2. Use the Right Lens
The right lens for a portrait is the one that provides the desired framing at a distance that provides the desired perspective. For a natural-appearing "head shot," this would be a short telephoto (85–135mm range for a 35mm camera), at a distance of around 31/2–5 feet from the subject. Use a wider lens, and you have to move closer to frame a head shot, and moving closer will expand perspective and elongate the subject's features. Use a longer lens, and you'll have to move farther away to get the right framing, and moving farther away will compress perspective and "squash" the subject's features.
Of course, the "right" framing and the "right" perspective are up to you, the photographer. Try different focal lengths at different distances, and see which combinations you like best. For example, for waist-up and full-length portraits, wider lenses can be used, keeping in mind the relationship between distance and perspective. Photo by Lynne Eodice
Top: A short telephoto lens at a distance of 31/2–5 feet from the subject produces an effective head shot. Bottom: For a full-length portrait, switch to a shorter focal length.
4. Lighting Up Their Lives
In the glory days of Hollywood, photographers almost as well-known as their celebrity subjects used direct "hard" light to produce dramatic portraits. Hard light is dramatic, but it also is not very forgiving of errors in positioning by the photographer, and imperfections in the subject's complexion. Soft light, as produced by umbrella reflectors or open shade outdoors, is far more forgiving on both counts, and thus a better choice for the beginning portrait shooter (and subjects with less-than-perfect complexions).
The simplest studio portrait lighting setup involves two lights: a main light, which determines the "look" of the lighting; and a less-intense fill light, which softens the shadows. You can start with the main light 45° above and 45° to one side of the camera (try both sides to see which looks best with your particular subject), and move the light lower or higher, and closer to the camera or more to the side to suit your subject. Then place the fill light (or a fill reflector) next to the camera to soften the shadows.
Studio flash is popular with portraitists today, because it is daylight-balanced, its brief duration minimizes subject "blinking" problems, it's not uncomfortably hot like tungsten lights, you can easily set ratios between main and fill lights, and the modeling lamps let you preview the lighting. With hot-shoe flash units, you can't see what the lighting looks like until you see the photo—there's no light until the flash unit fires, and then it's there for only a brief fraction of a second. Tungsten lights let you see the lighting and cost less than studio flash systems, but are hot, require longer exposure times (increasing the likelihood of getting a shot with the subject blinking), and require tungsten-balanced color films (or corrective filtration, which furthers extends exposure times). Many terrific portraits have been made with both types of lighting, so take your pick.
One of many popular portrait-lighting variations is the over/under: Position a soft main light (a photographic umbrella reflector will soften the light beautifully) just above the camera lens, and a fill reflector right below the camera lens—you can even have the subject hold the fill reflector in his or her lap. This produces a more "glamorous" effect than the 45°/45° lighting.
Of course, Mother Nature provides some gorgeous portrait lighting, too. In late afternoon, when the sun is low in the sky, it comes from an attractive angle and is less intense, so it doesn't make subjects squint. (Avoid harsh midday sun for portraits!) You can have the subject face directly into the setting sun, or turn at an angle to produce a lighting ratio (you can use a silver, gold or white fill reflector to lighten the shadow portion of the face). Open shade, and thinly overcast skies also produce nice soft portrait lighting outdoors.
Yet another good source of natural portrait lighting is a large picture window. Position your subject near the window, and use a large white posterboard as a fill reflector, and you can do anything from formal to glamour effects.
There are lots of good books on portrait lighting (check out the book section of your local camera store, or the photo section of your local bookshop), but also look through books of work by those famous Hollywood photographers like George Hurrell for ideas and inspiration.
Top: A soft main light right above the camera lens, and a white or silver fill reflector in the model's lap produces a pleasant "glamour" lighting. Photo by Mike Stensvold Bottom: Late-afternoon sun provides an attractive source of light for portraits. Photo by Jay Jorgensen