the perfect portrait

by richard on October 6, 2010

jen 257x300 the perfect portrait
I often get asked: “How can I take a better photograph?” As most people like to take pictures of friends or family, this week we will focus on portrait photography. The first thing to remember is, it’s not the camera that takes the photo, but the photographer, so you have to do the work! You can take good shots with a simple point and shoot digital camera- you just need to think about the shots a little. Here are some quick tips to improve your portraits. I have listed the summary first for those with short attention spans, with details following:

Find a spot with nice soft light
Identify a nice simple background
Set up your camera for the conditions and style of photo before posing your subject
Hold the camera still!
Engage your subject, and try some different poses and looks to help them relax

Probably the most important element of photography. Choose a location that gives you indirect light – for example, on the shady side of a building, under a shady tree, or take advantage of an overcast day. The aim is to get soft, even lighting, which reduces shadows on your subject, and the risk of over-exposure. If you can find a spot where light is reflected back on to your subject, so much the better. An example of this would be opposite a building (the image above was taken with this setup – click on the diagram below).
portrait sketch 300x200 the perfect portrait

Portraits should typically be intimate, so you want a background that offers little distraction from the subject. It doesn’t have to be plain, just avoid loud or busy backgrounds. Move in tight on your subject to limit the background and increase the intimacy.

Camera setup
Most people just use the auto or “P” setting on their camera, but have a think about how you can use your camera to create a better portrait. If your camera has a “portrait” mode, try using this. It will usually offer you a shorter depth of field, which will drop the background out of focus (depending on how far behind the subject it is). This helps make the image more about the subject. Lots of point and shoot cameras also allow you choose an aperture priority setting, where you can choose a shallow depth of field (say 2.8, 3.5), and it will work out the shutter speed automatically.
Keep the iso/asa rating as low as possible to reduce “noise” – the grain you see in a lot of pictures in low light. Normally you should be able to use 100 or 200. If it is a little dark however, you may have to bump this up a bit so the shutter speed stays above 1/60th sec to eliminate camera shake.
Use your zoom control to zoom to somewhere mid range, or a little further. When a point and shoot powers up, it typically starts at a wide-angle setting, which is not great for portraits, causing facial distortions unless handled properly. A zoomed-in lens will be much more flattering to the subject, and also help to blur out the background.
Flash: if the light is nice and even, turn it off. If it is a little contrasty (shadows on the subjects face), have it on, but put it on “flash fill” mode if you have one, or if you can, dial it down to reduce its strength.
When shooting, try to lock your elbows in to your body to hold the camera as still as possible. Don’t hold the camera at arms length. If you have a traditional view finder, use this rather than the screen, and think about keeping the camera as still as possible.

Think about how you would like to position your subject. Usually this should be in a way that makes them feel comfortable and natural (unless you’re looking for something different!). Engage your subject and offer them suggestions and encouragement!

Work out all of the above steps before you ask you subject to pose and smile. Not many people like having their photo taken, and it feels unnatural for them to try and hold a pose or smile while you work out the shot. If you know what your doing and how to set up your camera beforehand, you’ll be in a better position to concentrate on engaging your subject.

Take a few shots, and have a look at them on the display to make sure you are getting what you want. Then work more closely with the subject to create the style and feel you’re after.

These tips should create a setup that works in most instances, however there are no hard and fast rules, which means you are free to experiment! Get out there and have some fun!

Richard Jagger works as a professional photographer, as well as a writer and painter. He has had two solo photographic exhibitions, has paintings in the Pink Lady Art Exhibition in Brighton on Oct 23 & 24, and has just completed his first novel “the cure”, due out shortly.

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