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Photo Scrapbook (12/26/2007)
By Tom Hirsch
Informal portraits

by Tom Hirsch

I tried to avoid using the term "portrait" here because for many of us the word conjures up the idea of a formal photograph of a person taken from the waist up by a professional photographer. But this is only one type of portrait. An informal portrait might include only the person's face, a shot from the neck up, waist up, a three-quarters shot, or a picture of the entire person. The individual might be standing, seated in a chair or on the ground, reclining on a couch, jumping in the air, or in any one of a number of poses that would be comfortable and look natural for that subject. After you get the person to feel comfortable, the next thing is to get the subject to look natural for the camera.

Granted, when photographing someone eye-to-eye (okay, lens-to-eye), it isn't easy getting them to look "natural." The more relaxed the subject is, the more likely she or he is to respond to your directions, and the easier your job will be as the photographer. Not all of us are good storytellers, but if you have the ability to tell jokes, you will be assured of getting a smile out of your subject. Even if you are only able to engage the subject in light conversation as you watch them through the viewfinder, you can usually get the person's mind off the fact that a camera seems to be talking to them.

Even better than you talking to the subject, position a friend right behind you, and have that person do the talking. This will free you to concentrate on the photographic end of it.

When taking informal portraits, what frequently happens is that the subject will give you the "natural" expression you've been looking for, but by the time you recognize it and press the shutter-release, the expression is gone. To avoid this problem, develop the habit of taking several shots in rapid succession. This should elicit a variety of expressions.

Nobody likes to look into the sun when they have their picture taken. For the most natural portraits, use subdued lighting, such as hazy or cloudy-bright sunlight. Shadows will be soft, and the subject won't have to squint when looking toward the sun. Soft sunlight coming from about a forty-five degree angle usually provides the best lighting direction.

When taking informal portraits under a cloudy or partly cloudy sky, the resulting photos will be somewhat cool - they'll have a slightly bluish cast if this is not compensated for. With a digital camera that has White Balance controls, you can warm up the shot a bit with the "Cloudy" setting to get more natural looking photos.

If you wish to take informal portraits on a bright, sunny day, look for open shade such as that found under a large, leafy tree. The important thing here is that the lighting be even. If sunlight comes through the leaves and falls on the subject, it can create a distracting hotspot. These spots might be okay if they don't fall on the person's face. In the shade, you still might want to use the "Cloudy" setting if you're using a digital camera.

When it is necessary to shoot under bright sunlight, have the subject face away from the sun. Take the pictures using fill-flash to provide some lighting to the person's face and to soften the shadows.

In portrait photography, it's usually best to use a relatively large aperture (f/2 to f/4) to throw the background somewhat out of focus. A softened background will place more emphasis on the subject.

Head-on shots are great for use on wanted posters, but for informal portraits they're murder. For best composition, have the individual stand at about a forty-five degree angle to the camera. You might want the subject to look in the direction of the camera, or away from it, depending on the effect you want to achieve.

If your camera has a moderate telephoto or zoom lens, use it for informal portraits. Being some distance from the subject will make the camera less intimidating. It will also help put the background more out of focus.

When shooting informal portraits, avoid fancy lighting and background setups. An informal portrait is supposed to be informal; everything in it should look "natural."



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