Better Available Light Portraits
The best way to improve your photography is practice. Shoot each week so you get to where you don’t have to think about how to operate your camera. 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.
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 location 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. 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.
Search for interesting locations. Not long ago, there was an on-line discussion asking what inspires people to create new images. For me, it’s new things. It can be a new camera, new lens, or just a new place to make images. When driving around 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.
Keep your lighting tools simple. I prefer to work with as few lights 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 Flashpoint’s 32-inch double-sided reflectors ($14) that collapses to the size of a large pizza. But reflectors can also be where you find them.
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 belive that if you watch the background, the foreground will take care of itself. 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.
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 technical tip but his answer surprised me. “If you don’t talk to the people you’re never going make a good picture.” I’ve never forgotten that advice and would like to pass it on to you. 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.
Look for Joe’s new book—Available Light Glamour Photography—coming in 2012.