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Portrait photography for beginners:A guide by Mario Dirks

Anleitung für die Portraitfotografie

Portrait photography holds enormous artistic potential and, at best, captures us emotionally within fractions of a second. However, it is undoubtedly one of the most demanding photographic disciplines. Professional photographer Mario Dirks gave us his personal tips for photographing portraits.

This means that even beginners in portrait photography can avoid unnecessary pitfalls and take professional portrait photos early on.

Fotograf Mario Dirks


Mario Dirks portrait photographer from Norderneyy

Before we turn to the topic of portrait photography, a little information about our expert Mario Dirks:

At the age of six, the native of Norderney fell under the charm of a simple pinhole camera and has managed to keep his passion for photography to this day. In 1998 he moved to the Oldenburg State Theater, got a taste of various artistic fields and assisted the theater photographers Andreas J. Etter and Stefan Walzl.
Since 2007, he has been successfully passing on the knowledge he has accumulated over the years and in all corners of the world and diverse experience in the fields of portrait, landscape, architectural, flash and studio photography in well-attended seminars and workshops and encourages the participants to develop their photographic skills Broaden horizons in metropolises like New York or Singapore..

Among other things, his photo safaris took him to the freezing cold of Antarctica for five weeks. With the photography of and with people, the professional combines the individual examination with a very specific and unmistakable story. It can be a sad, but also a very happy background, which he can ideally capture sensitively in his photos..

In order to inspire people who are new to or are switching to portrait photography, we asked Mario Dirks

  • what equipment he considers absolutely necessary to gain initial experience in this photo discipline,
  • which lenses are useful when and
  • which attitudes and settings you should know for portraits.

His recommendations also encourage beginners who don't have a budget of several thousand euros to get involved with the fascinating and versatile portrait photography.

Schwarz weiß Portraitfotografie Frau am Strand

What equipment do you need as a beginner in portrait photography?

From his perspective, Mario Dirks does not categorically rule out any camera model or brand. In his opinion, nowadays all cameras that offer the possibility of independently and manually setting the three most important photographic factors: aperture, shutter speed and ISO (sensitivity) are suitable.

Whether it's a single-lens reflex camera or a system camera doesn't play a decisive role here. There are also as many answers to the question of what equipment you need for good portrait photos as there are faces that you can photograph. The one neededlight shaper andstudio flash, the other also stylists, while for beginners a camera, lens and passion are actually enough.

In addition, the lens should also be able to be changed. Whether you choose an analogue model or a modern digital camera, on the other hand, depends on your own preferences and requirements. As a beginner with a DSLR or DSLM, you benefit from the fact that photos that didn't come out do not incur any development costs and the number of training images is only limited by the capacity of the storage medium. Basically, you can't go wrong with cases that meet the above criteria. In Mario Dirks' experience, kits that usually consist of a body and a zoom lens with a wide range of focal lengths should be left out and a solid housing combined with a fixed focal length that is as bright as possible.

As a portrait photographer, you don't need the zoom spectrum as much. You influence the image composition by changing the position yourself or the subject.

With inexpensive kit lenses, the zoom functionality is usually paid for with a significantly lower light sensitivity . 50mm or 85mm fixed focal lengths with a maximum aperture of f1.8, on the other hand, are available for a street price of between 100 and 150 euros. Mario Dirks prefers to work with a focal length of 85mm, because in this way he can give the model a certain comfortable distance, so to speak. In principle, however, the focal length should be over 70mm in order to be able to photograph faces with as little distortion as possible. Of course we are talking about beginners here. You can also work with focal lengths such as 24mm and 35mm (f/1.4 fixed focal length) or 50mm (f/1.8 fixed focal length), or with the entire spectrum between 16mm and 200mm.m.

However, this must be done with much more care to achieve the desired effect. There is no doubt that good portraits are also possible with super wide-angle lenses, because the wider a portrait is photographed, the closer the viewer gets to the face. Distortion thus becomes a stylistic device. Of course you can also buy zoom lenses that take quite a lot of light across the entire focal length range, but they also have to dig a little deeper into your pocket..

Portraitfotografie New York

Equipment for product photography at a glance

Here's what you need for the perfect photo:

Bright fixed focal lengths are particularly suitable for portrait photography

Mario Dirks likes to use the largest possible aperture of f1.2 with his favorite 85mm fixed focal length lens to create a particularly beautiful and atmospheric bokeh in the background of the model. This technical photographic term describes the blurred background, which is already very close behind the actual subject due to the large aperture opening. Here, professionals deliberately play with contrasts, lights and gradients in order to set their subject in the most exciting contrast or harmonious frame possible..
However, this light intensity also has a dark side: the more you open the aperture, the smaller the horizontal area that is really razor-sharp.

In extreme cases, this distance can only be a few centimeters or even millimeters. Here, professionals then work with serial releases and exposure bracketing in order not to have to experience any nasty, blurred surprises when viewing the results.sen.

