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How To Photograph People

11 tips for taking great portraits

Introduction - Portrait Photography is one of the most difficult forms of photography for several reasons. Master photographer Martin Wilmott offers 11 tips for taking spectacular portraits.

An example of a great portrait.

There are very few rules to portrait photography. The few rules there are can be broken and still result in good images. What I have attempted to give you here is some quick tips to hopefully help you to improve your image taking.

  1. Make it Personal - When photographing people involve something that makes it more personal and about that individual. One of my favorite images shows a little girl in what is to her a very natural environment. Her grandfather breeds and races pigeons and since she could walk she has helped him in the daily tasks of cleaning and feeding them.

    The photograph shows her with the pigeon on her lap as she feeds it peanuts. I always look to try and capture images that tell stories and capture a little bit of the true spirit of the person being photographed making it so much more personal.
  2. Have Fun - False smiles are hideous and should be banned. Asking someone to smile or say cheese is a last resort. If you want natural smiles and laughs you need to create things for people to smile or laugh about. Personally I much prefer images with people laughing out loud to a posed straightforward Victorian styled portrait.
  3. Always be Ready - always remember a certain portrait session. I had been photographing a family on the beach. The little girl decided she wanted to climb onto a small pier that led out to sea.

    Luckily I had my camera out and managed to capture a few frames as she crawled along. Had I attempted to set this image up there are a million things that would have got in the way. As luck had it everything went right and a fantastic image was captured.
  4. Get in close - Donít be afraid to get in close and clip the tip of peoples heads out of the frame. Very often it helps the image, giving it a more dramatic approach. If your camera doesnít have a zoom facility then move closer physically.
  5. Take Photographs Outside - You will get far far better images of young children if you allow them to play. As long as you pick a safe area you can let them run loose and do as they wish leaving you free to concentrate on capturing some magical moments.

    In my portrait business I take 98% of my images outside. I know this works as I continually receive more and more referral business from happy clients who recognize the joy and happiness in their child's expressions.
  6. Catch people unawares - Very often the best images are when people don't realize they are having their photograph taken. I recently shot a portrait session in London of a young couple. The girl had large ties to a market and wanted some atmospheric images. However her partner wasnít keen to be photographed in public. I solved the problem by using a long lens and concentrated on capturing some totally natural images as they were walking around the market.
  7. Change the angle you are shooting from - I always have a change of clothes with me when I am on a shoot because I tend to end up covered in mud. Donít be afraid to lay on the ground. You will be rewarded by the images you take.
  8. Capture natural reaction - Encourage people to react normally as they would every day. One of the joys of my job is taking images of new mums and their babies. I know if I ask mum to get in close to the baby nine times out of ten I will get a totally natural reaction as the baby and mother react to each other. All that is needed is for me to them judge the right time and capture the image.

    I find if you ask people to get closer than they would normally do it will cause them to laugh. However this is not the case with teenagers as they see it as un-cool to like brothers and sisters so with this age group different approaches are needed.
  9. Consider your background very carefully - The background is as important as the subject you are photographing. Ensure it is pleasing to the eye without distracting away from the image. Some colors are worth avoiding. Red for example will trigger the eye to look at it immediately and drag attention away from the main subject.

    People far cleverer than me have attempted to explain why (something to do with it being natureís danger color). The best thing to do when lining up your photograph is to avoid red altogether.
  10. Practice - You can read a million books and visit every website on the planet but I believe there is no substitute to actually doing something and learning by experience.

    I personally run training days for people who like yourself just want to have a go at a new style of image making. The people who attend have various skill levels but as I place the emphasis on being as low tech as possible they are of use for everybody from the amateur through to the seasoned professional.
  11. Be different - Try and do something out of the ordinary. Use your imagination to create images that stand out. If everyone else does a top ten do a top eleven, it will bring more interest guaranteed because it is out of the ordinary.
I wish you the best of luck on your future picture taking and hope we can talk again at some time in the future!

About the Author:

Martin Wilmott is a highly successful lifestyle photographer based in the UK who undertakes work all over the world. People with an interest in portrait photography can sign up for his free online course at www.martinwilmottphotography.com. Martin also runs regular portrait classes for people with an interest in his style of work.

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