I'd like to learn how to take pro-quality portrait photographs.
September 30, 2004 9:12 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn how to take pro-quality portrait photographs [more inside.]

In NYC, were I live, there's a thriving headshot business. Several people have suggested that I join the ranks of photographers who shoot actors. I'm interested, because I like photography, and I could use some extra pocket-money.

I have a good eye (I work as a designer / design teacher), I'm a photoshop pro, I know how to work with actors (I run a small theatre company) and I'm a swift learner -- BUT my photography experience is limited to vacation point-and-click.

So I have two questions:

(1) In order to produce 8 X 10 prints that people would pay for, what sort of equipment do I need? How much will I need to invest? (I would like to stick with a digital workflow.)

-- what kind of camera?
-- what sorts of lights?
-- what sort of printer?
-- additional equipment? (I'm set when it comes to PCs.)

(2) Is this a realistic goal, and if so, what sources should I go to in order to learn how to take portrait photos? Good books? Websites? Classes (in NYC)? Or should I give up on this idea because it's only realistic for people with years of training and experience?
posted by grumblebee to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Whew. You're not looking for much but your entire business plan, are you?

You'll probably do fine with a 35 mm or comparable digitial slr, but I suggest you get a long lens. Traditionally, cameras come with a 55mm lens, which is fine for most applications, but for portraits, you want a longer lens. 110mm or something like that is the norm. It makes the background go fuzzy, and lets the focus remain on the model.

You'll probably want a good set of remote flashes, as well as softeners to make them less harsh. And you'll need a variety of backdrops.

It's usually the norm that when an actor wants a headshot, they also want a character shot, too.

I don't want to discourage you, but I don't think this is the sort of thing you can just do and hit the ground running. Maybe intern or apprentice somewhere? Or you might want to consider taking some night classes ... I'm sure you'll find something in the photography department of my alma mater, The School of Visual Arts
posted by crunchland at 9:50 AM on September 30, 2004

(1) Lights are the most important. A lot of fledgling portrait types swear by AlienBees. For quality 8x10's under controlled (i.e. good) studio lighting, the camera is least important as long as it has reasonable flash sync capabilities. Just about any recent, decent digicam (even non-DSLR) will do here, although you'll have possibly more flash options and much better DOF control for when you're feeling creative if you splurge on a DSLR (not really necessarily to produce saleable images though). If you do go the DSLR route, you don't need anything more than cheap primes. I'd recommend Canon printers over Epsons for this use because even though Epsons are much more archival, Canons have brighter, more appealing colors out of the box and print much faster. At a minimum, you'll need some space and backdrops as well.

(2) Lighting and posing are the main skills you need for portraiture, and all the portrait pros I've talked to say to ditch the books and just learn by doing--practice, practice, practice on friends, family, s/o's, even pets and mannequins until things like key and fill lights and flash ratios become second nature. You should at least looking at Garage Glamour and FM People Photography Forum to pick up on some basics to start with. Personally, I've witnessed individuals on the FM forum improve incredibly quickly simply through sustained practice and feedback. How "realistic" being a pro photographer is really depends on your drive and chutzpah more than anything else. NYC is as good of a place as any, and being comfortable working with your subject already puts you a step ahead. The real question is how hard you're willing to work for it.

Lastly, depending on who you ask, getting paid for doing photography work for clients is between 50%-80% business and marketing and not as much raw photographic experience and talent, so there's a lot to learn on that end as well if you haven't already learned those skills from having already done something similar.

You don't need years, but you will definitely need months. Good luck!

P.S. I'm going to let someone else open the can of worms over assisting. :)
posted by DaShiv at 9:51 AM on September 30, 2004

how high quality? photo or inkjet? if you want real photographs, don't spend the money on a dSLR yet, you can pick up a used medium format camera (like a Bronica ETRS or SQ-A) for around $500. That'll kick up the print quality a bunch and will be cheaper initially as far a equipment goes, but you will pay more for processing/printing.

however, if you don't know much about the workings of photography yet, step one is to buy a manual 35mm SLR and take a beginning photography course. don't buy anything else until you do that.
posted by Hackworth at 10:40 AM on September 30, 2004

Thanks for the help so far. Great info.

Let me just make clear that I'm NOT asking for a business plan. I'm not planning to quit my current job. And I'm not in a hurry.

I have plenty of actors that I can practice on. In terms of marketing, since I work with actors all the time anyway, I don't think I'll have to do much. They are always talking about getting headshots made and asking my advice about headshots. So it would be pretty easy for me to say, "stop by for a couple of hours and I'll do it for you." While I'm learning, I could do it for free.

