Portrait Tutorial – Kitchen Portraits – Part 2

In the first part I was explaining how to take near studio quality photos at home without the need of any extra lights, flash or Photoshop. Here I will show more sample photos.

The most difficult part of making a good portrait is to set the subject in the right mood and place her so that the light falls pleasantly. Too harsh light makes a person look older. The lack of light on the eyes can create a lifeless or impersonal look. A modern camera usually takes care of the rest.

Autofocus is Easy

Most mirrorless cameras can automatically focus on the eye, which is nearest to the viewer. In fact Olympus OM-D cameras do this by default. In general mirrorless cameras are faster and more accurate in focusing at immovable subjects, while the top of the line DSLRs are better at tracking moving targets. It is easier to take a great portrait using a relatively cheap mirrorless camera than using an entry level DSLR. Entry level DSLRs usually lack autofocus micro adjustment – a feature found in bigger and more expensive DSLR. The lack of auto focus micro adjustment means that the camera might make a small mistake in auto focusing. Mirrorless cameras use contrast based auto focus, which doesn’t suffer from this problem. Any mirrorless aka small system camera should be automatically calibrated to focus accurately.

Don’t be Afraid to Shoot in High ISO

You can dim the lights to create softer lights and use a fast lens.

Don’t be afraid to use high ISOs even if your camera is small. Even though I am using micro four thirds (m43) camera with a relatively small sensor I can use ISO 1600-6400 without any noticeable noise and almost zero loss in detail in resolutions smaller than 4 Mpx. With Olympus OM-D E-M5 there is still enough dynamic range to adjust the image by 1 stop if needed, but in low light I try to avoid under exposure and rather over expose a bit to keep the shadow noise low.

I use DxO Optics Pro PRIME for noise reduction (NR) for all of my photos, even those which are shot with ISO 200. PRIME is very slow, requiring 1-2 minutes per image, but it is really worth waiting that time. So far it has proven to be superior in noise reduction. I don’t like the noise reduction in Adobe products. Adobe NR is really good at keeping all the detail at low to middle settings, but it removes barely any noise. At high settings it makes the image to loose to many details.

Colors Matter a LOT!

Another crucial step is to get the skin tones correct. The most typical indoor lighting has the color temperature of 2850 Kelvins. This is especially true about the tungsten lights, but it also true for most the fluorescent lights sold in Finland. I haven’t tested enough LED lights to say what is the most typical color temperature for them, but for my eyes their light looks more blue.

In post processing I first set the color temperature either adjusting it manually or using the color temperature picker tool on some white or gray part of the picture. If you want to make it really simple and accurate, you can consider using SpyderCube. I don’t yet own this device. If you want to person appear more aloof, you can add some blue/cold tones to the image. If you want the person appear more friendly, you can use a filter to add warm/brown colors to the image.

More Photos Taken in My Kitchen

Once again I didn’t use any extra lights, flash, make up or Photoshop. The only prop used was a banana. I let my girlfriend have her revenge and she also took some funny photos of me. You can once again see a 2560×1920 resolution of the images by clicking them.

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Custom color film emulation, Olympus 75 mm, F/1.8, 1/160 s, ISO 1600
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Custom B&W film emulation, Olympus 75 mm, F/1.8, 1/160 s, ISO 2000
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Custom B&W film emulation, Olympus 75 mm, F/2.0, 1/200 s, ISO 1250
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Custom color film emulation, Olympus 75 mm, F/2.0, 1/200 s, ISO 1250
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Olympus 75 mm, F/2.0, 1/160 s, ISO 1600
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Close to natural skin colors, Olympus 75 mm, F/2.0, 1/160 s, ISO 1000
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Close to natural skin tones, Olympus 75 mm, F/2.0, 1/160 s, ISO 1000
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Close to natural skin tones, Olympus 75 mm, F/2.0, 1/160 s, ISO 1000
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Close to natural skin tone, Olympus 75 mm, F/2.0, 1/160 s, ISO 1000
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Natural skin tone, Olympus 75 mm, F/2.0, 1/160 s, ISO 1000
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Natural skin tones, Olympus 75 mm, F/2.0, 1/160 s, ISO 1000
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Natural skin tones, Olympus 75 mm, F/2.0, 1/160 s, ISO 1250
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Despite my reddish face this is close to natural skin color, Olympus 75 mm, F/2.0, 1/160 s, ISO 1250

In the next part I will illustrate the most typical mistakes in shooting portraits under the same settings + more new creative shots, which succeeded well.

