Photo Tip #3: Photographing People–The Informal Portrait

Photographing People















The art and aesthetic of portraiture is highly varied and subjective. I love the photojournalistic approach to photographing people–catching them in that unguarded moment. I strive to capture a subject in the act of being him- or herself. As you move through your day-to-day, take note of the portraits that really move you. It is likely that they exude the passion, emotion, and wonder that is intrinsic to being human. The most powerful portraits are those that speak to our own sense of humanness.

The informal portrait is an exercise in patient observation, having the camera ready at all times. Think ahead. Anticipate where any action may occur. Note the light and take meter readings. Think about depth-of-field (see Photo Tip #2: Depth-of-Field). Is the action fast-moving? Does the scene warrant a slow shutter speed and blurred motion to emphasize the action?

I am a minimalist by nature. When in the field, I like to keep gear to a minimum–for a couple of reasons. One–space and weight. I’m often packing the gear while skiing or hiking and want to keep weight down. And two–the more gear you bring, the more likely you are to spend precious time switching from one lens to the next, potentially missing that one-time shot. With my film camera, I carry a maximum of three lenses and usually two. My main lens is a Canon 35-105 mm f/3.5-5.6 macro zoom. Ninety percent of all my photos are taken with this lens. With its high optical quality, the focal range offers many compositional possibilities and works very well for portraits. Generally, 85 to 100 mm focal lengths are considered ideal for portraiture. Anything shorter tends to distort facial features at closer distances. But maybe the portrait is less about the person, per se, and more about their relationship to the landscape. Having the flexibility and convenience of a zoom is indispensable to me. I place a lot of emphasis on composition and a zoom lens makes composing the photograph easy. My second must-carry lens is a Canon 24 mm f/2.8 superwide angle with an 89 degree field of view. I love its sharpness front to back, as well as its distortion of perspective. This lens is compact and fairly lightweight, so I can’t afford to leave it at home. Even though I only use it occasionally, there are times when it’s the only lens for the job. Don’t hesitate to try wide and superwide angle lenses for portraiture. They can be used very creatively. The third lens in my quiver is a Canon 200 mm f/4 telephoto. Another favorite lens. It’s short enough to be hand-held (no image-stabilization) and works well for portraiture. The lens is especially nice in its ability to isolate a subject and produce a soft, diffuse background. Because of its size and weight, this lens may or may not make it into the pack, depending on the situation.


Photographing PeopleA word on composition. It is natural to plop the subject dead-center in the middle of the photograph. Sometimes this works, but most of the time it doesn’t. There is a principle called the rule of thirds, in which you divide the picture area into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. Place your subject 1/3 of the way into the picture area and have them walking, running, or skiing into the photograph. This implies forward motion and is simply more visually interesting. Maybe having the subject walking out of the photograph more accurately conveys what you want to say. I will talk more about the rule of thirds in the next Photo Tips. If your friends are standing on the summit of Mount Whitney, don’t cut them off at the ankles–it’s a grave injustice–and they’ll need their feet to get back down. When composing a photograph, try varying the camera angle to exaggerate perspective or create tension. Nobody says the camera must be held perfectly level.

I prefer to shoot portraits hand-held and in natural light. I like being able to shoot on the fly. Fill flash, when handled properly, yields pleasing, natural-looking results. I will cover the use of flash in a future Photo Tips. If you are shooting in low light, try opening up the lens and hand-holding for a second or more. I’ve been rewarded with some very pleasant surprises–images that remain among my favorites–through my willingness to experiment.

Photographing people doesn’t require a predetermined subject. Interesting portraits surround us wherever we are. The Swing (top) was taken at a park playground in my hometown many years ago. Children love to be photographed and are usually willing and able subjects. This particular photograph was taken on Kodak Plus-X (125 ASA black and white) print film. The negative was scanned in the color mode, yielding the magenta cast you see here. I have taken to scanning my black and white negatives in the color mode and then converting them to grayscale images. Sometimes, as with The Swing, I prefer the the color version over its black and white counterpart.

A friend and college instructor used to profess, “The first rule in art is there are no rules.” So have fun. Experiment. And most of all, get out and shoot. The possibilities are limitless.

Please contact me with any questions, comments, or suggestions.

Until next time, happy image-making…


Leave a comment