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How to shoot a ‘cool’ wintry portrait

If you’re lucky enough to have snow for a portrait shoot, then make the most of it – snow is a natural reflector of light so it gives lovely, soft, flattering light with subtle shadows. Here in the UK, though, it seems that it only snows when we don’t want it to, and never when we do, so for this project we had to make our own white stuff!

A fake snow machine such as the one we used sprays out a stream of soapy flakes that drift gently down to the ground, just like the real thing.

You can hire fake snow machines from most entertainment suppliers – the same places that offer disco hire and lighting rigs. They won’t break the bank either: ours was £25 for the day, and came with a bottle of soapy fluid to make the snow flakes (you can hire specialist machines that create real snow, but they cost more, and the air temperature needs to be below freezing for them to work).

Our snow fluid lasted for about 30 minutes of continuous use, so fire it in bursts to make it last. For the best effect, have a helper direct the snow so that the flakes fall both in front of and behind your subject while you shoot.

As well as making your own snow, we’ll look at a few of the key techniques and rules for shooting outdoor portraits, whether you want to fake a blizzard, capture subjects against beautiful seasonal colours,or shoot any kind of portrait in natural light.

With the right choice of lens, aperture, shutter speed and focus controls, the rest is easy – we’ll show you how to create a beautiful winter portrait whether you have the weather on your side or not.

Step by step: Let it snow…

1 Wrap up warm
Cold weather presents a great opportunity to dig out your fancy hats, coats, scarves and other winter accessories. Hats can enhance close-ups by providing a natural frame for the face, while textures like those in this fur-look hat and coat contrast nicely with the skin.

SEE MORE: 5 ways to keep shooting outdoors this Christmas

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2 Bring on a snowstorm
If you can’t shoot in real snow you could hire a snow machine such as this one from a party or entertainment shop – it fires out a stream of soapy flakes that fall softly to the ground. Place the machine upwind of your subject so that the flakes drift across them.

SEE MORE: 53 essential photo ideas for winter

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3 Pick your background
We were shooting on a bright sunny day, so we looked for a spot in the shade of a tree for softer, and so more flattering, light. The ‘snow’ shows up best against a darker backdrop like the red leaves here, which also lend the image a Christmassy feel.

SEE MORE: Winter Photography: professional tips for working with seasonal light and textures

4 Choose your lens
If possible, use a lens with a wide maximum aperture and a long focal length. A shallow depth of field will blur both the backdrop and the snowflakes. We don’t want too many flakes of the fake snow in focus, because their foamy texture gives the game away.

SEE MORE: Best lens for portraits: 5 sensibly priced options tested and rated

5 Set up your camera
Manual mode with Auto ISO is a good set-up for outdoor portraits – this enables you to choose a shutter speed and aperture while the ISO adapts to the light. To shoot handheld use a shutter speed of at least 1/200 sec, and set a wide aperture such as f/2.8.

SEE MORE: Best camera settings for outdoor portrait photography

6 Focus on the eyes
Select the focus point over the subject’s closest eye. Go into your D-SLR’s AF menu and decrease the tracking sensitivity, so that the AF system will ignore small objects, such as the snowflakes in this scene, that pass between the camera and the subject.

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Creative blur

Shutter speeds below about 1/125 sec are usually a no-no for portraits, because it can be hard to keep both the subject and the camera still. However, if there’s interesting movement in the scene, like falling snow, a slower shutter speed is worth a go – at 1/30 sec, as in step 03, the slightly blurred snow adds to the mood of the shot.

The subject and camera need to stay as still as possible, so use a tripod and ask the subject to sit as still as they can. To get a slower shutter speed in daylight you’ll need to use the lowest available ISO, and you may need to stop down the aperture – we used f/8.

Choosing the right lens settings

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Blur with a wide aperture
Fast lenses are ideal for portraits. The difference between f/2.8 and f/5.6 doesn’t seem much, but the wider aperture blurs background detail much more effectively.

SEE MORE:What is maximum aperture? Which lenses go widest (and why it matters)

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Stop down to stay sharp
If the model’s face is slightly side-on to the camera, a wide aperture may blur one of the eyes. This can look a little strange, so consider stopping down to f/5.6 to keep both eyes sharp.

SEE MORE:Apertures: when to go small and when to go wide

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Flatter with a long focal length
The compressing effect of long focal lengths flatters your subject. There are differences between 70mm and 135mm here. Features are more attractively proportioned at 135mm.


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