Useful tips for portrait photography

Useful tips for portrait photography

Portrait Lens

What lenses are best or more suitable for portrait photography?

Usually the mid-tele lens ranges from 70mm – 135mm to 200mm are best for portraits because of its less distortion and more flattering characteristic.

Check out Stephen Eastwood’s web site for the effect of lens distortion. He has nice images of head shots  taken with lenses from 19mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, 100mm, 135mm, 200mm, 230mm to 350mm. You can clearly see the effect of lens on the model’s face. The wider the lens, the more distortion you will get.


Camera level when shooting portrait

To get normal perspective with mid-tele lens, for half length shot, shoot at the chest level as shown below:


For full length shot, shoot at lower level close to waist level as shown in the picture below:


However, you could try shoot from lower angle to lengthen the legs if you would like to make the person looks taller in the picture.


Catch light

Catch light is the bright spot or reflection in the eyes. It adds energy and liveliness to the portraits.

Here are some examples of portraits with catch light.


The question is how to get or create catch light?

Well, the eyes have to face the bright area. For indoor, the window especially large window will create beautiful catch light when the eyes are facing the bright window. For outdoor, you could look for bright building, patch of light in the part, sky or any reflective surface. If you can find any of those, the last resort is to use fill flash to create one.

Here is an example of portrait with and without catch light, same location, same time.


Best time to take portrait photo?

  • Early morning and later evening
    • Low angled light, softer light that eliminate the hash shallow
    • Warmer, golden light
  • Bright overcast day
    • The overcast sky will be like a giant softbox that soften the harsh sun light
    • Overcast day is good for flower shots too
  • What about bright sunny midday?
    • Sun is a tiny light source in this case that will create harsh shallow.
    • Look for open shade to avoid the harsh shallow or try backlit shot instead.
  • For indoor, as long as there is enough window light which is not direct sun light.

The basic rule is the larger the light source, the softer and better the light, the smaller the light source like the bright sunny day sun (sun is huge but in this case it is like a small dot of light source), the harsher the light. The closer to the large light source like the window, the softer the light.

One useful tip is when photography baby or kids, place them closer to the large window and the light will wrap around their face, creating beautiful light with very smooth transition from highlight to shadow.

Angle of View

Change your angle of view. Do not always shoot at your eye level.

The angle of view we are talking here is not how much area the lens can cover but rather the view difference caused by pointing the angle of the camera and lens.

When taking photo, most people will just hold the camera at their eye level while standing straight, that is why most photos’ angle of view looks similar. What we need to do is from time to time change the angle of view by trying low angle and high angle to get different perspective.

Below are some examples of low angle shot. As you can see, low angle shot can really bring a strong visual impact. Note that the low-angle shots are not purely bottom-up, horizontal angle shots close to the ground from the main subject can also be regarded as a low-angle shot.

p27   p26



These are shot from camera level very close to the ground and pointing upwards. Combine with using wide angle lens, the images emphasise and exaggerate the distance and the how high the beach volleyball players or the lion dancer jump.

Another useful tip is when photographing kids or pets, try lowering you camera level until same level as them. Shoot at their eye level to see their world instead of very common and boring adults’ view point from high to low.

p21 p22


A nice bonus for lowering your camera level is you will get nice reflection if the surface of the floor is shining and reflective as shown in the photo below. The trick is moving your camera very close to the shinning surface as if the camera almost touching surface.


See how wonderful the reflection is that add interests to the image.

High angle shots are basically taken by camera level relatively higher than the main subjects and usually pointing downwards.

Below are some examples of high angle shot.




For some sport event like the dragon boat race in the photo above, it is nice to move to higher ground to shoot from top so that the subjects (dragon boats in this case) are separated instead of merging together when shot from same level as the boat.


Photography is art, but it is also like science that requires different experiments and many attempts to find the right angle and composition. Have fun, go out and try shooting from different angles that you never tried before.

Photography Basics – Where to focus?

Today we are going to talk about some simple tips for you to get tack sharp photograph for both portraits and landscape photography.

For serious portrait photography, very often we are going to use large aperture to get shallow depth of field. The purpose is to isolate the main subject to make it stand out from the background (especially in limited space with distractive background). With shallow depth of filed, where do we place the camera’s focus point to focus is becoming important.

Where do we focus for portrait shot?

Full length portrait shot

p16 Focus on the face

As shown in the photo above, the best point to focus to get sharp, in focus image is to focus on the face as the most important part of portrait is the face which has to be in focus.

