We live in a photogenic world Darren Spencer
Seriously, most people buy cameras in order to photograph other people and to document those special moments in their lives: births, marriages, graduations, trips, and family gatherings. Each special moment revolves around including another human being in the photo. Yet so many of these pictures are, if not flat out bad, certainly underwhelming. But people photos don’t need to be dull. People are wonderfully interesting photographic subjects when approached properly. They do many interesting things, present many interesting looks, and connect with you on an emotional level because we’re all members of the same species. Many of the problems you run into when photographing people may be due to bad photography habits you’ve developed over the years. If you never receive feedback about these habits, you just keep on making the same mistakes and taking the same bad photo over and over. The result is that unfocused, undirected picture of someone that’s too far away. There’s no real emotional content to the picture and there’s probably no real clue as to why the picture was even made. Just doing something as simple as tightening your composition can make a big improvement in the quality of your people pictures. During the next few pages, I show you some other ways that you can improve the pictures you take of people. In photographing people, the first thing you have to decide is the type of photo you want to take. Although a good, basic digital camera can deliver nice results in any type of photography, some types of cameras are better suited to one style of photography or another. In addition, a number of accessories can give your images a more polished look. The important thing is to choose equipment that gives you high-quality results while providing you with enough flexibility to explore other kinds of photography. Fortunately, finding this happy medium isn’t hard to do. You can create a high-quality formal portrait with just about any digital camera offering even the most modest of zoom capabilities. Fancier cameras can make your life easier, particularly if you’re trying to crank out a large volume of portraits. If you’re a hobbyist who’s more interested in experimenting with various lighting and portrait looks, almost any camera will do. The ways you can photograph people fall into several different categories: portraiture, candid, and glamour. These categories describe the feeling that each type of image hopes to convey. Each type of photography has its own requirements and considerations, and I touch on these differences throughout the rest of this article. It’s not unusual for a photographer to find a special aptitude or preference for one type of photography over another. If you discover such an aptitude or preference, by all means pursue it.
In simple terms, a portrait is any image in which the subject is an active part of the photographic process. Simply put, subjects are posing for a photo of themselves. The first category of portrait photography is the formal portrait. This is the classic go get dressed up, visit a photographer’s studio, sit up straight, smile, and get your picture taken shot. This type of photo wants to show you at your best. If the photographer can pose you so you look thinner and neater and better dressed than you ever look in everyday life, she will certainly do so. Likely too, the better she makes you look, the more pictures you will buy. A good formal portrait is something of a study in contrasts. People dress up in clothing they seldom wear. They pose in a manner in which they seldom, if ever, stand in real life. And finally, they hold positions they never maintain in real life. Back when I did a lot of these, I used to joke that formal portrait sittings were incredibly tense and uncomfortable, even though when done right they depicted a family that looked relaxed and comfortable. “You only have to look comfortable,” I used to tell clients, “not actually be comfortable.” Needless to say, I don’t do a lot of formal portraiture anymore. Before you get started photographing people, consider the following list of necessary camera requirements for serious portrait work:
Capability to trigger studio lighting. Usually this means a PC sync cord outlet that connects the camera to the lighting kit. One alternative is if your camera has a hot shoe; then it’s possible to mount a wireless or infrared transmitter to the camera to fire the studio strobes. A second, less desirable approach is to simply use your camera’s built-in flash to trigger slaved lights. (This is undesirable because it drains your camera batteries faster and also because the built-in flash takes longer to re-cycle than the studio lights, delaying your next shot.)
Capability to be mounted on a tripod. This may not be mandatory, but I’d hate to have to shoot portraits without being able to mount my camera on a tripod. It’s nice to be able to set up your shot, get the composition just right, and then have the freedom to walk up to your subject to adjust the head position, straighten clothing, or do any of the other things you frequently need to do. It’s easier to shoot portraits from a tripod mounted camera.
