Taking better casual pictures


Everyone wants a nice picture of themselves. (What a nice picture of them means is much more complex). You are not a serious photographer, (you only have a phone-camera or a basic compact), you would like to take a nice picture of that person, so you ask them if they will smile for you, you press the shutter and wow, what have you got?

Actually the reason I am thinking about this, is that I have been looking at some pictures on Facebook recently. In general I like Facebook, more than a billion of us like Facebook, and it is the biggest repository of peoples’ photography on the planet. Much of it could simply be better. Serious photographer or not, a little thought about how you take someone’s picture can easily shift your photos from almost there, to captivating.

What is the thinking you should do? We don’t need brilliance, we just need pictures that your subject will be happy with.

These are my 5-basic-rules for better photographs.

1. Learn how to focus your camera. Nothing fancy, nothing too technical, but find how to get your camera into spot focus mode, if you don’t feel comfortable learning the alternatives, then this will most often get you a decent result. When you hold your camera up, place the focus point over the subject’s eyes, half press the shutter until the focus point locks, (beeps, or small square changes colour to green typically), then hold the shutter while moving the camera/phone to place the subject  where you want them in the picture, then press fully to take the picture. In a phone camera, hold the phone, press the screen over the eyes, wait till it locks focus, then move the phone camera to place the subject where you want in the screen, then press the shutter button. Some cameras/phones use face detection, that is generally OK and getting better so don’t worry about using that. Knowing how to spot focus is a good fallback however. One quick way of doing this can be to find a photographer friend and have them set up your camera for easy spot focus; it is generally the simplest and most reliable approach.

2. Look for distracting objects near to or coming out of their heads. Even the most experienced photographers will make the mistake of missing the only tower in the scene growing out of their subject’s head. (It happens less often to them, but it happens occasionally. You try to minimise this, not guarantee that it will never happen). In general, try to position your subject’s head where the scene or background has some space.

3. Just think for a moment about the light. Does the subject have the sun in their eyes, are they blinking and uncomfortable, if so, turn them around with the sun BEHIND them, turn on your flash (this is another learn how to force-it-on thing, ask a photographer friend if unsure) and have your subject relaxed, with lovely backlight while the flash fills in their faces; always better than squinting. Have they got bright overhead lighting, causing eye-sockets to look like zombie-sockets? Simply move them to somewhere with light that will fill their eyes from the same height as their eye sockets. A window, a sidelight in a room, low sunlight, even your flash (but away from those common spotlight downlighter ceilings) will be worth trying.

4. Take control of your subject. This is the most important principle. Many people have a vaguely guilty feeling when they are taking someone’s picture, the result is that you just point and shoot to get it politely over. The trouble is that this contributes to people having bad results with blurry focus, distracting objects next to their heads etc. If you would simply say to your subject, “sorry, would you mind moving to…..and would you please look in this/that direction…..it’ll just take a few moments and you look great standing right there….etc.” Very few people really mind that, in fact most people hate not knowing where to stand. They will be worried that the picture taker has just “spun the barrel” on more photographic Russian Roulette which will result in another blurry, clock-face-on-the-wall-behind-sprouting-from-one-ear, overhead-lights-casting-Bela-Lugosi-eye-shadows posted for all friends on Facebook. Take charge, nicely but firmly and help your subject to feel OK about you taking their picture. The critical part of this is something that Rick Sammon said on a podcast I used to listen to: “Fall in love with your subject”. The person you want to take your picture, is someone who you think likes looking at you. Be that person for your subject!

5. Review together. Simply look at the picture afterward with your subject and decide whether they are happy with it. They may spot something you haven’t, or they may reveal something about what they don’t like about themselves. Ask if they would like to try another quick one, but “with the other side that they prefer showing” etc. Involve them in trying to make it work for them.

The picture at the beginning? Mine I’m afraid. A snap that I would rather was buried. A few more moments to reposition myself to position that light somewhere other than my excellent subject’s head might have given me something worth cropping and saving.


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