The Key Elements Of Shooting Great Portraits

By NYC Wedding Photographer, Scott W Baker


The Art of shooting Great portraits, and yes it is a bit of an art is the ability to use your eye to see the great moment that captures the essence of the person your photographing.

In order to truly do this well you need a fast responsive camera, Like a Nikon D3 or D4 or D800, or if your shooting with a Fuji X100s or Leica M9.You will need a great portrait lens, that is about 75mm to 90mm. This lens needs to be fast; F/1.2-F/2.8 is the best range, and the faster the better. My favorite is a 85mm F/1.4. I have shot most of these portraits with that focal length and f/stop.  I also use the 50mm F/1.4 lens and also got great results with the Zeiss 24-70mm AF for the Sony Full frame cameras.

Rachel Schulder       Sony A900-Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 1/320    ISO 250


The above shot show the amazing color rendition and micro contrast that Zeiss lenses are most noted for. I focused on her eyes and the colors pop. It’s very important to try to focus on a person’s eye in shooting great portraits, in that the essence of the persons character is often seen in their eyes. So a very sharp lens, shot wide open at F/1.4 is critical and a high enough ISO or great light to get a fast shutter speed. If shooting on a tripod, I like using the Gitzo line, as they are rock steady. I also use the Arca Swiss Ball Head. This combination gives me extreme flexibility when shooting portraits. The fast lenses used here are shot wide open at F/1.4 to achieve the wonder Bokeh that puts the background right behind the person out of focus.




Rachel Cope     Sony A900-Zeiss 24-70mm  F/4.5  ISO 200    1/200


This environmental Portrait is shot with the amazing Zeiss 24-70mm F/2.8 AF lens. This lens is a wide to slightly telephoto lens that allows the photographer the ability to shoot either a super wide interior or landscape shot or a portrait shot. Such versatility, especially from such a noted lens maker does not come cheaply but it’s worth its wait in gold with outstanding sharpness and amazing color and contrast. It is essentially the only lens you might need if shooting with the Full Frame Sony A99. The key in this shot was to capture Rachel relaxed ways with her fingers in her hair. Putting your subject at ease is key to capturing a great environmental portrait.


  Sony A900   85mm  F/1.4    ISO 200   1/640


This was a wonderful shot that was captured when the model placed a shawl on her head when a light misty rain started to fall. Again the use of shallow depth of field with the Zeiss 85mm shot wide open at F/1.4 gives me the soft buttery bokeh as well as great sharpness. The secret is focus on the eyes and be quick about it. The fleeting moment, or as the great Photographer Henri Cartier Bresson would call it,”the decisive moment”. The Art of great portraits is having a great fast lens and the right light and seizing that special moment. It is very fleeting at times!



Stacey & Tony Wedding Day     Nikon D3  50mm F/1.4    ISO 200  1/2500


This shot of Stacey and Tony on their wedding day is a superb example of great light and a fast lens. I shot their wedding on Long Beach NY. This shot was taken in the very late afternoon setting sun when it’s Golden. This type of light only last for about 20 minutes so it’s fleeting and you need to act fast. I shot this shot with a Nikon 50mm F/1.4 wide open. This gets that great Bokeh and also the subtle sharpness only at her eyes. The essence of a great Wedding Photography is to capture amazing images with great light and do it in a split second. The Nikon 50mm F/1.4 is noted for its incredible sharpness, and wonderful bokeh. This was their Nikon AF version. They also have a manual focus 50mm F/1.2 but its a specialty lens and also manual focus. If you shoot Canon, the make an amazing 50mm F1.2 L series lens that is AF. It takes amazing photographs and many wedding photographs swear by it, it does not come cheaply though.


