So I recently took 20 peoples’ portraits. It’s an annual thing for the family business, and (after years of practice) I’m pretty darn good at it, too. There’s only so much I can do when the framing and background are to stay the same, but here are a few things I know about taking pictures of people.

The uninitiated subject is, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, not good at being a subject. At best, he/she stands awkwardly in front of the camera, unsure where to look – at worse, he/she plasters on an artificial ‘camera smile’ and it can’t be shifted for love or money.

There are three mechanical advantages the photographer has and three ways to help your subject model for you.

You have the ability (I hope) to change your focal length, shutter speed, and depth of field.

  1. Your focal length should be around 50-80 for portraits, preferably 50. If you have to do a lot of portraits which must all look quite similar, try to keep your settings as consistent as possible.
  2. As far as the light will allow, go for a fast shutter speed; this will help keep moving people sharp and minimize the number of blurred eyelids as people blink. A tripod also helps in this respect.
  3. Aim for a shallower depth of field to help make your subject pop. See how much it helps?

Photo Demo

As for helping your people model better… there’s only so much you can do.

  1. Have them pose ‘like a model’, shifting ever so slightly every time they hear the shutter click. This keeps you from having 20 shots of the same person in the exact same pose. If you have diversity, you have a better chance of a good shot which doesn’t need much editing.
  2. Have men pose strong, women pose at an angle, and get couples to engage with each other physically (arms around each other, etc.). You can see in the following image (which I sketched to be intentionally vague), how the dynamics of the pose work. Man on the left, all square and straight. Woman in the middle,  open and angled. Couple on the right, posing as one subject. Not hard and fast rules, by any means, but a good place to start.Photo Demo Pose
  3. Then there is the big one: get your subject to engage with the camera (each other, if it’s a couples shoot).

If I may expand on #3: so many flat ‘camera smiles’ come because people are subconscious. They look at the camera, smile, and hope the picture turns out well, but the eyes which look at the photograph want to see the subject smiling out at them. The only way this sort of thing can be achieved is to get your model to engage with the camera. Subjects who don’t model for a living have a really hard time with this, so the next best thing is to get them to engage with you… behind the camera.

Here’s an example from a photoshoot with my pixie-in-law. The one on the left is the test photo to make sure I had my settings right. The one on the right was when I was actively provoking her to sass the camera. Do you see how much more engaging the attitude makes the image?

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I also kept telling her to ‘find the light’. Neither of us knew what it meant, but the results were fantastic.

Personally, I joke with my people. Something along the lines of stand-up comedy (no corny jokes, or anything like that). I knew a photographer once who could do a dead-on impression of a squirrel chattering, and it worked like a charm for kids. Sometimes, I poke my head out from behind the camera and just start talking to them. When they laugh, I take the picture. They’re often surprised, but if I’ve lined up the shot beforehand, I don’t need to have my face plastered against the viewfinder when I snap my shutter.

Besides this, the normal rules of photography (thirds, chopping off with edges, lines, etc.) apply. Have fun. Go wild. If you have a friend who will be party to an hour-long photo shoot, I highly recommend the practice such a project gives.

Good luck.

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