Photography Tips by Pablo Raw – A Few Thoughts on Taking Portraits

The photography tips series is written by Pablo Raw.

When I first wanted to learn about portrait photography (I am still learning!), I asked a friend if I could take her picture. I set my camera on a tripod, had a cable release attached to it and I even had some living room lamps set in a way that would light her face in a nice way. Since I really liked the results of that photo session, I decided to show the results to a friend who is a much more experienced photographer, and asked him to give me his sincere opinion. And he did: “Well, this photo would look really good on a driver’s license…”(ouch!)

Still motivated, I decided to get some lessons from the old masters of portraiture at the National Gallery of Art. Walking around and observing their work, I realized that two of the most important things for a good portrait are the subject’s pose and the illumination.

By now you should realize that I’m not talking about photographs but paintings. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, and others. None of them had fancy flashguns or other artificial sources of light; most of their portraits were done under natural light. And for sure no one can call their portraits a driver’s license picture!

Continues after the jump.

Posing is an art. Professional models posing for a photograph contort their bodies in ways that non professional models would feel absolutely ridiculous, and yet their photos look beautiful. Directing the subject to pose also requires some talent from the photographer. Remember what happens when you ask someone to smile for a photo? Especially kids? You usually get that “my mouth is kind of smiling but my eyes are not” face.

People want to look good in their photos, and they put some effort in order do it. Sometimes that makes them stressed, and that has some effect on the natural look of the photo. When that happens, I ask my subjects to breathe deep and relax, which can help sometimes. But some of the most interesting portraits I’ve taken happened when the subjects are not posing. Between poses, I pretend I’m reviewing the photos or adjusting the settings on my camera. When I see them relax, I take more photos; these ones usually look more natural.

Taking portraits of kids can be a difficult task. They have a lot of energy, a short attention span, and they just want to go out and play! So instead of asking them to stay still, most of the time I let them do what they want, and just follow them around and take the photos from different points of view.

As mentioned before, the light is also very important and that soft light coming through the window could be a great ally for an interesting portrait. Avoid strong outdoor light and shadow contrast (unless you are using flash); if you want to take a photo outside, do it under a tree or in a shaded area. Your focus should be in the eye that is closer to you. The eyes are the first thing that people are going to see in your photo and they should be sharp.

Composition is important. Please take a look at the past column about composition, and don’t hesitate in getting close to your subject! Although this sometimes can make noses look bigger and some people don’t like that.

When I want to make the photo a little bit more interesting, I ask the subject to hold an object that is important to him or her in order to create a mini-story. But I try to be careful that the object doesn’t become more important than the person in the portrait. The same thing can be said about the use of colors in clothing, backgrounds, etc. I find it more difficult to attract the attention to the eyes of the subjects when they are wearing bright or distracting colors.

There is so much to say about portrait photography! We’ll get more specific in future columns. For now, why don’t you share your experience with taking photos of your kids, your pets, your family, etc.?

Hasta luego!

12 Comment

  • I have found that getting the subject’s hand in the portrait can make it more robust.

  • Here is a tip. Photography doesn’t matter anymore.

    Sure, it used to be the case that a skilled photographer was needed to take a photo at just the right time to capture some special moment.

    When film was limited.

    It’s 2011. Buy a high shutter speed digital camera.
    Then take 1000 photos while trying differant poses / angles etc. One or two of them will be good – delete the rest.

    I bet that a child can follow this formula and come up with one portrait that rivals a professional photographer.

    • Just saying… Looking at some of Pablo’s pictures on this site alone, there is no way in a million tries that I could get a picture to look like that without some tutelage and practice.

      Give credit where it’s due.

    • When you say “shutter speed” I’m pretty sure you mean “shutter count”.

      Yes, and we would call that one good photo amidst 1000 duds an “accident”. You could fill up a 4 GB memory card with 800 mediocre, poorly framed, poorly exposed .jpgs without getting anything worthwhile.

      Yeah, you might get lucky and get a good frame out of 1000. You can send a novice (or your child) to shoot a wedding or an event and take 4000 photographs. Congratulations, you just got 4 good frames.

      And then, when you get home, you need to sift through those 1000 images to find the one needle in the haystack. Editing is an art just as photographing is. If you don’t know what you’re doing behind a camera, how do you even know what you’re supposed to be looking for when you’re editing the images? How are you supposed to know what’s good when you’re visually illiterate?

      As good as today’s cameras are, and they are excellent, they are no substitute for a good photographic eye. They won’t make you see. Not only that, you need to know the limitations of what you’re using – and every piece of gear has limitations – and know how to work around it. Cameras are imperfect instruments, and I’m sorry, if you think putting your camera on AUTO and firing away indiscriminately is sufficient, you are wrong.

      “Photography doesn’t matter anymore”. This betrays such astounding ignorance even for an internet commenter. “I don’t know anything about photography” would have been a more accurate statement. You should have stopped there.

    • You’re describing one aspect of many that a pro has to consider. If one aspect of their job is aided by a new technology, it allows them to shift more attention to the other many considerations they attend to.

      I’m not a photographer, but c’mon. You should know better. If what you said was true, the front of the Washington Post would be adorned with the work of interns. We’d be reading stories about how photographers couldn’t make a living anymore. It’d be big news.

    • pablo .raw

      I think you should read a little bit more about the possibilities of digital photography. Some people say that now with digital cameras anybody can take good photos, and there is some truth about it, the main reason being that you can see your photo immediately on the LCD screen and make the necessary adjustments. But from there to come up with a portrait that rivals a professional… I bet it takes more than a 1000 shots! The professional has a purpose on what he/she is doing, and that purpose lead him/her to adjust the camera settings on a way that serves that specific purpose.
      By doing this, the professional will be able to take let’s say 750 – 800 good photos out of 1000 and that is definitively more productive than just one.
      Thanks a lot for your comment, and to Mike Hicks for all his good points!

  • Emmaleigh504

    That picture of that kid is adorable!

  • My main issue with portriats is that I’m not good at asking people if I can take their picture. I’m not a shy person by any means, but I know I don’t want people taking my picture. A contradiction I know. Any suggestions?

  • Nice images, Pablo.

  • pablo .raw

    Thanks! And thanks again for your other comment. I’m glad you mentioned the edition part (there’ll be a column about that at some point), because even the best DSLRs take photos that are good enough, but these images are supposed to be processed according to what the photographer wants to express with the photo.

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