I was just looking for an idea of how much a good setup would cost (if it's going to set me back $10,000 for lights & equipment, I can't afford it, but I might be able to swing $3000 - $5000), what sort of equipment I should by, and how easy it is for a generally "artistic" and techno-savvy person to pick this stuff up.
posted by grumblebee at 10:42 AM on September 30, 2004

I disagree with the film angle since 1) scanning slows down the digital workflow he's trying to adopt, and 2) despite the cheaper initial outlay, film costs discourage experimentation. Being able to see the results of a lighting setup instantly with digital is invaluable. I heartily agree with a firm grounding in photographic basics, with the caveat that studio portraiture requires a rather narrow range of camera techniques compared to location shooting.

I can't really go into specifics in terms of pricing a lighting setup (and that includes not just strobes but other things like softboxes, umbrellas, wireless transmitters, etc) because that falls outside of my experience. I can say though that for about $1500 you can pick up a used DSLR, 2 prime lenses, and a memory card, and be all set. I'm most familiar with Canon DSLR models, and you can easily fit a used D30, D60, or 300D (Digital Rebel) and two lenses like the 35/2 and 85/1.8 into a setup with that budget, and I'm sure you can do the same with the equivalents from Nikon, Olympus, etc. You can do it for somewhat less if you're stingy by using a point-and-shoot with a hotshoe or PC sync port and being creative with how you control lighting, but it's much nicer and easier to learn with an DSLR system designed to be able to do this IMO. You definitely will not need $10k (until you convince yourself otherwise later on), but I'd imagine at the very least $2000-3000 all told as an outlay (and maybe more than that), including lighting and other equipment (backdrops, tripod, stands, printer, etc). There's never a top limit to what you can sink into photography--costs will swell to consume your entire budget no matter how high you set them. :) But that should give you a (very rough) ballpark figure as to what's "enough".

The technical side to portraiture, IMO, isn't hard at all: there aren't any heady, abstract, calculation-intensive concepts here, since the numbers involved in exposure and flash use are all basic arithmetic. It's the human element--visualizing results beforehand and really bringing out your subjects in front of the lens--that represents the hard part for some people. Creativity definitely helps, but it's the preparation, technique, and practice that really counts.

N.B.: I'm a street/documentary photog, so take my advice on portraiture with a grain of salt. It's a little like having a dentist giving a med student advice on how to remove someone's appendix. Once you've started cutting with that scalpel, you've become the expert. You might be better served asking if there are any doctors in the house.
posted by DaShiv at 11:44 AM on September 30, 2004

If you've got time, i.e. in no hurry, find a photographer you like that does portrait photography (of any kind, not just headshots) and go to work for him as an assistant. It helps if you aren't doing it for the money. I got "hired" for this kind of stuff mostly because I was willing to do it for free. I had a regular day job, I would take one day a week off, and often a weekend day, to work for a photographer. Once I got good at assisting he'd pay me but it's nothing to get excited about.

He let me use his studio, equipment, computers, darkroom, etc any time I wanted too. That was totally sweet.

He was all analog when I worked for him. He's since gone all digital. He got a digital back for his hasselblads and loves it. For him it's worth it (I'm guessing just the digital back set him back $30K or so) but for most it's not. A digital SLR is not a bad place to start but neither is an old 503C hasselblad or even better (price wise) one of the Kiev russian copies (the quality is rather variable). Shooting black and white and developing your own film is relatively inexpensive. When starting you can probably get by with just making contact prints which doesn't particularly require much special equipment or space. But that (developing and printing) is a whole other technical aspect that most people would rather not get into. Personally, I love it.

Sorry to ramble. To recap, I think you might want to consider something like this:

- A good camera of some type. Must be SLR. Must have either a PC adaptor (that's for an external flash, not PC as in Personal Computer) or a hot shoe
- Lights: I recommend at least 2 strobes. You need softboxes. You can make something that'll work for most cases. Check around various used camera stores and rental places. I got by without strobes for a long time by using 2 canon 240EZ (I think that's what they were anyhow) flashes mounted on tripods, with my home made softboxes. Did a lot more still like than portrait though.
- Output method: if it's film, and you don't want to develop/print then just find a good photo lab. If you do to do digital, Epson has a line of very high quality photo printers that are not too expensive ($500 or so). I have an old one (5-6 years old) called the Epson Photo Stylus 1200. people who scoff at inkjet printers are amazed at it's output. It sucks at black and white though. Good paper is amazingly important. I use paper from Red River. For those more important jobs there are good photo places that can do extremely high quality print output for reasonable prices. When you need it you'll know.
posted by RustyBrooks at 12:41 PM on September 30, 2004

what sort of equipment I should by, and how easy it is for a generally "artistic" and techno-savvy person to pick this stuff up.

