Five products to improve your portraits.
If you are looking to improve your portraiture, you may just need more practice. However, at some point, the right equipment will make a big difference. If you add these products slowly to your arsenal of “go to equipment” you will get a better feel of how each one can improve what you are already doing.
1) Get a longer lens. Many times photographers use lenses like the 85mm as a portrait lens. With more full frame cameras being produced and being used these days, the 85mm lens can be too short to compress some of the facial features, yielding a kind of stretched look to a person’s face. While if you go in the other direction and get a longer lens on your camera, you can create a more flattering look. The nose is not as pronounced as with a shorter lens and it fits the face more evenly. The longer lens will also let you take advantage of a shallower depth-of-field and drop the background out of focus. I shoot with Nikon equipment and I routinely use the 200mm f/2 lens or the 70mm-200mm 2.8 lens zoomed as far out as the situation will allow.
2) Use a good reflector. I use the Lastolite TriGrip Reflector. Typically I use the version that has silver on one side and soft white on the other. Seldom do I use the silver side but it can come in handy when you are trying to boost the light from an otherwise overly dark scene. The light from the silver side creates a sharp reflected light and many times has too much contrast for most portraits. The white side is more commonly used to bounce soft light into the shadows of the subjects face. You can move this in to the subject or out to increase or decrease the depth of the shadow on your subject’s face. The Lastolight has a nice grip for an assistant to hold or to clip to a light stand. Lastolite also makes a version that has shiny gold on one side. This seems to me to be useless since if I wanted a gold light over everything I would shoot for this in the first place with gels or add the color later in post. Don’t tie your hands by using gold in a reflector during a portrait shoot.
3) Portable Strobe Units. I use the Profoto B1 portable strobes. Yes, these are expensive but they offer tons of power and many different options for light modification. The TTL on these units work fabulously with my Nikon equipment and the quality of light is fantastic. Lights like these will allow you to light just about any portrait situation that comes your way, inside the studio or outdoors away from any power source.
4) Beauty Dish. I recently purchased the OCF Beauty Dish from ProFoto. I use the 24” white version (they come in silver lining as well). This light gives out an outstanding quality of light that has some direction to it but is still soft enough to be extremely flattering. This one folds up for easy packing and is very simple to put together quickly. The quality of light is quite different than the large soft box look that I have used for years. Maybe because its different is why I’m drawn to it but check it out and see what you think.
5) Apple Box. Mostly used in the film making industry, the Large Apple Box can be used to stand on while creating your next portrait. Matehews makes the ones I use and it's a sturdy plywood box that will allow you to elevate the camera and slightly look down on your subject. Obviously this is not for photographing children; it’s for photographing heavy people! If you are looking down on your subject by a few extra inches, they can bring their chin up to you and elongate the neck. Thereby reducing the weight around their neckline. It’s a simple fix for some portrait clients. What’s not simple is lugging around a ladder or using some other unstable chair to get you higher than the subject. If you don’t use it for standing on, you might find it helpful for your subjects to sit on to create different eyeline levels. The Apple box excels at beingsimple to carry and stow and has multiple uses.
Terry VanderHeiden has been a full time, nationally published photographer since 1980. He is the owner of ImageLight.com and he is an instructor of photography, Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.