Final Product What You'll Be Creating
Have you ever felt intimidated by the thought of taking photos of other people? Believe it or not, once you’re over your initial nerves, people are one of the easiest subjects to photograph. Why is this? Well, imagine that you’re taking landscape photos. Most of us don’t live in a spectacular landscape, which means we have to drive somewhere to take the photo. Once there, if the weather and light aren’t good, there’s not much we can do.
Photographing people, however, gives you complete control. All the elements of good photography are in your hands. You’re surrounded by potential subjects; friends, relatives and even strangers if you have the courage to ask. Every potential subject is unique. If the light isn’t great, you can do something about it, like move to another location or use flash. You can ask your subject to wear different clothes, or do something a little crazy – your only limit is your imagination.
And this is the key to great people photography – imagination. Have fun, and if you don’t know much about your camera settings yet just put your camera into an automatic mode (most cameras have an automatic Portrait mode you can use) and concentrate on making some beautiful photos. You can learn the technical details afterwards.
One of the best ways to improve your photography is to learn from the professionals. Here are some tips to get you thinking like a pro, and into the correct mindset to take some amazing portraits.
1. Build a Rapport With the Subject
This is the most important skill of all! Master this, and you’re well on your way to becoming an expert photographer. A good tip, especially if you’re starting off, is to photograph someone that you know, who likes to play around for the camera. Your job as a photographer is to get them to relax and have fun. If you can do this, good photos will follow.
When you’re looking for a model, girlfriends or boyfriends are a great place to start:
2. Go Telephoto
The focal length of your lens is very important. You need to understand the nature of your lenses and how to use them to your advantage. The good news is that if you have a digital camera with a standard kit zoom (typically around an 18-55mm focal length range), then you already have an excellent tool for taking photos of people. If you have a lens with a focal length of 100mm or more, even better.
The telephoto end of your zoom is ideal for portraits. Telephoto lenses compress perspective. This flattens faces and is very flattering. Try leaving your zoom lens at one setting (anything over 100mm is a great place to start). Instead of zooming in and out, use your feet and change your position. You’ll learn the characteristics of the focal length that you’re using.
This photo was taken with a Sigma 50-150mm f2 lens set to 100mm:
3. Go Wide
Don’t waste the wide angle end of your zoom. Documentary photographers and photojournalists like wide angle lenses because they can get in close to their subject. The photos are intimate, because the photographer is so close. Wide angle lenses are also a great way of showing your subject in their environment.
Beware of getting too close to your subject’s face with a wide angle lens. It will distort their features and you won’t receive any thanks!
This photo was taken with a Canon 17-40mm f4 L lens at 17mm. Note the dramatic background:
4. Be Different – Try a Fast 50mm Lens
You can buy lenses that are specifically great for portraits. A good (though inexpensive) lens is a 50mm. Why 50mm? The lens is the ideal focal length for portraits (on a camera with an APS-C size sensor). They’re ultra sharp and also very cheap, especially second hand.
The maximum aperture of a 50mm lens is much wider than your standard zoom. Does this matter? Yes it does – the wider the aperture, the more you can blur the background, and the more your subject stands out.
This photo was taken with a Canon 50mm f1.8 lens wide open at f1.8. The background is beautifully blurred (this is called bokeh). See how different the background is to the preceeding photo, taken at a focal length of 17mm. This is one of the differences between a short telephoto and a wide angle lens.
5. Shoot in Black and White
Black and white photos are artistic and creative. Some of the best fashion and portrait photographers around today shoot in black and white – and you shouldn’t ignore the technique.
Black and white photography is about shape, texture, lighting and composition. Shoot in black and white and you’ll improve your photography skills and eye for a photo.
I converted this photo of a gaucho, taken in Argentina, to black and white because I liked the antique feel of the image:
6. Learn All About Light
The best light for portraits may not be when you think. Overcast skies and late afternoon sun are good. Direct sun is bad – it casts harsh shadows on faces and makes people squint. Backlighting is very exciting, although you have to watch out for flare and you’ll need a reflector or flash to put light onto your subject’s face. Window light is very beautiful for taking photos indoors, though again you’ll need a reflector to put light back onto the shadowed side of your subject’s face.
