How do I photograph people?
By Andrew Hudson Published: September 27, 2011 Updated: July 24, 2014
Cheese! People make the best photographs — the eyes, the face, nothing is more appealing to us fellow humans. So let’s get you taking better photos of people. Here are some tips.
The Eyes Have It
The eyes are what we’re drawn to in an image of a person. So at all times, the focus should be on the eyes, literally and figuratively.
When choosing a focus point in the viewfinder, place it on or near the eye. When choosing exposure, concentrate on the area around the eye. And when choosing composition, lighting, and background, do it simply to keep the focus on the eye.
The first thing to do is find your location. Choose a spot with a simple, medium-toned background. Tree foliage, grass, or the ocean works well. For darker skin, look for a similarly dark background to keep the highlight (and thus the camera’s exposure) on the face. Minimize patterns, shapes and colors. Keep that background simple.
Get the sun behind you and to one side. If it’s bright, put people in the shade (harsh, direct sunlight washes out the face). If it’s dark in the shade, use the fill-flash feature to brighten up the face.
The best time is the late afternoon as it gives a nice, warm, golden glow. At other times, you can simulate this glow by placing an 81B or C filter over the lens.
A popular technique is to put your subject in the shade, then use fill-flash to lighten up the face. Bring a small reflector or white card reflect sunlight into the harsh shadow areas.
Occasionally, having the sun shine from behind the subject (backlighting) looks good as it creates a halo through the hair, showing form and drawing the face out of the background.
If you’re shooting indoors with an SLR, “bounce” the flash off a wall or ceiling for more natural lighting. A separate hand-held flash is best and can be positioned far enough away from the lens to avoid red eye.
If you have several photographic lights, read about studio lighting.
Some cameras allow you to boost the color saturation with settings called “vivid” or “saturated.” You don’t want this. The person will get a red face as though they have spent too much time in the sun or just witnessed a nuclear explosion.
Make sure that your camera is set to some low-saturation setting such as “natural” or “skin tone.”
If you have an SLR, use the equivalent of a 135mm or similar lens for the most pleasing perspective. Use the widest aperture (lowest f-number) to blur the background and highlight the face for a movie-like look. If the background is important, use a small aperture (high f-number) to get everything in focus.
Get close. Don’t include their full body but zoom straight in to the face. For close ups, crop out the top of the head and overfill the frame. Being at eye level usually works best, so for children, kneel down.
Generally try to keep the eyes, not necessarily the head, in the center of the frame. If the person is looking slightly to one side, add extra space to that side.
If your subject is to one side and there’s a lot of contrast in the shot, you might need to control the exposure. To do this, zoom or close in on your subject (perhaps a person’s face) then press the exposure lock button. Keep this button pressed down while you recompose and take your shot.
Relax Your Subject
Get your subject relaxed and happy. For friends or family, remind them of a silly event. With children, give them something to play with. For local people, ask them about the location, their job or skill, or complement their clothes. People hate waiting while you adjust your camera so always plan the shot and adjust your camera first, before asking people to pose.
To add fun and action to a shot, hold the camera at an angle — 30 degrees with the right side up works well. It looks as though the photographer was caught off guard, emphasizing danger and action, and is great for parties! Stage a joke shot by pretending to interact with a statue. Or use a wide angle lens to distort the face.
If your subject is moving (on a cable car or bicycle), deliberately blur the background to emphasize speed, excitement and urgency. Track the subject with your camera and, if you have an SLR, use a medium to slow shutter speed (1/60s). This will blur the background and, optionally, also your subject. Using the flash (particularly a ‘rear-curtain sync’ feature if your camera has one) helps freeze the subject in a moving background.
Don’t Forget You!
The problem with being the photographer is that you end up not being in your own photographs. Remind the viewer what you look like and ask someone else to take a shot. You can arrange a photograph by propping the camera on a small tripod or wall (use stones, paper or coins for adjustment) and using the self timer.
The best way to photograph someone is with full control over all the lighting and backdrop. For this, you’ll want studio lighting.
For more information, see people photography tips.