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Towards Better People Pictures!

Sat, Jul 14, 2007

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This article provides a brief tutorial on how to take better people pictures. The topics covered include getting to know your camera, online understanding your subject, a bit of posing, and fill flash.

How many times have you been in a friend’s home and looked at the family and friend photos plastered on their refrigerator and thought, “What were they trying to capture in that photo?” or, “Wow, that’s a good photo!” ?? Actually, we all likely have been in the same place before and, hopefully, seeing other people’s photos causes us to pause and think about improving our people photos. In that vein, here are a few quick tips with examples that will help you put better people pictures on your refrigerator and elsewhere around your home and office.

Get to know your camera…

The best advice that I can give you is to get to know your camera better. Spend some time taking photos around the house, of your family, your home, anything, and then figure out what you feel you’re doing well and what you’re not doing well, and use this as a learning time. And, push your camera to its limits; figure out what all of those different settings mean so that they can be useful. By getting to know your camera better, you’ll take much better photos when the important time comes!

What’s the subject?

Or, as another question, what’s the story that you want the photo to briefly tell? If the subject of your photo is a person or people, then focus on them. Consider tightly focusing on your subject, so that’s the story that’s told by the photo.
(See Photo 1. Person photo)

If the main subject of your photo is not the person but the location, then adding people helps to provide perspective in telling the story of the room or your vacation. The story in this type of photo typically says “we were here – see?”

Posing

The most common way to take a photo of someone is to place them right in the middle of the your viewfinder, facing right at you, and then click. Easy, but not always very interesting. Consider moving the subject(s) off center a bit, to add some visual interest to the photo. Also, instead of having your kids directly facing the camera, have them turn their shoulders or head a bit. Instead of their hands down to their sides, maybe your subjects could be holding something that’s important to them or helps to better tell the story of the moment, whether you’re on vacation (a fishing pole? Hiking stick? Shopping bag?) or having dinner with the family (fork of food; ice cream!).

Also, if the subject is people, consider focusing on them from the waist or knees up (is it really important what shoes they wore?). The important thing in the photo is a person’s face, and the more of their body that appears in the photo, then the less distinct will be their face.

Watch the background!

Now, this is a mistake that all photographers make, even the professionals. It’s just that the professionals have made it so many times, we’re more likely to also be thinking about the background. Hopefully, the background of your people photo adds to the story and does not distract or detract. A background that’s “busy” will take the focus away from the people in your photos. Also, watch out for how your subjects are placed against the background, as having a pole or something stick out of someone’s head isn’t too appealing (although, there are many times when it’s funny).

Watch your flash!

One way to help to separate the people in your photo from everything else, to help them to better stand out in the image, is to use a little fill flash. In a darker room, or outdoors when the natural light is weak, turning on your flash will help to make the people stand out better in the photo. And, a dramatic shot can frequently be made if you will place a sunrise/sunset behind your subject and add the fill flash. The sun light can fool your camera into thinking that there’s plenty of light (which there is!), but your subject will appear dark against the bright sky unless you add some dramatic fill flash to help the subject “jump out.”

Also, learn about the limits of your camera’s flash. When a flash is used well, it’s hard to notice it. But, when you poorly use your flash, the mistakes will leap out at you! You’ve got to love those learning moments! Most on-camera flashes are designed to work well only within a certain range; and, the reasonable flash range is dependent on the sensitivity (ISO/ASA rating of the sensor) that you’re using in your camera. If your camera is set to an ISO of 200, and the manual says that the best flash range is 3’ to 15’ (1 m to 5 m) for ISO 200, then that’s the range where you’ll get the best results, particularly around the middle of that range. If you increase the sensitivity (ISO rating) to 400, then you’ll increase that range by double the amount or, in our example, from 6’ to 30’ (2 m to 10 m). But, be certain to find the limits of YOUR camera!

Frequent flash mistakes are taking the photo with the flash too close to the subject, so that the subject appears “washed out.” Also, beyond the reasonable range limit of your flash, it’s just not going to help, which is why I always chuckle when I see all of those flashes going off in stadiums from the upper deck, trying to photograph a player way down there on the field! People’s glasses can cause difficult reflections with a flash; but, people who wear glasses tend to be more aware of this issue and slightly turn their heads so that they’re glasses won’t directly reflect back to a camera. And, if you have glass or reflective surfaces behind your subject(s), then those surfaces can reflect your flash, so think about shooting at a slight angle to glass, reflective and light-colored surfaces.

So, here are a few simple tips towards more appealing people photos. And, the most important tip is to spend some quality time with your camera so that you’re more likely to produce quality photos!

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