Photographing people can be a daunting challenge. People tend not to like having their pictures taken and it’s incumbent upon you as a photographer to show them in their best light. However, unless you’re taking candid ‘street’ type photographs, one has complete control. Unlike a landscape photographer for example, reliant on the weather, when taking a portrait, you can set the scene so in this respect you have an easier task. Regardless of whether you’re taking candid shots or formal photographs however, elements of composition and technique are still very important.
Engage with your subject
Probably the most important thing when taking pictures of people, unless you are taking candid pictures, is to engage with your subject. I saw an interview with David Bailey where he spoke about this very subject. He said that he talks to people more than takes their pictures. Probably an hour’s talking to 10 minutes of shooting commenting that people come to take his picture and don’t even talk to him. You can’t hope to get a sense of a person, their character, in a photograph if you as a photographer do not know what that is. If you talk to your subjects, make an effort to get to know them a little, your pictures will improve enormously.
The picture below was taken by renowned people photographer David Penprase. The picture is of his wife Jan with their dogs. Here you can see David is totally engaged with his subject, as he would be naturally, and the resulting portrait clearly reflects this.
Think about background
When taking people pictures, there are two subjects in your photograph, the person or the people in the picture and the background. Don’t lose sight of this. The background can tell us a lot about the person in the picture, it can help to tell a story. The balance you strike is important however. You want enough background to aid in the telling of the story behind the picture, but not so much that your principle subject gets lost.
The focal length of your lens is very important. If you have a DSLR camera with a kit lens, then you probably already have the perfect tool for taking people pictures. If you have a longer lens, one with a focal length of 100mm or more, then all the better. The longer end of your zoom is ideal for taking portraits because zoom lenses compress perspective and this can be very flattering. A good place to start is to set your lens at anything over 100mm and then, rather than zooming in and out, walk around your subject. In this way, you’ll get to know the characteristics of the particular focal length you are using and how it can be employed to produce a better portrait. Get to know your lenses. You need to understand their characteristics to better employ them to your advantage. A fast 50mm lens can also make an ideal portrait lens. Fast because at much larger apertures, you can achieve a much shallower depth of field, see below, isolating your subject from a cluttered and unrelated background. These lenses tend to be cheap (comparatively) and produce superb, crisp results.
Using a wide aperture allows you to separate your subject from their background and can have a dramatic effect on the portrait photograph. Bearing in mind the point I made above about the background being a useful tool in telling the viewer of your photograph a little about your subject, employing a shallow depth of field can help you achieve that without losing your subject in the background entirely.
Focus on the Eyes
When you look at a photograph of a person, you instinctively look to the eyes. This is where your focus needs to be, the eyes being the window to the soul and all of that. A portrait photograph will not work if the eyes of the subject are in soft focus.
Think about the light. Harsh light is very unflattering whether from artificial light or direct sunlight. Studio photographers spend thousands of pounds on equipment to make artificial light as soft as possible. You can use sunshine to backlight your subject and this can be very dramatic but you’ll need to guard against flare. Light falling from a window can light a subject beautifully but in both these instances, you’re going to need a reflector to bounce light back onto your subjects face, whether full on or onto the shady side in the case of a window shot. A reflector needn’t be expensive. A large piece of white card can do the job very nicely. Taking your subject outside into a nice shady spot or taking your photos on a cloudy day can produce very flattering portraits. If it is a sunny day and you want to get that picture, use your camera’s flash to eliminate shadows on your subjects face. Use flash exposure compensation to balance the flash with the natural light around you.
Engage with your subject
I consider this so important I’m going to mention it twice. As photographers it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in ourselves, our cameras and technique rather than focusing figuratively and literally, on our subject. I can’t emphasise this enough. If you’re taking pictures of children, play with them, make the camera part of the game. If you’re taking a photograph of a homeless person on the street, spend some time getting to know them, learn a bit about them, why they are there and your photographs will be all the richer for it.
The DLR People Competition
The closing date for the 8th Digital Lightroom photography competition on the theme of ‘People’ is fast approaching. All entries should be in by the 1st of September. The prize is Topaz Lab’s complete collection. You can see full details of the competition here and don’t forget to check out the submission guidelines here .