Valentine’s Day is one of the few highlights during a long winter. I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about taking portraits of the ones we love. If you have something special planned this Valentine’s Day, bring your camera. Preserve that moment in time with the love of your life by taking a beautiful portrait. A framed print of it might make a great gift for a holiday in the future (like an anniversary). Taking better portraits is easy. Here’s a few tips to get you started.
The term composition refers to the way we organize the elements of our picture in the frame. When shooting a portrait these elements would be the person (the subject) and the background. Background selection is very important. We want something pleasing and complimentary but nothing too distracting from the person.
Branches from a tree hanging too close to the subject would be an example of something that might be distracting. Interesting buildings, barns, lights, forestry, and landscapes can all make excellent backgrounds. Try to select something that compliments the color of the person’s clothing.
When placing your loved one in the composition keep a few things in mind. If you’re going to take a full body portrait make sure you step back far enough but not too far. Watch out for cutting off their hands and feet but don’t step so far back that they look too far away in the picture. If you’re shooting a close-up take a look at the amount of space you’re leaving between the top of the head and the top of the frame. Get in closer if there’s a big gap.
Too much negative space is another distraction. It can look awkward. I like to shoot a wide, medium, and a tight portrait. I can review them later and pick out the best one. Also, make sure the person has their head and body turned slightly towards the camera. If they’re facing the camera straight-on the image will lack depth and look like a driver’s license photo.
Here are a few guidelines regarding lighting. Shooting around sunset (the golden hour) will give you the best overall quality of light. It’s softer at this time and will give you beautiful color. Keep the direction of the sun out of your loved one’s face. It will be much easier for them to keep their eyes open. Try to position them lit at a 45 degree angle from a low sun for better results. If you’re going to be in the shot, too, make sure your face isn’t casting shadow onto theirs. Try to line up your face on the same plane as theirs.
You can also take your portrait in what’s called open- shade. This would be an area with no direct sunlight at all. For example, in front of some architecture or a treeline that’s blocking the sun completely. The benefit of this would be that you don’t have to deal with harsh shadows all. It’s very easy lighting to work with. Similar to an overcast day. The downside is that you typically get a flatter looking image with more subdued colors.
As far as execution goes, shooting portraits is pretty simple. Shooting your camera in auto mode will generally yield pretty good results. Now, if you want to control how much blur you have in the background for that classic portrait look, put the camera in aperture priority mode. An aperture between F/1.8 and F/4 will get you a nice blurred background provided you’re close enough to the subject. Try to place your loved one at least 5 feet from the background to create nice separation. Good focal lengths for portraits are 50mm, 85mm, 105mm, and 135mm. If you have a zoom lens, experiment with setting the lens at these lengths. I like to give the person a three, two, one countdown so they know when the picture is coming. This helps ensure that they’ll be smiling and that their eyes will be open. Finally, try flipping your camera around and taking the picture vertically. This may not come naturally if you’re not used to taking portraits. It’s certainly a matter of taste but I find most portraits look best shot vertically.
This may be a lot to digest all at once. I assure you that if you read through it a few times it’s all pretty logical and will fall into place. Simply trying just a few of these tips will go a long way towards shooting a better portrait. If you’re really interested, we offer photography classes at New York Camera, and Video for all skill levels. I’d love to teach you! Classes might make a great Valentine’s Day gift for someone, too. I hope this information is useful to you and that you a have wonderful Valentine’s Day!