What you don’t have to consider when doing portraits

This blog entry is written by an amateur photographer photographing amateur models.

Internet articles about portrait photography often elaborate on buying decisions. I would rather recommend to look for models to photograph instead of new gear to buy. The perfect equipment might get you the least image noise, the best sharpness and the highest resolution. Does it catch a nice moment?

Sometimes I ask a she-coworker if I can take portrait photos. As device I prefer a non-zoom fixed-lens moderately wide-angle camera, namely the X100F.


When photographing a non-professional model with the agreement that she can use the photos, artistic expression is not the first consideration – instead she wants to look beautiful. So one creates a comfortable setting which allows to reveal the look and unique personally of the model …

… which is easier said than done. I would rather like to hide behind my DSLR. Using a small camera instead makes me visible. But that is good, as continuous interaction with the model is important for portraits – an amateur model cannot be directed to pose according to a script. An organic build-up works better.

Compact cameras are not as intrusive as a typical portrait kit. The photographer can get closer without making the model uncomfortable. I prefer outdoor shootings with several staged shots to make sure that at least some usable images will be produced, and some spontaneous interactions where I try to get an authentic response. And accept less than ideal conditions if I can get a real smile.

Less focus on hardware

An X100 can be upgraded with a tele converter lens in order to become a typical portrait camera. However it then also has a bulky lens. But who is relaxed when a lot of glass is pointed at one?

A typical advise for someone exploring portrait photography seems to purchase optimal equipment. I think this is well-intentioned but misses the point. Someone looking at the photos should be impressed by other things than the camera used. Getting clarification about how to present the model should come before talking about lenses. If it turns out one does not have the right lens, buying something new should only be one of the options.

The alternative would be to experiment with the gear at hand.

Less focus on software

Most photographs shown in this blog are developed from a Raw file and use strong color. For portrait photo books I prefer less saturation and contrast. If presented well, the viewer takes more time looking at prints and the images don’t have to impress with popping colors.

For online images, everyone has a cellphone ready to post on social media, often “enhanced” by filters. If you are a more traditional photographer, your photographs might be better but there will be little interest if not published in time. Not every portrait requires extensive, Raw-file based post processing.

As a wedding guest I prefer a portrait-optimized Jpeg output in order to not have to do time-consuming Raw processing. Some Jpeg edits might still be useful and one can get a result like this:

The file format is not the question here. I would recommend to follow visual concept, even if not fully achieved with the final image. That is still better than having no clear visual goal and trying to impress with digital over-processing.

Playing with bokeh

I suppose when photo prints were rather small, a long lens with relatively large aperture was the only way to get visible background separation using the 35 mm film format. Especially if one tries to get background blur comparable to photos taken with medium or large film format, the 35 mm frame requires a long and fast lens.

There are lens reviews about bokeh and software editing tips how to digitally apply a bokeh-like background blur using computer applications. That can be helpful, but I rather try to catch the beauty of the model instead of worrying too much about the beauty of the bokeh.

The trunk behind the model’s head is not optimal but there was no time to change the angle or aperture because this smile needed to be photographed when it happened. Even worse than the non-ideal background, the sun just came out and caused harsh lighting.

A wide-angle lens for portraits

One can crop an X100F image quite a bit. This simulates longer lenses at the cost of image resolution. One can even dip into the telephoto range, getting close to traditional-looking portraits while having enough pixels left to work with. A focal length typically used for portraits would keep the full sensor resolution, but I see a few possible issues with a tele-lens.

Because of the magnification, long lenses require to be farther away. Distance complicates interaction. With more distance to the foreground model, background objects appear larger in comparison, taking away the model’s importance. Also, the model’s face appears fuller because one sees more of it when farther away.

Getting instead closer allows interaction and shows acquaintance. Compared to the background, the model size stands out. Background, face and body proportions reveal that the model is quite close. And this cannot be simulated with zoom or crop.

Lens quality

Too much detail in too high contrast reveals all the skin issues. This can be addressed in digital post processing, but why not let the lens do some work as well?

In close range and with the aperture wide open, the X100 lens produces a hazy look. With the aperture stopped down, the image gets very sharp. In-between there is an aperture range where the close-up hazy or dreamy effect is still partly there.

If done right, the image is sharp enough and has sufficient contrast to resolve a useful level of detail without exposing the model’s skin too much to public scrutiny. Subjectively I prefer that look to a digital filter.

The hardest part

The location has been scouted, even twice, the ideas have been developed into a script, yet the shooting does not play out as planned. The lighting is different than anticipated, many scripted parts do not work well, and while I try to adjust to the conditions I forget to interact with the model. Once the photo session over, I am left with a lot of files. And the task to hopefully find a handful of shots which are usable.

Getting feedback from the model, and from others – preferably photographers – is important to improve. Which pictures do others like and why? Which pictures should I select to show, the ones liked by everyone, or is it okay to have the audience split, which also means that the model could be criticized as not looking good? It is easy to do armchair philosophy and theorize, but much harder to deal with real-life responses.

The hardest part is to get lady models in front of the camera. I get denied quite often. Which camera or lens to use – that is the least of my worries.

The best part

When I use one of my other cameras, I think a lot about the right lens. With a no-choice camera, I often have to relocate to get the optimal distance and angle. Sometimes one still cannot take the obvious frame and has to get creative. This way I am a photographer instead of a camera operator.

Portrait photography requires trust and confidence. Getting a comment that a photo looks like one just got lucky, even thought it actually was hard work, is the best compliment.

Maybe none of my opinions apply to you. Even I myself don’t claim it is the right way, if a friend asks for portrait photos but wants to get the standard style, I use another camera and lens.

If I can do a portrait shooting my way, I found that is important to develop an idea about the presentation, and to communicate prior, during, and after the session. Which camera or lens to buy? Unless your model can pose professionally, those questions are not important at all.

2 thoughts on “What you don’t have to consider when doing portraits

  1. Pingback: Two years of the X100F | Arne's blog

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