Soften the background

Although the next few pages show you several portrait styles, all successful portraits have one thing in common: the subject draws you in. You hardly notice the background because the photographer has intentionally downplayed it, usually by blurring it slightly. A shot with a soft-focus background has what the pros call shallow depth of field. Depth of field indicates how much of the picture is in focus. When you're snapping your family in front of the Great Wall of China, you probably want a deep depth of field, with both foreground (family) and background (Great Wall) in clear focus. But in typical headshots, you need a shallow depth of fieldand a blurry background.

So how do you control the depth of field? Here are a few ways:

• Zoom in. At first, it doesn't seem logical to use your camera's zoom lens for a portrait. After all, you can get as close as you want to the subject just by walking closer. But thanks to a quirk of optics, zooming in helps create a shallow depth of field, which is just what you want for portraits. So if your camera has a zoom lens, zoom in slightly as you frame your subject. Step back a bit if necessary.

• Move the background back. The farther away your model is from the background, the softer the background appears. If you choose an ivy-covered wall as your backdrop, for example, position your subject 10, 20, or 30 feet away from the wall. Usually, the farther, the better.

• Use a portrait setting. Many cameras offer a Portrait mode, often designated on the control dial by the silhouette of a human head (Figure 3-5). Setting the camera to Portrait mode automatically creates a short depth of field, blurring the background.

Figure 3-5. If your camera has a Portrait modeindicated on this camera and many others by a silhouette of a human headyou may not have to fiddle with manual aperture settings.

• Use a wide aperture setting. As explained earlier in this chapter, two factors determine how much light fills a shot: how long the shutter remains open (the shutter speed) and how wide it opens (the aperture). In sports photography, what you care about most is usually the shutter speed. In portrait photography, what you care about most is the aperture settingbecause the size of the aperture controls the depth of field. Wide aperture settings, indicated by low numbers like f-2.8 or f-4, let lots of

Figure 3-5. If your camera has a Portrait modeindicated on this camera and many others by a silhouette of a human headyou may not have to fiddle with manual aperture settings.

light through the lens (Figure 3-6). These wide settings also help create soft backgrounds for portraits.

Figure 3-6. Top: The trick to creating a soft background, whether for a portrait or a landscape shot, is to use a large aperture setting, like f-2.8 or f-4. (Oddly enough, low f-numbers indicate larger aperture settings.) If your camera has an aperture-priority mode, you can lock in this setting and the camera sets the correct shutter speed.

Bottom: For greater depth of field (clear focus from front to back), use a higher setting like f-11 or f-16, as outlined in the table in Section 3.2.1.3.

Figure 3-6. Top: The trick to creating a soft background, whether for a portrait or a landscape shot, is to use a large aperture setting, like f-2.8 or f-4. (Oddly enough, low f-numbers indicate larger aperture settings.) If your camera has an aperture-priority mode, you can lock in this setting and the camera sets the correct shutter speed.

Bottom: For greater depth of field (clear focus from front to back), use a higher setting like f-11 or f-16, as outlined in the table in Section 3.2.1.3.

3.2.1.2. Understanding aperture-priority mode

Expensive cameras offer more control over depth of field in the form of an aperture-priority mode. This mode lets you tell the camera: "I want to control how much of this shot is in focus, so I want to set the aperture myself. You, the camera, should worry about the other half of the equationthe shutter speed." Turning on aperture-priority mode (if your camera has it) may be as simple as changing a dial to the A or AV position, or as complicated as pulling up the camera's onscreen menu system.

Turning on aperture-priority mode is similar to turning on your camera's shutter-priority mode (Section 1.8.3). Often, they're right next to each other. In any case, once you've turned on this mode, you adjust the aperture by turning a knob or pressing the up/down buttons. On the screen, you'll see the changing f-stop numbers, which represent different size apertures.

This table should offer some indication of what you're in for:

Table 3-1.

f-stop

Diameter of Aperture

Depth of Field

Background Looks

f-2

Very large

Very shallow

Very soft

f-2.8

Large

Shallow

Soft

f-4

Medium

Moderate

A little out of focus

f-5.6

Medium

Moderate

A little out of focus

f-8

Small

Moderately deep

Mostly in focus

f-11

Small

Deep

Sharp

f-16

Very small

Very deep

Very sharp

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