Portrait Tutorial – Kitchen Portraits – Part 1

When I am teaching photography to my university students, I tell them: You can take a good portrait anywhere and at any time. You do not need any extra lights, flash units, reflectors, post processing in Photoshop or any other extra gimmicks.

I feel that nowadays photography has become too much like a factory work. First the photographer sets up 2-3 flash units, 1-2 reflectors in a way learned before or instructed in the manuals or tutorials. Then he takes some test photos. Next he takes lots of photos and spends hours to post process then in Photoshop. The end result often looks more or less fake, lacking real life.

Rules of Portrait Photography

Most important rules of simple portrait photography:

  1. Capture the personality in the photo (otherwise the portrait will be lifeless and dull)
  2. Make the subject relaxed or set her in the right mood before snapping the photo
  3. Frame and place the subject under such location that the light falls in aesthetically pleasing way
  4. One background + one subject (easiest composition)
  5. Use long focal length and large aperture (small F/number) to isolate subject from background
  6. Focus on the eye closest towards the viewer
  7. Make sure that skin tones look pleasant after post processing

That is it. After you have mastered the rules, you can break them. And remember: You really do NOT need any Photoshop!

Setup

The following photos were all taken in my kitchen. The background is an old wooden door (probably from early 1950s). It was dark outside and I didn’t use any other lights besides the fluorescent lights found from most kitchen. I asked my girlfriend to stand in the right place where light falls nicely on her face (there should be enough light to lit the eyes and enough shadows under her chin). I give very specific instructions (less than 1 cm precision) where to stand, how to stand, hold face and chin. When you take portraits, think yourself as a movie direction – you should have a vision how you want photos to be. I already often think in black and white as I want some photos to be B&W. I now included alternative version of several photos to see the difference between color and black and white.

My girlfriend doesn’t use any make up and the hair wasn’t washed before the photos. The dry winter air had made her skin so dry that I used water spray bottle to give some moisture on the skin.

Post Processing

All photos were shot using Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Olympus 75 mm F/1.8, which is a damn good lens for portrait work if you can handle the 150 mm equivalent point of view. I used DxO Photo Suite for all post processing. Basically it only allows me to globally adjust the colors, contrast and sharpness + do film emulations. DxO has no local editing. You cannot remove or add anything to the photos, which I think is great. Photos will look more real and look less like the studio portraits, which are often so fake looking.

The basic rule of thumb is low contrast for female faces and high contrast for male faces. B&W conversion should always be done manually and select each RGB, CMY color component what you want.

Kitchen Portraits

You can view a larger version by clicking the photos.

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Custom black and white film emulation, ISO 800, 75 mm, f/1.8, 1/160 s
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Close to natural colors, ISO 800, 75 mm, f/1.8, 1/160 s
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Custom black and white film emulation, ISO 800, 75 mm, f/1.8, 1/160 s
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Close to natural colors, ISO 1250, 75 mm, f/2.0, 1/160 s
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Custom low contrast black and white film emulation, ISO 2000, 75 mm, f/1.8, 1/200 s
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Custom low contrast color film emulation, ISO 2000, 75 mm, f/1.8, 1/200 s
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Custom low contrast black and white film emulation, ISO 1600, 75 mm, f/1.8, 1/160 s
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Custom low contrast color, ISO 1600, 75 mm, f/1.8, 1/160 s
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Effect of water spray bottle just after applying, ISO 1000, f/1.8, 1/160 s
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Hair over face with infrared black and white film emulation ISO 4000, 75 mm, f/2.0, 1/160 s

I probably shot most of the photos using a bit too high ISO settings (there was so little light) and I didn’t want any motion blur in the photos and yet allow the subject to move if needed.

My big thanks and hugs to my amazing girlfriend!

Reference Photo

For the reference I included an earlier photo taken in the exact same kitchen just to show the how that old and narrow room looks like.

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Making pizza, ISO 500, Panasonic 20 mm, f/2.2, 1/60 s

Next I am going to share more kitchen portraits and some guide lines how to make full body, half a body portraits and more interesting creative portraits.