Snappy Tips for Better Photos - Part 3 - People pictures / by Neil Alexander

Hopefully, having been enthralled by my two previous Snappy Tips posts on Snappy Tips for Better photos and Snappy Tips for Better Photos – Part 2 – The Holy Trinity, you'll now have been brave enough to venture out the safety of automatic even if only for a frame or 2 and see where you end up. Photography is all about experimenting and trying new techniques and ideas. It's the best way to learn.

So it's now time to work on your portraiture skills. Whether it's making a cute photographs of your kids opening their Christmas presents,  or photographing a super model for Vogue, the basic practices are still the same. But we're not aiming to create a National Geographic or a Harpers Bazaar cover here. Just a good solid portrait.

  1. First up is framing, specifically filling your frame and throwing out unwanted elements. What I mean by this is that a photograph of someone is no good if they are a dot in the corner. They need to take up a significant proportion of the frame. You could use your camera's zoom, but you might find zooming with your feet better. It's harder to interact and instruct someone if they're on the other side of the room. There's also compression and camera shake and a host of other things, but let's just keep it simple. You also want to make sure that the background you are shooting them against is free from distracting clutter, especially bright colours and lights. For example if you've got the choice between posing your subject in front of a bookcase or a white wall, then go with the white wall every time, that is unless you are making a portrait of an Oxford University professor for the Sunday Times magazine, in which case context is everything. But I'm making the assumption here that you're not. In the first example below, I shot Amy against a fire escape with the sun setting behind her. She was also lit from the front and sides to lift her from the background, but even still the fire escape is too prominent and I feel it is distracting. For the next image, of Karolina shot on the South Bank in London, I deliberately used a shallow depth of field to make sure that the background was completely out of focus and didn't distract the viewer's eye in anyway.
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  1. Secondly, you need to take control of your subject. By this I mean instruct them. The majority of people are not used to being in front of the camera and will unlikely adopt poses that suit or are appropriate for your image, especially if it's kids we're talking here. You need to direct them to do as you want. Learn a little about posing and what works and what doesn't. There are some great tips over here.  Obviously the rules are a little different for posing formal portraits to kids in the park. For this photograph of Kayleigh, I'd seen that the moon had appeared in the sky just as we were packing up, but felt that this was worth trying to get something out of. I cajoled her a little into one more set up, sorted my lights and asked her to look off into the distance to get an almost vacant expression.
  2. Third on this list is lighting, but this by no means reflects its level of importance in respect to previous two. Lighting and composition are the two primary keys to any good photograph. Johannes Vermeer, widely renowned Dutch master painter from the 17th century is often referenced by photographers and their lighting techniques. Vermeer primarily used plain simple old diffused window light to light his subjects, and it is because of this and the manner in which he did it, that the window lit portrait is often one of the most popular portrait styles today. There are some great examples here. You don't need any fancy lighting equipment, softboxes or modifiers. Just a window, and if the light is too harsh, then maybe a white sheet over the window to diffuse it a little.
  3. Next up, is your point of focus. This has to be the eyesof your subject. They are what the viewer is instinctively drawn to when viewing a portrait. You can help lead the viewer's eye here, but ultimately this will always be the primary point of focus. The upshot of this is that they need to be sharp, or at least the eye  nearest the camera. Do this by placing your autofocus point over the eye before shooting. The image below of Charlie is a great example of several of the points above - I've filled the frame so there is no distracting background, it's shot using completely natural light with a sheet over the window to soften it a little, and the main point of focus is the eye nearest the camera (I really ought to have used a slighly longer depth of field to get both eyes in focus - but you live and learn eh?)
  4. Fun. The most important point is to have fun and enjoy your shooting. This will reflect in your pictures. A wise man once said "The camera looks both ways" and this is very true. It's hard not to react to a smile with a smile. Smile at your subject, make a joke, and they'll smile back. Frown, complain, be in a bad mood and guaranteed your subject will reflect this, and ultimately your portrait. And really if you're not having fun and enjoying making photographs, what's the point anyway?
  1. Fun. The most important point is to have fun and enjoy your shooting. This will reflect in your pictures. A wise man once said "The camera looks both ways" and this is very true. It's hard not to react to a smile with a smile. Smile at your subject, make a joke, and they'll smile back. Frown, complain, be in a bad mood and guaranteed your subject will reflect this, and ultimately your portrait. And really if you're not having fun and enjoying making photographs, what's the point anyway?
  1. Next up, is your point of focus. This has to be the eyesof your subject. They are what the viewer is instinctively drawn to when viewing a portrait. You can help lead the viewer's eye here, but ultimately this will always be the primary point of focus. The upshot of this is that they need to be sharp, or at least the eye  nearest the camera. Do this by placing your autofocus point over the eye before shooting. The image below of Charlie is a great example of several of the points above - I've filled the frame so there is no distracting background, it's shot using completely natural light with a sheet over the window to soften it a little, and the main point of focus is the eye nearest the camera (I really ought to have used a slighly longer depth of field to get both eyes in focus - but you live and learn eh?)
  2. Fun. The most important point is to have fun and enjoy your shooting. This will reflect in your pictures. A wise man once said "The camera looks both ways" and this is very true. It's hard not to react to a smile with a smile. Smile at your subject, make a joke, and they'll smile back. Frown, complain, be in a bad mood and guaranteed your subject will reflect this, and ultimately your portrait. And really if you're not having fun and enjoying making photographs, what's the point anyway?
  1. [/caption]

  2. Fun. The most important point is to have fun and enjoy your shooting. This will reflect in your pictures. A wise man once said "The camera looks both ways" and this is very true. It's hard not to react to a smile with a smile. Smile at your subject, make a joke, and they'll smile back. Frown, complain, be in a bad mood and guaranteed your subject will reflect this, and ultimately your portrait. And really if you're not having fun and enjoying making photographs, what's the point anyway?

South Bank Portrait Shoot - Karolina Szwemin by Neil Alexander - blurring the background to bring out the subject

So that's it for today, and I hope that you're finding these useful. I look forward to receiving any comments or questions as usual. Also feel free to send me some images to peruse if you feel that you've learnt anything.

Finally, I thought I'd share this little video from the guys over at B&H in New York on caring for your camera. Now you may think, why on earth have I started putting links to a camera store over in the US on my site when the majority of my audience is based in the UK. The answer is simple. They're fantastic. It's often a real struggle to get gear over here in the UK, especially stuff that isn't your typical tripod or lens. Black Rapid straps, Lowepro S&F vests, Westcott modifiers - all very tricky to come by in the UK. I've ordered from B&H 3 times now all proving to be extremely satisfactory experiences. My last order was placed on a Sunday evening, the gear arrived Wednesday afternoon and even with shipping and import duty I saved 15% on like for like items from Calumet. It's a no brainer. So anyway, here's the video. It's quite informative.