Reader Question: What’s your advice for taking the best portraits?

My Answer: Two words: light and lens.

Though any light source can work, the most flattering portraits are usually made in what is called open shade. Open shade can be found almost anywhere out of direct sunlight.

Useful portrait lighting conditions can also be found under awnings or porches or even in open doorways. Another one that comes to mind is under a tree, but be sure that there are no patches of light falling on your subject’s face.

The idea with open shade is to make sure that the light falling on a subject is even, with no bright hot spots. This also prevents the dreaded “raccoon effect” caused by a light source that’s directly overhead, which can leave dark rings under a subject’s eyes.

When it comes to lenses, slight telephotos (85mm to 105mm) are best for portraits. There are a few reasons for this. The main reason is that the photographer can stand a comfortable distance from the subject and still take a close-up photo. Generally speaking, telephoto lenses also have shallower depth of field, which allows the photographer to concentrate on the subject’s face. However, this requires careful focusing; there’s nothing worse than a portrait that has the ears in focus instead of the eyes.

Wide-angle lenses can be used for portraits (simply move the camera closer to the subject), but they aren’t usually the best choice. Why is this the case? Because the change in perspective caused by moving closer tends to make your subject’s nose look unattractively large.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? He’ll be answering reader questions periodically on the blog, so be sure to leave a comment.

Comments

  1. Jerry Stachowski
    Lakewood Co
    June 6, 2013, 12:30 am

    I agree that light and lens really helps. But I also find that talking to the subject converts a picture into a portrait.

    Thanks
    Jerry