Category Archives: Learning about photography

5 portrait tips to improve your photography

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Portraits are a distinct favourite of mine. The amount of history and emotion that can be expressed just through the eyes is astonishing and I never tire of telling stories.

There are a number of aspects I take into consideration when shooting and sticking to these guidelines ensures trouble free, pleasurable photographs. Learning these tips has taken years of practice, experience, trial and error and can’t simply be picked up, but by all means try them at home.

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Model - Helga. The eyes are the catalyst of the story.

1) Nothing is more important than the eyes
The eyes tell the story in a photograph. They give immediate confirmation of the subject’s mood. They might be smiling but is it a truly happy smile? The eyes will confirm it.
They’re the first part of a portrait that the viewer looks at. They have to be in focus and bright. Also having no reflection in them makes them look dead so tilt the head up slightly if no catch lights can be seen.

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Model - Helga. The hair isn't that important unless you're shooting hair photography

2) Unless you’re shooting hair, the head isn’t important
One of the most frequent comments I get is “Top of her head’s chopped off!” By that the viewer means that I’ve cropped into the skull and left it out of the shot. In a portrait you have a story to tell. You’re conveying emotion and wisdom through two eyes and facial expressions. The subject’s hair does nothing to enhance a picture (unless it’s actually a shot of their hair) and so therefore can be omitted.

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Model - Emma. Disjointed hands can look as though they belong to someone else.

3) Watch your exits
Where skin exits the frame can be problematic if you don’t keep an eye on it. A close up of someone can be dramatic but having their hand coming up from the bottom of the frame and touching their face can look disconnected and surreal.
Similarly with shoulders and backs going out of the side of a frame, there’s no way of knowing where the body goes after that and can make the subject look bigger than they are. Typically it’s best to have them leaving the frame at the bottom, not the sides. If they do have to leave at the sides, don’t have bare skin leaving the frame; cover it with something.

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Model - Missy Bird. Place eyes in the top section of the frame to reflect where they are on a face.

4) Place eyes in the top third
This ties in with cropping the head. Eyes are situated in the top section of the face and this needs to be reflected in the frame. Seeing eyes in the centre of the frame or towards the bottom looks uncomfortable.

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Model - Rosie. Using a mid range to shallow aperture throws the background out of focus and centres attention on the subject

5) Use the correct aperture
Portraits always look more effective and have more impact when there’s nothing distracting in the frame. There are many ways of doing this,but the most effective – and therefore the first one to try – is by using a medium to shallow depth of field.
A lens is at its sharpest in the centre of it’s aperture range (around f/5.6 – f/11) and if it’s a zoom it’s sharpest in the middle of its zoom range. Using an aperture around these aperture settings will both give very sharp results and throw the background out of focus. A blurry background that melds into smooth colours isn’t distracting and allows the viewer to concentrate on the subject. Always focus on the eyes.

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Model - Abi. Bringing the background in focus can sometimes add to the picture.

Of course rules can and will be broken. You can use a narrower depth of field (larger f stop) to bring the background in focus and add to the story.

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Model - Char. The eyes don't always have to be on the camera. Looking down or up can create mystery (what are they looking at?)

You can exclude the eyes in the shot to emphasise an emotion.

How shutter speeds work

Using a slightly slower shutter speed gives the effect of movement in the water.
Using a slightly slower shutter speed gives the effect of movement in the water.

Some would argue that the golden age of photography was the era of the 35mm film. Because of this, despite the acceleration of technology, the basic components of a camera remain. One of those components is the shutter. The shutter is a piece of retractable plastic that opens and closes at varying speeds when you take a picture.

You may remember that when I discussed apertures I mentioned that they’re intrinsically linked with shutter speed and ISO. The shutter speed is the time it takes for the shutter curtain to open and close and is measured in seconds and fractions of a second.

But what is a shutter curtain?
Well this goes back to that aforementioned golden era. 35mm film is a light sensitive strip of gelatin. Any exposure to light can ruin it if it’s not done in a controlled way. Therefore, in order to get a photograph, the lens must be focused, the aperture set to the correct value and the shutter speed adjusted so that the appropriate amount of light hits the frame.

These days the shutter curtain is a piece of retractable plastic but was originally light tight cloth. When you press the shutter release, the curtain opens, exposes light onto the film or digital sensor, then closes again. While not in use, it hides the sensor or film from light which allows you to take off the lens to change it. Compact cameras don’t generally have a curtain because they don’t have interchangeable lenses.

How do we use the shutter speed to our advantage?
Depending on the type of photography you do will depend on how you use the shutter speed to your advantage. A general rule of thumb is that if you want to get sharp, blur free images hand held, then don’t use a shutter speed lower than the focal length of the lens. For example, if the lens is set to 50mm, don’t go below 1/50sec. If you find that the picture is underexposed, open the aperture or use a faster ISO setting to ensure that you don’t break this guideline.

There are a number of different photographic disciplines where you would use the shutter speed more creatively.

Angling the camera slightly gives a sense of power from the car as you'd lean while it goes round a corner. The slower shutter speed leaves image trails - or blur - to enhance the movement. These cars were travelling at roughly 10MPH.
Angling the camera slightly gives a sense of power from the car as you’d lean while it goes round a corner. The slower shutter speed leaves image trails – or blur – to enhance the movement. These cars were travelling at roughly 10MPH.

Motorsport is a fast, high octane event and photographers want to convey this in their pictures. They do this by using the shutter speed to their advantage. Setting the camera to around 1/200sec will get sharp, frozen cars or bikes. That means that the wheels will be frozen too and won’t give the viewer a sense of the speed they can go. So a photographer will find a part of the track they go slower at – such as a hairpin bend. The camera will have a slightly slower shutter speed than is recommended and the focus will be manually set to a predetermined position. When the car gets in view, the photographer will pan with the car and at the focused area will take the shot, all the time panning. Following the car like this will keep it sharp while the slower shutter will blur the background and wheels giving a sense of movement.

Using a very long exposure allows any light burned on the image to remain there. When using lights at night this creates a light trail.
Using a very long exposure allows any light burned on the image to remain there. When using lights at night this creates a light trail.

Night landscape photography utilises a slow shutter speed to get car light trails on roads while some urban photographers have become extremely adept at using torches to create stunning night time abstract images.

This may sound simple but takes years of practice. A professional photographer understands how a shutter speed works. A camera in Auto mode can easily recommend a setting but it doesn’t have any creativity and can’t break rules against its programming. That’s why a photographer will give you much better results than a friend or a camera phone. I’m trained and have extensive experience in different types of photography. If you have an idea that I may be able to help with, please get in touch.