Easy and Powerful Tips for Better Portraits

Our daughters, Athen and Arden

Our daughters, Athen and Arden

As you all know from looking at our websites and reading our blogs, we have said nothing about portraits.  It is not that we never make photos of people, it’s just that portraits are not our expertise.  However, we do make photos of friends and family and I do have some key tips for making your photos better, especially this time of year with all of the family visits and holiday parties.  Here’s how:

Camera Settings

I usually have my Canon G12 with me when I am with family and friends.  Sure, we all have cell-phone cameras now, but no matter what you think, nothing replaces a dedicated camera for producing quality photographs.  If your point and shoot camera has a “portraits” setting, use it.  If you have “face recognition,” turn that on, too.  These settings will create bokeh, which is the blurry background you see in better portraits.  If you have a DSLR, use the widest aperture you can f/2.8 – f/4.0 to create bokeh.

I used flash here to remove shadows on their faces

I used flash here to remove shadows on their faces

I almost always use flash, even in the middle of the day.  You can always decrease the exposure afterward, but you can never just add “light.”  If your flash is too bright, do what I do and cut a “clear” band-aid and put the sticky part over the flash.  It acts as a diffuser.

Mary in Palm Springs, CA

Mary in Palm Springs, CA

Here is my most important tip – ZOOM IN.  The beginning lens position of your point and shoot camera is a wide angle of 24-35 mm.  This is great for landscapes, but is very unflattering for portraits.  It makes our faces wide and our nose and ears look big.  Zoom in to about 100 mm or just zoom in all the way.  Yes, this will cause you to back away from your subject, but it will also increase the distance of the flash which helps mitigate the brightness.  Try it.  I guarantee that you will like the telephoto portraits better.

Me at the Pasadena City Hall

Me at the Pasadena City Hall

Composition

Fill the frame!  I see many photos of people that are way too far away and with little-to-no interesting subjects around them.  For what ever reason, we don’t get close enough to our intended subjects.  Again, I think this has to do with shooting wide angle.  Using your zoom and remembering to fill the frame, will yield a better composition.  The rule-of-thirds (see our blog) still holds true for portraits as well as landscapes.  Try to position your subjects eyes in one of the four power-spots.

Mary in Huntington Beach, CA

Mary in Huntington Beach, CA (notice the rule of thirds)

Also, watch out for cluttered backgrounds and shadows from the flash.  It is amazing what you can do by just getting people to move a little bit to block a cluttered or distracting background.  Also, people love to stand near walls.  Get them to step away from the wall so you will not get a flash shadow behind them which is very distracting.  Lastly, be deliberate about whether you are making a portrait or making a portrait “in the setting.”  It completely changes the composition.  Above, Mary deliberately put more of the Pasadena City Hall into the portrait because it was interesting and fairly clean looking.

Athen in Huntington Beach

Athen in Huntington Beach

Lastly, there is a reason they call the orientation “portrait” versus “landscape.”  Try both.  I have to say, when I photograph people singly, I use portrait orientation more and when I photograph pairs or more, I use landscape orientation..

My favorite portrait of us

My favorite portrait of us

Posing

You should try not to photograph your subject straight on.  You should angle them to one side or the other.  Ask them which is their best side – they will know.  Remember to always focus on the eyes.  If the eyes are not in focus, throw the image out.  I am not into complicated poses as I am not a portrait photographer, but I do like a little variety.  Download a basic posing app to give you ideas.  We like Posing App.

Eric and Noah

My brother, Eric and son, Noah – could have used a fill-flash, but I liked the shadows

There is a right way and and a wrong way to cut off limbs – figuratively.  You almost always want to do it at the thighs or the upper arm.  Cutting off hands and feet looks terrible and cutting off at the forearm and calf looks only slightly better.  Hands should be in or out.

Me and my buddy, Dr. John Morris

Me and my buddy, Dr. John Morris

Processing

I do not do too much processing with portraits.  If I have not filled the frame or have a distracting background, I crop the photo.  I will also adjust the exposure.  One of the best things you can do is darken the edges and lighten the face or faces.  We use Darken/Lighten Center in Nik’s ColorEffects Pro plug-in for PhotoShop.  If you want to or need to do some heavy processing, like smooth out wrinkles and fix blemishes, we like to use Portrait Professional.

Arden underneath the Huntington Beach Pier

Arden underneath the Huntington Beach Pier

Having fun with Portraits

Not every portrait has people in it.  I use the same principles above to make “still life portraits” of wines that we drink.

1211_PSA_Thanksgiving_103

Using the Christmas Tree as an interesting background

At every family gathering, Mary will make some portraits – some traditional and some fun.  Here are a few samples.

Jumping Collage

Jumping Collage

Portrait Collage

Portrait Collage

To see more of our photographs (but no portraits), please go to www.pamphotography.com.

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