Just get a decent digital SLR, two strobes (AB 400's are fine, get 800's if you can) a couple of softboxen, two light stands, and a simple backdrop. You don't even need the backdrop, really. You can get this entire package for $600.

When I say "decent" dSLR, I'm referring to either the Canon 10D or Nikon D70. There is absolutely, positively no reason to shell out the extra bucks for a Mk II or 1Dh/1dx/etc. You'll just be paying for frames/sec, and in portrature, that's about the least important feature. What is an important feature is flash sync speed. In that regard, the D70 is tops in the field -- 1/500 sec.

In regards to lenses, I'd recommend three in decending order: 1 portrait lens (anything in the 80mm-105mm range), 1 telephoto (~200mm) and 1 wide. If you feel like getting zooms, you're going to pay a lot more for them, but their versatility can be nice. For portraits, you're going to want fast lenses -- f/2.8 minimum. You need to be able to throw the background out of focus. The defacto-standard "perfect" portrait lens is either the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4, or Canon 85mm f/1.2, but the f/1.8's can be found for nearly half the price, and nearly as adequate.

The camera body + lens should run you about $1500-$2000. The lights, boxes and stands another $600 if you use Alien Bees (great products and customer service, by the way).

Just remember that the proper technique for headshots is completely different than just about every other kind of portraiture. Do NOT try and get too "clever" or "creative" with headshots. Remember these are for casting directors, not advertising marketdroids -- they want a good idea of what the person looks like; generally this means very moderate lighting ratios (1:2 or 1:1.5) on the face. No harsh shadows. No crazy stunts. Really, you won't be doing anyone a service if they're walking around with "cool shots" but not getting any work.

The single most important thing about headshots is to make the client comfortable enough to reveal themselves to you (no, not in THAT way...). Forced smiles look terrible, so spend a good deal of time talking with the clients before -- and during -- the shoot.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:51 PM on September 30, 2004

Civil_Disobedient's advice is spot-on. AskMe continues to impress me.

The range of 85-105-135 are all well known for portraiture. The Nikon 105mm and 135mm have a feature called Defocus Control which allows you to control depth of field, enabling you to put more emphasis on the subject by blurring the background.
posted by gen at 4:57 PM on September 30, 2004

I agree with the advice above. The assistant route is really the best way to learn. For equipment, an 85mm 1.4 (or cheaper 1.8) with a D70 and a few reflectors will be all you need to start. For a 35mm film option, try fuji Reala negative film. Natural (window) light plus one reflector will yield excellent results. If you are going to use artificial lighting, don't use pc sync cords, go for a radio slave setup to avoid tripping on cords in your studio. Good people skills and proper direction for your subjects is essential. Start photographing friends to practice. On preview, what Civil_Disobedient said.
posted by ig at 5:10 PM on September 30, 2004

The Nikon 105mm and 135mm have a feature called Defocus Control which allows you to control depth of field

All other lenses have a feature called an aperture that does the same thing.

Keep in mind that if you get a digital SLR like the Canon 10D or Nikon D70 that these lenses have a 1.5 focal length multiplier or, more precisely, a crop factor (it records a smaller portion of the image than a 35mm camera). That is, a 50mm lens will give you the same field of view as a 75mm lens would if it were mounted on a film SLR. This may affect the lens you'd choose, if you're going by recommendations made for film SLRs. An 80mm lens would be about 120mm on the digital SLR, which is toward the upper end of what you want for portraiture. You will definitely want a couple good prime lenses (say 50mm and 85mm) rather than a zoom because 1) it's probably going to be cheaper, 2) prime lenses are sharper and brighter, and 3) it's a studio shoot so you're not lugging lenses around, which is the usual reason for buying zooms.

There are full-frame SLRs that don't have the crop factor thing, but they are very expensive.
posted by kindall at 5:58 PM on September 30, 2004

if you get a digital SLR like the Canon 10D or Nikon D70 that these lenses have a 1.5 focal length multiplier

I mean tha the camera has the multiplier.
posted by kindall at 5:59 PM on September 30, 2004

All other lenses have a feature called an aperture that does the same thing.

