Environmental Portraits

Recently, a friend asked me to take a portrait of her in her office for professional use. We started behind the desk, but I didn’t feel that location captured her and the inviting warmth of her office and professional style. So we moved to a chair where she normally talks with clients, which was conveniently located by a window that let me avoid using a flash to maintain the natural feel of the office environment. I used a very fast lens (Tamron’s SP 35mm F/1.8) with a wide open aperture of F/2.2. This allowed me to capture my subject in sharp focus while blurring the background of the desk, laptop and books that let the viewer know the subject is in her office.

Blur Your Travel Snapshot Background

As travelers and vacationers, we want the “we are here” photo memories, but they do not need to be quick cell phone grabs, selfies or images that are just flat documentation of our sojourns. Blurring the background elevates your travel snapshots and is simple to do. Set your camera to aperture-priority mode and choose a wider aperture like F/5 or F/6.3. If you are nervous about using a non-program mode, set your camera to the “portrait” mode, which will automatically set your camera to deliver similar results. The sharp subject pops off of the softer background canvas that still lets the viewer know where we are, but feels more professional in nature. In this case, the girl is framed by the Washington Square Arch in Washington Square Park located within the NYU campus area. The arch is blurred out, but identifiable. And the bonus is that all of the distractive elements in the background are also blurred to put our focus on the subject. Try this technique when posing your child or family in front of an iconic structure on your next vacation.

{38mm, F/5, 1/500th sec., ISO200}

For Better Outdoor Portraits, Add a Little Flash-Even in Winter

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In the photo on the left, I did not use a flash. There are harsh shadows all over the girl’s face, to the point where you cannot even see her eyes. By popping up the flash, even outdoors in winter, you can eliminate the harsh shadows on a bright sunny day and capture a much more flattering portrait of your subject. This is called fill flash. I had my camera in regular program (not green box) mode and popped up my flash to get the photo on the right. Now there’s the eyes! And notice how the camera/flash system automatically balances the daylight with the flash to maintain the saturation in the blue sky, brown trees and green grass.

Fall Foliage Background Perfect for Photo Portraits

When sunlight hits colorful fall foliage, it makes a stunning backdrop for your impromptu family portraits. The trick to getting the painterly background look that makes the subject pop off the background is to use a wide open aperture. The portrait here was taken at 70mm with an aperture setting of F/2.8. Focusing on the eyes, the background drops out due to the shallow depth of field into a painterly sparkle of fall colors. If your lens does not open to a fast aperture like F/2.8, use your telephoto lens at its maximum zoom, set the camera to aperture priority and choose the widest aperture opening (most likely F/5.6 or F/6.3) and step in a little bit closer. That combination will drop out the background for a similar look that makes a beautiful portrait suitable for framing and display on your mantle. 

Shooting Sample Images to Learn How to Achieve Shallow Depth of Field

I find that the best way to make aperture-setting selections stick in your mind to be able to achieve a desired effect is to shoot sample images at two aperture extremes. Start by putting your camera into the aperture-priority mode (A on Nikon cameras; AV in Canon cameras). Then set your aperture to the widest setting (like F/2.8, F/3.5, etc.) and take a photo. This will be your sample A (see my sample below). Then move your aperture to its smallest setting (like F/22, F/32). This is your sample B. Then study the difference between the shots.

{Sample A} Wide Open Aperture (F/2.8 – 1/1000th sec shutter speed – 34mm)

{Sample B} Smallest Aperture (F/22 – 1/125th sec shutter speed – 34mm)

Now, to make things confusing, your results will vary depending on your widest aperture setting, focal length setting and how close you are to the subject. In my sample shots above, I was very close to the flowers I focused on and my aperture was F/2.8 in the first, so the brick building in the background is out of focus perhaps more so or less so than your sample shots may show.

If you keep making samples for yourself like this, eventually it will become second nature when you are shooting to select the appropriate aperture to get the photo you have in mind (with out of focus background or sharp background).

Typically you will want to blur the background a little for portraits for a more professional look; or if the background is very distracting; or if you want the viewers of your photos to be drawn to so a very specific part of the shot.

Photographers will use a smaller aperture to get the foreground to background in focus for landscapes, and sometimes for shots that tell a story of where you are. For example, you may want a store name to be in sharp focus so that it is legible. Or you may want the details of a landmark to be in sharp focus as well as your family standing in front of it.

However, sometimes landmarks, such as the Disney Castle, are so recognizable, that having the castle slightly out of focus works really well to give you a “here we are” shot that is elevated to a more professional looking image. Below is a sample from Epcot’s China Pavilion.

A slightly wider open aperture.

 

 

One Location. Two Entirely Different Photos.

