I've always hating having my photograph taken. Growing up, my Dad was famous for interrupting the natural flow of things to tell me to "stand over there" so that he could take my photograph. With an awkward smile and my arms glued to my sides, I felt convinced that there had to be a better way to capture people at their best. For me, portraits should look natural and flattering, here's a few tips to help improve your hit rate...
Consider Your Body language
People watching is fun anywhere, but in London it's even more special due to the huge mix and variety of people. I often get asked if I seek permission before photographing strangers, the short answer is no I don’t. So much can be said for choosing appropriate body language. If you skulk around London lurking behind phone boxes and occasionally darting out to quickly grab a shot of someone, chances are they might think you’re doing something they don’t want to be a part of. Best not do that. When I’m choosing people to photograph, I will often watch them a little first and if they catch my eye I’ll smile at them. If they look uncomfortable and try to move away, that’s fair enough, plenty more fish in the sea. If I sense a green light I’ll simply keep an eye out for the right moment and photograph it. If my subject notices me doing this, I’ll smile again and give a quick thumbs up by way of saying thanks then I’ll move away so as not to overstay my welcome. This system works really well for me. It’s a positive attitude approach.
With the shot of this couple, there was something about the way the interacted with each other that intrigued me. I observed them a little and once the girl crossed her feet, I got my shot. Watching and waiting is a lot more discreet than being too snap happy, choose your moments carefully.
|f3.2 1/200 ISO: 100|
If you don’t feel comfortable photographing strangers yet, why not pop to Covent Garden and photograph some of the street performers there. It’s part of their job to be photographed. Make sure you take some change with you so that you can pay them something in return for being a great subject for you to practise with.
Shoot from slightly below the eyeline
I’m pretty tall so it’s not uncommon to see me with my feet spread apart or my knees slightly bent to take a couple of inches off. It’s a personal preference really, I find that portraits shot slightly below the eyeline are a little more flattering.
Use a good prime lens
If you have a prime lens (fixed focal length), try using that instead of a zoom. The image quality from a prime lens is fantastic, not to mention that lovely bokeh you can achieve by using a wide aperture (low f number). Prime lenses also allow you to work in lower light situations, great if you are photographing a gig or a similar low light situation without using a flash. I wrote about the benefits of owning a 50mm lens here. I always tend to opt for primes where possible, being able to zoom in and out really isn’t that important unless you are working in tricky situations where you need the range and can’t move around that much. If you can afford the luxury of moving around, just think about where you should be in relation to your subject before you start and go for it! It will make you a better photographer I promise!
Keep it simple
The more cluttered your background, the less likely it is that your subject will grab attention. Keep your backgrounds and foregrounds as clean as possible to avoid distraction and my preference is to use natural light where possible.
|f4 1/320 ISO: 1000|
With the photo above, I got down nice and low and shooting with my camera angled upwards removed the performer from the crowds and framed him against a fairly simple background. I really like getting down low and angling my camera up when I find myself in busy places, as is often the case when shooting in LDN!
|f3.2 1/320 ISO: 1000|
This second image was shot from standing and as you can see, there is a lot more distraction created by the spectators. I chose to convert this image to black and white to minimise the distraction as there is something I do quite like about being able to see the crowd in this shot.
If you can’t have a clean background, perhaps you could look for some key compositional elements? I used the leading lines in this background to draw the viewers eye down to the performer.
|f3.2 1/400 ISO: 160|
Remove your subject from the background
For me, this one is SO, SO IMPORTANT. Ensuring there is a bit of space behind your subject is really useful. If you use a wide aperture, grubby walls look cleaner (because the detail of the dirt and cracks has magically been thrown out of focus) and by isolating your subject in this way, they command much more attention.
Can you tell us more about your subject than simply what they look like? How can you convey their personality? Given that this performer was all about the comedy, I thought it would be good to incorporate some laughter in this shot below.
|f2.8 1/320 ISO: 250|
Finally, here's three practical tips to keep in mind when shooting portraits in general.
1. Focus on the eyes. The eyes are where we look when talking to someone, it's instinctive. When looking at a portrait of someone, we notice immediately if the eyes are out of focus, it makes the image look 'not quite right'. Some photographers like to focus using the central focus point and then recompose, while others will set an off-centre focus point. It's up to you which method you choose, just be sure to get those peepers pin sharp.
2. Think about your shutter speed. As a general rule, make sure your shutter speed is higher than the focal length you're shooting at, otherwise camera-shake (and blurred results) will become an issue. For example, at 50mm use a 1/60 sec shutter speed or faster.
3. Get in close. Robert Capa once said "if your photos aren't good enough, you aren't close enough" Wise words.
Do you have any useful tips to add for shooting portraits? Let me know in the comments below: