Grok Photography

Photos and words by Petter Senften

How To Not Take Crappy Portraits

Today I was out at Artipelag in Stockholm. While on the roof-terrace I noticed a couple. He was waving around some entry-level Canon DSLR with a kit-zoom and she was insisting he take some kind of portrait of her. I heard him mumbling about how he’d set the camera to “portrait” mode and that’d fix the issue. After that I noticed how he proceeded to do everything wrong when taking a decent headshot-style portrait.

See, the thing is, it’s not difficult to take a half-decent (or surprisingly good) portrait even with entry-level or even quite crappy gear as long as you can work around the limitations of your equipment and know the tricks to making it look good.

Now, before I continue, these are my opinions. If you think that I’m completely out of my league, that’s okay. I don’t claim to be the absolute guru of photography.

Moving right along.

1. Don’t use the wide end. The guy I noticed obviously had his kit-zoom set to the wide end, I’m guessing he had it set around the 18mm setting since he was shoving the camera in her face in a vain attempt at decent composition.

Why shouldn’t you use the wide end of your kit-zoom? Because first off, just like this guy, you’ll end up shoving your camera into the subjects face. It’s just not very pleasant.

Secondly, due to the wide-angle in use you’ll end up with a subject who has a wildly distorted face. Probably with a giant nose in the middle of the face and tiny ears on the side. Also, the face will be unflatteringly wide. In short, your subject will end up looking like the back of a bus.

You’ll also pull in tons of background. Most people who desire a short depth of field (i.e. a blurred background behind the subject) will find this difficult with wide-angle lenses.

No, zoom your lens! The longer the better. If you have the standard 18-55mm that’s included with most entry- or mid-level DSLR’s, then set it to 55mm. Zoom your lens and use your feet to move away a bit in order to get decent composition.

2. Your subject shouldn’t be looking into the sun. This guy had his gal doing precisely that. It’s very tempting as a beginner to have a subject looking into the sun when shooting a portrait because, hey, it’s free light!

WRONG. What happens is that you get tons of weird shadows in the subjects face making him/her look a lot older and more tired. Also, since the sun is shining them in the face they will want to squint their eyes. This makes their face look as if they just bit into a lemon. Quite unflattering.

My tip is to have them stand with the sun on their back. Set your camera to spot-measuring and make sure it measures on their face if you know how to. This will result in the subjects face being in the shadows and not looking all lemon-y or with tons of shadows around the eyes. The backlighting will create a halo around the subjects head which also looks good.

3. Don’t use auto modes or any of the “scene” modes of your camera. The camera doesn’t know crap about what’s going on and after all, it’s YOU who takes the photo. Not the camera. If you feel squeamish about leaving full-auto, use the P-mode instead. It’s essentially automatic but somewhat more in control. Depending on your experience-level you might want to use the A-mode (“Av” on Canon) which is Aperture-priority mode, letting you set your aperture but the camera takes care of the rest. Then you can set a nice, fairly big aperture to blur out the background. Me, I kinda like around f5.6 to shoot portraits and this incidentally is the same maximum aperture which most kit-zooms can handle on the tele-end.

After I’d left the would-be portrait photographer I asked my girlfriend for some (literally) five-second posing. She complied and down below is the result. The top-photo is a photo shot doing it completely wrong. Notice how she has the sun in her face and how the background gets sucked in due to the wide-angle. Her face also has unflattering distortion and she has the sun in her face as well so she’s squinting.

Bottom photo is shot according to the tips above. I asked her to stand in a bit of shade, with the sun to her back and I shot the photo using the longest end of my lens. Yes, I kinda flubbed the focus on this one but it was quick and it still demonstrates the difference.

Both of these photos were shot using my Nikon 1 S1 (which is a dirt-cheap little mirrorless camera) with the included kit-zoom. Both photos were shot at f8 using the aperture-priority mode on the camera. This is an amateur camera and these shots could be taken by anyone. They’re straight out of the camera as well, only converted from RAW to JPEG. No processing, no nothing.

Now, go off and have fun!


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