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!

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