I shot several sample pictures today to try and show the effect camera position and lens choice/zoom length can make in shooting portraits. Like any rule in an artform, these are meant to be broken-- but broken on purpose, not because you didn't pay attention. And that is really what this part is about, paying attention to the choices you make while shooting and giving yourself options.

(Disclaimer: Yes, I know I shot these at the worst time of day in harsh direct sunlight; no reflectors or fill flash used. But they will work for the purposes and explanations used here) (Also, all images were shot ISO 100 and at f4, including the zoom examples)

This first example is a pretty basic one and I probably could have shot dozens of examples, but these two will have to do. One thing a lot of beginning photographers do is shoot standing up, except for those ones that just love to shoot from extreme angles. Now if you are shooting a headshot of roughly someone the same height as you, then shooting just standing there is great. But most of us shoot pictures of people of all sizes and that being said, you want to pay attention to your camera level when you're shooting. (I'm talking the placement of the camera, not just where you point your camera throughout this lesson)

One easy way to "feel it out" is that if you are pointing your camera slightly up or down to frame your picture and you are not intentionally shooting an extreme angle, then you need to stretch up or kneel down to get your lens pointed level at your subject. This requires me to stand on my tip toes when shooting a headshot of someone half a foot or more taller than me for example to avoid that slight looking up the nose angle. But mainly it seems to effect people that are shooting full body or 3/4 shots of someone while only a few to several feet away. In the example above, picture one was shot standing straight up and framing in full body. Whereas in picture 2 I knelt down to about stomach level to shoot straight across at the model.

A rough way to keep it in mind using the examples I just posted: Picture 1, a headshot-- the white line cutting across the image represents the camera level. The model was about half a foot shorter than me, so I crouched a bit to shoot this. You want to shoot headshots about eye/nose level. Picture2, a 1/2 body shot-- shot with the camera about chest level. Picture 3, a full body shot-- again, shot at roughly stomach/waste level.

This might seem nit-picky but can make a difference between a picture looking like a snapshot or not. Most people take pictures just standing there and pointing the camera, even with children. We all see children looking down everyday. Down on a level field with them, we can often see more than we open our eyes to everyday just walking around them. Does it mean your "snapshot" looks bad? No. But give it a try, I think you'll be surprised with the results. Not just with kids pictures either, it's just easiest to see the with them because of the height difference.

The last thing I wanted to bring up is "zoom" length. On all of these shots, the model tried to keep roughly the same pose and I tried to frame in at the same place as well after moving back for each shot.

All of those were shot at f4, but you can see how the further zoom ranges also add to background blur. The other effect you'll note is the compression, this is easy to see with the background as the treeline closes in behind the model in each shot. But it can also make a difference in the image of the person as well, which is why you see a lot of those fashion photographers on tv with giant zoom lenses shooting a model from further away.

Image 1 is shot at a 17mm focal length, standing only a few feet away. Not a good option for shooting a portrait, though I have seen this way too often by photographers. You can see the distortion in the models body/face from the wide angle curve. Now this can make an interesting effect when done on purpose, especially on horizontal shots where you fill the frame with a lot of background while keeping the subject closer to the undistorted middle section so their body isn't distorted. Also can be interesting when used in other ways as well, shooting down on subjects at extreme angles, etc.

Image 2 is shot at 50mm and Image 3 is shot at 100mm. This area is kind of a sweet spot for portraits. (Usually about 85mm) But it seems to pick up what the eye would naturally make of the scene. It can also be cool if you just run around with a 50mm fixed lens on your camera and see what sort of images you come up with on an outing. (Another thing nice about the 50mm lens is that usually you can drop the f-stop down to 1.8-some higher or lower- and get some great low light shots without turning up the ISO)

Image 4 is shot at 200mm. You can really see the compression of the background up to the model and how much more out of focus it is even still at the same f4 as the other shots. I like the pop of this difference on a lot of shots, especially outdoor. Having a not too busy background should be a goal in portraits, not capturing the entire detail of the wilderness setting you are in. (I'll be covering background on another installment though).

This example is just a basic shot again of Picture 1 taken from standing position, Picture 2 taken from kneeling down to be straight across from the chest/shoulder area. (Though I wish I had her look at me in picture 2, looking away IMO worked for the first shot, but not the second...anyways...)

Other than the model looking away in the second picture, personally I prefer it as a portrait. The first looks just too much like I just pointed a camera down at someone sitting on a bench and snapped a picture. Now if the angle had been more extreme or the framing tighter, that might have made it more "artistic".

The important thing to keep in mind is to give yourself options. Take pictures a couple of different ways. Most of us use digital now, so take advantage of it. Give yourself options when you go through them the next day. These "rules" usually make for better habits and then better pictures; but like I said are always good to break when done intentionally. And to prove it, my last shot was taken from me laying on the ground shooting up (I usually avoid shooting up the nose, but for this shot it was needed for what I pictured in my head).

Oh...and thank you to my guinea p---- er, model: Angela for helping me today.