15 PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS TO MAKE COOLER PORTRAITS OF YOUR FRIENDS & FAM
I'm designing a new website to replace the current one and thought this list would be a great way to procrastinate.
- •Look for the lightFancy camera features and gadgets can be useful, but they don't help much if your pic is boring to begin with. Always be on the lookout for cool light--like if you see a sunbeam shining through a window onto a wall--and use this handy phrase: "GO STAND THERE." Taking great portraits usually involves these magic words.
- •Provide some context, perhapsThe term "environmental portraiture" is used to describe a style that offers context on subjects by way of showing them in their natural habitats: a painter in her studio, a grandpa at his hobby bench, your mom sitting on the edge of her bed. I recommend choosing a space, framing your shot, then placing the subject in the frame. On a DSLR, shoot at a low-medium aperture (like 4 or 5.6) that will separate your subject from the background without throwing the background too out-of-focus.
- •Or, get up close and personalIf your portrait is more about capturing the unique qualities of an individual, consider using a longer lens to get a tighter crop. Phone cameras aren't particularly suited to this task because they use wide lenses which put you uncomfortably close to the subject for a tight crop, flatten the image, and distort facial features. A longer focal-length (70-200mm) allows you to crop tight while being further away, provides beautiful depth-of-field, and is more flattering of the subject.
- •Backlight for visual interestThis can be tricky because automatic exposure meters want to average a whole scene, and a backlit photo is very contrasty. If you're using a dedicated camera, zoom in or focus on the subject to lock the exposure for the face, then zoom out or recompose to get your whole scene. The background will likely be blown-out and the face should be well-exposed. Play with taking the exposure up or down from there to get the overall look you want.
- •Fill light is your best friendIf you're using only one light source, like the sun, it's likely that your scene may be too contrasty to capture shadow detail. This is fine if your scene only has small shadow areas, but if you're lighting more creatively, like in this photo of Hutch, you may want some of that detail back. A simple remedy is to bounce some light from your source back into your scene. A 30x30 piece of white foam core will do the trick if you have an assistant hold it. Flash bounced off the ceiling works, too.
- •Use editing apps for better camera phone imagesThere is nothing "pure" or inherently "truthful" about the way your camera interprets light and color, so don't get too hung up on #nofilter purism. I almost always use two apps for editing: Snapseed for basic adjustments and VSCO for film-like presets. I took this photo of my friend Christina using an iPhone 5S, adjusted the exposure, contrast, and clarity in Snapseed, and customized a preset for deeper color in VSCO. Try to edit in a way that looks natural rather than manipulated.
- •Capture a moment, or make one happenIf you're always at the ready, you can capture some great moments as they happen. But if you can't, don't shy away from trying to create some magic. Don't think of it as "faking" because you'll find that making people do things for photos is actually a fun experience in itself. This is an iPhone photo I took of my friend and producer Genevieve when we were shooting a job last year. We had a short break and spent like 15 min just doing jumps in front of this barn. It was fun!
- •Use flash in daylightThat's right. Your on-camera flash (or preferably an external speedlight) can be used along with daylight to give your photos more pop and fill in shadows. If this pic had been taken without flash the lighting from the partly cloudy sky would be dull and the shadow over her eyes would be too dark. I wanted more punch, so I set my flash to 1/4 or 1/2 power, keeping it just below the ambient exposure so the sun is still the main source and the flash is just fill.
- •Take a second to get the composition right by thinking about what's interesting to youComposition is just one aspect of a photo. Sometimes the decisive moment supersedes composition and you get a great dynamic picture, but especially for still portraits you want to help the eye to travel around the image and come back to the subject. Here's an iPhone shot of my friend Ryan in LA, waiting for tacos. I framed what I found interesting, and then I directed him to Go Sit There. This place on Figueroa in Cypress Park has amazing potato tacos.
- •You're the director; direct!Most people feel pretty vulnerable in front of a camera. Take the pressure off by letting them know that you're in control. One thing I do is observe my subjects while they're relaxed, noting their natural mannerisms. I use that as a cue to posing/directing them, and do it with gentle authority. In this casual iPhone snap of Courtney, I directed her to "take a half step back into the light; look out of frame; hold up the glass; chin down a little; eyes on Tim.." They'll relax when u take charge.
- •Have a visionDirecting people is a lot easier if you know what it is you want to accomplish. Learn to identify what compels you to take a photo so you can do it with intention. Is it the light? what he's wearing? his face? For this photo of Zac, I knew I wanted to play up his good bones, and the afternoon light in the room was v dramatic, so my vision was to use the light to accent his features. The palm frond happened to be in the room, so I used it to help shape the light. Incidental, but not accidental.
- •No fancy gear, no problemI made this portrait of Christina, proprietor of Radiant Human Aura Photography, for an issue of Tidal Mag last year. We're in her studio using the light she uses for her aura photos: a Home Depot clamp lamp with a regular incandescent bulb. NBD. I wanted her portrait to echo the portraits she makes, minus the color, with a little drama added. So I turned off the ambient lights, letting the shadow areas go black, and processed the image for extra contrast in b&w.
- •If you see something, say somethingA lot of my favorite personal photos are a matter of happenstance seized, like this one from last summer. I liked what happened to be going on with their outfits, so I had Carlyn come stand behind Alex and hold her head. It's just a playful iPhone snap, but it's become a favorite artifact of a summer spent lounging in this treehouse and it's been a source of inspiration for subsequent shoots. You only regret the photos you don't take.
- •Don't be afraid of the darkI know bright-and-airy is de rigueur, but a lot of the time I find more beauty in the darker places where the light somehow finds its way in. When you're looking at a low-light scene, like this one of Patrick in the car at golden hour, your camera thinks it's too dark and overcompensates, ruining the mood. Tell it to chill by setting your exposure value to -2 (underexpose by two stops). On an iPhone, tap the lightest area near the face so the exposure drops. Your colors will be richer, too.
- •Remember this:"In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotif." --Henri Cartier-Bresson
- •All images © Jaclyn CampanaroJust because, as obviously a very serious business person, I have to say that.