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The best way to improve your photography is practice. Shoot each week so you get to the point where you don’t have to think about how to operate your camera…You just use it to create images. If you’ve discovered that when working in the shade, you need some plus exposure compensation, make a note of it. Don’t worry about producing masterpieces each time you got out. Use your camera as a sketchpad to explore possibilities and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Sometimes these “sketches” will be successful, sometimes not, but learn from your analysis of the images. As Yoda say “There is no try, just do.”
1. Look for indoor locations where the best light is found.
While it seems obvious, many photographs are made in locations where the photographer or their subject decides to make it. This works great for an interesting outdoor locations (my next suggestion) but for indoor portraits place your subject where the light is best. Use with wide-open apertures to soften and blur the background and focus attention on your subject. In my home, my favorite place to shoot portraits is the kitchen. The walls are painted a soft white and a bay window provides North light that can be modulated by opening and closing mini-blinds in each window section. You may have a similar location in your home, and never thought a kitchen or other unlikely location would be a great place to make a portrait or two. Think about it now.
2. Search for interesting locations.
Not 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 images. While traveling around the state, I make notes about locations that look like they would be a fun place to make photographs. Even better are those locations that will serve as a location for a portrait session. Recently I went to a state park that has a large lake looking for a beach-like location for swimsuit photographs only to find water levels at an all time high and the beach under water. I brought a point-and-shoot camera and while walking around the lake’s edge saw some spots that would produce interesting photographs.
3. Keep your lighting tools simple
I prefer to work with as few light control devices as possible because the less time you spend fiddling with equipment, the more time you can spend putting your subject at ease. These days almost all my people photography is done with natural light using only a single reflector. I mostly use one of Westcott 30″ Double Sided Illuminator reflectors that collapses to the size of a large pizza. There are various fabric combinations available but I use the Sunlight and White combination, although I confess to using the Sunlight side more indoors because it kicks more light back onto the subject. Outdoors, the white side provides a balanced fill. When used with Westcott’s Illuminator Arms, you can attach the reflector to a lightstand but if an assistant is available I prefer to have them hold it. It’s much easier to talk to an assistant and get them to move the reflector than walking back to the light stand to make an adjustment. Reflectors can
also be where you find them. When testing a digital SLR for Shutterbug magazine I handed the camera to photojournalist Barry Staver to photograph me using the light coming through the window at the diner where we were having breakfast. To add 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!
4. Metering the light.
Nowadays all cameras have built-in meters and some even have spot meters but I still occasionally use a hand-held meter when photographing people. My current meter is a Gossen Luna Star F2. It’s small and light and takes incident readings that I prefer when making portraits. The meter also measures reflected light as well as making corded or non-corded flash readings. While working with a portrait subject, I like to measure the light on both sides of a person’s face to determine the lighting ratio. There are all kinds of rules of thumb telling you what the ideal ratio is but Renaissance painters used a technique called chiaroscuro that featured ratios that would make some photographer’s hair stand on end but created art that has transcended the centuries. The “right” ratio will vary depending on the shape of the subject’s face and the look that you want to produce for the final image.
5. Watch the background.
It’s so easy to become so enthralled by the person that you’re photographing that you forget about the background where you’ve placed them. I believe 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 wide
apertures but it’s not uncommon to have to physically clean up an outdoor site before you can make a portrait. While you can always digitally remove beer cans and fast food wrappers, taking the time to clean up the trash before you make an outdoor portrait leaves it clean for everybody else too.
6. Talk to your subject.
I’ll never forget the advice one of my mentors gave me many years ago. When I asked him what was the worst thing I could do when photographing people, I expected him to give me some tip on avoiding technical problems but his answer surprised me. “If you don’t talk to the people-relate to them as human beings-you’re never going make a good picture.” More than 30 years later, I’ve never forgotten that advice and would like to pass it on to you. Using a hand-held meter provides you with an opportunity to interact with your subject. While talking a meter reading you can make the time to talk to your subject and reassure them that they look great. Photographing people combines elements of psychology as much camera technology and how you personally interact with your subject will have more to do with the success of your session than the camera or lens that you use.
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