The KISS Rule

Portrait Tip

Do you like taking photos of your family and friends? Here is an easy way to get really good portraits of them. This is keeping it simple.

[NIKON D4, 85.0 mm f/1.4, Mode = Aperture Priority, ISO 200, 1/8000, ƒ/1.4, (35mm = 85)]

The key to any good photo is the old KISS rule, which is simply put Keep ISimple Stupid.

For this portrait of my dad I chose to shoot this outside and use some of the sunny weather we were having down at the beach.  We shot this outside on the balcony of our cottage. The reason for the location was it was the fewest steps I needed to make to get a good photo.

Start with the sun back lighting the subject

One of the reasons I always start with the sun on the back of the subject and not where it is lighting their face has to do with expression. I find it almost impossible for getting a good expression when people are squinting and straining due to the sun being directly in their eyes.

The benefit of the back lighting of the subject is you get a good rim light around the subject, which will help you separate the subject from the background.

Look for a darker background

I like to find a simple background that is not have blown out highlights in the background. I normally look for a much darker background than I chose here. My point is to be careful or your blinking highlights will be in the background and distracting rather than complementary to the subject.

Choose a shallow depth-of-field

I am using my favorite portrait lens for this photo, my Nikkor 85mm ƒ/1.4.  You need to be sure that the eyes are what you are focusing on and the sharpest point in the photo when shooting with this lens. I still recommend having the eyes the place you focus even if you choose to shoot this at ƒ/22.

In general if you are doing a portrait of a person and not an environmental portrait, then the background and surroundings is not really that important.  Since this is the case here for this photo I threw that background way out of focus by shooting at an aperture of ƒ/1.4.

Fill Flash

I love to use an off camera flash as my fill/main light outside for portraits. Here is a diagram showing you where the sun was and the off camera Nikon SB-900 speedlight placement for this photograph.

You can trigger the off camera flash many different ways. I often use the Nikon SU-800 which uses infrared to trigger the off camera flash. I chose to use the PocketWizard Mini TT1 on the camera with the AC3 which lets me alter the power of the flash from the camera and not the flash.  Saves you a lot of steps back and forth for tweaking those fine adjustments.

The Nikon SB-900 has the PocketWizard FlexTT5 on it to receive the signal and talk to the cameras TTL system to give you consistent exposures.


I placed the light 45º to the right of the camera and not quite 45º above the eyes.  I am a little lower since my subject has deep set eyes. 

What is the benefit of the flash say over a reflector? If I used the reflector I will be bouncing the sun into their face and often getting the squint I was trying to avoid.

Second, by using the flash I get good skin tones because of the color temperature of the flash will give it that “pop” I like to see.

Third, I like seeing a catch light in the eyes and the flash helps me be sure one is there. I think this helps bring the eyes to life.

Go and try this setup yourself. Adjust it to your conditions and the subject and see what you come up with.

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