Dmitriy Kupratsevich’s practice. Night Portrait

Portraiture is a very popular genre in photography. But this is a very complicated genre, it has a lot of nuances, depending not only on the skill of the photographer, but also on the characters. It’s hard to compare, for instance, a business and a children’s photo shoot. Even though they both have people in the frame, everything is different: the background chosen, the style of the outfit, the posing, the interaction with the model. And if it comes to psychology of communication, there is a whole encyclopedia to be written… In this tutorial we will talk about taking a winter portrait under difficult street lighting conditions. I shot all of my portraits with my mirrorless Canon EOS R. At the same time we will see how the new camera works together with street lights and colorful illumination of facades, when the falling snow caused obvious problems for the autofocus. In such a tough situation it will become clear everything: what is the true dynamic range of the camera and what is the actual focus tenacity.

Dmitry Kupratsevich

A full review of the Canon EOS R mirrorless camera

What lens is the best to use??

Portraits are most often recommended with an 85mm focal length lens full frame format . Yes, these are excellent optics for facial or chest portraits, allowing you to maintain the proportions of the figure and the perspective in the frame. But life situations can be very different. Shooting a person in the studio is one thing – with a prepared background and lighting positioned beforehand, but quite another thing in nature or outdoors, when a beautiful river bend or a shining New Year’s façade with a red bow can become a natural background. Then you really can’t do without the wide angle lens, because you must capture the surrounding landscape and its special atmosphere.

Of course, you can carry a bunch of fixed lenses in your backpack, and go back and forth between “re-shoeing” your camera. But when I’m outdoors, I prefer to shoot portraits with fast zoom lenses. So for today’s winter outing I took two excellent zooms, the Canon EF 70-200 2.8L USM and a Canon EF 24-70 2.8L USM with which I often and extensively shoot landscapes and wildlife. So my first recommendation is this: related genres are best shot with lenses you know well. And most importantly, you need to be well prepared!

I’m sure everybody can make a good portrait if they do it properly: they can set up the camera precisely, think about the location and an attractive background, feel the magic of sunlight or street light and be able to liberate the model in the frame. All these are the obligatory components of the final success, which we are now going to discuss.

Canon EOS R + Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L USM, f/2.8, ISO 2500, 1/320

Camera settings

I’m afraid I can’t give you the recipe for the “Kremlin pill” to cure any situation. The camera settings can be very different – it all depends on the conditions it finds itself in and what it’s going to shoot. In a studio where the photographer has complete control over the lighting it is possible to set the most optimal shooting parameters that give the best quality images in the output. I could easily set the aperture to f/5.6 – f/16, at the same time regulating the depth of field, and the ISO parameter can be lowered to the minimum, to 100-200.

But for a night scene, the studio setting is not likely to work. When there is not enough light on the sensor there is no way to set the aperture to the minimum ISO, because a slow shutter speed is obligatory and for that reason it will be extremely difficult to shoot hand-held without blurring. With my model in front of the night lights, I used a different setting.

First, I set the camera to shutter speed priority mode. This parameter is set twice as short as the focal length for example, a shutter speed no longer than 1/125 for a “Poltinik” . This balance allows you to keep sharpness. With fixed shutter speed the clever camera will find the optimal combination of aperture and ISO sensitivity to the changeability of street light – you just turn around and the settings change instantly.

Then I set the camera in a different way. To quickly change the depth of field and to paint a graceful bokeh, I put the camera in aperture priority mode: its value is fixed, and the shutter speed and ISO sets the camera itself. I just had to make sure the shutter speed was not too slow when the image would go into defocus. the optimal value of ISO can be adjusted manually, by doing a few takes each time, but in case of unstable street lighting it is better to switch the ISO to auto mode, which you also have to control, because it must not reach the “red line”, beyond which the frame will contain a lot of noise. In a few pictures, I deliberately cranked up the ISO to 5000 – to test the limits of the new product. The EOS R didn’t let me down.

And one more very important setting: a portrait would almost certainly require continuous shooting – not necessarily at maximum shutter speed, but the facial muscles of any human are very mobile, single shots are quite difficult to catch the most expressive emotion on the face. There’s no way around it without a good shot.

And the last important advice for beginners: in big facial portraits you have to focus on eyes and in life-size portraits you have to focus on the face as a whole .

Canon EOS R + Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L USM, f/2.8, ISO 2000, 1/125

The model needs to be lit..

