Where you decide to shoot depends completely on the style you want to use, the time of the year and what you want to achieve artistically. But starting inside is usually a great way to get everyone, particularly kids, accustomed to your camera. If you ever start your shoot in a field, for instance, you might struggle to keep the kids in a single place.
Clean backgrounds, needless to say, are one of the key elements of a successful portrait. Some houses may have amazing wallpaper or conservatories that can work well in creating one, but if the decor’s a bit dodgy, try using the back of a sofa. This works especially well when you’re photographing children. Simply drag a sofa near a doorway and turn it around. Sit your subjects in front of it so that you have a good, solid block of colour, which is the sofa back behind them. Because the couch is being illuminated by light reflected in from outside, the colour is going to be vibrant and warm. Even a dark leather couch works nicely in this regard.
Try switching off the lights in the hall. Ask the household to stand about three feet from the front door. Setting your camera’s metering mode to Spot and exposing for your subjects’ faces may under-expose the hall, helping to create a clean background.
Shooting outdoors, it can be difficult to find colourful backgrounds, particularly in winter. So on dull days, ask subjects to wear something vibrant or stripy to give the image some visual interest and warmth. Conversely, in summer, colour is just about everywhere, from golden light to verdant green or floral backdrops. To prevent your image being confused, with too many different shades in summer, ask your sitters to keep it very simple with single colours and designs. Taking along a change of clothes is usually a good idea.
It’s not enough to take your subjects into their back garden or to the local park and take their photograph. A good portrait captures a genuine expression or an unguarded moment, and these usually come only when someone is having a good time and forgets about the camera. Instead, plan days out with all your subjects. Think about your shoots as an experience – a stroll through the woods, an open-air picnic with family, a day at the beach – that everyone is sharing. People let their guard down, you get more natural pictures, and everyone feels as though they’ve had a fun day out. Rather than had their picture taken.
If shooting indoors and the room feels cramped around your subject, try placing them in a corner and shooting from a minimal angle. This vantage point gives a greater emphasis to the lines where the floor meets the walls, which will travel from one central point out to the lower corners of your frame, giving the exaggerated appearance of open space. Using a wide-angle lens for this type of shot will enhance the effect even further.
Taking pictures outdoors is particularly tough because there’s normally a blanket of colour. If you shoot your subjects at f/8 aperture, they’re not going to be distinguished from the background. Use an aperture of about f/2.8 in your outdoor portraits so you’re able to achieve minimum depth of field.
When you move from indoors to outdoors you’re ceding an element of control over the light. If it’s sunny and conditions are high-contrast, zooming into your subject will give you a more balanced exposure. A telephoto zoom, such as Brett’s trusty 70-200mm lens, is great for this purpose on outdoor shoots. The more scenery you want to include in your background, the harder it will be to get an even exposure because of all the ambient light you’re letting into your camera at wider focal lengths.
We’ve all used a canopy of leaves to create a frame around a subject in our compositions, but you can take this technique to the extreme by getting down low and shooting from the ground up. Try using individual blades of grass, flowers and other ground foliage to frame people. The low vantage point gives the image dramatic emphasis, and the insect’s-eye view of the grass in the foreground creates an otherworldly appearance. When shooting indoors, you’ll likely want to use flash, particularly if your shot’s posed. If you set a wide aperture, a shutter speed of about 1/60 sec and bounce off-camera flash light from the ceiling or wall at your background (direct flash light will give you harsh results), you should be able to capture well-lit portraits at ISOs of 100 or 200.
When shooting indoors, you’ll likely want to use flash, particularly if your shot’s posed. If you set a wide aperture, a shutter speed of about 1/60 sec and bounce off-camera flash light from the ceiling or wall at your background (direct flash light will give you nasty results), you should be able to capture well-lit portraits at ISOs of 100 or 200.
About the author
Brett Harkness is a professional wedding photographer based near Manchester, UK. He is widely regarded as one of the top social photographers around.