A Quick Guide to Creating Portraits

It is common to see family members using their phones to take photographs at family events. Often these images aren’t memorable because of poor composition and bad lighting. Here’s an easy lighting setup you can use to create professional-quality photographs.

Our goal will be to produce portraits where our subjects look comfortable and content, but before we can think about how we will put them at ease for these mini sessions, we need to adjust some settings on our camera and strobe. We will begin with our camera, where our attention will be on shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. Shutter speed can be set to 1/125 s. If you are experienced with using a strobe, you may choose to use a higher shutter speed provided you are aware of what number you should not go past. When this setting is correct, your camera will synchronize with the strobe so that the strobe will fire at the same instant that the shutter curtain opens. ISO will be set to the lowest setting possible. This will likely be 64 or 100. When we use the lowest ISO setting, we are ensuring that the file will be noise and grain-free. Both noise and grain can be added back to the image in post-production should you desire. Finally, our aperture will be set to f/5.6. This will provide a moderate depth of field so that the subject’s entire face is in focus. For this type of portrait, we do not want a dramatic, shallow depth of field where the eyes are sharp but the nose and cheeks are not.

Family portrait by John Ricard.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron.  160 at f/5.6.  ISO, 100.  Profoto B2 with Wescot 7' Umbrella.

Once these three adjustments have been made, we can turn our attention to the strobe. I am fond of Profoto products, but any strobe will do the job when paired with a Westcott 7' White and Black Umbrella. This large umbrella will produce soft, clean light that is virtually shadow-free. This type of light is flattering to older people and will reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles on their faces. Soft light also allows us some freedom in how we pose our subject. If she turns a bit to the left or right, we will not have dramatic shadows on her face.

Because most strobes are fully manual, we will have to determine how much power we need the strobe to produce so that our image is neither too bright nor too dark. The easiest way to do this is to begin taking test photographs with the strobe at its lowest power. Then, we take a series of images, increasing the power incrementally until the image looks good to our eyes.

Series of images taken to determine the correct exposure for a strobe.  The first image is taken at the strobe's lowest power.  For each successive image, the power of the strobe was increased incrementally until the correct exposure (the 7th image) was determined.  

I often use a 35mm lens for family portraits. This allows me to be close to my subject for better rapport. I can be somewhat loose with my composition. If I take my eye away from the viewfinder and aim the camera in my subject’s direction, I am confident that the subject will be in the frame. Also, this focal length will produce an image that shows some of the subject’s body.

Once the camera and strobe have been set correctly, we can turn our attention to making a connection with our subject. Keep your energy level high as you ask them questions that will make them think pleasant thoughts. Try something like: "So, you’re a principal? That must be so cool to be able to be a positive influence in the lives of so many young people. Do the students ever come back to school years later to thank you?” Don’t give your subjects time to be nervous. Keep them talking. When you get a good smile, let them know: “That looks great. Just hold that.” Although I often do tell my subjects to smile, it is best to avoid doing so and instead use conversation and body language to solicit natural, happy expressions. If you keep each session to two minutes, you should be able to maintain a high energy level with your subjects and create at least one strong image from each mini session.

Many photographers purchased their first cameras hoping to photograph exciting scenes or celebrities. We have visions of climbing the frigid slope of Mount Everest and capturing a view that few others have seen in person. But if that fantasy never becomes reality, we should appreciate the value we can bring to our family and friends just by providing them with a clean, well-exposed, natural-looking portrait. It is sad to contemplate, but the reality is that none of us know which day will be the last for ourselves or our loved ones, and the portrait we create today in a two-minute session might be treasured by others for decades to come.

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