Here I am. Show finished, utterly projectless, bereft of ideas, totally adrift.
Yeah, right. I’m about as adrift as the CN Tower. What’s really happening is a gathering of force behind one idea. Before that happens, I take a lot of “bad” pictures. I remind myself of previous concepts which fell by the wayside – should I revive them? Is my resistance to them a sign that I really should pay more attention to them? – and I allow myself to free associate: What if…?
“What if…” is a key to an antechamber of the imagination. You can’t get there without this question. “What if I embraced blurry rejected photos? What if blurry was just another esthetic choice? What if, instead of all-but-nailing the camera down, I deliberately moved it? What if I lit the scene so it was barely visible?” And so on. And those are hardly earth-shaking or even original what-if’s. But pushing through what you’ve been taught is “correct” is always a challenge, and always necessary.
While I’m drifting, you, at least can be put to good use. So here, for the beginning or casual stuck-in-a-rut photographer, are five (plus one) ways you can instantly improve your people photographs:
1. Get closer. What we want to see in a photograph is usually something we haven’t seen before. So get as close as you can to your subject – Aunt Minnie, for example – and then – get closer. Physically. Crop the image agressively in the viewfinder. And you will begin to see… (Hint – a portrait doesn’t always have to be the face.)
2. Find or use directional light. Think Rembrandt, think Caravaggio. Think chiaroscuro. Light and shadow. This requires directional light and the direction is NOT from the flash on your camera straight ahead bang on to the subject. In fact, if you’re using a phone camera, find out how to TURN OFF the flash! We want light from the side, from the top down, even from behind. But that straight-on flash will flatten your subject and bathe them in that dispiriting glow that is the essence of every hideous passport and driver’s license pic you’ve ever endured.
Dmitri. Notice: how the directional light sculpts his body? He’s lit from above and slightly behind by the light in this changing room, so his face is in partial shadow – I’m TOTALLY FINE with that!
Directional light, if you are not using an artificial source, usually means seeking out a time of day when the sun is lower in the sky. That’s early morning or just before sunset (and as a bonus, the light is gorgeous, pink, gold, ethereal at these times of day). A more simple approach: sit your subject beside a window. If the light is really harsh, cover the window with a white cloth or sheet. This will filter the light and soften it. But don’t worry too much about the contrast between light and dark. Try a lot of contrast, try less. See what you like.
3. Try a new angle. Ever notice how most amateur photogs just – well, stand there? So what you end up with is – exactly the same view that 99% of the population sees.
Instead, get low to the ground. Lie on your belly if you need to. Or stand on a step ladder. Climb a tree! Do anything except just stand there in your normal way at your normal height. The resulting view will be quite new to most people, even if it’s a familiar subject.
To continue the challenge, don’t take two pictures in a row from the same spot or point of view. Now you’re talkin’…
4. Don’t tell them to “smile!”. OMG! Please! Instead, before you take the picture, try having them scrunch up their face, then relax it. Let the muscles settle into their natural configuration. Neutral (but the secret is: we’re never neutral). Instead of the mouth, pay attention to the eyes…. Because once you’ve allowed them to have a relaxed, ‘neutral’ face, you’ll be amazed at how much actually comes across. (And the eyes are really where smiles happen…)
As a bonus to #4: have your subject look out that window, into the light source, instead of
Dana M. in a glamour pose. Where is the light situated?
at you. (Or away from the window. The point is to have them NOT look at the camera for a change.)
5. Shoot in black and white. Most cameras, even phone cameras, have a monochrome setting. (Please, no sepia! I have my health to think of…). Black and white forces you to see the play of light and shadow, because that luminosity is all that you have. Now you will start to see the way that directional light really models the face of your subject. Try high contrast (bright light, dark shadows) and low contrast (softer light, lighter shadows). It’s all good.
6. Bonus: Have your subject move: I often get my sitters to chat about their work or a topic that engages them. I encourage full-on mediterranean-style hand movements as well! Catch them as they speak, laugh, frown – capture them in unique, off-guard moments. Some of the captures will be awful, some silly – but some might just amaze you.