Change your position_compSometimes we take the shot we had in mind and call it a day. But when the light is so beautiful at sunset, it pays to take a few steps around just to check out how the sun is lighting your subject. The photo on the left was the one I was after: two girls watching the sunset, captured in near silhouette as the center-weighted meter gave an exposure for the bright setting sun and made most of the other parts of the shot go dark. Just what I wanted. But then I sat down next to the girls to watch the sunset with them, and wow, was the light across their faces gorgeous. So of course I snapped away while the sun set! Because the light was low, I boosted my ISO to 640 and got a shutter speed of 1/100th sec at F/5.0 aperture. If I had unlimited cooperation from my two subjects, I would have boosted the ISO to 1000 and shot more photos at F/8 so that the girl further back would be in sharper focus. When shooting more than one person, either try to get them on the same plane of focus, or deepen your depth of field by using a smaller aperture like F/8. Not always possible, as was the case here, but the sweet expressions and the light make the shot a perfect one for me.

For Great Candid Photos, Keep Your Distance

Keep Your Distance

As all of the school year activities wind down, and some fun summer times begin, take a step back from it all and zoom in on the moments with your telephoto zoom lens. Not only will you get some more natural expressions, but your subjects will really stand out from the background with your tele lens setting. At the end of the last soccer game of the season, I remained at the side lines while the coaches gave encouragement and praise to their players and zoomed in. I caught a very natural expression on both coach and player. Additionally, while outdoors this summer, pay attention to where the sun is. Try to shoot later in the day when the sun is not so harsh. And look where the sun is hitting your subjects. Here, the sun is lower in the sky and behind the team, which adds a nice rim light to their hair and shoulders. In this lighting situation, set your camera to spot meter, as I did here, to be sure the camera gives the proper exposure for your subjects, and does not “put on sunglasses” because of the bright light behind and make your subjects darker than desired. Look for the metering button on your camera and turn it to spot. When you look through your viewfinder, you will see a the smallest of circles in the center of the frame (see below). Be sure this circle is on your subject, press and hold your shutter release button half way to lock in both focus and exposure, adjust your composition if necessary, and then take the shot by pressing the button the rest of the way.

A Little Elevation and Leaning Forward Results in a Better Portrait

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When shooting people, I like to get just a little bit above eye level. When shooting straight on, especially when photographing someone taller than you, results are sometimes less than flattering. Look at the man in the photo on the left, and then compare it to the photo on the right. The only adjustment I made was to stand on a chair and ask him to lean forward just a bit. That slight adjustment results in a much more flattering snapshot that slims him down and eliminates the double chin. A bonus: the background is much less distracting and looking up at me with the sky behind me adds a sparkle to both of their eyes that is not there in the first one! Quick tips to be prepared for that ultra impromptu snapshot of guests who don’t like having their photo taken, but begrudgingly grant you just a moment to do it.

Critique Your Photos In Order To Keep Improving Your Photography Skills

Before I rip this photo apart, I do have to say that I am so glad to have it and it will be framed and scrapbooked regardless of the faults I find in it. However, after loading this up

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onto my computer, I sighed and wished I done some things differently. But this is one of the best ways to improve your picture-taking abilities–critique your images harshly to figure out how to make a better shot. If I could take this photo again, I’d do the following things to improve it:
  • I would get just a little bit higher instead of shooting at eye-level
  • I would have one more level of subjects instead of two predominately same-height rows, allowing me to make the group more narrow to accommodate my desire for a full-length vertical shot
  • I would move the boy in the white shirt to either kneel in front, or to a position behind grandma in blue
  • I would make more organized rows of turned shoulders, instead of all facing forward
  • I love the open shade, but I would changed our position slightly to eliminate the harsh lines of shadow in the foreground and background top right
  • While I purposefully picked F/8 as my aperture to be sure I had enough depth of field for both rows to be in sharp focus, I think stopping down to F/6.3 or 5.6 would have blurred my background more

I do love the lighting, though. Open shade is so flattering (see previous post for more) and in most instances, can be easily found when you take a look around your location. As you see, they are all standing just inside the shade, not in the harsh sun. If they were further back into the doorway, I might not have gotten the sparkle in each of their eyes from the open shade situation. The sun bounces around and lights my subjects evenly as if you held a big sift reflector in front of them, thereby eliminating harsh shadows under chins and brows and giving you highlights in the eyes.

So while I will look for a similar location next time I shoot a group like this, I will a) get higher, b) watch how the subjects are arranged more closely, and c) look more closely at what’s in the edges of the frame and zoom in, change position or change composition to eliminate anything distracting from the frame.

Natural Lighting for Mother’s Day Portraits

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Before mom or grandma comes over for Mother’s Day (May 13th), think about a great spot in your yard to take a beautiful mother’s day portrait. Look for a spot that has open shade. Open shade will give you even lighting and really make the eyes sparkle. Great choices are in a doorway, under a covered porch, or under the perimeter of a shady tree. Position your subject just inside the lens of shade. Rule of thumb for positioning is if she can take just a step or two forward, and she is in sun the sun, then the step or two back is perfect! Too far back and you will lose some of the brightness and highlights in the eyes that the open shade provides. Try to get just a little higher than your subject so she looks up slightly towards your camera. Use a wide open aperture like F/2.8 or F/3.5 to blur the background. If you can use a tele zoom position, then your background will be even more blurred. So scout out your location and do a few test shots before your special guest arrives on Mother’s Day. Read more about open shade here and here).