Thursday, April 12, 2012

How to take better portraits

Copyright Monica L. Shulman
Portrait of my niece inside what was basically a dark cave with a wall of windows at the Bronx Zoo while we were looking for monkeys.  Shot with a 50mm f/1.4 prime lens at ISO 1600.

When I look at a photograph or a piece of art I want, no, I need, to be moved by it.  Everyone has a different idea about what makes a photo good or great but I think that the best pictures are the ones that are evocative and make you feel that special something in your gut.  When it comes to portraits the best ones give you that "wow" feeling and they reveal the true essence (or mystery) of a person.  The best portraits always make me feel like I want to know more or see more.  Since I get lots of emails about taking photos of people I thought these tips might be helpful.

I'd love to know what you think and of course please share any tips or advice of your own in the comments!

1.  Equipment

Yes, I always say that the best camera is the one that you have with you but shooting portraits is a major exception to this general rule.  A "real" camera is always best when you want to take a picture of a person either posed (which I hardly, if ever, do) or spontaneous (my favorite). 

It matters whether you use a prime lens or a telephoto lens depending on where and who you are photographing.  One or the other will be more helpful depending on your shooting conditions.  I'm much more likely to shoot with a telephoto lens if I'm taking pictures on the street because I like to have control over focal length (my camera is the only thing that I have control over when I'm taking pictures in public since the scene will change from one second to the next).  Otherwise I usually prefer my prime lenses (a lens with a fixed focal length).  You should experiment with both so you can see what you prefer.

2.  Pay attention to your depth of field

If you shoot in natural light your f-stop will be determined by how much light is available.  You should try to set your aperture anywhere from about f/2.0 to f/5.6 on your telephoto lens.  This will give your portrait great depth of field with the eyes and face in focus.  An aperture opened too large (f/1.8 or f/1.4) will sometimes result in a photo where your subject's eyes and nose are in focus but the rest of their face and hair are blurry or can appear distorted.

A shallow depth of field will give you that pretty, creamy bokeh background and will really make your subject stand out. Plus it looks so pretty.

Copyright Monica L. Shulman
In this shot the aperture was set at f/5.3

Copyright Monica L. Shulman
In this shot the aperture was set at f/5.6

3.  Watch the light

Like I said, I always prefer to use natural light whenever it is available.  My favorite time of day is either morning before 11am or afternoon after 4pm - the magic hour.  There is nothing worse than harsh light so look for that time of day when the light is soft and warm.  If you're indoors, try shooting by a window and the light will be filtered but close the shades a bit if you're trying to set up a shot and it feels too strong.  Set your aperture accordingly and if you're having a hard time trying to figure it out, take a few test shots!  You've got nothing to lose and this practice is what will help you learn best.

Check out this tutorial I did on taking photos in low light situations for more tips, if you'd like.

4.  Play with composition

The usual rules of composition for portraits include shooting from slightly above your subject or right at eye level, but some of my best portraits are those with an unexpected composition.  As a general matter you want to focus on the eyes but you can capture the essence of your subject by playing around with the frame (I tend to fill the frame unless the background is particularly important to a shot) and your position.  Get up close.  Stand far back.  In other words, make up your own rules.

Copyright Monica L. Shulman
Shot with a 50mm f/1.4 prime lens at ISO 1600.  There was plenty of light coming in through the windows in my apartment but I wanted to see what would happen with the high ISO.  And, by the way, can you see my reflection in her eyes?  This kid is definitely a photographer's daughter.  She fully poses!

5.  Capture the essence of the person

I want to feel actively engaged in any piece of art that I'm looking at but this is especially true for portraits.  When I take photos of Lucia I try to think about capturing her personality, the way she is so trusting and unique, her insatiable curiosity and mischievousness.  Part of it is that I'm her mom so I know her backwards and forwards but if others can see these qualities and traits by looking at one of my pictures of her, then I feel like I did my job. 

It's easy to draw conclusions about a stranger when you're photographing them on the street.  Obviously you can only guess things about them but the point is to capture them when they're in a moment being themselves, unaware that someone is watching (sounds kind of weird, I know, but trust me, I'm not a stalker!)

hay milonga de amor
My favorite street portrait from my archives.  Aperture at f/5.6 shot outdoors during the late morning.

Another personal favorite from my archives.  Aperture at f/5.6 shot outdoors in the late afternoon just before sundown.  I had to really push to get this photo because it was already starting to get dark and we were in a very wooded area in Cambodia.  This is when shooting in RAW really saves the day.

PS--Taking photos of people in public, taking photos of babies and taking photos of kids.

And, DPS has some great tips too.

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