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Light, Lenses & Bokeh: How To Create Magic Portraits

Photo by Matt Ferr (@matt.ferr)

Since my very early days shooting I have always been fascinated by creative portrait photography. At first mention it would seem that shooting a subject up close would limit your view, but in reality it can help focus your attention on the details that make an excellent composition. Shooting portraits that convey a sense of magic is a combination of technique and creativity. On one hand it involves a solid technical understanding of camera settings and lenses. On the other it’s experimenting with ideas and allowing your creativity guide your flow. I’ll be looking to create these kinds of magic portraits when I’m in Thailand with the Sony Alpha Imaging Collective. I shoot most of my portraits with the Sony Alpha α7R III and the 85mm f/1.4 G Master and 135mm f/1.8 G Master lenses, but the techniques below can be applied to a variety of cameras and lenses. Let’s start off with settings:

Technical Settings

As simple as these concepts may seem understanding how the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) interrelate is a fundamental step to photography. Take time to understand these settings and shoot as often as possible so manipulating these settings becomes second nature to you. Think of these as tools to bring your creative vision to life. As you consistently use these tools you’ll realize how important camera bodies and lenses are. This was my path to using Sony mirrorless cameras and prime lenses. More on that ahead.

Lens Choices: Why I Love Primes

First off, I love prime lenses because they offer the most available light. This often comes in handy as I love shooting in low light scenarios. If I open up to f/1.4 with my 85mm G Master or f/1.8 with my 135mm G Master, I can keep my shutter speed and ISO away from their limits. By limits I mean my personal threshold for grain/noise introduced at high ISO values and also the lowest shutter speed at which I can capture my subject handheld without introducing exaggerated motion blur.

Primes are also the most versatile tool to add depth to your compositions. By definition, the lower the f/stop number the shallower your depth of field. This is an extraordinarily effective way to add dimensionality to your image. It creates a clear separation between your subject and the background or foreground. It essentially immerses the viewer into the scene and draws attention to your subject.

This has tremendous implications to creating dreamy portraits. Instead of having a flat and dimensionless image you can utilize this tool to bring life to your photos. Some ideas to shoot with the aperture wide open:

  • Look for backgrounds that will look interesting out of focus.

  • Experiment placing objects near the lens at wide-open apertures to add a sense of depth.

  • Place your subject near leading lines to add a gradual depth to your composition.

  • Experiment shooting on Manual Focus to get perfect eye focus at low apertures. I find that the focus magnifier with peaking color in my Alpha α7R III is amazing for this.

Tips On Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to how motion is captured. Understand what settings you should use to control motion and add life to your image. When I’m creating a portrait I love including some form of movement to enhance the energy of the composition.

It can be as simple as wind blowing someone’s hair, capturing a person in motion, or even adding elements into a shot. Some pointers:

  • Don’t over pose your model. Allow them the opportunity to move naturally.

  • Try a few small planned movements and pay attention to focus.

  • Shoot more than you need. Shooting in burst mode while rapid movement is happening will increase your chances to capture unique moments.

  • Practice shooting moving objects or people at different shutter speeds. You’ll learn best settings for the type of movement and effect you want.

Choose ISO Carefully

As a general best practice, try to keep your ISO as low as possible because we all know the higher the ISO the more grain/noise you introduce to your image. To me, ISO’s power is in its ability to add light to your scene without destroying the quality of your image. Since I often shoot portraits in low light scenarios ISO becomes an indispensable tool even with fast prime lenses. This is where your camera choice is paramount. I currently shoot with the Alpha α7R III which has an excellent full frame sensor and allows me to shoot at high ISO values without damage to the integrity of the image.

How To Find Magic Light

Next up is how to find magical light. If you’re going to shoot a great portrait you’re going to have to think about light. Although light is all around us the quality of light is not uniform. Typically I’m avoiding harsh light sources and looking for soft and diffused lighting. You can often find this type of natural light around sunrise or sunset when the sun is low. The quality and direction of light at this time tends to be even, soft, diffused, subtle, glowing and thus flattering.

An added bonus is waiting past sunset to catch those dusk colored skies. They’re never the same and they offer the most gorgeous backdrop for portraits. This is my favorite time to shoot moody silhouette shots.

Shooting at night, especially in cities can also create some magical effects. I love utilizing random artificial light sources such as neon signs, street lights, car lights, and others to light my subject. Having fast primes such as the Sony 85mm f/1.4 G Master or 135mm f/1.8 G Master lenses really shine in these low light scenarios. Not only do you get the extra boost in light when used wide open but the bokeh of these lenses are magical.

Even if you’re not in a city the opportunities to shoot in low light are everywhere. From cool coffee shops to various indoor venues there’s endless opportunities to capture portraits. You can even use your own artificial light source such as a candle, a lantern, a video light, and other types of sources to illuminate your subject wherever you’d like. Be creative with these light sources and continuously experiment with ideas.

In general if you’re creating your own light or utilizing what is currently available to you, magical light is all around. The big trick is keeping your eyes open for interesting opportunities and having the technical know-how to execute a creative portrait. Here are a few tips to wrap us up.

  • Practice your technical skills often so you’re ready to shoot when the moment arises.

  • If possible, plan ahead for your shoots. Research or visit the location. Check the weather. Find out where the sun rises and sets at that spot. Be as prepared as possible.

  • With your tools to harness depth and movement scan the shooting environment to see how you can utilize those tools to enhance your composition.

  • Look for diffused and soft flattering natural light.

  • Look for unique dappled light and flares.

  • Utilize objects like glass prisms and other objects coupled with a fast prime lens to add foreground effects.

  • Finally, don’t be afraid to break the ‘rules’ to use light creatively. Try to harness light in ways not yet explored.

See more of Matt’s work on Instagram @matt.ferr and follow along while the Alpha Collective explores Thailand at #AICdoesThailand.

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