The best way to improve your photography is to practice. Make sure that you shoot something each week so you eventually get to the point where you don’t have to think about how to operate your gear. The suggestions I’m about to give are hardly secrets and may be information and ideas you already know but may be tucked into the back of your mind, languishing and waiting to be jogged. Here’s that jog:
Search for interesting locations. Not too long ago, there was an on-line discussion asking what inspires people to create new images. For me, new things inspire me. It can be a new camera, new lens, or just a new place to make photographs. While traveling around, I look for and make notes about locations that can serve as a location for a portrait session. You can even go looking for portrait locations on purpose. Recently I went to a state park with a large lake looking for a beach-like location for swimsuit photographs. I had my Olympus XZ-1 camera with me, and while walking around the lake’s edge saw many spots that would produce interesting photographs.
Keep your lighting tools simple. The late Edward DeCroce once advised me to work with as few light control devices as possible. I try to do that because the less time spent working with my gear, the more time I can spend putting my subject at ease. These days much of my people photography is done with natural light using a single reflector. I like to work with Adorama’s versatile Flashpoint Five-in-One reflector kit, which is available in 22, 32, and 42-inch versions. I mostly use the 32-inch size because it makes a compact package when collapsed, but is big enough to work with a single subject.
Having the reflector on a light stand is useful when working alone but if an assistant is available I prefer to use them instead. It’s much easier to talk to an assistant from camera position and get them to move the reflector than walking back to the light stand to make an adjustment. Reflectors can also be anywhere you find them. When I was testing a new Canon SLR, I handed the camera to photojournalist Barry Staver to make a portrait of me using the available light coming through the window at the diner where we were having breakfast. To add some light into my eyes, Barry grabbed a menu and placed it on the table in front of me—just out of camera range. It worked.
Watch the background. It’s so easy to become so enthralled by the person you are photographing that you forget about the background you placed them—or they placed themselves—in. There’s an old portrait photographer’s expression that “if you watch the background, the foreground will take care of itself.” Nowhere is this more true that in making available light portraits. Busy, ugly backgrounds can be thrown out of focus by using longer lenses and wider apertures but it’s not uncommon to have to physically clean up an outdoor site before you can create a portrait. While you can always digitally remove beer cans and fast food wrappers, taking the time to clean up the trash in an area before you make an outdoor portrait leaves it clean for everybody else too.
Joe Farace is co-author of Better Available Light Digital Photography that’s available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your friendly neighborhood book or camera store.