Candid portrait photography: how to use a macro lens to draw out character

Candid portrait photography: how to use a macro lens to draw out character from your subjects

In this quick tutorial we’ll show you how to get up close and personal with your macro lens to take candid portrait photography that really draws out the character of your subject.

Candid portrait photography: how to use a macro lens to draw out character from your subjects

All images and text by Hollie Latham

Photo composition can often be the most challenging aspect of taking a photograph, and in portrait photography we need to think hard about where to position our subject, how much ‘breathing space’ we should leave around them, what should be in focus and so on.

However, there’s more potential for pushing the boundaries of how we frame portraits than with other subjects.

The most striking portrait photography is often that which breaks the rules, so in this candid portrait photography project we’re going to be looking at how you can capture a more abstract style of portrait that goes against some of the conventions of photo composition, by coming in really close for maximum impact.

You’ll need a friend or family member who can model for you. Look for distinguishing features that you can accentuate, such as the eyes, mouth and bone structure, and try to coax expressions from them that convey something of their character; our model had striking eyes and long hair, so we worked with those features in particular.

You can either concentrate on capturing one portrait, or shoot a series of images that can be presented together, as we’ve done.

SEE MORE: How to compose a classic portrait

How to shoot up-close, candid portrait photography

How to shoot candid portrait photography: step 1

Let there be light!
For close-ups you need soft natural light for the best results, so if you’re shooting outside avoid bright sunshine. If the weather is miserable you can shoot indoors like we did, positioning your model by a window.

Whether you’re indoors or outdoors, use a reflector to bounce light back onto your model’s face and fill in unflattering shadows.

SEE MORE: Photography lighting – how to take control of everything from natural light to your camera’s pop-up flash

How to shoot candid portrait photography: step 2

Macro lens
The Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro is ideal, as you can get up close without being restricted to the minimum focusing distance, as you would with a non-macro lens.

The 100mm focal length enables you to get nice close-ups without distorting facial features, and the lens has a four-stop stabiliser, which is great for shooting handheld in low light.

SEE MORE: What is a macro lens – magnification, minimum focus distance explained

How to shoot candid portrait photography: step 3

Camera settings
Set your camera to Manual mode for full control. To shoot handheld you’ll need to set a wide aperture to let in plenty of light; depending on the speed of your lens this will be somewhere between f/2.8 and f/5.6.

This will ensure that you have a fast enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake, and will also create a nice shallow depth of field, so your model’s facial features stay sharp while peripheral detail and the backdrop are thrown out of focus.

SEE MORE: The best camera settings for perfect portrait photography

How to shoot candid portrait photography: step 4

Shutter speed
Once you’ve set your aperture, half-press the shutter button to meter the scene, and turn the dial to adjust the shutter speed until the exposure indicator is in the middle to obtain a balanced exposure.

Keep the ISO low for maximum image quality; however, to ensure you have a fast enough shutter speed to capture pin-sharp shots you may need to increase the ISO to 400 or even 800, depending on the ambient lighting.


How to shoot candid portrait photography: step 5

When it comes to composition, try to think outside the box and capture something a bit different. Most portraits are taken face-on with the camera around the subject’s eye level, so try changing the camera angle and viewpoint.

Get up high and shoot down on your subject, and get low and angle the camera up for an abstract feel. Try shots from the side too, with your subject looking both at you and away from you.


How to shoot candid portrait photography: step 6

Focus on features
Make the most of features such as the eyes, mouth and hair, but don’t feel that you have to include every feature in a single frame.

Try shooting half of your model’s face, or their profile, and come in tight to emphasise details such as the eyes for added impact.

For precise focusing, manually select the autofocus point that’s closest to the detail you want to capture – you’ll need to change the active focus point as you compose different shots.

SEE MORE: Master your camera’s autofocus – which AF points to use (and when to use them)

Final candid portrait photography tips

Show examples
To capture natural-looking portraits your model needs to feel relaxed. Direct your model as much as you can, explain what you’re trying to achieve, and show them some of the shots you’re getting to make them feel more involved.

It helps to have a selection of images that you’ve seen online or in magazines and books on hand during your shoot, to give you ideas and inspiration.

 SEE MORE: 10 posing mistakes every photographer makes (and how to avoid them)

Candid portrait photography tips: use a reflector

Use a reflector
A reflector is simply a large sheet of reflective material that’s used to direct light onto a subject.

When you’re shooting portraits in natural light you can use a lightweight, collapsible reflector.

They’re a cheap, portable and easy-to-use option for controlling the light without having to use flash.

Reflectors are available in a range of sizes and colours, and many have multiple surfaces so that you can create different effects.

White is great for lifting shadows and balancing the light, gold adds a warm glow to skin tones, and silver creates a much cooler feel and can also create nice highlights in the eyes.

PAGE 1: How to shoot up-close, candid portrait photography
PAGE 2: How to edit your candid portrait photography


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  • Michele

    Interesting article… But that doesn’t look like candid photo to me!