How Small Cameras Help You Take Better Portraits

How Small Cameras Help You Take Better Portraits

In last week’s tutorial How To Take Authentic Street Portraits I gave you nine tips for taking better street portraits. Since then it’s occured to me that there’s a tenth tip that I could easily have given you – that making better portraits, of any sort, is much easier with a small camera.

Before we look at why this is, let me first explain exactly what I mean by a small camera. These are examples that photographers use.

A small digital SLR camera. If you’ve ever used a full-frame digital SLR camera you’ll know that they are big and heavy (and so are most of the lenses). But most manufacturers also make small APS-C digital SLR cameras with smaller lenses to match.

A full-frame mirrorless camera. These have suddenly become popular, but have the disadvantage (just like full-frame digital SLRs) that the lenses tend to be big and heavy, somewhat offsetting the benefits of a smaller camera body.

An APS-C mirrorless camera. These cameras can be very small when you use them with lenses designed to match the sensor size. I made all the portraits in this tutorial with a Fujifilm X-T1 camera.

A Micro Four-thirds mirrorless camera. These are even smaller than APS-C mirrorless cameras and there are some excellent camera bodies and lenses in this category. The camera bodies may be too small for some photographers.

A compact digital camera. These are not as popular as they used to be, thanks to smart phone cameras, and are not as good as interchangeable lens cameras for portrait photography.

A smart phone camera. Ubiquitous, but the ergonomics for photo taking aren’t good and most smart phone cameras have just a single wide-angle lens with limited applications for portraiture.

Out of these types of small camera the APS-C mirrorless is my personal favorite. While it doesn’t really matter what type of small camera you have (it’s a personal choice), we’ll explore some of the advantages of mirrorless for portraits later in this tutorial.

Better portraits with small cameras

There are several reasons why small cameras are especially suited for portraits. These are all factors that I became aware of after I made the switch from a full-frame Canon digital SLR to an APS-C Fujifilm mirrorless camera.

Small cameras create a different dynamic than a larger camera when shooting portraits. The model seems more relaxed – even experienced models have told me they feel tense and under pressure when the photographer uses a big camera.

You can walk around for longer with a smaller camera without getting tired. If you’re into street photography you’ll appreciate having a light load, especially if you take just one or two lenses. This also applies to more formal portrait shoots with a model. A heavy camera can be a hindrance if you’re taking portraits outdoors and have to walk to your chosen location, or do a lot of scrambling over rocks or other uneven ground.

Strangers are less intimidated by smaller cameras (and lenses). If you’re taking photos in the street it’s easier to be invisible with a smaller camera. If you approach somebody you don’t know and ask if you can take their photo, they are usually more relaxed in front of a smaller camera. It’s much easier to create photos like this one.

Street photo of food vendor taken in Xi'an, China with Fujifilm camera

Small cameras are great for taking portraits of family. This is something that I only appreciated after the birth of my son. At home I have a camera permanently set up with a charged battery, memory card and 35mm prime lens (a normal lens on an APS-C camera). If my son starts doing something interesting it’s easy to grab the camera and take some photos. Of course, smart phone cameras are perfect for this, but I like the benefits of using a prime lens on a camera – bokeh and good high ISO performance. This set up has enabled me to take portraits like the ones below.

Better portraits with smaller cameras

Black and white baby portrait

Portrait of baby made with mirrorless camera

Better portraits with mirrorless cameras

Before I used my Fujifilm X-T1 I had a few doubts about using it to take portraits. For example, I wondered how accurate the autofocus is when using prime lenses at wide apertures like f1.2. Or whether I’d like using an electronic viewfinder. I’m sure that other photographers considering buying a mirrorless camera have the same questions.

But once I started using the camera I was impressed by both its focusing accuracy and the electronic viewfinder. As I used it I realized that an electronic viewfinder is a much better tool for making portraits than an optical one.

Let’s look at that in more depth.

Mirrorless cameras focus accurately on still subjects, even at wide apertures. This is because they use contrast detection autofocus rather than phase detection. The camera takes a reading from the camera’s sensor to determine whether the area under the active autofocus (AF) point is sharp. This has another benefit – you never need to calibrate your prime lenses. Anybody who has struggled with a back or front-focusing prime lens when using it at its widest aperture will appreciate this. On a mirrorless camera, it’s something you never have to think about.

For example, I made the portrait below with a Fujinon f56mm lens at f1.2. As you can see, there isn’t much depth of field, but the camera has still focused accurately on the model’s eyes.

