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Photo Tips



by Mike Rosen


Hi <<First Name>>,

In a photography course I taught recently (and will be repeating this fall), a few participants asked if I would give them tips on how to make better people pictures. That's a subject of general interest, so here are some ideas about how you can do just that. 

Why do you want this picture?

Think in advance about your purpose. Is it simply to prove that your kids were at the playground, or that you visited the Effeil Tower? While these photos may provide some good remembrances, they're often bland and lack charm. They're much better if they tell a story, capture expression, include action, show feelings or emotions, or leave unanswered questions. If you take a moment to define what it is that makes you want to create the image at that spot and moment (other than just to prove "I was here"), the result will almost always be more interesting and memorable. For these reasons, I usually prefer candid over posed shots. Making really good ones can take lots of patience and many tries.

Setting up her stall at an early morning market in Chau Doc, Vietnam, this elegant lady seemed intent on creating her own work of art. The image is simple, shows action and tells us something about the local culture. 

This young, loving mother and daughter  caught my attention as I was strolling along the harbor in Split, Croatia. My goal was to try to capture the intimacy. I moved in as close as possible and used my telephoto lens in order to direct the viewer's eye directly to the subject with no background diversions. 

I wish I could have chatted with this elderly Hmong woman for awhile. Her face speaks of a hard life and much accumulated wisdom. This is a good example, I think, of telling stories with your photos and leaving unanswered questions for you and your viewers to ponder. By the way, with a smile and sign language, I asked and received permission to photograph her.

It's all about light

Rarely will you be pleased with a portrait in which the faces are bathed in overhead bright sunlight. For example, how many images do you have in which the subject's eyes, the most critical part of a portrait, are squinting or have nearly vanished altogether in the deep shadow?  

You can avoid this by, whenever possible, shooting in the "magic hours" (early morning, late afternoon or evening) when there is low sidelight. You can also move your subject into the shade or shoot on overcast, even rainy or foggy days. Each of these techniques will reduce the annoying, sometimes total, loss of detail in extreme highlight and shadow areas caused by direct midday sun.
Ask people to take off their sun-glasses and maybe hats, too. And watch out for glare on glasses--move the camera or the subject around to eliminate it.

Inside, use diffused, indirect window light, perhaps with some supplementary lamps above or on the other side. Use flash sparingly to fill in shadows (outside or in) and in extreme low light situations. Flash is often cold and harsh, so I normally avoid it. 

This performer in a Puebla, Mexico restaurant was lit both with natural sidelight from windows and some high ambient light (no flash). Usually sidelight produces more interesting shadows and expressive faces than flat head-on light. Here I spot metered/focused on his eyes and used my zoom lens to capture expression while blurring the background. 

Compose carefully

With portraits, less is often more, so keep it simple. Don't divert your viewer's attention from the primary subject with irrelevant background elements. Try to situate your subject against a blank wall or body of water, for example, and then set your exposure to achieve shallow depth of field so the background is blurry. Remember the rule of thirds--don't automatically center your subject in the frame. And consider profile views rather than only head-on ones.

Filling the frame with your subject and orienting your camera vertically rather than horizontally (such as in the mother and daughter image above) are two other techniques that help to eliminate clutter. Carefully look around the frame for unwanted details, such as the preverbial tree growing out of someone's head or electric wires passing through your subject.

I had to wait for others to move out of the frame to isolate these cute kids on a Tokyo playground. The image illustrates several of the above composition tips. It started out as a vertical, but I cropped out some messy, extraneous background items from the top. 

Choose appropriate camera settings 

With a simple point and shoot camera, choose the "portrait" mode for your people pictures. However, if you have "seized control" of your camera as I've strongly urged in these newsletters, use aperture priority with a low f-stop number (wide lens opening). This will reduce the depth of field, so your subject will be sharp and the background soft. In low light situations, you can raise your ISO and, if necessary, lengthen your shutter speed.

For portraits, the eyes are all-important, so that's where you should focus (if you can, set your camera to spot focus/ metering, as in the musician photo above). 

All the best,



comment on Photo Tips, August 2011: How to Make Better Portraits









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I'm again teaching a "how to make better pictures" course for OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute).  We will meet on seven Wednesday mornings beginning Sept. 21 from 10:00 - 11:30 at The Kenwood, located at 825 Summit Ave. in Minneapolis (just off Hennepin Ave. south of the Walker Art Center). Limited to 25 students. Details are available HERE, or email me if you are interested.


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