It’s that time of year when the kids are going back to school, and the seniors in high school find out that they have to think about getting their senior pictures done. Most will feel that graduation is a long way away and there will be plenty of time. Soon enough, though, they will notice that, before they know it, it’s February and their portrait for the yearbook is due. They will also realize that they don’t want to go outside for their portraits in February.
Although I can name a few reasons to go to a professional photographer for your senior portraits – much like you’d want to go to your special hairdresser for your favorite hairstyle – I know that digital cameras are all pretty cool today, and most can come up with a very nice looking image with very little photographic knowledge. It has always been part of who I am to give any knowledge I may have to whomever may want it. So this month I will provide a few tips to those who may wish to take on the task of photographing a young man or woman for their senior portrait.
From my own experience, I can say that trying to photograph your own children at this age is almost impossible. Teenagers are interested in only two things: their life and their friends. To a teen, even interacting with parents is a chore and hassle and most responses to parents’ questions warrant only a one-word answer and more often just a roll of the eyes. You will get only five minutes of their time for you to photograph them. I’m really not kidding here. Five minutes.
Red Lodge High School has a very good beginning photography class, which has been taught by Matt Schrowe. There are always a few in his class that have more than a fleeting interest in photography. I have watched some of these students go on to Powell or Bozeman and gain a solid knowledge of photography. This may be a good resource for those who are friends with one of these students. Even so, I will give anyone willing or able to take on the task of photographing a senior a few hints for taking ordinary pictures and making them into portraits.
One of the first things to consider is getting closer to the person you are photographing. If you aren’t used to photographing people, you’ll naturally photograph them further away than what would provide for a good capture of their expression or the details of their facial features. Using a longer focal length lens (aka a telephoto lens) will naturally bring you closer. Most have a zoom lens that comes as the package lens with the camera. What you want to do is zoom the lens to where you are well closer than what you would normally consider your comfort zone in talking to that person. For variety you can photograph them, even in the same pose, by first zooming to a ¾ body shot, then again just below the chest, then finally to a head and shoulders or just a head shot.
Remember that whatever is closest to the lens will be largest, and what is further away from the lens will show up smaller. Typically you want the face to be the closest thing to the camera and focus on the eyes. Having the face slightly forward of the body gives good definition to the jaw line. This can sometimes be tricky, as you don’t want an obvious lean in your image, as people don’t normally lean.
Body position can also make a big difference. Someone who is a little heavy can be slimmed down by just turning their hips so the hips are parallel to the shooting angle. So for someone who is thin you want to have both the hips visible to the camera, and you’ll want to give shape to the body by having them put weight on one leg and push the hips toward the leg with the weight on it. This is usually the way everyone stands when they are talking. Typically it’s the back leg that gets the weight and the hips are pushed back away from the camera. It also looks better to have the hips and shoulders in different positions so there is a little twist in the body. You almost never want the person just facing the camera with hips and shoulders inline. It’s just boring. Usually the face is turned towards the camera (unless you want a profile portrait), and make sure the head isn’t tilted to either side or backward or forward. If you want the face turned slightly away don’t turn it so far that when they look at the camera all you see is the whites of the eyes. Symmetry in a portrait is ok, but asymmetry is more interesting. For example a little asymmetry might be having the hands on the hips but one hand higher on the waist than the other.
One thing most people don’t consider is exactly how much of the portrait needs to be in focus. Usually all we need is the face and always, always the eyes. A portrait is really isolating an object from its background. The part of the camera’s exposure that controls what is in focus is the aperture or f-stop. I’ve written on this before but, in essence, an aperture of f-1.8 to f-5.6 would be acceptable for a portrait to isolate the person from the background, f-1.8 having the least depth of field and f-5.6 having the most. When you start doing portraits at f-8 or higher the person is not sufficiently separated from the background and everything is just too sharp. If they are outside, what you have is a landscape photograph with a person in it. Think about isolating that person and letting the background go out of focus.
Finally, always know the quality of light in which you are photographing your portrait. A cloudy or foggy day creates a beautiful, soft light that fills in any imperfections in someone’s face and is perfect for a portrait. If there is any kind of shadow on the ground, it means the sun will also be creating harsh shadows on the face of the subject you are photographing. If the subject is facing towards the brightness of the sun they will be squinting. If the subject is facing away from the sun, you will get a beautiful back light but if the cameras exposure is on automatic the subject will be underexposed. This can be compensated for by using a fill flash, or even better a couple of reflectors. This month’s photo of Rosie is shot into a backlight, but if you look closely into her eyes you can see two large reflectors reflecting lighting back into her face. The depth of field is very shallow, maybe only f-2.8, and even some of her hair is thrown out of focus. It creates a beautiful soft look. By giving a little thought to the images you want you can easily create beautiful portraits. And if it becomes too much work, give me a call.