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People and Portraits

There are a few basic things that you should always keep in mind when photographing people or taking portrait shots. It doesn't matter if you are taking photographs of a group of people, an individual, inside or outside, close up or from a distance, you should always keep in mind a basic set of fundamental rules. When taking photographs of people it pays to be methodical and careful about this rules, mentally tick them off in your head as you prepare to take your photograph; if you do this you can be assured of creating some stunning quality images. Unfortunately due to the posed nature of many photographs of people they can often appear sterile or artificial and portrait photography in general is sometimes frowned upon, as I was once told by a photographer friend “the only good picture of a person is one in which they didn't realise they were being photographed”. Whilst this is true to a certain extent if you stick to a few basic do's and don'ts you'll find even your posed photographs will take on a whole new aspect and begin to look far more professional.

The first thing to decide is how to frame the image by picking from horizontal or vertical formats. Obviously a sensible choice is to hold your camera horizontally (like normal) when taking group photographs and upright when you are taking a portrait of a single person or a pair of people. You should also consider the artistic merits of each and how they apply to your own unique circumstances, sometimes you may wish to deviate from these rules depending on which aspect suits your subject and your surroundings. This decision lies solely with you and how you wish to compose your image. Now you have to consider whether you want to take a close-up photograph or not, you will find that be experimenting with close up shots as opposed to shots from further away that the close up shots convey a genuine sense of intimacy with your subject. Although it is possible thanks to modern technology to crop images in post processing it is still worth attempting to capture the image properly initially rather than relying on software as a crutch for poor composition.

When manoeuvring your subject to get the best photograph (“back a bit, forward a bit, left a bit, bit more please”) you should always try to avoid putting the subject directly in the centre of the image. Generally images with the subject dead centre will look artificially forced and you should always try to have the subject offset to one side, if you do this even by a small amount your pictures will benefit. The only time you should ever place your subject directly in the centre of your image is if you are striving for formality, when taking certain wedding photographs for example, things that are supposed to look deliberately posed. Now if you are offsetting your subject to one side, you should always have the empty side of the image the side that the subject is facing towards. For instance if your subject is walking slowly (or that is the impression you wish to capture) from left to right, then set your subject on the left hand side of the image and leave the right side (their direction of travel) empty. Even if your subject is stood completely still if you leave empty space behind the subject it tends to look as though you have poorly composed your image (it gives an impression of bad panning and “missing” the subject). Always leave the open space in the direction that the subject is looking; this is a golden rule of photographing people.

Remember that when you are photographing a person you want that person to be the focal point of your image. If you photograph them in front of a cluttered or overly interesting background this will draw attention away from your subject; always try and compose your shots so that the subject is against a plain background or against a background that will not draw the eye away from the person. If you are striving for maximum artistic integrity occasionally you can creatively use the focus of your camera to blur out the background if it is too distracting to draw your eye to the subject, however this can lead to inferior looking photographs if not done correctly. Whilst you want to avoid anything that draws the eye away from the subject you should also look around to see what will compliment the subject and try to photograph with that in the background. Changing your point of view and photographing from a new aspect can alter the tone of your images dramatically. Also remember if you are photographing children you may need to kneel or lie down, you should always photograph your subject from their own eye level is possible as it conveys a sense of realism to the image. Of course there are alternatives to this rule; it is up to you as a photographer to decide when to bend this rule to create interesting compositions. Generally speaking it depends on what effect you wish to convey via your photography; in a full length portrait taking the photograph from above the subjects eye level makes them look shorter and more diminutive, whilst taking it from below their eye level will make the subject appear more powerful and authoritative. Neither angle is particularly flattering though (since we as humans rarely see others from these angles it tends to feel unnatural) however the techniques are there for you to use if the situation arises.