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Portrait tips from the professionals

Portrait tips from the professionals - ePHOTOzine spoke to three professional portrait photographers to see what tips they have for taking better portraits. Here's part two.

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Portraits and People

Photo by Michael Bielat
 Photo by Michael Alan Bielat.

When you take a photo of a person you need their personality or some part of their character to shine through, it's this that will make a picture unique. A good portrait photographer will be able to judge the person they are photographing and get a grasp of what they're like and who they are before they've even taken a photograph.

Michael Alan Bielat works with children and young adults most of the time and he finds just speaking to them can make a big difference to a picture.

A lot of my portrait work is children or high school seniors. I really try to speak with or meet the person to sort of interview them and get vibes of their style, what music they like and so on. Knowing that makes it real easy to modify my shooting style accordingly. For children, I start off by playing with them a little and get them to forget about the photo shoot and make it fun for them. My wife is a elementary school teacher so she really comes in handy to interact with the children and get their personalities to shine.”

Pretending to not know the child's name is another great way to bring expression and character into your work as Chris explains: “When photographing kids if throughout the shoot you forget their name and right at the end you use the right one you get a magical expression. You also have to let them be children.

photo by Michael Bielat
  Photo by Michael Alan Bielat.

If the shoot is on their patch I let them find places and ask them about hideouts etc. Remember to always be on the look out for good locations too. I like to choose small walk and shoot routes, where there is covered area's in case there is a shower or two. A refuelling point for coffee and comfort breaks is important too.

Rod added: “Sometimes it can be helpful to shoot your subject in their normal environment - such as a sea fisherman in his boat or perhaps to photograph a shepherd with his sheepdog Props can lend a great deal to what you are trying to say in your image, sometimes just a simple prop can speak volumes about their owner.

I try to shy away from clichéd props, as they can cheapen the photograph. Appropriate styling is also important and helps to build upon the mood of an image. For instance, sometimes it's wise to ask your subject to remove certain jewellery / watch as it may distract from what you are trying to say and also runs the danger of dating your shot. With fashion, this may be OK, but for timeless images I like to keep my shots simple.

Making the person you are photographing feel comfortable will make a better image, with families and children this can be particularly difficult so you have to be patient.

I find that briefing the parents as to what I want to try to achieve is often best. Then it's a case of working around the kids. Perseverance, a cool temperament and good humour are all important skills to master as a social photographer. Family portraits should be a pleasurable experience and I for one, hate having my own photograph taken! If you can empathise with your subject, this will go a long way to building up a rapport and ultimately to producing better people pictures,” explained Rod.

Photo by Chris Hanley
 Photo by Chris Hanley.

Humour is a great way to make people feel comfortable and if you're working with kids making them laugh will mean you have the chance to capture some great moments and Chris has a method that never fails: “One word that never fails to get a smile or laugh is Poo! With adult clients before the shoot we will have coffee and a chat, so I'll have quickly assessed their personalities and our conversation normally finds common ground quickly. X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing are good places to start.”

If you stay relaxed and calm your client will too. Having a laid back approach will remove anxiety and if you don't mind having a laugh and joking a little your client wont either.

A little self-deprecating humour never hurts! My wife who comes along and assists also helps to tease me and loosen up the mood of the shoot. Other than that, it is all about making the client comfortable and to make them feel like a model. A good ice breaker is to show my client how to pose or how to work a prop in the scene and making a total fool of myself and kidding around about it,” added Michael.

Rod says you should never try and fake humour or try to create a bond between people that just isn't there. It wont look natural and this will inevitably show in the final photograph. If you're using models who don't know each other the bond will take a while to develop while families and couples will have a natural bond that can't be emulated. Chris had found that starting shooting couples individually first can create images where a bond is most definitely present.

Photo by Chris Hanley
Photo by Chris Hanley.

For couples, if I'm doing a single portrait I'll get the other to stand off camera and look at their partner. Asking them to send each other telepathic thoughts normally gives me a great variety of expressions. Once they have both been through this process putting them together and getting them to whisper their actual thoughts to each other pretty much works every time.”

If you're looking for professional models they are easy to find on websites such as Model Mayhem, something both Chris and Michael use. Alternatively you can always go straight to the big model agencies and ask to shoot new faces free of charge.

To work with more established models, you will need to work with the bigger agencies who will usually want to charge so start small and build up your experience and reputation then models will start to come to you,” explained Rod.

It doesn't matter if you shoot models or everyday individuals, off the street some post-production will more than likely need to be carried out on your work.

 Photo by Chris Hanley
 Photo by Chris Hanley.

Some people need (and want) more work than others and I explain certain techniques in my book that will help to keep even the most difficult sitter happy. These include applying digital effects, blur, reducing wrinkles and even what I call the digital diet where it's possible to actually change the shape of certain physical attributes without having to go to the gym,” said Rod.

Chris puts all his photographs through Aperture for colour corrections and other adjustments before putting them into CS3 for a more detailed assessment on skin tones and blemishes, cropping and sharpening. Michael also uses Photoshop and here's how his post-production adjustments work: “I shoot in RAW and the first thing is to import the photos into Lightroom. I also use it then to pick out 30-50 favourites. From there all initial edits are done in Lightroom as well. Cropping, white balance, exposure correction, contrast and stuff like that are all done. I might add some vignetting or saturation boost and some sharpening as well. Batch processing works wonders and saves you boat loads of time.

From there, I export only those 30 some odd edited images into a JPEG and give them a final touch up in Photoshop CS4. I use actions for a lot of this. Totally Rad Actions has a great skin retouching action and Kuboda has the KPD magic sharp. I like clean photographs so no real crazy things are done to the image. I do use Nik's Color Efex Pro plug-in and add some film effects to some images to really make them pop. To make more sales, I do take some of these images from the session and put them into borders and collages from Graphic Authority. Those grungy borders are real popular among high school seniors. Lastly, I use textures at times. I only do it to compliment an image rather than over powering it.”

Finally Chris added: “Just remember light, lens and location make for great images. If you remember that you're on the right lines.”

Visit Chris Hanley's , Michael Bielat's and Rod Edwards' websites for more details.

See part one for the introduction to the article.

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22 Jan 2009 8:48PM
A superb read thank you for the tips


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ToothPilot 11 50 4 United Kingdom
3 Mar 2009 3:18PM
Well written with great tips.
Thank you.

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