Portrait of young woman taken with Fujifilm X-T1 camera

Mirrorless cameras have a quieter firing action. There’s no mirror slap which means the camera doesn’t make as much noise when you take a photo. This is a nice benefit if you’re taking photos in the street. With the ambient noise most people won’t hear the shutter firing. Many mirrorless cameras also have an option to use an electronic shutter which is completely silent.

The electronic viewfinder helps with composition. Optical viewfinders display a three-dimensional view and you have to learn how that translates into two dimensions. Electronic viewfinders show you a two-dimensional view, helping you visualize the final result.

Electronic viewfinders are great for working in black and white. If you like black and white photography you’ll love using an electronic viewfinder. If you activate one of your camera’s monochrome profiles you’ll see the scene in black and white in the viewfinder. This helps you see exactly how the scene looks in black and white and is a great aid to visualization. Just remember to use the Raw format so you have the option to create a color version of the portrait in Lightroom.

Black and white portrait

The optional live histogram helps you get the exposure right before you take a photo. It’s quicker than checking the histogram afterwards and you can turn it off if it’s a distraction.

Mirrorless cameras accept many older lenses via mount adapters. They’re ideal for experimenting with older optics that you can buy inexpensively from eBay and similar websites, as well as creative manual focus optics such as those made by LensBaby. You can mount an older lens on any camera with the right adapter, but the advantage that mirrorless cameras have is Focus Peaking – a display in the electronic viewfinder helps you focus accurately on the subject by highlighting the sharp parts of the scene. This is important with portraits as you need to focus on the model’s eyes.

My Fujifilm X-T1 even has a dual screen mode that shows a magnified section of the scene next to the main image to help you focus accurately. The inset shows an enlargement of the area under the active autofocus point to help you see whether you have focused accurately.

Fujifilm X-T1 dual screen display

Other considerations

There are a few more things you should consider before you use a small camera for making portraits. In my experience, none of them are deal breakers, but they are things you should be aware of.

Smaller cameras have smaller batteries. Smaller batteries hold less charge, which means you need to buy some spares and carry then with you. You can offset this by using a vertical grip with space for an extra battery.

Smaller cameras may feel front heavy when used with bigger lenses. That’s because the lens is much heavier than the camera body. For example, the Fujinon 56mm f1.2 lens is a great portrait lens on my X-T1. But the weight pulls the camera down.

The solution is to use the vertical grip. This adds enough weight to balance the lens and also makes it much easier to take portraits with the camera in the vertical orientation. It’s a good idea to factor a vertical grip into your budget if you’re seriously considering buying a smaller camera.

Final thoughts

Since buying a mirrorless camera I’ve been delighted with its performance for portraiture. This camera helps me create better portraits by being lighter to carry (great when traveling), less intimidating to models and by focusing accurately at wide apertures. These are all good reasons why you too should consider using a smaller camera for making portraits.

I’ll finish by showing you some portraits that I made during carnival celebrations in the city of Cadiz in southern Spain. We spent several days walking around enjoying the celebrations and performances. For most of that time I used my X-T1 camera with a 35mm lens to make photos. The small camera made it easier to take photos unobtrusively. I saw plenty of other photographers with digital SLRs and telephoto lenses shooting at the carnival, and didn’t feel one bit of gear envy.

Cadiz street performer portrait

Cadiz carnival portraits

Street portraits in Cadiz

Further reading

The Natural Portrait ebook

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The Natural Portrait

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

Comments

  1. Author

    Hi Alison, what an interesting question. I always use Raw, and I haven’t experienced the problem you are describing. Without seeing one of your photos it isn’t possible to say for sure, but it sounds like smearing caused by in-camera high ISO noise reduction. When you use Raw it doesn’t matter what Film Simulation setting you chose as you can change it in Lightroom’s Camera Calibration panel (if you use Lightroom that is). It doesn’t matter what the Noise Reduction setting is either as Lightroom ignores it. I usually find that Lightroom’s default Noise Reduction settings work fine and don’t need tweaking. Feel free to send me a photo with the waxy effect you described so I can see it.

  2. Nice article, but I would suggest that adding the recommended vertical grip (as you did twice), you no longer have a small camera. Hence, the subject did not match the verb. Just sayin. All your points are valid, just some are “off-subject”.

    p.s. Ain’t Fuji great?

    1. Author

      Hi Dennis, you have a point but the X-T1 is still a small camera even with the grip. And it’s definitely much smaller than an SLR camera with grip. The grip is a benefit is some situations, and you shouldn’t leave it on all the time unless you really want to. And yes, Fuji is great!

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