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Tips for Shooting Better Portraits

Before we get to the assignments for this chapter, I thought it might be a good idea to leave you with a few extra portrait pointers that don’t necessarily have anything specific to do with your camera. There are entire books that cover things like portrait lighting, posing, and so on, but here are a few pointers that will make your portraits look a lot better.

Choose the right lens

Choosing the correct lens can make a huge impact on your portraits. Traditional portrait lenses are 85mm, 100mm, and 135mm, but I much prefer the focal range offered by a 24–70mm zoom. At its widest setting of 24mm, it allows you to capture a lot of environment around your subject (Figure 6.14). Select a longer focal length if you are closer to your subject. Zoom to 70mm for an intimate portrait (Figure 6.15).

Figure 6.14

Figure 6.14

ISO 200 • 1/80 sec. • f/4.0 • 24–70mm lens at 24mm

Figure 6.15

Figure 6.15

ISO 200 • 1/60 sec. • f/5.6 • 24–70mm lens at 70mm

Know your glass

Different focal lengths flatten perspective to various degrees. Understanding the feeling that this creates is another tool in creating memorable portraits. For instance, filling the frame results in a certain look, but shooting a tight portrait with a slightly wide-angle lens (Figure 6.16) results in rounder facial features than you get when shooting with a longer focal length (Figure 6.17).

Figure 6.16

Figure 6.16

ISO 200 • 1/200 sec. • f/2.0 • 35mm lens

Figure 6.17

Figure 6.17

ISO 200 • 1/200 sec. • f/2.0 • 135mm lens

Don’t cut them off at the ankles

There is an old rule about photographing people: Never crop the picture at a joint. This means no cropping at the ankles or the knees. Either show the full legs or, if you need to crop the legs, crop at the mid-shin or mid-thigh. Since people are taller than they are wide, turn your camera vertically for a better use of the frame (Figure 6.18).

Figure 6.18

Figure 6.18 Get in the habit of turning your camera to a vertical position when shooting portraits. This is also referred to as portrait orientation.

ISO 100 • 1/250 sec. • f/8 • 35mm lens

Tame the midday sun

The midday sun can be harsh and do unflattering things to people’s faces (Figure 6.19). If you can, find a shady spot out of the direct sunlight, or block the sunlight with a diffuse material such as a white bed sheet. You will get softer shadows, smoother skin tones, and better detail (Figure 6.20). This holds true for overcast skies as well. Just be sure to adjust your white balance accordingly.

Figure 6.19

Figure 6.19 The bright, direct sunlight looks too harsh on the subject’s face.

ISO 200 • 1/320 sec. • f/11 • 35mm lens

Figure 6.20

Figure 6.20 Using a 48-inch diffusion panel common in many photography reflector kits, I was able to reduce the intensity of the sunlight, as well as soften its resulting shadows.

ISO 200 • 1/160 sec. • f/8 • 35mm lens

Frame the scene

Using elements in the scene to create a frame around your subject is a great way to draw the viewer’s eye to what is most important: your subject! You don’t have to use a window frame to do this. Just look for elements in the environment’s foreground and background that could be used to force the viewer’s eye toward your subject (Figure 6.21).

Figure 6.21

Figure 6.21 A porthole in a brushed stainless steel door frames the subject.

ISO 100 • 1/8 sec. • f/5.6 • 35mm

Get down on their level

If you want better pictures of children, don’t shoot down from an adult’s eye level. Getting the camera down to the child’s level will make your images more personal (Figure 6.22).

Figure 6.22

Figure 6.22 Whenever you are taking photographs of children, get your camera down on their level for a less imposing view.

ISO 200 • 1/30 sec. • f/4 • 24-70mm lens at 24mm

Capture candid portraits

Putting a camera in someone’s face can elicit unnatural results. People just feel a need to pose, or they get nervous and stiff. If you really want to capture some nice portraits with a more candid feel, try capturing your subject before they strike a pose (Figure 6.23). If you want to be a good street photographer, learn to disappear into the crowd.

Figure 6.23

Figure 6.23 To capture candid portraits, learn to disappear into the crowd.

ISO 200 • 1/60 sec. • f/5.6 • 35mm lens

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