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Toward better portrait photos
John's earlier article on digital landscape photos

How to make a flash diffuser for a point and shoot camera

Things you can do with a point and shoot camera

A good summary of the Rule of Thirds with examples

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As with “landscape,” the term portrait has a couple of meanings that apply here.  For our purposes, it refers to any composition that has as its subject a single individual or a group of such individuals, whether or not you purposely pose them and whether or not you hold the camera so that the photo will be higher than it is wide (referred to as “portrait orientation.”)  Also, as with landscape photos, by paying attention to a few simple principles, your portrait photos can turn out less like candid snapshots and more like artful, posed portraits.  These principles apply any time you're shooting individuals with faces, whether statues, real people, animals or even flowers.

Camera height, distance and perspective, and nose room
The most interesting thing about faces is their expressions, and the most interesting things about expressions are the eyes.  Whenever possible, either move with your camera or use the telephoto function of the camera to take a series of photos of your subjects.  Start from so close that the tops of their heads aren't in the picture, and get the camera to a level low enough to peer through the viewfinder straight into their faces with the eyes about a third of the way from the top of the frame, and always avoid shooting children and pets from above.  Next, get one that shows from above the head down to somewhere below the waist.  This is called a three-quarter shot.  Take care not to let the bottom of the frame cut across at the waist, knees or ankles, another common mistake that can produce a negative psychological impact for some reason.  Take shots of your subjects at various distances from them, and to about as far out as needed to get whatever action or activity is going on, if any.  Finally, avoid centering your subjects or having them facing the side of the frame closest to them.  Instead, leave more room (called “nose room”) in front of them and in the direction they're facing.

Best light for portraits is diffused light
Diffused light is that which has been scattered by clouds, bounced around off nearby objects, or even filtered through some kind of man-made diffuser like a piece of tissue paper.  It comes at your subject from all angles at once instead of from a single direction the way direct light does.  Faces look better in diffused light because it helps eliminate unflattering shadows under noses and lips.  The human eye with the big brain sitting just behind it is a much more efficient camera than Nikon or Canon can hope to make these days, because it adjusts to varying conditions of light nearly instantaneously.  Help your camera whenever possible by choosing diffused-light situations rather than direct light.  Outdoors, avoid direct sunlight on your subjects' faces, and avoid the dappled light that shines down through trees on a sunny day.  If you're shooting on a sunny day, complete shade is best, especially when you can have most of the light coming from one side or the other rather than from above, which is why photographers prefer shooting at or near sunset.  Indoors, the best, diffused light comes from a northern-exposure window.  If your camera can't help but flash, get a flash diffuser for your camera, or if you google “diy flash diffuser”, you can see how others have solved this issue with home-made diffusers.

The Rule of thirds
A basic principle of image composition is the Rule of Thirds.  Read about it in John's earlier article on digital landscape photos.  Briefly stated, the rectangular viewing area of your photo is divided into equal thirds along horizontal and vertical lines.  The best place for the most interesting parts of your photo is along these lines or near where they intersect.  For close-up portraits, this translates to arranging the eyes at one of these intersections, or along one of the horizontal lines.  For your three-quarter and other more distant shots, faces are best placed at an intersection.

In conclusion
All of the above relates to both Single Lens Reflex and Point & Shoot cameras.  When photographing children and pets, the action is sometimes so fast that you can't snap the photos quickly enough.  If your camera features a Burst Mode, you can just hold the shutter down and the camera keeps taking pictures in rapid fire fashion until you let go of it.  The SLR camera's Automatic Mode is also a good idea in these situations.  When shooting flowers, statues and other patient individuals, photographers like to use a macro lens for clarity, and an open aperture setting that blurs the background while keeping the subject in clearest focus.  Think about the principles mentioned here, do some further reading if so inclined, but take lots of photos and be prepared to toss most of them.  Eventually your keepers will improve.

Further reading
Scott Kelby has written several books on digital photography that can be used as step-by-step manuals for hundreds of procedures and tricks that pros use to take terrific photos.  One is The Digital Photography Book (Peachpit Press, 2007).

Bill Hurter's The Best of Family Portrait Photography, Professional Techniques and Images (Amherst Media, 2006), is loaded with information on the technical side of family portraiture.
October 1, 2012

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