What’s a reflector? It’s anything that reflects light back onto your subject so that the shadows cast by the light aren’t so strong. You can buy purpose made reflectors from manufacturers like Lastolite, or you can make your own from a large piece of white card or a white sheet. Photographers need reflectors because the available light is rarely perfect. Reflectors enable you to take control of the light.
This backlit photo needed flash to light the girl’s face and body. Without flash, or a reflector, she would have come out as a silhouette:
7. Don’t Be Afraid to Use Your Camera’s Flash
Most cameras have a built-in flash. Your camera will activate the flash automatically if it thinks you need it. You can also activate it yourself. A lot of portraits look better with flash – the flash does the same job as a reflector of pushing light onto your subject’s face to eliminate shadows caused by uneven or harsh light. You can also use it when your subject is backlit to punch light onto their face – otherwise they will be silhouetted.
Your camera’s built in flash is quite advanced. Most cameras will let you control the output of the flash – referred to as flash exposure compensation. If the flash is too bright, you can turn it down with flash exposure compensation so that it balances with the natural light. Every camera is different, so refer to your instruction manual to see how to do this.
This photo was taken at midday in late spring. The light is very bad for portraits at that time of day, and I used flash to fill in the shadows created by the sun:
8. Learn Your Camera’s Settings
Your camera has settings that can help you take great portraits. Some of these settings will be activated if you’re shooting in Portrait mode. If not, you can activate them yourself. The most useful are:
Picture style – If you have a Canon EOS camera, set the picture style to Portrait. This optimises the camera’s contrast and colour saturation for flattering photos of people. Other camera manufacturers have different names for the same concept; Nikon use the term Picture Controls, check your camera’s instruction manual for other maodels.
White Balance – Set your camera’s white balance to Cloudy. This will warm up your subject’s skin tones.
ISO – If you’re shooting on a sunny day, try ISO 100. If you’re shooting on a cloudy day, try ISO 400. You’ll be less likely to get camera shake from using shutter speeds that are too slow.
Picture Quality – If you prefer to shoot JPEG format files, make sure you’ve selected the highest quality available. The bigger the photo, the more you can do with it afterwards. For utmost quality, shoot in the RAW format. Also use RAW if you’re planning to convert your photos to black and white, as the file contains much more useful information than a photo saved in JPEG.
This photo was taken with the camera’s white balance set to Cloudy and the picture style set to Portrait. The result is a warm, flattering portrait:
9. Avoid the “Pose”
You can learn about posing from studying photography and fashion magazines. But don’t get too carried away with posing – you’ll often get better results by encouraging your subject to play around for the camera. Get them to have some fun and be spontaneous. The resulting photos will be full of life.
Here I asked the model to walk along the beach and stare into the camera. No posing – just graceful movement:
10. Play With Movement
Get creative. Ask your subject to stand still while the people around are moving. Put your camera on a tripod for the best result.
11. Get a Model Release Form
If you’re planning to sell your photos, get a signed model release form. A model release form is a simple statement that the model signs to give you permission to sell their photo. As a general guideline, a photo published on a website or in a magazine doesn’t need a model release form as this is regarded as editorial use (as long as you’re not defaming the subject). If you’re going to sell the the photo to be used in advertising or other promotional material, you need a model release form.
Check the laws in your own country. Some countries, especially in Europe, have strict privacy laws that govern how you can use the photos you have taken. If in doubt, get a model release form. It’s much better to have one, and to sell your photos with the permission of your subjects, than not to have one.
Alamy have a good model release form available here.
12. Study the Masters
Finally, study the work of the world’s greatest portrait photographers and learn from them. Look at how what they do – the poses, the lighting, the clothes, backgrounds, textures, shape and colour.
Miss Aniela (real name Natalie Dybisz) became famous on Flickr for her self-portraits. Her success on Flickr enabled her to break into fine art and commercial photography.
Imaginative portrait photography and self-portraiture from a young English photographer.
Young, talented Italian photographer.
German portrait and fashion photographer living in Holland. He shoots on manual film cameras.
Influential British fashion photographer.