occasionally technical tuesday: how i take portraits

Sarah.  Playful, quick-witted, warmhearted.


This weekend I realized that other than Kyran's, I hadn't shared with you the portraits that I took at the Mom 2.0 Summit in New Orleans over a week ago.  So as I was processing the photographs, I realized that they gave me the perfect opportunity to write an Occasionally Technical Tuesday post on taking portraits.  Now, remember, I've mentioned before that I'm certainly no expert, and am completely self-taught when it comes to photography; however, I do love taking portraits (and am on a quest to shoot 1000 faces, after all), so I figured I'd share some of the observations I've made along the way.


I don't know how it is for other photographers (and at the risk of sounding really, horribly and almost unforgivably shmaltzy), but taking someone's photograph feels very intimate to me.  I suppose if I were posing people when I took a portrait, it probably wouldn't; however, I hate posed photographs, and actually am less interested in getting someone's "good side" or a "flattering angle"; rather, I'm more interested in capturing a glimpse of a person's spirit.  And when I do, it feels like the person who I'm photographing has allowed me to see something they don't necessarily always allow others to see, and it makes me feel grateful, and frankly, humbled.  It's like I've just seen something perhaps I haven't yet necessarily earned the right to.  It's an incredibly gratifying feeling.

Anyway, for this reason, at times it can be very difficult to take the photograph of a total stranger who simply walks up to me asking me to take their portrait, because unless I'm also of a mind to take a portrait, it can sometimes feel like forced intimacy.  I usually feel the need to connect with the person in some small way, first.  It's important for me to watch the person for a moment, speak to them a bit (or watch them speaking to someone else), just to build an initial impression of their personality before I ever think about raising the camera to my face. I like to watch how their eyes flash when they hear something funny, or soften when they talk about someone they love, or how their brows furrow when speaking of something that concerns them.  Getting this first impression, by the way, doesn't necessarily take a long time -- sometime it's instantaneously -- but doing so helps me find what's beautiful about their spirit, and helps me focus on what I want to shoot.

For example:  the people whose images I shot for this post aren't all close friends -- a few are people who I met only a few minutes before I took the shot.  But in each case, I formed an impression of them before I took the shot, and hoped that I captured that impression once I squeezed the shutter.  (And for what it's worth, in addition to linking to their sites, I wrote my impressions of each of them under the portraits, so you can judge for yourself if you see those traits in their images.)

Does that make sense, or does it seem totally strange?

Anyway, once I've done this, then comes the more technical part of shooting the image.  And the following is what I think about when I shoot:

Jennifer.  Joyful, exuberant, enchanting.


Location, location, location.

I always look for a place with lots of natural light (because, honestly, I don't even pretend to know how to use a flash), without any harsh shadows (which I discussed when we talked about overhead vs. diffused light, here).  If it's bright-sunny-midday light, then I look for some sort of shelter -- shade provided by a tree or the overhang of a building, so I still get the outdoor light, without any of the weird shadows.  Overcast skies (like the skies that were around when I photographed Jennifer, above) are ideal.

Then secondly, once I've found good light, I take a moment to check out what's behind my subject. Nothing is more disappointing than taking what I know will be a great photograph of someone, and then discover that behind them was a pile of garbage cans, or telephone lines or someone's bottom (it happens), distracting the viewer's gaze from the subject's lovely face.  So I'm always very conscious about what's behind the person.  Foliage is always great, or small twinkle lights in the background (as in Sarah's image at the top of this post) or even a strong colour, but only if the colour is a good colour for that person (i.e, someone who doesn't look good in yellow won't take a particularly flattering photo if you put them in front of a bank of yellow flowers).  Make sense?  It's just about being mindful about what's in the entire frame before squeezing the shutter.

Caleb.  Easy-going, discerning, focused.


Anissa.  Indomitable, irreverent, irresistable.


April.  Driven, no-nonsense, straight-talker.


I get in close.

In my opinion, a really lovely portrait often requires getting in nice and close to the subject -- it creates a sense of intimacy for the viewer (not to mention I think faces are generally the most interesting physical parts of people, anyway).  I try to fill the frame with the person's face and neck, usually. Generally, I like to err on the side of being really close than really far away.  And remember, for portraits, lenses between 50mm-100mm usually work best.

Sarah.  Serene, friendly, faith-full.

 Polly.  Light-filled, enthusiastic, lovingkind.


I take tons of shots, always focusing on the eyes.

Back in the day, when I shot with a film camera, I had to be very sparing with my shots -- because, honestly, processing film gets expensive.  So in my world, God bless the digital camera, where I can take tons of shots without really thinking about it.  And therefore, while I don't take a lot of time with people when I shoot (each of these shots were taken in less than 5 minutes), I shoot a lot.  I'm often talking, or making jokes or whatever, trying to help the subject forget about the camera (which obviously, is often easier said than done).  And in a pinch, I sometimes have the person close their eyes and think about someone they love, before they open their eyes and look directly into my camera lens -- and then I take several shots before they realize what has happened.

And speaking of eyes -- remember, the eyes are the windows to the soul.  I always focus directly on the eyes, with the goal of making them sharpest, when it comes to focus.  It's a general portrait photographer's trick in taking a perfect shot, and it's a good one.

Kristen. Guileless, open, sincere.


Rita. Perceptive, creative, witty.


And then sometimes, I just throw all the rules out the window.

In the case of photographing Rita, above, I got several beautifully sharp portraits of her -- but it was this shot, taken while she was rocking forward in laughter over something Polly (7th photo from the top) had said off-camera, that I truly loved:  because as blurry as it is, it totally captures Rita's spirit.  And again, this is always ultimately my goal: to give a glimpse of the beauty that's inevitably inside each person I photograph.

Hope this helps, friends.  And for those of you who are experienced photographers, if you have any additional tips about how to take a good portrait, please share them in the comments below.  I'm always looking for good pointers.


Occasionally Technical Tuesday is a new feature here on Chookooloonks, where we'll tackle topics like choosing a camera, how a camera works, how I choose lenses, how I use Photoshop, how I pack for a photo trip, that sort of thing.  You can see an entire index of subjects we've addressed here.  I'm no expert, but I'll share what I know, occasionally.


Images:  All photographed with my Nikon D300 and 50mm lens.  Sarah:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/250, ISO 250; Jennifer:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/640, ISO 250;  Caleb:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/250, ISO 200;  Anissa:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/160, ISO 250;  April:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/640, ISO 250;  Sarah:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/250, ISO 200;  Polly:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/1600, ISO 250;  Kristen:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/640, ISO 250;  Rita:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/1600, ISO 250.


Song: Beautiful by G. Love featuring Tristan Prettyman