Portraitfotografie blonde Frau

Lighting the most beautiful portraits don't come out well in the blazing sune

In addition to his professional camera and his favorite lens, Mario Dirks usually has two pieces of equipment with him that are just atsunny outdoor photo shoots prove to be extremely valuable for the appropriate exposure: a display magnifier (hoodloupe) and a shade.

Portraitfotografie behind the Scene

The experienced photo professional places the display magnifier on the rear display of the camera in order to be able to better assess focus and exposure without side light and at a comfortable magnification. The shader is used when there is no shadow or penumbra nearby and the model's face would otherwise be photographed frontally and without a recognizable contour. In addition, bright sunlight often means that models have to squint their eyes. Mario Dirks therefore avoids these difficulties from the start and keeps an eye out for locations that have different shades or doses of light in store.n.
An overcast sky or more diffuse daylight falling on the model through a north window creates a soft, sensitive and often very sensual atmosphere.

In the studio, on the other hand, he likes to work out the contours of an interesting man's face with direct and hard flashlight from the front. In general, it is basically a question of style whether you take photos outside or in a photo studio.

It is more important to understand what exactly the differences are. This is the only way you can learn to decide what you like better or what suits the person in question. And you don't necessarily need your own artificial light sources. Yes, you need light for portraits. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended to learn how to use flash,light shapers and also to learn the sunlight. This is the only way to really understand when you can do without something and when not.

Is astudio flash too expensive to get started, you should go to at least onefolding reflector to compensate for shadows caused by the reflection of sunlight, for example, or to significantly improve the expressiveness and effect of a face. The choice of reflector should also be considered here:

  • Golden reflector warmer light, softer portraits or facial featurese
  • Silver reflector reflects very hard light 100 percent without tintingt
  • White reflector very neutral light but not as harsh as the silver reflectorr

By the way: thatRollei 5-in-1 collapsible reflector set consists of all available reflectors and represents a great framework for aspiring portrait photographers.

Portraitfotografie eines Mannes

Basic rules of lighting for portraits

It is almost impossible to shed light on this topic in a nutshell. Therefore we would like to limit ourselves to the most important exposure rule and some exposure types for portrait photography for the beginners.

Rule number 1: Beginners in portrait photography should definitely avoid the midday sun and its very, very harsh light. If the photographer here is not practiced in dealing with shading, light shapers and Co., the midday sun always has a negative effect on the exposure on the face. So in the beginning it's better to use the morning or the late afternoon sun for practicing.

It is also true that the sun does not always have to be behind the photographer. With a little practice and creativity, you can achieve beautiful backlit portrait shoots from other angles and perspectives. However, the patience required for this and practiced spot metering with natural light are more for advanced users.

Indoor or outdoor portraits It's all a matter of the desired style and equipmentg

Mario Dirks has no real preferences when it comes to the right location, he likes working in the open air just as much as in the studio - according to him, it depends exclusively on the goal, statement or desired image style..

The professional likes to take photos with the available daylight, because he doesn't have to worry about the lighting technology. Nonetheless, Dirks naturally also skilfully uses both indoors and outdoorsflash units, to realize special picture ideas or moods or to set certain contrasts/accents for which the sunlight shines too evenly.

His favorite outdoor look is the so-called„American Night Look“, also known as Day for Night. Here, in the rather reduced daylight, the flash is used from the front to further darken the background and make it appear like a night scene. In order to be able to work with these specifications independently of weather conditions and power supply, Rollei has the mobile studio flashese HS Freeze 4s andHS Freeze 6s developed.

Portraitfotografie Astronaut

Basic settings for exposure in portrait photography

  • Split Light: Here only one half of the face is directly exposed, while the other is shadowed. The light source must be at an angle of about 90 degrees to the model. Split Light is very dramatic and with a little practice it can be further developed into a pincer light. This is achieved by expanding the split light mirror-symmetrically.
  • Rembrandt Light: a classic. The light source is above the model's head, but this is greatly offset. This creates a sort of triangle of light on the model's cheek facing the camera
  • Butterfly Light: The name is based on the shadow under the model's nose that this exposure creates as it is butterfly-shaped. This exposure was very popular for photographing portraits in Hollywood in the 1930s. Here it was also called Paramount Light. The setting consists of a light source placed centrally above the model's head at an angle of 25 to 70 degrees.
  • Loop Light: Works basically like the Butterfly Light, except that the light source is not in the very center but is shifted to the left or right.
  • Broad Light: Similar to the Rembrandt Light. However, the model turns her face away from the light source.

