Photography 101 — Outdoor Portraits
Four tips for better people pictures
By John O’Connell
Monuments, scenics, landscapes and skylines are all famously photographed and can be beautiful images. But most of our favorite pictures have life in them: we like pictures of pets, wild animals, flowers, butterflies, birds…. But the subject we most like to photograph is people, our loved ones, family members, children or even strangers on the street.
1. The Eyes Have It
It’s possible to take a great portrait without the subject’s eyes in the photo, but it’s not easy. Yes, silhouettes, profiles, detail shots of weathered hands, beautiful red hair or a freckled cheek can work well, but they’re not the typical way we take pictures of our family and friends. Always focus on the person’s eyes. You can use a small f-stop, like f16 or f22 if you want the rest of the face, body or the far away mountains in the background to be in focus, but start by making sure the eyes are sharp. And if you shot wide open, with an f-stop of 1.4, 1.8 or 2.8 to narrow the depth of field and isolate the subject, that’s a great technique, but it makes it even more important to focus carefully on the eyes. Blurry eyes and a tack sharp ear isn’t a winning shot.
2. Picture someone
If you’re shooting someone other than a family member or someone you know and who knows you well, spend some time getting to know who you’re photographing. If you were writing a short biography, you couldn’t begin without interviewing the subject. So, too, with taking a candid or posed portrait, which is a brief bio written with light, you must get to know who this person is. Remember that your mission is not to take a picture of a face or body; it’s to create a representation of a person. If you don’t know who the person is, your picture will be flat, lacking those touching, subtle emotions that make a two-dimensional print come alive.
3. The Light Within
A corollary to the bio concept in Tip 2 is looking for the “real” person you’re making a portrait of. Engage the subject in conversation to put them at ease. If they’re stiff and camera-shy, your pictures won’t be flattering or interesting and they won’t show the nuances and vivacity of the subject. Have them talk about things they love to talk about: sports, a recent wedding they went to, something that makes them laugh, their pet, the prettiest place they’ve ever been… anything that gets them focused on their inner self and not on your camera. Their joy — or whatever emotion you’re looking to capture — will show up in the image.
Outdoor portraiture has lighting challenges and lighting gifts. Don’t shoot your subject in the harsh sun; you’ll see frowns and squints and wrinkled brows, not to mention shadows under the eyes and chin. Cloudy days or shady spots on sunny days are best for even, near shadowless faces and full-body portraits. There is no need to avoid all shadows; some contrast on a face provides definition and shape, and that’s good. But high contrast, blanched on one side and black on the other is too bi-polar to be effective. If you must shoot in sunlight, use fill-flash or a close reflector to light up the darkness. In fact, it’s good to use a flash outdoors to get a catch-light in the eyes. Lower the flash unit’s output because you don’t want to blow out details — you do want to preserve the natural light — but just give a little life-light to those all-important eyes.