How to improve your people photos…

Photographing people can be an absolute joy or bring disappointment. You don’t need a lot of equipment or fancy set ups to get those shots, but you do need some basic grounding in using light and gesture. Then its a matter of practice combined with experience and instinct.

I love trying to make that connection with a person, and capture something of the moment and of their soul in an image for future generations.

Here are a few tips to get you shooting with the right attitude and settings.

Make a connection with your subject

photographing people, tips for portrait photography

Spend time chatting with your client or subject to get to know what makes them tick. If it’s a formal portrait make time to have coffee with them, understand their personality and why they are getting the portrait taken.

In any case, chatting with them about something they are interested in while you shoot will bring out something in them and help inspire you.

Even if you are photographing strangers in the street, choose willing subjects with big personalities that pop out to the passer-by. There is a reason why that person stood out to you, and your goal as a photographer is to express that in some way in the photograph.

Be aware of background and clothing

Even for a corporate client or a family photograph choose a locations that helps tell their story. Put them in simple clothes that they are comfortable in. White or block colours will usually work better than patterns and that is why those family photographers love to put everyone in white. If they must wear complex patterns and colours make the background simple and matt.

When photographing people on the street, also be aware of the composition around them and choose to shoot them from the angle where the street helps tell the story (where the direction of light works).

Choose the right lens

Choose the right lens for the type of shot you want to take. Most portrait photographers find a focal length between about 70 and 110 has great compression (which is flattering and even slimming) and allows them to soften the background and make the subject stand out.

Wide lenses of around 50mm can be handy for street photography or exotic travel snap as they let plenty of light in and are small to carry.

Position yourself and your subject for flattering effects

Susan Saradon by Annie Leibovitz, tips for photographing people, portrait photography tutorial
Susan Saradon by Annie Leibovitz

The most flattering position to shoot your camera at a person will be somewhere around their eye level, otherwise you are also dealing with dramatic shadow.  If you have a longer telephoto lens stand back and direct your subject from a distance. If you have a wider lens, let your subject be natural and move yourself around them.

A tip for positioning people is to ask them to put their shoulders at an angle  to their camera with their face turned towards the camera. This is generally quite flattering and slimming.

Often it is interesting if the subject leans towards the camera ever so slightly- it seems to give a sense of the subject being engaged in the photographed and that’s alluring to the viewer.

Don’t let them slouch or try to cover up what they are self-conscious about by crossing their arms. Defensive scrunching has the opposite effect to the intention, making them look small, weak and even old.

Don’t be afraid to look your subject in the eyes but at the same time,  when their face is turned towards you but their eyes are looking else where, you can create intrigue stories. Have them look at you and in lots of directions.

Use natural light and reflectors

Old style photographers in studios had rules about 5 light and 3 light set up, with different lights aimed at different parts of the subject for perfect balance. This clinical style is really out of fashion these days. You may have noticed one of the most in fashion shots at the moment is the subject outside with the sun behind them creating a soft golden flare around their silhouette or even a a golden ray encrouching over their shoulder.

Natural light is simply more flattering and also will require less bulky equipment which will make your subject feel more at ease. If shooting in an office position your client near a window and use a reflector or even two reflectors to base natural light instead of fill lights and flashes.

Outside you will general have the sun behind the subject to stop them squinting. If this casts shadows on their face use a reflector rather than a flash as fill light.

Extra Tip

photograhing children, portrait photography tips

If you are shooting with a camera assistant to hold the reflector, get them to very slowly wavery it and move the light on the subjects cheek and eyes, and try to capture that extra glow in their skin or those stunning light spots in the eyes. It will take some patients and playing, but it can give you ‘wow’ results.

Set a fast shutter speed

When setting shutter speed make sure it is a higher number than the focal length  you are using in order to prevent camera-shake and blur. For example, at 100mm your minimum shutter speed 1/100th of a second and at 200mm the minimum is 1/200th of a second. However, if light allows it I would use a 1/250 sec shutter speed or faster.

If you are using a wider-angle lens like a 50mm you can of course shoot slower but a fast shutter speed is great for capturing micro gestures crisply.

For kids who will fidget or who you might even want to catch playing, a fast shutter and standing well back  with a long lens works great.

Click early

One of my personal tips is take a couple of shots before the subject expects it. The micro second before they expect you to click is often a real and an unposed moment.  It’s amazing how often the spontaneous first shot is the best in the series, but the act of planning and setting up the shot was still also necessary to get it. I guess this all about using your instincts and really looking at the subject (not just the viewfinder).

I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts

Below this post you can leave your comment, thoughts and tips! I would love to hear from you…



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