Casual Portraits - a few tips (beginners/intermediate)

I was recently asked for some advice regarding shooting portraits. Since it winded up being rather lengthy I thought I’d share, for those that are interested – or would like to discuss it.

Let me make it plain – I am not a professional portrait photographer and these points are more for casual portraits without the use of studios / backdrops / professional lighting equipment.

Composition is extremely important when shooting portraits. It is essential to get the right framing and perspective happening, to display the person to the best that you can. That doesn’t mean they have to look beautiful – I am speaking technically.

In general, there are three levels of plane that you can shoot from. Above, below, and straight on. They each produce a different effect to the viewer, and also depict the subject in a different aspect.

From above – lends vulnerability. Can also impart a ‘questioning or questing’ mood. Emphasizes the cheek bones and eyes, which when looking at the camera, are wide open with pupils at the top.

From below – imparts dominance. Gives greater power and impact to the face, while reducing the cheek bone lines. Emphasizes the bones around the eyes and chin and gives strength. Generally a more square look.

Straight-on – An ‘honest’ portrait. ‘As-is’ feel. Great for illustrative/documentary shots, or when you want someone to look as natural as possible for a particular reason – for example, as part of a written piece about the character of a person. Also gives a simplified feeling, that can be great for humorous shots or anything that has an associated story other then the portrait itself.

Of course, throw in angles, and you have a virtually unlimited range of choices to work within.

Lighting -
(Studio lighting is an art which I am not addressing here)

As with perspective, different lighting gives a different feel and meaning to a portrait. Play around with side lighting, curtained windows, lampshades, off-shoe flashes, bounced and reflected light. Two semi-diffused hard lights from either side of a face with a soft central fill adds drama. Harsh light on one side with none on the other adds mystery. Soft all around diffused light looks glamorous (something people try and achieve by blurring their image – silly, really).

Depending on the background, try and find a bit of back lighting. It brings out clarity in the hair and edges of the subject, delineating them. This is sometimes called ‘separation, and is used in videography also.

Eyes are the shiniest thing on the human body. They are little mirrors. If you shoot a subject with their back to a window, you will have little to no light in the eyes. If they are facing a light source, you will get nice little catch-lights that give life to the eyes. You can alter how these look by changing the angle of the subject’s head, moving your light source, or changing what the light source is. Or – you can play around with Photoshop, and not learn anything photographically ;)

Composition -
The old rule is a strong and valid one. Give more room to the direction of the gaze. Not doing this asks more of a question, and needs to be substantiated in the subject’s attitude and/or expression to work well. Why are they looking off-frame? What’s out there? etc…

Try not to amputate too many features – like ears. If you must, choose the frame line carefully. There are natural frames within frames – try a few crops/compositions and feel what works best. Personally, I try and spend a little time thinking about the subject, the environment – watching, trying to find the best angles to bring out the nature and character of the person.

Group portraits -
Generally speaking, a good group portrait composition is one where the subjects’ faces are at different levels. Try it and see. Line ‘em all up – looks like a snap shot. Position the ‘family/group’ at different levels – voila! 100% improvement.

If photographing a child, expect your best shots to be candids. Children have a short attention span and while you can amuse them for a while with sparky things and little jokes – I find the best shots wind up being those while the child is unaware. Burst mode helps a lot here, just as it does with pets ;)

Choose a depth of field that either isolates a feature entirely, or brings the entire subject into focus. Don’t wing it. Winging it relies on luck. The more prepared and skilled you get – the luckier you get ;) There are DoF calculators around online if you search. Figure out what works well for a certain distance.

Editing -
Ok, so you have discovered Photoshop, Gimp, PaintShop Pro – or whatever. I find there is an initial learning curve where everyone tries their hand at manipulation – from plastic skins, to glaring alien eyes, selective colouring, and so on. This may sound a little arrogant, but – leave your portraits as natural as you can. You do not do any favours to the subject by making them look inhuman. Seriously. My personal philosophy is, I edit anything that is transient. By this, I mean, a pimple /zit / love-bite/ wayward hair in the eye/etc. But I leave anything that is intrinsic to the subject – scars, eye colour, and yes, even double chins (and ladies – we all have them). If you position your subject (and choose your light and angles right) you will not need to do extensive editing. Saves a lot of time, faithfully portrays the subject and gives you a finer work.

Any magazine portrait you see (unless it is one of those horrible before shots) has been manipulated for what the market now expects. Perfection. Perfection is not beauty. Perfection is unreal. There is no perfection. Repeat that. There is NO perfection. I do a lot of portraits. I see peoples’ skins magnified a hundred times very often. Our skins are not plastic. They are dynamic, breathing, living organs.

I could carry on with this subject forever, but I hope this helps some.

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