Actually, aperature and defocus control are completely separate concepts. DC lenses control the spherical aberations in the lens, which is independent of the general focus. Read more about it.

You will definitely want a couple good prime lenses (say 50mm and 85mm) rather than a zoom because 1) it's probably going to be cheaper


2) prime lenses are sharper and brighter

Highly arguable. The new Nikon zooms rival the best prime Nikkors ever made. This opinion is shared by people who own many lenses to compare.

3) it's a studio shoot so you're not lugging lenses around, which is the usual reason for buying zooms.

Yeah, use your feet, doggonnit! I think people get spoiled by zooms and stay planted in position when they should be moving around, finding new angles. Primes are great for this.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:15 PM on September 30, 2004

prime lenses are sharper and brighter

Highly arguable.

Should have said "tend to be." In any case, you're gonna have a hell of a time finding a zoom as bright as a 50/1.4, and if by some miracle you did manage to find one, you'd have a hell of a time justifying the price.

Can't get the link about the zooms to load, BTW.

The Defocus Control feature looks interesting for soft focus, but the differences it makes in DOF in ordinary shooting situations seem pretty subtle to me. I doubt anyone would notice, especially for things like headshots. Saying it "controls DOF" seems a bit misleading; aperture remains the primary DOF control.
posted by kindall at 10:49 PM on September 30, 2004

Not to get off too much on a tangent, but defocus control is different from soft focus. Generally lenses with "good bokeh" (i.e. pleasingly smooth out-of-focus renditions, especially of highlights) on the background will have "bad bokeh" (i.e. harsh, especially clearly delineated or "donut" highlights) on foreground objects. Defocus control lenses allow you to shift the "good bokeh" (usually on background) to the foreground instead, which is useful if you're shooting through a window or some sort of frame in the foreground, or have props in front of your subject, etc. Or, it can tone down the "good/bad" bokeh effect so that you have neutral bokeh in both directions, both in front of and behind the subject. The subject itself remains sharply focused throughout and the actual DOF is unaffected--as its name implies, defocus control only affects how the out-of-focus areas are rendered. Although designed for portraiture, defocus control is really rather esoteric and has somewhat fallen out of favor in practical use. I can't remember the last new DC lens being released, and very few brands even offer DC lenses.

Back on topic: primes for studio use is a no-brainer IMO, especially starting out. In addition to being slower than primes, good, sharp zooms tend to be exorbitantly-priced lenses with tank-like build quality designed for rough outdoor use, and they are often still subject to greater combinations (compared to primes) of either flaring, ghosting, barrel/pincushion distortions, or chromatic abberations due to their extremely complex optical designs. If you're shooting on a tripod anyway, you have the time to switch lenses, and primes are much better values in terms of price/performance when you don't need to switch focal lengths quickly. Why I suggested 35mm and 85mm: a 35mm prime (which translates to a roughly 50mm perspective after the digital crop factor) allows for full body shots with minimal perspective distortion, and 85mm because it can be hard to use anything longer than 85mm indoors on a DSLR unless you have a lot of space to work with, in which case you can add a longer lens as the space allows for.

I'd forgotten about the flash sync speed issue. (Ken Rockwell is a notorious Nikon shrill--I wonder if the Nikon D2x's 1/250s flash sync will earn the same "amateur" label from him that he slaps on all of Canon's offerings for the very same reason--but for this particular situation he's probably right about the importance of flash sync speeds.) The Nikon D70 is the only affordable DSLR to offer a fast flash sync speed, so that should be your first choice if you don't have access to a pile of lenses from another brand. You can add an 85mm prime to the (excellent) kit lens and be all set to start with the camera end of things. Nikon's 85/1.8 is great and affordable; their 85/1.4 is considerably more expensive but, from all accounts, absolutely stunning for portraits. You really can't go wrong at this focal length.
posted by DaShiv at 5:06 AM on October 1, 2004

Ken Rockwell is a notorious Nikon shrill

Man, is he ever! It's irritating even to this Nikon owner. Sometimes I get the impression that his entire site is devoted to trying to explain why the purchases he's made are the "correct" ones. Take, for example, the 85mm f/1.4 review -- he basically says, "Eh, it's good. So what? The 1.8 is just as good and costs less."

Come on. The 1.4 is about as close as you get to lens perfection. It's one of the few lenses where the bokeh is so remarkably good you can actually use it for comparisons. And I'm not even a bokeh-snob.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:26 AM on October 1, 2004

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