Nikon D7000, Tips for Shooting Better Portraits

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Before we get to the assignments for this chapter, I thought it might be a good idea to leave you with a few extra pointers on shooting portraits that don’t necessarily have anything specific to do with your camera. There are entire books that cover things like portrait lighting, posing, and so on. But here are a few pointers that will make your people pics look a lot better.

Avoid the center of the frame

This falls under the category of composition. Instead of plunking your subject smackdab in the middle for what I like to call the “mugshot” pose (Figure 6.13), position her toward the side of the frame (Figure 6.14)—it just looks more interesting.

This is what I call “the mugshot.” It’s when you frame your subject dead center against a solid surface or background with empty space on both sides. Notice how unhappy she looks
Figure 6.13 This is what I call “the mugshot.” It’s when you frame your subject dead center against a solid surface or background with empty space on both sides. Notice how unhappy she looks
Create a more interesting portrait by placing your subject off to the side. Notice how happy she became when I improved my framing.
Figure 6.14 Create a more interesting portrait by placing your subject off to the side. Notice how happy she became when I improved my framing.

Choose the right lens

Choosing the correct lens can make a huge impact on your portraits. A wide-angle lens can distort features of your subject, which can lead to an unflattering portrait (Figure 6.15). Select a longer focal length if you will be close to your subject (Figure 6.16).

At this close distance, the 20mm lens is distorting the subject’s face.
Figure 6.15 At this close distance, the 20mm lens is distorting the subject’s face.
 By zooming out to 50mm, the subject looks natural.
Figure 6.16 By zooming out to 50mm, the subject looks natural.

Use the frame

Have you ever noticed that most people are taller than they are wide? Turn your camera vertically for a more pleasing composition (Figure 6.17).

Get in the habit of turning your camera to a vertical position when shooting portraits. This is also referred to as portrait orientation.
Figure 6.17 Get in the habit of turning your camera to a vertical position when shooting portraits. This is also referred to as portrait orientation.

Sunblock for portraits

The midday sun can be harsh and can do unflattering things to people’s faces. If you can, find a shady spot out of the direct sunlight. You will get softer shadows, smoother skin tones, and better detail. This holds true for overcast skies as well (Figure 6.18). Just be sure to adjust your white balance accordingly.

Give them a healthy glow

Nearly everyone looks better with a warm, healthy glow. Some of the best light of the day happens just a little before sundown, so shoot at that time if you can (Figure 6.19).

An overcast sky provided a soft, even light source for this picture of traditionally dressed girls in Cusco, Peru. The gentle light helps soften the faces, as well as make the most of their colorful clothing.
Figure 6.18 An overcast sky provided a soft, even light source for this picture of traditionally dressed girls in Cusco, Peru. The gentle light helps soften the faces, as well as make the most of their colorful clothing.
You just can’t beat the glow of the late afternoon sun for adding warmth to your portraits.
Figure 6.19 You just can’t beat the glow of the late afternoon sun for adding warmth to your portraits.

Keep an eye on your background

Sometimes it’s so easy to get caught up in taking a great shot that you forget about the smaller details. Try to keep an eye on what is going on behind your subjects so they don’t end up with things popping out of their heads (Figures 6.20 and 6.21).

This photograph makes it appear that there is a pole going right through my daughter’s head. You may not be aware of it at the time, especially if you’re rushing, but it is important to slow down and notice these details.
Figure 6.20 This photograph makes it appear that there is a pole going right through my daughter’s head. You may not be aware of it at the time, especially if you’re rushing, but it is important to slow down and notice these details.
By having her take just two steps to the left, I got the pole out of the scene entirely, making for a much improved composition.
Figure 6.21 By having her take just two steps to the left, I got the pole out of the scene entirely, making for a much improved composition.

Frame the scene

Using elements in the scene to create a frame around your subject is a great way to draw the viewer in. You don’t have to use a window frame to do this. Just look for elements in the foreground that could be employed to force the viewer’s eye toward your subject (Figure 6.22).

While these ladies were sitting in front of the fireplace to stay warm, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to get a nice environmentally framed portrait. The bricks surrounding the fireplace created a natural frame for my subjects.
Figure 6.22 While these ladies were sitting in front of the fireplace to stay warm, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to get a nice environmentally framed portrait. The bricks surrounding the fireplace created a natural frame for my subjects.

More than just a pretty face

Most people think of a portrait as a photo of someone’s face. Don’t ignore other aspects of your subject that reflect his or her personality—hands, especially, can go a long way toward describing someone (Figure 6.23).

There’s more to a person than just a face. When traveling in Cat Island in the Bahamas, I drove up to this family’s home because they were selling these beautiful baskets. They happened to be outside making them right then, so I politely asked if I could photograph their process. I wanted to capture the entire scene, but I also wanted to show the weaver’s hands. These hands had been making baskets for over 60 years, and I thought they told a story all by themselves.
Figure 6.23 There’s more to a person than just a face. When traveling in Cat Island in the Bahamas, I drove up to this family’s home because they were selling these beautiful baskets. They happened to be outside making them right then, so I politely asked if I could photograph their process. I wanted to capture the entire scene, but I also wanted to show the weaver’s hands. These hands had been making baskets for over 60 years, and I thought they told a story all by themselves.

Get down on their level

If you want better pictures of children, don’t shoot from an adult’s eye level. Getting the camera down to the child’s level will make your images look more personal (Figure 6.24).

While driving through rural Jamaica, we stopped at a school to get some photos. As I got out of the car, all the kids came running across the lot screaming with excitement. They loved having their photos taken as long as I kept showing them the playback images on the back of the camera.
Figure 6.24 While driving through rural Jamaica, we stopped at a school to get some photos. As I got out of the car, all the kids came running across the lot screaming with excitement. They loved having their photos taken as long as I kept showing them the playback images on the back of the camera.

Eliminate space between your subjects

One of the problems you can encounter when taking portraits of more than one person is that of personal space. What feels like a close distance to the subjects can look impersonal to the viewer. Have your subjects move very close together, eliminating any open space between them (Figure 6.25).

Getting your subjects close together tells a better story. At a family reunion I had my sister close to our 94-year-old grandmother to get this portrait, which captures their close relationship.
Figure 6.25 Getting your subjects close together tells a better story. At a family reunion I had my sister close to our 94-year-old grandmother to get this portrait, which captures their close relationship.