DIY Portrait Tips

February 15, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Not everyone has the funds lying around to hire a professional photographer every time they want a portrait. In fact, that would basically require hiring your own personal photographer because many portraits are taken while out and about, on vacation, exploring a new area, or just in the back yard.

With that in mind, over the summer (yes... the summer) I set out to take a few photos that would illustrate a few tips for improving your portrait photographs without having to carry around an expensive DSLR camera. I enlisted the help of a friend of mine, Arnab, and asked him to bring along his point-n-shoot. I shot several photos of him around the Intrepid Air & Space Museum in New York City using his camera, my iPhone, and my Canon 5D Mark II. In hindsight, the Intrepid wasn't a great backdrop for this tutorial: it's mammoth. One of the tips I planned to share (and will now) and demonstrate dealt with tourist photos. Many times I see people get as close to a backdrop as possible, then the person with the camera gets as close as possible to the subject, then sets the camera for a wide angle shot. To me, this is going about it all wrong. Everything is in focus in the picture, and there's nothing to make the subject stand out. Take a look at the two photos below of Arnab. The photo on the left is taken while I'm standing perhaps 4-5 feet away, with the zoom as wide as it will go. The photo on the right, I backed up perhaps 20-25 feet away, then zoomed in. Arnab is nearly the same size in both photos, but the one on the right makes for a much better portrait. The background is blurred, and thanks to a phenomenon called compression, the scenery behind him seems closer, and also a lot of distractions get cut out as well.

For a portrait like the one above, do the following:
  • Have your subject back away from the feature he's posing in front of
  • As the photographer, back away from your portrait subject
  • Zoom in as much as possible so your subject fills the frame
  • Turn on your flash -- yes, even outdoors in full sunlight, you should be using a flash to fill in dark shadows
  • Take several shots to make sure you've got a sharp photo. I missed above, as you may see. When you're zoomed in very tight, the slightest vibration of your hand will be greatly magnified, and cause movement blur.
As I was preparing to put this shoot together, several people asked me "Why aren't you talking about the iPhone?" Well, it's true that most people these days do carry a smartphone of some sort with them. The issue, however, is that the iPhone (and most other smartphones) have a fixed lens, so there's no zoom. To further complicate matters, the lens has a wide field of view meaning that unless you are extremely close to your subject, everything from the front of the lens to Timbuktu will be in focus.

Again, there are a few things you can do to help out your phone portraiture
  • Try to fill the frame as much as possible with your subject
  • Turn the phone flash to "on" even outdoors in bright daylight
  • Do NOT use the digital zoom. Ever.
  • Hold the phone above your subject's eye-level, just a touch. You don't want the photo to be looking down on your subject, but too low and you run the risk of showing off those ever flattering double chins that many of us are blessed with.
  • Take several photos, and choose the best one when you get home.
  • If you have a phone capable, turn on the HDR mode for a few shots.
If you really want to make your portraits stand out from the crowd, buy a DSLR with a nice lens. One of my favorite portrait lenses is the Canon 70-200 f2.8 IS. It's a beast, and not inexpensive, so most people won't carry that around with them. Of course, you can always get a relatively inexpensive ($300-350) 50mm f1.4 and when shooting wide open, the only thing in focus is what you want to be in focus.


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