by Jim Zuckerman
In the classes I teach for Betterphoto, I see many portraits of both people and animals. Often, students overlook things that detract from the artistry of the shot and sometimes they take attention away from the subject. Ideally, the focus of a portrait should be the face. If other parts of the picture get in the way, they become problematic.
I wanted to analyze a shot I took recently of my wife and a friend’s little girl to share my thoughts with you about what goes into making a good outdoor portrait. The factors that can make or break the photo are really very simple, and if you remember these few ideas your pictures of people will vastly improve.
This picture was taken in the late afternoon, and the lighting was very soft. This, more than any other issue, is critical. Soft light is complimentary to everyone. Harsh shadows from a mid-day sun are the worst way to photograph a person. If you really hate someone, take a picture of him or her at high noon and make a large print as a gift. You’ll get the revenge you’ve been hoping for in seeing their expression as they painfully come to the conclusion that ugly is forever!
When you take pictures of friends or family, shoot them in soft light. They’ll love you for it.
The background I chose is completely diffused due to shallow depth of field. I used a telephoto lens and a relatively large lens aperture (f/5.6) purposely to throw the grass and flowers so out of focus that they didn’t intrude on my subjects. One of the most common problems I see is that photographers include busy and distracting background elements that draw our attention away from the subject.
Instead of posing for the camera with stilted expressions, I wanted something more dynamic, more interesting. I wanted something that allowed people to relate to the human interaction. When the baby started crying and my wife thought it was cute (this must be a woman thing, because crying babies don’t even come close to being cute to me), I knew I had the shot.
I shot several frames in quick succession, because the nuances in the expressions of both people changed quickly. It’s obviously impossible to stop the action and critically examine how each person looks. This is another important point. Keep shooting until the peak moment is gone. Don’t hesitate, don’t get frustrated and take the camera away from your eyes, and don’t get distracted by things going on around you. Hold your concentration on the subjects so you are ready the instant something great happens.
On the negative side, there are two things that aren’t ideal in this photograph. They aren’t terrible, but they bother me. First, on the right side, the yellow band of out of focus flowers would, in my opinion, be better if they had been green foliage. I find that horizontal area of color just a little bit distracting. And second, the angle of my wife’s hand seems awkward to me. She was letting it hang naturally, but it just doesn’t seem feminine to me. It’s more like how the Hulk would hold his hand (don’t worry, she won’t be reading this).
Overall, though, I love the shot. It always puts a smile on my face.