Instructions & camera settings for portrait photography

  • The 2/3 rule In the image composition of portrait photography, many photographers fall back on the 2/3 rule - the golden ratio. Two lines run horizontally across the image section and are each 1/3 of the entire height of the image section away from the top or bottom edge of the image. Together with two vertical lines of equal length, the picture is divided into 9 identical parts. Distinctive objects or motifs, such as the model when photographing portraits, are then positioned in the right or left third of the image. Another example: in the case of a sunset, the sun would not be placed in the middle of the photo, but on the top or bottom horizontal line of the image.s.
  • Focal length from 70mm: When photographing a portrait with a wide angle, noses can appear very large and that is sometimes unsightly. In addition, with larger focal lengths you can also have a little more distance to the model, especially if you don't know the model, some distance between model and photographer is quite good. Short focal lengths below 50mm falsify proportions, but can also be used as a stylistic device.
  • The eye closest to the camera must be in focus: a slightly slanted face can mean that both eyes are not fully focused by the camera. We can reassure you here: as long as the eye closest to the camera is photographed sharply, the portrait is consistent.
  • Shoot wide open: Makes it easy to blur the background (the popular bokeh effect) and draws attention to the subject. So it helps to separate model and background.
  • Exposure metering  the higher the aperture value, the longer the exposure must be. As a beginner, you can use the AV mode here, which automatically calculates the exposure time. As a rule, however, you should work with short shutter speeds, since blurring can occur in portrait photography just by breathing or blinking..
  • Perspective  of course, perspective is also a question of style. It is important to keep the following things in mind. Lens above eye level makes the model look submissive or even submissive. If the lens stays below eye level, the model appears raised and strong. Incidentally, this is the reason why fashion photographers often work half the day on their knees..

What is the best way to start with portrait photography as a beginner??

Even as a portrait photographer, every beginning does not have to be difficult. We asked Mario Dirks which procedure he recommends for beginners who want to achieve presentable results as quickly as possible: Should you first deal with the gray theory in detail, work through specialist books and YouTube videos or simply follow the motto learning by doing camera, Grab your lens and model and happily try it outren?

The pro can't be pinned down. In his experience, however, it doesn't hurt if you have already dealt a little with the basic connections and functions of portrait photography and already know the possibilities of how aperture and shutter speed can work together creatively and excitingly.

Ideally, you have already heard of the rule of thirds or the golden ratio. But before you dig too deep into the theory, beginners should actually take the step into practice and gain easy experience. Even if the output initially tends to go into the category of snapshots, these steps represent important milestones on the way to conscious and sensitive portrait photography.

Also and especially in this photographic discipline, the saying “practice makes perfect” applies and, beyond the established learning opportunities, opens the door to long-term success as a professional portrait photographer for the gifted and self-taught who loves to experiment.af.

Inspiration from truly moving portrait photos

Mario Dirks also recommends his workshop participants to be inspired by good and emotionally moving examples and to ask themselves specifically which aspect of the respective picture is particularly touching or fascinating..
Is it the subject, the person in front of the lens?
Or mainly location, pose, outfit, environment or light captivates the viewer?

This carefree approach helped the photo professional enormously at the beginning of his career and opened his eyes to other people's perspectives, as he says.

Portraitfotografie Sikh

Never lose respect for people!

Mario Dirks also reveals that he actually has a problem with the term model, since this term degrades the person in front of the camera to a means to an end or a photographic object. In order to convey real and really moving emotions and, if desired, also a message, the professional always makes sure that the person to be portrayed feels completely comfortable and taken seriously in the respective environment. Then the other person can really let go and develop their individuality. Here the photographer, workshop leader and author relies on a lot of empathy and patience.ld.

However, this approach also requires, depending on the character, to actively or passively influence the progress of the shoot. Mario Dirks gives very extroverted and proactive people the necessary freedom to live out their creativity, but also supports calm, sensitive personalities with careful and well-dosed stage directions.

Ideally, beginners should gain their first experience with people who have often acted in front of the camera and are not dependent on specific guidelines. This makes the process of shooting easier.

Fotoshooting Portrait New York

Finally, a real pro tip

At the end of the conversation, we asked Mario Dirks to share one or two of his best tips that helped him out a lot. Here, contrary to expectations, he didn't tell us a nifty technical trick or a photographic approach, but rather encouraged beginners to release a little tension with a tiny little white lie..

If you, as a beginner, do not take your first steps as a portrait photographer with an experienced person, uncertainty and inexperience ensure that high expectations, fears and reservations can have a negative impact on the process. This can lead to unrelaxed, tense images.

As a way out, Mario Dirks therefore recommends simply telling the person to be portrayed that you have just bought a completely new lens and that you would like to take a few test shots before the actual main shooting. In this way you reduce high expectations and at the end of the test shoot you will most likely get very usable natural portraits.

Then the tension is usually completely gone and you can experiment together in a relaxed atmosphere.

Portraitfotografie New York

Conclusion on portrait photography for beginners

Mario Dirks not only takes great photos, but also encourages beginners and newcomers to just get started. Although you should keep a few special features of portrait photography in mind right from the start, a relaxed approach that focuses only on the technology will sooner or later lead to better photos.s.

Anyone who would like to learn more about Mario Dirks' photography can visit his website numerous inspirations and suggestions.


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