Through the Gadling Lens: taking a great portrait

In a recent post, I described the types of photographs that I like to take while I’m traveling. I thought for upcoming posts, we could talk some specifics about each one of them, starting with taking portraits.

Now, obviously, taking portraits isn’t necessarily an intrepid-traveler thing; however, in my experience, nothing adds more colour and interest to a travel album than the images of the faces you encountered — either your travel companions, or the locals doing their thing. And so, the following is a short guide on how to take a good portrait. If you’re not currently traveling (or don’t have any immediate trips planned), then feel free to try them out on accommodating friends and family so you’re prepared for when you do take off for faraway lands.
For posed shots:

Get in close. One of the biggest mistakes I see when trying to take a portrait is that the photographer takes the image from too far away. Remember, you’re taking a portrait — this isn’t the time to figure out how to get the entire Grand Canyon, or the complete Statue of Liberty into the frame. The point of the portrait should be to capture the essence of the person you’re capturing on film.

So remember that the ideal lens focal length for taking a portrait is around 100-120mm (and that your point-and-shoot, if that’s what you’re using, probably has the capability to do this). And then make sure that your subject’s face and neck take up a majority of the frame. If your goal is to capture an image which will ensure that the viewer’s attention is on the person you’re shooting, then don’t leave any room for doubt.

Find the right place to shoot. In my opinion, natural light is always the most … well, natural lighting to use when shooting a portrait — the trick is to find the right kind of light. Too little light, and your pictures may not result in very sharp images; too much light, and your run the risk of having odd shadows annoyingly appear — or worse, the dreaded Squint Face. The truth is that overcast skies, while disappointing when making your day’s plans, often create ideal conditions for taking portraits, providing sufficient light without shadows. Regardless, whether you choose a shaded area, or a spot next to a sunny window, once you’ve picked a location, don’t forget to adjust your ISO settings accordingly — remember, the brighter the area, the lower the ISO setting (i.e., the fewer the number of “light catchers”) that you’ll need, and vice versa.

Make sure your subject feels comfortable. I don’t know about you, but more often than not, when I’m about to take a photograph of someone, the response is, “oh no! don’t take a picture of me!” or “I look horrible in photos!” or just a general “AUUUUGH!” I find that often getting the subject to cooperate is the hardest part of taking a photograph!

In my experience, the best thing that you can do to help your subject to feel comfortable, is to actually refrain from forcing him to pose. If he wants to make a face, let them — you may end up loving the resulting shot. Joke and talk with him, and when he laughs in response, quickly snap the image — the result will likely be a natural photograph. And finally, If he’s just woken up, his hair is disheveled, there’s sleep in his eyes, and he vociferously protests, then respect his wishes and don’t take the picture. By showing deference to his concerns, you’ll likely get more cooperation from him later, when he’s feeling more photogenic.

Once the subject is in place, before you take the shot, check out what you see. Take a look through the camera, and see if anything looks wrong. If there’s a weird shadow, then adjust your subject to minimize accordingly. If there’s something weird in the background, ditto. Look for stray hairs, lint, spaghetti stains — whatever you think might ruin the shot.

Understand, of course, that sometimes imperfections actually enhance the image. For example, taking the shot of my mother-in-law, above, with her hair in her face, sort of defies convention — but I thought her windblown hair (and her wry smile through the strands) beautifully capture the feeling of that cold, windy November day on that beach in Cornwall. It remains one of my favourite portraits from that trip.

Don’t be afraid of putting the subject off-center in your shot. This is called the “Rule of Thirds” — it’s sort of technical, but basically, it means that your eye finds images that are slightly off-center a bit more interesting. There’s obviously nothing wrong with perfectly centered image, but just to add a bit of visual interest, experiment with placing your subject just slightly left or slightly right.

Take lots and lots and lots of shots. I’m not talking about posing your subject over and over again — I’m saying once you’ve taken one shot, take many immediately after. In my experience, some of the best shots happen after the subject relaxes.

Here’s what I mean: say, for example, you’ve asked your daughter and her friend to sit together and smile for a shot. They do — that strained, clenched smile of young children being forced to pose. You take the shot, they hear the shutter release, and they figure the shot is over. KEEP THE CAMERA AIMED AT THEIR FACES. Invariably, one of them will say something that cracks the other up — she’ll say “booger” or “poop” or some other 4-year-old witticism, causing the two of them to collapse in giggles. That’s when you click that shutter like your life depends on it. I guarantee you’ll love one of the follow-up shots (and it’s astounding how well this technique works on adults, too).

For candid shots, images of locals (who you don’t know), and so on:

For candid shots of friends and family members while on vacation, pretty much all the rules above apply — the trick, of course, is tapping into your inner photojournalist. You’re still want to get in close, but now you’re probably going to want that 200 mm lens (or max out the zoom on your point-and-shoot) so as not to interrupt the action that is going on. You’ll still want to check out the light conditions, etc., to adjust your ISO; however if there are weird shadows in th
e way, it’s probably going to be hard for you to adjust the subject, so you may have to forego the shot (or take it anyway, and hope for the best). But now, more than ever, you’re really going to want to take lots of shots, so click away — that way you’ll have tons of images from which to choose the very best.

And finally, one word about shooting strangers: in general, the safest thing you can do is to politely ask the subject if you can take her photograph, before taking the shot. While in the United States, if you’re out in a public place and take the photograph, you’re probably fine, privacy laws vary from country to country, so your safest bet is to ask for permission first.

If you’re not brave enough to ask a total stranger to take his photograph, then do what I do — take the photographs of buskers or other street performers. Usually it’s a great way to capture local flavour, and you can pay for the privilege for taking the photograph for a nominal fee. I’ve been able to snag some of my favourite vacation shots this way as a result.

Hopefully the tips in this post will help you improve your portraiture skills — as I said at the top, keep practicing with amenable friends and family, and I guarantee you’ll see improvement. And as always, if you have any questions, please send them directly to karen DOT walrond AT weblogsinc DOT com, and I’ll address them in upcoming posts!

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. All the photos in this post were taken by her. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks. And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.