Better Portraits Part One

better-portraitEveryone knows that in every picture there is always a center of interest. It may not be in the center per se but it should be obvious what the subject of any photograph is.

Chances are that subject is usually sharp and in focus. If it isn’t, it might be framed in such a way that the viewer’s eye will naturally gravitate to it.

Generally speaking, following some of these simple advice, even if you are using a point-and-shoot camera, whether digital or film, will make your pictures better.

1. Backgrounds. Usually an afterthought but this can make or break a successful portrait. Moving closer to your subject physically or moving them closer to you taking them further away from the clutter in the background reduces the depth-of-field. Depth-of-field is jargon for “how much of a picture will be in focus and appears sharp.”

Because you are most likely concentrating on the face of your subject, you don’t want the background to be in focus. That background especially if it is cluttered ends up competing for attention from your picture’s center of interest–generally your subject’s eyes.

2. Lighting. In instances when is impractical to move the subject from the background. Then what you can do to remove the clutter?

Consider lighting just the subject and basing your exposure on just your subject. A picture exposed this way immediately renders the background a none factor.

When you selectively “light” just your subject, either by opening a door or window next to the subject and turning off the room lights, you have effortlessly and effectively removed the clutter in the background.

better-portrait2If your aim however, is to do an “environmental portrait,” then you will need to show something else in the picture that tells your viewer what your subject does for a living.

In this instance you should carefully pick elements in the scene that will “read” best. By “read,” I mean choose elements which are bigger or more obvious especially if they are small in comparison to the size of your subject.

A good example of this would be if you’re photographing an artist.Posing your subject, the artist, in his studio by a window or doorway and turning off all the lights in the room, leaving only a work lamp to illuminate his work on an easel is a good example of this simple technique.

If shooting in color, pay attention to the color temperature of your light sources. Using your flash or light source which is compatible in color temperature with your film or digital camera setting is extremely important. It can save you hours of post production work.

3. Lens selection. Use the longest focal length lens to enable you to fill the frame. Unlike artists who paint and draw, photographers with the exception of those who work to execute what an art director envisions, usually don’t get to arrange everything in their pictures.

So they have to carefully select lenses that allow them to use as much of their viewfinder or frame as possible. In order words, they need to include only what is important or relevant. If it’s a portrait, it means maybe just the face and not the whole entire body.

If you include more of the body, the less impact your subject’s face will have especially if the “finished” picture is going to be small.

So telephoto lenses are usually better for portraits because it allows you to get a larger image of your subject’s face without you invading their space.

Also the shallower depth-of-field will help remove the clutter of foreground and background.

better-portrait34. The eyes have it all. If you have ever looked at a portrait where the subject’s eyes aren’t in focus, you will know this one. It’s not surprising that there exists software especially in the new digital cameras that pick out faces in the viewfinder and focuses on that automatically.

If both eyes are visible, the eyes that’s closer to the camera needs to be in focus and not the other way around.

I am confident if you just apply some of these four tips, you’ll see improvements in your next portraits.

About the Author
Peter Phun is an adjunct photography instructor at Riverside City College. He is a freelance photographer, web designer and stay at home dad. He previously worked as a staff photographer for 18 years at The Press-Enterprise, Southern California’s 4th largest daily newspaper. Peter is the webmaster for the Mac user group in the Inland Empire. For more information about this Riverside based photographer, visit

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