Every girl is beautiful in her own way. A good photographer is not one who makes glossy beauties, but one who can see and recreate the unique image of a person. The aerobatics – a portrait as a mirror of the soul…. That’s the reason why photographers take their “easel” every time, only instead of paints and brushes we are looking for the best angle, the best location, the winning background and appropriate clothing, and even experimenting with different poses.

There is little joy in shooting a “monument” with a frozen face and “stone” hands. In the frame your model must get rid of everything that bothers her, she must be relaxed, plastic, charming. Every detail is important: the direction of your gaze, the expression on your face, the tilt of your head, the way your hair is developing, your hands are light, your silhouette is bouncy. Striking the right pose is an important and broad subject in itself. Before the shooting I highly recommend not only to talk to the model “about life”, establishing a goodwill contact, but also to organize a small fitness session: together with the model stretch your arms, move your head, straighten your shoulders, do squats – in general get a fitness picture with exercises – and go through the list. This workout allows the model to really relax and get into a graceful, natural-looking character. By the way, most actors before their film shoots sit in front of the mirror and make faces to themselves…

Canon EOS R + Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L USM, f/2.8, ISO 640, 1/125

How to get a blurry background?

A harmonious background is very important in portrait photography. A good background creates a special atmosphere in the frame, emphasizing the main features of the main character. Portrait backgrounds are usually blurred beautifully, drawing a fancy bokeh. This is one of the things that can make a picture stand out with the main subject. In order to make a nice bokeh you need to understand some technical factors that influence the background blur.

First. The iris is the main thing that affects the defocus. The formula is simple: the more it is open, the farther the subject is blurred. At an open aperture of f/1.2, the bokeh is at its strongest, and at f/5, it’s one of the techniques you can use to make a portrait.6 The focus will gradually fade away. Choosing the diaphragm for your bokeh don’t miss the tricky nuance that is sure to appear in group portraits: at the most open aperture the depth of field will be the minimum – just a couple of centimeters. The groom can be razor sharp on the wedding photo and the bride can be so blurry… For a single portrait you can open the aperture almost fully, but in other situations I advise you to “shoot” the optimal aperture on the takes.

Second. How successful the bokeh pattern is depends on the choice of lens, or rather, on its focal length. For portrait photography I would advise to choose lenses with focal lengths starting from 80 mm for full frame cameras . The dependence is linear: the longer the focal length, the stronger the background is blurred. But the depth of field on a TV set becomes smaller and smaller at an open aperture.

Third. You can blur the background without any manipulation of the camera. All you have to do is move the model away from the background. The farther it moves away, the more it blurs. This unpretentious trick can be used when you want to increase the depth of field. We act in two steps: we close the aperture and compensate the lost defocus with an extra step to the camera.

Canon EOS R + Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L USM, f/3.2, ISO 2000, 1/500

Canon EOS R + Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L USM, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/400

The light that amazes everyone

Still, the most important thing in photography is light. How the photographer sets it, that’s how the portrait will look like. In studio and outdoors, the light can be different: sideways, direct, backlight, quite often a combination of different lighting. This time, the portrait was shot in night light, so we had to make sure the model’s face does not have a shadow on it. We chose the locations that necessarily had a face illuminated, and the beautiful backlighting from some angle gave the photo its own special flavor. In our situation, when flakes of snow were swirling in the park, I was very pleased with the overhead and backlighting from street lamps that turned the snowflakes into fairy lights and the girl in the frame into a good fairy…

Light source at the top. Canon EOS R + Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L USM, f/3.2, ISO 640, 1/125

Backlight source. Canon EOS R + Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L USM, f/2.8, ISO 1250, 1/320

We wandered several hours with camera Canon EOS R on night New Year’s New York. The camera never once let me down, I got good shots almost immediately after the first test takes. At one point I even went on autopilot, trusting the smart camera. But most of all I was surprised by the autofocus, it is so fast and accurate that it is hard to believe it at once. There was practically no image blemish, though street lights and falling snow are not the best friends for autofocus.

I was also surprised by the dynamic range of the camera. At higher ISO settings, up to 5000, I’ve been able to get quite good quality shots without the critical noise that puts a ruined shot in the trash. At ISO speed over 5000, noise, of course, becomes noticeable and can hardly be considered artistic.

After our portrait session at night I came to the following conclusion: the Canon EOS R is a camera for any trip: it’s lightweight, versatile, shoots great in any light, and if handled well it hardly ever fails. If it can shoot at night, it certainly can’t fail in more suitable conditions!

Canon EOS R + Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L USM, f/3.2, ISO 5000, 1/125

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