Say Cheese?

Ever wonder why we’ve heard photographers say that when taking your picture?  Think about what happens when you do – your facial features open up, your mouth opens slightly, and you get a little upward curvature in the corners of your lips.  (Unless of course you concentrate on specifically not doing that.)  Whoever thought this up eons ago was well ahead of the curve, because knowing how to take good portraiture encompasses entire volumes of books on the subject.

Volumes exist on what lenses to use, how to light, depth of fieldand much much more, but perhaps the most valuable information on how to take great portraits comes not just from technical awareness, but from personal interactions, and how to get people to act natural yet emotive and to let that come through in your work.  While no blog post could entirely exhaust the subject, here are ten quick tips on taking better portraits:

  1. Establish a connection – portraiture is about connecting with someone through the image.  If you don’t connect with them through the camera, then there will be no connection in the print.  Make sure you connect with your subjects in some way.  Get to know about them, because that knowledge can transform your vision into really beautiful works of art.
  2. Relax the subject – Connecting with your subject means they feel comfortable around you – now the key is to get them to feel comfortable in front of the camera.  Many times this is much easier said than done, but when you do get them to relax, the poses will come more fluidly, and you’ll get better results.  One way I do this is to just start taking pictures of things around us as we talk and connect.  The whole idea of hearing the shutter can be scary to some people, so by hearing it almost to excess and know it’s not on them can mitigate the “scary” factor.
  3. Choose a background – if you are in a studio environment, this is fairly easy, but if you are on location, keep your eyes out for backgrounds that provide contrast to the subject.  Are they wearing light clothes?  Look for a dark background.  What about props to give a little more meaning.  Are they sports fans?  Have them hold a football, or stand by a basketball hoop.  Backgrounds can help give more definition to your subject.
  4. Have a purpose – try to think of reasons why you are taking the picture.  Is it to record an event, or is it for a model?  What about a head shot for a business executive?  If you think of why you are taking the picture in the first place, that can help give you ideas for how to compose it.  For the event, it’s about the moment, while the portrait it’s about just the person, so give some thought to how to enhance their best qualities and minimize flaws.
  5. Create separation – this is crucial to giving definition to your subject while minimizing distractions.  In the on-location areas, look out for things like power lines, nearby light sources and other objects that may detract from the subject.  Here it also helps to keep a wider aperture so that any distractions can be effectively blurred out of focus to minimize their impact.
  6. All about the angles – Some people have great profiles.  Striking features can be accented from certain angles and can give greater impact and meaning.  Shooting from below can suggest power and strength (for the business executive), while shooting from above can minimize a body style that is more robust.  Even profile shots can be stunning if done right (hint:  try shadows there).
  7. Lights, lights, lights – photography is all about painting with light, so portraiture is no exception.  Whether it be modifying existing light with reflectors, diffusers and shoot throughs, or creating your own light with strobes and flashes positioned off to the side or from above, lighting can create a wide variety of moods and bring images to life, especially in portraiture!
  8. Watch the eyes – for any subject, whether human or animals, we like to have the eyes in focus.  It’s just the nature of people to look at the eyes in a subject, so make sure the eyes of yours are tack sharp.  Seeing a persons eyes have often been said to be a mirror to their soul.  You can get playful eyes, soulful eyes, sad eyes, sparkling eyes, weepy eyes, tear-stained eyes, angry eyes, hungry eyes, passionate eyes… (you get the eye-dea!)
  9. Clean that skin tone – this means make sure that you are keeping the tones in check.  If the skin is too orange or too blue, add or remove some flash or ambient light.  Here the key is in white balancing your images.  Take along a grey card (even something as small as a 3×5 card can work) and you can set your white balance off that – your skin tones will be spot on if you do – and save you tons of post processing time.
  10. Less is not always more – let’s all just admit it, it’s a digital world.  Those pictures are really just data packets and with data being as cheap as it is, we can afford to take more shots.  This can help with blinkers, and if you want to try several poses or wardrobe changes, or lighting changes, or location changes, or group changes (think weddings). or weather changes (think sunlight versus rain, versus cloudy), or….I think the gist is clear again here.

So, there’s ten nuggets.  I tried to be brief yet have some detail, but you can never have enough time or space to really cover something with so much to talk about in a short blog post.  With that in mind, what about your thoughts on portraiture?  Add to the pool!  Got any ideas, DIY tricks or nuggets that work for you?  Share them in the comments or via email.

Before signing out for the day, I’d like to give some special thanks to a few people.  First to Derrick Story for the helpful link from his blog post today about the tethered shooting write-up.  It’s always nice to get what I like to call “a nod from the Gods”, but not only did he write a post about my write-up, he also submitted it to the Imaging Insider, who subsequently included the write up on their site.    Second up, I’d also like to throw some NAPP-Love back to Karen from “Pursuing Photoshop” (a.k.a. Mitzs in the blogosphere, also a member of NAPP) for her link back to the Adobe Photoshop Lightroom contest currently running here on the blog – thanks Mitzs!

Oh yeah, and finally, don’t forget the Photoshop Lightroom contest I announced in last week’s podcast – it’s running over in a thread on Flickr, and the images are starting to come in.  Some really nice ones so far, but there’s plenty of time left in May to enter!  Good luck to everyone!  Well, enough content for one day, so happy shooting and we’ll see you back here tomorrow.

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4 comments for “Say Cheese?

  1. May 13, 2009 at 6:12 am

    Excellent points Jason. The hardest part (for me at least), is the initial “getting to know” the subject stage.

    This can be especially difficult with children who often eye my eyebrows with a lot suspicion 😉

    Establishing the connection is key as the rest will not really fall into place without that connection, in my experience.

    I’ve recently heard about a new digital green screen for still photographers becoming available – I’ve no link as I picked it up on another podcast but that may be the answer to my dilemmas with backgrounds in the future.

    Top tips again Jason!

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