Valentine's Day Photo Tips

Use simple gear to create a Valentine’s Day portrait of the one you love


Sure, chocolate hearts are nice. Flowers are, too. But if you could use your creativity to make something unique for your sweetheart?of your sweetheart?wouldn’t you want to do it? Here’s your chance!

Looking for Valentine's Day Gift Ideas for Him and Her? What about the gift of a beautiful portrait of your sweetheart? You don't need any fancy gear to achieve professional-looking results?just your starter DSLR and the kit lens that usually comes with it, and a little creativity. Yes, it’s true that with a typical maximum aperture of f/5.6 you won’t get the kind of flattering focus fall-off you’d get with a wide aperture telephoto, but if you’re willing to make a few minor adjustments in post-production using full Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, you can create a beautiful portrait of your sweetie that looks like it was made with high-end gear?just in time for Valentine’s day.


Gear: Just the Basics

You can do this with any DSLR and 18-55mm (if you’re using an APS sensor) lens, which is typically packaged with a beginner or mid-range camera.  The Nikon D3200, Canon EOS Rebel T3, and Sony Alpha A3000 are among many DSLRs bundled with kit lenses.  While not absolutely necessary, you may want to use a tripod such as the 3Pod P5CRH, and/or a compatible wireless off-camera TTL flash with a diffuser such as the 16x16-inch Glow Pop Soft Box for Shoe Mount Flashes.  If you have nice, broad window lighting, you don’t necessarily need a flash. If you’re shooting at night or in a basement studio, you will need to bring your own diffused light.


Lighting: Go Big Or Go Home

If you don’t wish to invest in a flash yet, scout out a location with lots of diffused light. In our example, we used living room with a bank of big windows that created big, beautiful light that wrapped around the subject. I used a tripod to reduce the chance for camera shake. There’s plenty of light flooding the room, and I placed my subject about two feet away from the window in order to get a big, diffused light source that flatters her face.

kit lens portrait tips

Simple setup: No lights. Just a tripod-mounted camera, sun-drenched windows (shades pulled down to diffuse the light), and a simple prop held by Davida—a rose.

Since the light source is fixed, there are two ways to control the light: by moving the subject’s position in relation to the windows, and by moving the camera’s position. Experiment! Try different positions and see how the light falls. Experiment with posing, having the model face the light, or away from it, and see how the light and shadow work on her face. Keep in mind the line going down the face down the ridge of the nose is a good divider between dark and light sides, with the interplay of light and dark in the shadows creating a more dramatic effect. This approach is known as Rembrandt lighting, and is often used by professional portrait photographers.

If you are using a flash with a diffuser, place the flash and diffuser about a foot or two away from your subject’s face. Don’t worry about light fall-off, since this is going to be a head-and-shoulders portrait.

The Shoot: Time To Experiment

I prefer shooting in RAW+JPEG because this gives me greater flexibility in post-processing. Zoom your lens to 55mm and go into Aperture Priority mode. Choose the widest aperture available (most likely f/5.6). Alternatively, you can choose the Portrait Mode if the camera offers one. If you have an incandescent or fluorescent light on in the room, turn it off and just use the window or flash light. This way you won’t get any strange colors creeping into your image.

When you’re shooting, be careful to focus on the eyes?and if you’re shooting with the face at an angle to the camera, focus on the eye that is closest to the lens. You may want to take the camera off autofocus for this. Check your results carefully by enlarging the image preview. The eye should be tack sharp. If nothing is tack sharp you are probably shaking the camera. Choose a faster shutter speed, and use a tripod.

Now it’s time to work with your model?and the modeling light!


DSLR kit lens portrait tips

I started by shooting this silhouete, shown unimbellished, straight out of the camera.


DSLR kit lens portrait tips
Next I did a three-quarters pose. Note how the light grazes the darker side of her face, creating an interesting interplay of light and shadow.


DSLR kit lens portrait tips
Finally, we both re-oriented ourselves so she was facing the window and I was shooting with the window at my back. The flat, big light is flattering and brings out a lot of detail. If it looks different from the samples above, that's because I also did a few tricks in Photoshop to make it look like it was shot at around f/1.4, not f/5.6, which was the largest aperture my kit lens would allow at 55mm. How did I do this? Read on!


Post Processing: The Final Steps

You may be satisfied with your results straight out of the camera and if you are, that’s great. However, I’d like to show you a few tools in Photoshop that can help you emulate the look of a photo shot with a wider aperture lens, the kind pros use when shooting dramatic portraits. This look will give you greater focus fall-off for more flattering results. Even better: You can experiment and create some dreamy effects.

To get a wide-aperture look, you'll need an image editing program that can handle layers and gaussian blur. All flavors of Photoshop will do this but since Photoshop Elements is the most affordable, that's what I used here.


DSLR kit lens portrait tips

Straight out of the camera: Color balance looks good, but as with other images, the depth of focus shows too much detail.

First, once you’ve balanced the color, gotten the skin tone just right, and used the healing tool to smooth out any blemishes, select and copy the image. In fact, make a couple of copy layers and leave the original layer alone.


DSLR kit lens portrait tips

Using the Photoshop Elements RAW editing tool, I toned down the highlights ever so slightly, and reduced clarity to about -20 in order to give her more flattering skintones. But the depth of focus remains untouched.

Make sure the middle layer is tack sharp. For the top layer, apply Gaussian blur at around 9-10 pixels. The entire image will blur out. Next, take a feathered eraser tool, make it around 600 pixels wide and start erasing away the blured layer of the face, revealing the sharper middle image. Start with the eyes (or forward eye) and work your way out, keeping in mind distance from the lens so the focus fall-off looks natural. Any part of your subject that’s in the plane of focus should be sharp, but the side of the head receding back should be left blurred. This will exaggerate the minor blur created by your kit lens at f/5.6 and make it look it was shot at f/1.8.


DSLR kit lens portrait tips

More selective focus: Now it looks kind of like the effect you can get when shooting with a large-aperture 85mm lens.

This might be enough, but feel free to experiment with more special effects, perhaps boosting contrast (or reducing it) and playing with color intensity and clarity. Try removing color altogether and see how it looks in black and white. Add some grain or glow for an even more romantic look.

I’ll let you in on another secret: If you shoot at a lower ISO and use a tripod, you might be able to pull off this shot using a compact camera with a modest telephoto zoom setting, although depending on the model focus control might be tricky.

Taking it up a notch: Upgrade Your Lens

Once you've taken your portrait, you may come to realize that you need a bonafide portrait lens with a big aperture to get even more flattering shots right out of the camera. The go-to lens for this job is the 85mm, at least f/1.8. If you can afford a faster f/1.4 or even f/1.2 85mm lens, go for it! You won't regret it if you want to specialize in portrait photography. Be sure to read Tested and Compared: 20 85mm Lenses for DSLR Portrait Photography to find the right lens for your camera and budget.

Also check out this video, which demonstrates the magic transformation that you can only get with a true 85mm f/1.2 lens:

When you’re done, be sure to order a nice framed print from AdoramaPix. Your sweetie may never want to shoot a selfie again!

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