tag, but also because learning light is faster when you are observing rather than creating light.

You might want to get a light reflector however, in order to be able to modify natural light a bit (for example creating a fill light by bouncing back the sun).

4 light sources here, two from the sides, one from the back, and the blue tint is made by a smartphone. Except the smartphone light, all other lights were as they are in the restaurant. Shot with Helios 44m-4. Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.
4 light sources here, two from the sides, one from the back, and the blue tint is made by a smartphone. Except the smartphone light, all other lights were as they are in the restaurant. Shot with Helios 44m-4. Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.

Reflectors are quite cheap and you don’t have to go for the branded ones – basically, any reflector would do. Around $10-15 is a reasonable price for a non-brand reflector (you might even find it cheaper) but just make sure that the wire that holds them in position is actually strong enough.

Other than that, the fabric itself wears off with use but every reflector does that: 2-3 years in, you might have to change them. But even if it lasts for 6 months, it is a bargain at that price.

Why not invest in yourself and your photography skills by checking out this great guide: The Art of Portrait Photography. Learn tips from the pros and how you can advance your skills, faster and more efficiently!

Using Your Photography Skills

Once you have the essential gear, you need to go out and start shooting. You can freshen up your skills by practice, or you can also read up some of the articles we have about portraiture in general.

To Sum Up, These Are The Things You Will Need To Pay Close Attention To:

  • Framing and Composition.
    For starters, make sure that you utilize the rule of thirds, and learn about the ways you can compose portraiture.
  • Selective focus (creating background blur).
    Basically making the most of the wide aperture and focusing on the right parts of the portrait (the nearest eye), therefore effectively drawing the attention where it should be.
  • Zoom compression.
    Learn how focal length affects the background compression. In short, the more telephoto the lens is the closer the background will appear to be, and vice versa.

Accessories For Portraiture

Portraiture as a genre doesn’t require many photography accessories in order to benefit from them. The main focus, as mentioned before, falls on the light and lens, and eventually the model. But one thing that you’d want to have on your shoot would be a gray card.

Gray cards are important for getting the proper color temperature: before the shoot, you would ask the model to hold the gray card in front of their face, take a picture, and use that picture as a sample for custom white balance. As simple as that.

https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5302/5577028557_aa6eb38427_b.jpg Photo by Dave Dugdale

Now, not all gray cards are created equal.

There are the simple monochrome ones, and more advanced monochrome plus color ones. You don’t need anything fancy. In fact, you don’t need to even bother purchasing a gray card.

Simply print out a 0, 25%, 50% and 75% gray stripes on a piece of paper and just use that. Make sure you are using monochrome laser printer, however (might cost you a few cents to do it in a printing shop or something) so there is no color residue from other toners. It will work just fine.

Summary

Portraiture is probably the cheapest genre to get started with, but the more serious you are becoming about it, the more expensive it gets (as any other photography genre).

Strobes, diffusers, light stands, flags, scrims, all sorts of bits and pieces to hold everything together, backgrounds, lenses, high tonal range camera bodies, triggers, make up artists, hairdressers, and so forth tend to dig up the hole in the wallet quite fast.

But with the basic gear I mentioned, you can learn a whole lot about portraiture and you can also create magnificent portraits. Sometimes it will require some resourcefulness and ingenuity, but if it was simple, it wouldn’t be fun, right?

Why not invest in yourself and your photography skills by checking out this great guide: The Art of Portrait Photography. Learn tips from the pros and how you can advance your skills, faster and more efficiently!

Further Resources

About the author

Dzvonko Petrovski

Photographer who loves challenging and experimental photography and is not afraid to share the knowledge about it.

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