This week I took the plunge and did something that my friends have been asking me to do for a long time. I made a few photography video posts! I didn't have a wedding to edit this week, and so I decided to do 3, one each for my Top 3 Photography Tips. This was spurred on by the adundance of DIY bluebonnet photos that are filling my facebook feed, and the knowledge that just a few tweeks to technique would take my friends' pictures to a whole new level! With weddings starting again this weekend, I'm not sure when I will be able to make the next video, but I'm glad I got the Top 3 Tips out there!
Without futher ado, I promised I would blog the notes and examples. Here we go!
So if you look at the two photos below (neither are great portraits, just cellphone snapshots of my son), the one on the right is much better. It doesn't take a nice camera or changing the settings to make these changes!
Tip #1 - Even Lighting
In my opinion, the #1 thing that makes a professional portrait different from an amateur snapshot is even lighting on your subject. By this, I mean no harsh shadows and bright spots. Check out this example below. We were taking family portraits on a cloudy day, and I had nice even lighting on my subjects. Then, the sun popped out! Look at what a difference it makes when you don't have even lighting on your subject. Luckily for me, the sun went right back behind the clouds so I did not have to move my clients.
Great, so now you believe me that you need even lighting on your subjects. So how do you get it???
First of all, try to shoot in the golden hour (90 minutes after sunrise or 90 minutes before sunset). The sun is low enough that you don't get harsh shadows!
Of course, this isn't always possible. Sometimes you have to shoot mid-day! No worries, I have a magic trick for you. All you have to remember is:
TOES TO SHADOWS.
Look down and spin around until your shadow lines up with your toes. That is the direction that your subject needs to face. Check out the example below. In the first picture, he is not toes to shadows, and in the second, he is! Look at what a difference it makes to get even lighting on his face.
While the "toes to shadows" technique will change your life, it requires you to accept one thing:
You might have to give up a pretty background. If you are at a park shooting, and there is a pretty bridge/lake/trees, etc that you want as the background, you have to be willing to let it go if you can't use it as a background and be toes to shadows. When you walk up to a location to take a picture, FIRST look at the light and determine which direction your subject needs to face. Once you have done that, THEN you can move around (while facing that same direction) to choose your best background.
* A note on this *
Sometimes, your priority is not taking the best portrait, but to show your environment. An example would be if you are taking a picture in front of the Disney World castle. You aren't going to NOT put the castle in the background because the lighting is bad! In these situations, break the lighting rule! Just do it for a reason, and decide your background is more important than a pretty portrait. I am just advocating that you become aware of the light on your subject, and follow the rule if your intention is to take the most flattering portrait possible.
Here is one last example of how toes to shadows helps in harsh light. This was taken in just about as bad light as you can get. Can you imagine what the picture below would look like with spotty shadows everywhere?? Not flattering.
Tip #2 - Thoughtful Composition
With portrait composition, our goal is to NOT distract from the subject. One of the best ways to do this is to try and have a "not busy" background. Most importantly, you should try to avoid having harsh lines (like fence lines, pillars, poles, trees) cutting through your subject's head. All of these things can draw our eyes away from the spot we want the focus on (our subject's eyes).
Check out the two examples below. Each has a bad (with a harsh line or tree cutting through heads) and a good (where I moved just a little to get a better angle.
All it takes is taking a moment before you snap the picture, look behind your subject to see if there is a distracting line, and adjust yourself before you snap the shot!
The other fun technique to play around with the is rule of thirds. The rule of thirds says that if you divide an image into thirds (vertically and horizontally), the spots where those lines intersect are the spots where our eyes are naturally draw. Look at the image below, I have circled these intersections in red.
It can be very pleasingn to the eye when a subject is at one of those intersections. Or, when they are just on one of the major lines. It is certainly not something that you want to do in every picture. I put my subjects in the middle all of the time, and that looks great! This is just a fun technique to add some variety to your portraits. Play around with it! Here are a few more examples where I have used the rule of thirds:
Tip #3 - Get that blurry background (bokeh)
In my videos, I gave the disclaimer that I didn't want these talks to include tips that you can only follow if you have a nice camera. And I stick to that! But this is the one tip where good equipment will make it better. No way of getting around it!
The number one way to get good background blur is to control your aperture. The setting on your camera or phone that controls aperture is called F-stop. You may see in on your device as f/.
You want to set this number as low as possible. Just remember "lower is less". The lower the number, the less will be in focus behind your subject. Check out the example below, and how the lower f-stop number gets a blurrier background:
In general, you want to have a number at least 2.8 or lower to get good background blur. Unfortunately, a lot of the lenses that come with cameras only go down to f/4. They are a jack of all trades (you can zoom wide or telephoto!) but a master of none (not good for portraits).
If your camera lens only goes down to f/4, you will honestly do better taking portraits with a modern phone. My samsung galaxy goes to f/1.8!
Alright, so you've set that number as low as you can go and want to get the most out of your blur. Or, your device doesn't let you change that setting, so you need to try something else.
Move your feet! You can move your feet, and your clients feed, to get better background blur. Here's how.
First let's talk about moving your clients feet. Bring them out further in front of the background! In the example below, both images were taken at f/1.8. The only difference is that in the first photo, Pooh is 1 foot in front of the dresser. In the second, he is 5 feet in front of the dresser. What a difference it makes!
Next, you can move YOUR feet and get closer to your client. Move as close in as you can while still getting as much of them as you want in the frame, and it will increase your background blur.
In the next example, both were taken at f/2.8. In the first, I was 6 feet from Pooh. In the second, I was 2 feet from Pooh. Again, a dramatic increase in background blur.
Let's sum this all up!
To take better DIY portraits, the most important thing is to get even lighting on your subject. Do this by shooting during the golden hour, or by putting their toes to shadows. Get the good light FIRST before moving around to choose a background.
Be mindful of your composition. Before you snap a picture, look at the background and see if you have a distracting line going through your subject's head. You can also play around with the rule of thirds to draw even more attention to your subject!
To get background blur, or bokeh, adjust your aperture by getting your device to the lowest f-stop number that you can. Then, pull your subject out away from the background, and get as close to them as you can to take the picture.
I hope you find all of these tips helpful. Happy Shooting!