For half-length portrait shot or head shot

If we move in closer to the subject, focus on the face is no longer sufficient especially if we are using large aperture which has very shallow depth of field. Relatively, eyes are more important than other features in portrait so we need to focus on the eyes. Eyes in sharp focus with out of focus nose or lips are better than out of focus eyes.

If the subject is close to the camera and is not squarely facing the camera (which is nice to have in portrait photography to create more flattering image), the tips is to focus on the eye that is closer to camera. Under this situation, we are not able to keep both eyes in focus if we are using larger aperture and the solution is just keep the closest eye in focus and sharp.

Below are some examples of where to focus for half-length portraits:

p17 Focus on the eye / closest eye

p18 Focus on the closest eye

Many photographers are used to use the center auto-focus point; half press the shutter release to focus and then recompose to get better composition before releasing the shutter to take the shot. This is generally okay for most shots except when extreme shallow depth of field is introduced by lens with every large aperture like F2.8 and below. Slight change of plane of focus can cause the image to be soft due to out of focus. The better solution is to switch the camera’s auto-focus point.


Where should we focus when taking landscape photography?

For landscape photography, generally we would like to keep almost everything in focus, from foreground to the background in distance. To achieve this, we need to dial down the aperture setting by using small aperture, i.e. F11, F16 and F22. Besides the aperture setting to get the maximum depth of field possible, where we focus also play a role to get more range in focus.



The general guideline is to focus on a point that is one-third of the way into the scene to get the maximum depth of field. Focus closer if there is obvious foreground that you think must be sharp. For landscape that has a specific point of interest, you may ignore this general guideline and place your focus point on the main subject instead.

Basic supplies to get started with watercolor

To get started with watercolor, you will need some basic supplies. I recommend buying professional grade supplies than the entry level student grade supplies because the quality of your material will significantly influence your results and confidence.



There are many types of watercolor paper and it comes in different sizes, weights and different surface textures.

The weight is directly reflecting the thickness of the paper. It is measured in grams per square metre (gsm) or pound per ream (lb). The higher the number, the thicker the paper. Common weight are 190gsm (90lb), 300gsm (140lb), and 638gsm (300lb).

190 gsm paper is thin and it is more for students or beginners.

300 gsm paper is most commonly used among serious painter including professional artists.

636 gsm paper is much thicker like cardboard.

The surface of the watercolor paper has different textures including rough, medium rough (also known as cold press) and smooth (hot press). Different surface texture will give you very different result so you should try them out and determine which give you the desired effect. Rough watercolor paper will add texture to your washes. When you apply a lot of paint, the paint will settle in the little wells of the paper and if you apply dry brushes, it will give you the roughness of the surface which is very nice for rough wall. The hot press paper with its very smooth surface, tends to give you brighter, more vivid color.

Rough          Cold press     Hot press


You can also use the back side of your paper if the different surface is what you like.


Normally watercolor pigment comes in two forms: pan or tube. Pans are more convenient but it is more difficult to use for large wash as it is more difficult to gather enough paint. With tubes you can squeeze as much as little pigment as you like.

Pigment is one of the important factor that affecting your final painting. There are some student grade pigments which are much cheaper. However, the color of these watercolor pigment usually are less saturated you will need to apply a lot of pigment to achieve the result. Student grade watercolor paint also usually will fade over time. It is recommended to go for professional grade watercolor paint if you are serious about watercolor painting.


Watercolor brushes come in different shapes and sizes. They are made by different materials. Some use natural hair like sable and squirrel, some use synthetic. The best and most expensive ones are the sable brushes which have good spring and can absorb a lot of water.

You only need a few brushes to get started. A small round brush either number 4, 5 or 6 for general use, a medium fat brush (1/2 inch) for square shape, a large big fat (1-2 inch) or round brush (#8 or 10) for washes will be sufficient. If you like paint detailed work, a smaller round brush will be useful.

Sable or squirrel brushes are good and expensive. They hold a lot of water and give a very good sharp point. However, synthetic brushes are getting better nowadays and are much more affordable.


They come in many different sizes and shapes. To get started, you can buy some inexpensive 12 or more welled plastic palettes with a few large mixing areas like the one below.



Find anything from a glass, or jar, or small bucket to hold clean water (tap water is fine). You could also buy container designed specifically for watercolor that has more than one compartments and has holes to hold your brushes.