Take better portraits

Most of my family lives a cab ride, three connecting flights, and a rental car away, so I don't get to see them very often. But when I do make the trip, I hear this all the time: "David, take a picture of your sister." "David, take a picture of your nephews." (My mom is the only person I know who calls me David.)

If any of that sounds familiar, you're in luck. This week, I'll equip you with a few tips and tricks you can use to take better portraits.

Put them at ease

Taking pictures of people can be intimidating. But if you think it's nerve wracking to take a picture of someone, try being the person in front of the camera. Uncle Ted doesn't want to stand around getting photographed, trust me. And so it's hard to get a natural pose from people when they know they are being photographed. The single best bit of advice is to put your subjects at ease. And if you're trying to capture spontaneous, candid moments, then back off and blend in with the background.

If you want to take formal portraits, though, you can't disappear into the trees and take your pictures surreptitiously. Instead, you'll want to talk to your subjects to get them to loosen up. Eventually, they'll exhibit more natural responses and look better in the photograph.

Here's a trick: Take pictures periodically as you pose your subjects to get them used to the shutter going off, even if you don't intend to keep the shots. When you take the final shot, they'll never know it.

Periodic shots

Digital cameras have an advantage that old film cameras don't: The LCD display lets you frame your picture without holding the camera up to your face. That leaves you free to interact with your subjects without having an intimidating camera obscuring your head. That gives you more opportunities to get your subject to relax and, if you're shooting more than one person at a time, interact with each other.

Use a shallow depth of field

Most of the time, you'll want to focus exclusively on the person in the portrait. Notice the use of the word focus and its double meaning, implying that's where we want the viewer's attention as well as the actual lens focusing. (I include that pun free of charge.)

In any event, configure your camera so the depth of field is as narrow as possible, leaving the background pleasantly blurry. To do that, you can use your digital camera's portrait mode, which is designed to minimize depth of field. If your camera has an Aperture Priority mode, you can switch to that and dial in the smallest f/stop value available, such as f/5.6 or f/4.

Blurry background

Another option is to selectively blur the background using a photo editing program.

Pick the right focal length

Another important piece of the puzzle is your camera's zoom setting. If you set the camera to a wide-angle position, the lens will distort your subject's features. If you're photographing Uncle Ned "Big Nose" Jackson, the last thing you want to do is make that proboscis appear any larger.

Focal length

The right focal length is usually between about 80 and 100mm, which turns out to be near the telephoto end of many point and shoot digital cameras' zoom ranges. So zoom all the way out and see what that looks like in the viewfinder. Go wider if necessary, but avoid dialing all the way back to the wide end of your camera's zoom range, or you might end up with something like this.

Use natural lighting

Finally, use natural lighting whenever possible; it will make your subjects look better. Shoot early or late in the day -- and if possible shoot outdoors, in the shade. If you are taking pictures indoors and need to use your camera's flash, turn on the red-eye reduction mode and supplement the camera's flash with as much other lighting as possible. If your camera's flash can be tilted, bounce the light off a wall or ceiling.

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Dave Johnson

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