Remote control. Like many portrait photographers, I prefer to hold a remote behind my back so that my subject can’t see when I’m about to make the picture. All too often, even with this approach, you end up with people who can anticipate the flash going off and blink fast enough to ruin the picture. It gets much worse if they can see your hand on the shutter button. A remote cable release lets you move around a bit if you want to have your subject looking off in the future. It also enables you to lean in, adjust the subject’s pose, and quickly lean back out while taking the photo. If you’re not using the remote shutter release, you end up taking your eye off your subject, finding the shutter button, and then looking back at your subject. This generally doesn’t work as well.
Formal portraiture also requires certain accessories to help you create the best possible image. Here are the most important ones:
Lighting: Improved lighting is one of the things that sets the formal portrait apart from the informal version. There’s a direct correlation between the quality of your light and the quality of your portrait. It’s possible to create a nice portrait using one master light in a big soft box fired straight at your subject, but a multiple lighting setup gives you a much nicer product. Most portrait pros work with a three to four light arrangement, which provides a main light, fill light, back light, and hair light.
Light modifiers: Because direct, unmodified flash is harsh and unforgiving, it’s best to plan on some form of light modification. This is usually done through accessories known as diffusers (a flat panel positioned between the light and your subject) and/or soft boxes (a panel mounted on your studio light that provides soft, even lighting), that soften the light.
Reflectors: These tools are used to bounce some light towards your subject. Bouncing light softens it, helping to produce a nicer looking portrait. Umbrellas are a type of reflectors. They’re mounted directly in front of the strobes (flash units), which are then pointed away from the subject and toward the umbrella. The strobes fire into the umbrella, which reflects the light on to your model.
Backdrops: Most often, the backdrop is something designed to distract as little as possible from your model. Occasionally, the backdrop complements the event, such as a Christmas tree and presents for a holiday image or the Titanic’s grand staircase for a cruise ship portrait.
Posing aids: There are a variety of objects available to help your model pose comfortably. These range from pneumatic chairs, which can be raised and lowered as necessary, to posing blocks (for positioning feet), to stylized objects such as large numbers (popular for senior photos where you have the student pose against a large number representing the graduation year).
To make shooting portraits less cumbersome, you can set up a home studio in any extra room or space you have. Obviously, the larger the space, the more things you can try. But don’t worry, many very effective home studios have been set up in tiny rooms. It may limit your portraits to head and shoulders shots, or tight compositions of just two or three people, but you can still create interesting images. Creating a nice formal portrait isn’t that hard. The secret lies in helping people look their best for the photograph, something that isn’t necessarily synonymous with simply looking their best. Things such as good posture and a neat appearance are important. All too often, your subjects may not have paid the level of attention to these requirements that’s necessary for a professional quality portrait. This is where you come in. Most formal portraits are done with the subject in a seated position (multiple people in one image usually requires a mix of standing and seated). Professional portrait photographers tend to prefer pneumatic chairs that can be raised and lowered as needed, but this isn’t a requirement. What is important is for you to be able to seat your model in a way that is comfortable and flattering. Normally this means that the subject’s feet are resting flat on a flat surface. That’s where a chair that raises and lowers comes in handy. If you work with a regular chair, having a set of posing blocks will make your life easier. These are simply nesting wooden blocks of different sizes that you can place under your subject’s feet. An added benefit of these blocks is that you can have people stand on them if you need to make them taller. You can make your posing blocks by hammering together a variety of sizes of wood blocks. Just make sure the blocks are strong enough for a heavy person to stand on. Remember, the formal portrait process is about making someone look the best they possibly can. Follow these steps as you set up a formal portrait shoot and you’re likely to be satisfied with the results:
1. Look over the subject’s clothing to ensure that the clothes will display well (keep a lint brush handy) and the hair and make-up (if the person is wearing any) are properly fixed. It’s always a good idea to have a mirror handy so that your subjects can check their appearance.
