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Aperture Priority Mode

If you took a poll of portrait photographers to see which shooting mode they use most often for portraits, the answer would certainly be Aperture Priority (A) mode. Selecting the right aperture is important for placing the most critically sharp area of the photo on your subject while simultaneously blurring all of the distracting background clutter (Figure 6.1). Not only will a large aperture give the narrowest depth of field, it will also allow you to shoot in lower light levels at lower ISO settings.

Figure 6.1

Figure 6.1 Using a wide aperture, especially with a longer lens, blurs distracting background details.

ISO 200 • 1/400 sec. • f/2.8 • 200mm lens

This isn’t to say that you have to use the largest aperture on your lens. A good place to begin is f/5.6. This will give you enough depth of field to keep the entire face in focus while providing enough blur to eliminate distractions in the background. This isn’t a hard-and-fast setting; f/5.6 is just a good all-around number to start with. Your aperture might change depending on the focal length of the lens you are using and on the amount of blur you want for your foreground and background elements.

Go wide for environmental portraits

There will be times when your subject’s environment is of great significance to the story you want to tell. This might mean using a smaller aperture to get more detail in the background or foreground. Once again, by using Aperture Priority mode you can set your aperture to a higher f-stop, such as f/8 or f/11, and include the important details of the scene that surrounds your subject.

Using a wider-than-normal lens can assist in getting more depth of field as well as showing the surrounding area. A wide-angle lens requires less stopping down of the aperture (making the aperture smaller) to achieve an acceptable depth of field. This is due to the fact that wide-angle lenses cover a greater area, so the depth of field appears to cover a greater percentage of the scene.

A wider lens might also be necessary to relay more information about the scenery. For example, while in Grand Teton National Park with my friend Levi Sim, I just had to photograph him making a photo while standing in the stream. I used a lens wide enough to provide context of the scene and an aperture small enough to keep it in focus (Figure 6.2). Select a lens length that is wide enough to tell the story but not so wide that you distort the subject. There’s little in the world of portraiture quite as unflattering as giving someone a big, distorted nose (unless you are going for that sort of look). When shooting a portrait with a wide-angle lens, keep the subject away from the edge of the frame. This will reduce the distortion, especially in very wide focal lengths.As the lens length increases, distortion will be reduced. I generally don’t like to go wider than about 24mm for portraits.

Figure 6.2

Figure 6.2 A wide-angle lens allows you to capture more of the environment in the photo without having to increase the distance between you and the subject.

ISO 100 • 1/20 sec. • f/11 • 35mm lens

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