Rob and Cherrelle Engagement Photos        Nikon D3   85mm F/1.4G   ISO 200  1/400


This is a recent Engagement shot of a couple that will also be photographed by me on their wedding day. It was shot in Central Park in the late afternoon. I photographed them with the Nikon 85mm F/1.4 and shot wide open. I concentrated on The future Brides eyes, as that is key in getting a great Portrait. I also made the image b/w in Apple’s Aperture software, by lowering the saturation, which has the effect of making it a b/w shot. The key is to focus on the eyes, and shoot quickly and nail it in the best way you can. The Nikon D3 Body is known for its amazing files and great low light capabilities. It’s also a great camera for Weddings, as you can shoot in Raw, as I always do and the buffer is large enough to run of 20-30 images before you fill up the buffer. Shooting with the D4 will get even better image quality. The most important Thing to remember though is investing in and shoot with fast glass. Lenses that are F/1.4-F/2.8 will produce better sharper more defined images than slower glass. The lens by Nikon, Canon, Zeiss and Fuji that are fast produce spectacular results.


Jack Baker       Fuji X-Pro1   35mm    f/1.4   ISO 400  1/4000


This shot was taken in Vero Beach Florida of my father. It was taken with the Fuji X-Pro 1 camera and 35mm F/1.4 lens. This camera and this prime lens, which is a 50mm equivalent, produces some of the sharpest and highest quality images you will ever get. The rangefinder style camera is very light in hand but feels very solid and well built. Its image quality approaches that of a Leica M9.That is a amazing feat to do, in that the Fuji 35mm lens cost only around $450 versus around $4000 for a 50mm Leica Summilux lens. The Fuji is a Leica killer image and cost wise. The camera manufacturing landscape is undergoing a sea change in that sensors, like the one in the Fuji X-Pro1 as well as the Fuji X-E2 with a growing line of lenses is giving the big three (Canon-Nikon-Sony) a run for their money by producing a very high quality camera that’s much lighter and less money yet producing very high image quality.


Canon 5D Mark 11          Canon EF 100mm f/2  ISO  4000   1/10


This shot was taken late in the day at dusk, almost at night. It was taken with a Canon 5D Mark 11 and one of the best portrait lenses Canon makes, the 100mm EF F/2. This lens is so sharp and creates such wonderful Bokeh that it will amaze you. This image was tricky because I used the brick wall to my left and shot wide open at F/2 at 1/10 of a second. The bracing against the brick wall made this shot possible. This is again, a classic case of an environmental portrait. It’s vital to shoot quickly and have fast glass and in this case I pushed the ISO up to ISO 4000.In certain situations that will.

Sony A900-Zeiss 24-70mm  F/2.8  ISO 800   1/4


This shot of Enzo was taken with the Sony A900 body and the Zeiss 24-70mm F/2.8 lens. It was shot from a tripod at ISO 800. The secret to the shot was the great setting sun-dusk light and the cobblestone ground. This is a true environmental portrait. It was shot with the Zeiss 24-70mm AF lens and its truly one of my favorites. This lens as well as the Zeiss 85mm and the Zeiss 135mm F/1.8 and the Zeiss 50mm F/1.4 all will produce stunning imagery on a full frame Sony A99.


Luiz Pinto                    Canon 5D  50mm f/2.8  ISO 160  1/60


This shot was taken in the studio with a Hensel 800 watt second mono block head and a 30-40 inch soft box. This creates wonderful soft shadows and sculpts the face. The camera was a Canon 5D with a 50mm shot at F/2.8 and ISO of 160.  The lens was stopped down just a bit to capture the face in sharp detail. The purpose of creating this light and using a lens like this is because you can get in close to your subject and capture their personality better. The shot was processed slightly in Apple Aperture 3.0. The important element is to look for what you want and focus upon that in the camera viewfinder then take the shot. Previsualizing it if possible.


Christy Turlington        Canon 40D   EF 24-105mm   F/7.1    ISO  200    1/200


This is a shot of Christy Turlington that I shot a few years ago. The camera was a Canon 40D with a high quality Canon 24-105mm EF lens. The shot was taken using a Canon 580 EX flash and a Gary Fong Diffuser. The shot captured her in a great way by focusing upon her eyes. I consider this shot one of my better Portraits. If you use a high quality lens and stop down you will get excellent results. The imagery from today’s higher end DSLR’s and Mirrorless cameras like the Fuji X-Pro1 with great lens will capture and create stunning portraits. The key is great light-great glass and great seeing!



All images © Scott W Baker  


You can see more of his work at



Scott W Baker


212.380.1032 Cell

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