2. Give your subject some idea of how the process works without overloading her with technical detail. I like to give subjects an idea of how long the sitting will take and how many different poses I’m planning to shoot. Telling people ahead of time that I’m making half a dozen shots of a pose helps them stay relaxed and patient. Most amateur photographers take one shot and they’re done, so people begin to get impatient after the third shot is taken if you don’t warn them ahead of time. You can always take fewer shots once you get started if you feel you nailed a shot. Just tell your subjects they did a super job for you, so you don’t need the extra images after all. I also ask if they have a particular shot or pose they’re interested in (many do).
3. When you have the subject seated properly, it’s important to make sure she is sitting up straight. Most people don’t normally sit up properly, so you may have to encourage this. The easiest way is to press two fingers into the small of the back while gently pushing on the front of the shoulder. Have your subject lean slightly into the camera.
4. Position your subject so that her shoulders are lined up properly. Proper alignment normally means at a slight angle to the camera because the turned shoulders give a sense of movement to an otherwise static pose. Turn her head so that it faces the camera, and angle her face down slightly.
5. After you create the basic pose, return to the camera or to your shooting position if you’re not using a tripod. From here, you can still offer some slight direction such as asking the subject to adjust her head position as needed and telling her where to focus her eyes.
6. Decide how to compose the shot. Vertical works best for most portraits. Then zoom in. Unless your subject is wearing a wedding gown or a prom dress, odds are it’s best to compose a tight shot. Most portraits begin a little above the head. This extra space is referred to as head room and should always be found in a classic portrait. The shot extends either to the shoulders—the typical head and shoulders shot—or down to slightly above the waist. An even tighter composition (called the head shot) is used for model portfolios and identification images. If you have a particular reason for wanting to show the entire body, back up as much as possible rather than zooming out to a wide-angle focal length. Although this may be impossible in a small, home studio, every bit of extra focal length helps to flatter the subject. Exercise care with the full body shot that your lights provide enough coverage. Also be careful that the edges of your background aren’t apparent.
7. Decide how to handle the subject’s eyeglasses and the potential for reflected glare off the glasses. In the days before the digital darkroom, glasses were the portrait photographer’s worst enemy. All too often, an excellent image was ruined by the reflected glare. Conventional retouching could only go so far and was prohibitively expensive. It’s easier to fix such a problem in an image-editing program these days, but it’s still better to do everything you can to minimize the glare in the first place. When it comes to dealing with glasses, you have several options for making your life easier. Sometimes, a subject is comfortable having her photo taken without glasses. More often, however, glasses are a part of her identity (as in “No one’s going to recognize me without my glasses”), so it’s better to try to adjust them by sliding them a bit forward on the bridge of the nose. This changes the angle of the glass and frequently minimizes the reflection. Another option is to try repositioning your lights slightly, also to change the angle of the reflection. Even if you can’t get rid of it completely; reducing glare as much as possible makes your job easier when you try to fix the rest of it in the digital darkroom.
8. Check the appearance one last time. If your subject’s clothing is bunched anywhere, a quick tug should fix it. Hair out of place? Have a brush or comb handy for fast touch-ups. How does the tie look? Check the line made from the dress shirt’s outer layer down through the zipper of the trousers. The two should match up. Poor alignment of these items in a formal portrait is distracting, so ask your subject to align these items before taking his place.
9. When you’re ready to snap the shot, ask the subject to smile or give you the expression she wants to convey. Although most people choose a portrait of themselves smiling, you do run into the occasional subject who’s better photographed looking focused and serious. Just remember that setting the expression should be the last step you take before making the photo because it’s hard for the average person to hold an expression for very long. It’s incredibly frustrating when a photographer gets you to smile and then putters about doing other things, while you feel that smile slipping away. Get the subject to smile and make the photo! If you have any doubts, take another shot.
10. Take the picture. If possible, keep the camera remote behind your back so that your subject can’t tell the exact moment you make the photo. Quickly scan the face. As soon as the expression is ready, take the photo