Taking Top-Notch People Shots
Just what is it that brings out the voyeur in us? Several thousand U.S. professional portrait photographers say it's look at oh well, us! Or, rather, at people who look a lot like us.
People are insatiably curious about other members of the human race. What do they look like, where do they work, how do they think, act, and feel about a wide range of subjects? Our fascination with others is precisely what makes portrait photography such an enduring-and endearing-art.
Picture for a moment two young men in worn T-shirts and jeans. They're leaning back in chairs propped against the wall of a ramshackle wooden cottage deep in the Louisiana bayou. Take in their expressions, then look around at the rest of the scene. The weathered, battered, aged wood of the building. the empty Coke bottles at their feet. the scrawny tom cat napping on the porch. It's a visually exciting portrait-sometimes called an environmental or documentary portrait because it tells more about the subjects than expression, alone, could reveal. It includes a piece of the subjects' lives; it documents the way in which they live.
Environmental portrait opportunities are all around us. But they're rarely easy to capture on film. For a photo to tell its viewers something new and intriguing about subject-what he does, where he does it, how he feels about doing it-it must be composed in such a way as to arouse the questioning mind of the viewer.
For the photographer willing to invest the time and effort, the potential photographic rewards are enormous. But environmental photos are only the tip of the portraiture iceberg. Other people shots-like the more common personal portrait-are equally fascinating and far less difficult to capture on film. But doing it with the kind of style that sets your portraits apart from the millions of others taken each year demands a little thought and an extra bit of effort. Like all types of photography, creative portraiture begins with an understanding of photography itself. And that begins with film.
Advancements in color-film technology have produced a new generation of sharper, clearer, more brilliant color films than ever before. Yet an amazing number of picture-takers ignore the qualities color film by shooting the same old colors over and over again. Kids in blue jeans and white T-shirts set against a background of blue sky and white clouds offer little variation to stimulate the eye and tease the mind.
Picture the difference a pair of red sneakers, a green plastic ball, a purple hat, and a yellow background would make. Professional photographer Lisl Dennis has made a living out of shooting just such colorful portraits. If it works for her, it can work for you. Keep you eyes peeled for color. If the colors in a scene are ho-hum, add some props. Drape a colorful sweater around your subject's shoulders. Pose him next to a Kelly green golf bag. Seat him beneath a multi-hued patio umbrella.
If props aren't available, shift your own point of view to include a background of forest-green trees and vermilion skies. The results are colors vivid enough to excite even the most jaded voyeur.
Lenses, too, play an important part in creative portraiture. The most face-flattering of all is an 80 mm telephoto mounted on a 35 mm camera. It has the ability to shorten the nose and round out oblong faces. While buying an 80 mm lens for your 35 mm single-lens reflex camera (SLR) may be a luxury you're not quite ready to indulge in, a zoom lens of from 80-200 mm will provide both the perfect portrait setting plus a wide range of other settings suitable for various photographic chores-shooting distant wildlife, sporting events, etc. If you're not yet ready to invest in a 35 mm SLR and a suitable zoom lens, consider a 35 mm compact camera. Many models today are equipped with built-in zooms or telephoto lenses that offer near as much flexibility as their larger, more costly cousins.
Keep the sun over your shoulder--if you want a boring, harshly lit photo. Otherwise, the best place to position your subject is at a right angle to the sun. That will also prevent him from squinting in the bright light just as you take the shot. (Take your photos on a lightly overcast day. The illumination from open hazy skies lends a natural, attractive look to portraits. If the day is too dark, though, you'll lose contrast in the model's face. To correct that, use electronic flash with a daylight fill setting to add highlights.
Take indoor portraits by the light of a nearby window. If the light is too bright and tends to wash out the subject's facial features, simply pull the curtains or cover the window with a white sheet to soften it. And remember that toddlers and sunny windows just seem to go together. Be on your toes for some good candid photo opportunities when the two get together. Watch the background. It's important to use a background that contrasts with the subject to prevent the subject from getting 'lost." Also, avoid overly busy backgrounds and telephone poles, trees, and other appendages that may appear to be growing from your subject's head.
So the next time someone asks you to take a family portrait to send to the relatives, think twice about lining the subjects up firing-squad style. You may be able to take an environmental portrait or, perhaps, a more conventional shot utilizing soft light, colorful props, and just the right lens. The results? Fantastic.
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