Tuesday, May 6, 2008
10 essential tips to work like a pro when photographing people
To really open up your creative possibilities, get a wireless transmitter or dedicated cord to use your flash off-camera.
One of the most basic and important principles in creating portraits is getting separation between your subject and the background. True, you want the background to contribute to the image. But you don't want the background to compete with or clutter the shot.
There are a few ways to get separation. First, choose an aperture that will keep your subject in focus, but render the background in a pleasing soft blur. I normally use a telephoto lens at ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6. This keeps the subject in focus, but blurs the background. You also can move your subject further away from a distracting background (or move them to a new location) to keep it out of focus.
The other method to create separation is using strobes and reflectors. Adding light to your subject that's brighter than your background will help separate them from it. Studio photographers often add a bright hair light or background light to create separation in their portraits. These same principles apply on location as well.
6. Find the angle
Lens choice and your camera angle contribute a lot to the final image. The classic portrait lenses are middle telephotos in the 85-135mm range. This focal length gives a pleasing look to your subject and a nice angle of view. Sometimes, though, in tight locations, wide angles are the best lenses for the job. I use my 17-35mm when I'm walking through crowded markets or handholding my TTL flash to strobe a subject. Just make sure you don't distort your subject. Elongated, big heads don't look good, so you have to be careful when composing with a wide-angle lens.
Your shooting angle also adds a lot to the final image. If I'm photographing a CEO and want to convey power in the portrait, then I'll shoot from a low angle looking up. This creates a visual illusion for the viewer that the subject is standing over them and is dominant. I always bring a small ladder with me on shoots in case I want to get a high angle, great for showing your subject and their surroundings. When I'm photographing a small child, I get low and photograph them from their perspective, not standing above them looking down.
7. Modify the existing light
A great low-cost tool to improve your portraits is a simple reflector. Reflectors come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but all you need for a head shot is a small round reflector about 1.5 feet in diameter. This reflector will fold into a small dish-sized unit and is easy to carry in your photo bag. I normally use soft gold and white reflectors for simple portraits. On sunny days, reflectors are great for reducing contrast and filling in light on the shaded part of your subject. Reflectors can be overpowering, causing your subject to squint, so move back or have your subject close their eyes right up until you take the shot. Reflectors also come in translucent material that you can use to create a nice diffused light by placing them between your subject and the sun. I carry a large diffuser on every shoot—it can save the day when shooting in bright, sunny conditions.
8. Create your own light
Adding flash to a portrait is like adding sugar to coffee—most people love the effect! Modern TTL flash is easy to use and offers a valuable tool in creating stunning portraits. TTL flash can be used both on-camera and off. Imagine photographing a surfer on the beach at sunset. Take the shot with your camera set to balanced fill-flash mode, and you get a striking shot of the surfer lit by the flash against a fiery orange sunset. To really open up your creative possibilities, get a wireless transmitter or dedicated cord to use your flash off-camera. Now you can add flash at angles to your subject, creating interesting shadow and depth. Add a second off-camera flash, and you can create studio-like effects in the field. Adding just a small pop of flash can improve color and add catchlights to your subject's eyes.
9. Choose a white balance
White balance will determine the overall color of your final portrait. The important aspect is getting your skin tones to look natural. Many cameras today work great in Auto White Balance mode, especially outside, but problems can arise if your subject is indoors under fluorescent lighting or mixed lighting conditions. One technique to solve this problem is to place a neutral gray card in your image and manually set your white balance. If you don't have a manual option on your camera, you can use your image-processing software to correct the white balance in your image.
10. Shoot a lot
So now you're ready to go. You arrive at your location, you say hello to your subject, fine-tune the background and lighting, and begin to shoot. And shoot, shoot, shoot. As with capturing just the right light on a landscape or behavior with wildlife, the more images you take, the better your chances are of getting just the right shot. Your subject will start to relax more as the portrait session progresses, and you'll have more keeper images. I recently photographed Billy Kidd and Nelson Carmichael, two Olympic skiers, for a magazine article. My assistant and I worked with them all day, and got some nice images. At the end of the day, we decided to photograph them on a snowy mountain pass. Instead of being tired after being photographed all day, they became very animated in the blowing snow-they're skiers, after all! We set up a strobe in the snow and started shooting. After photographing all day, the best images were some of those last shots we took. So, shoot, shoot, shoot!
View more of Tom Bol's photography at www.tombolphoto.com.
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