I was having a conversation at Iowa State's tailgate on Saturday with one of my favorite past Bride moms. She told me that she's been taking senior portraits for kids that can't afford to have them done, which I think is an awesome thing for her to do. She was asking for a few tips. I absolutely love giving tips to photography hobbyists, but I realized quickly that I'm terrible about knowing when to stop. I thought I was doing so well by telling her three simple tips to get started and then I just started rambling on and on about every little thing I could think of. It got me thinking that maybe a good blog series would be a few photo tips each week. These will be extremely basic, and may not always fall in the order that you should know them. There's a very good reason I've never offered classes and it starts with my inability to follow simple timelines. For today's lesson, I thought I would start with the three very simple steps I offered her.
When you're getting started in the portrait world, there's a tendency to attempt the home run shot right off the bat. That will get you nowhere. Trust me. You must be able to nail basic shots before you can move on. Please do yourself this favor. Photography is a long, slow process if you are starting completely from scratch. I've had a camera in my hand since I was 6 years old and I still learn every single day. These first tips are all about basic portraits.
1) To begin with select a clean, simple background. I'm talking your traditional brick/cement walls on the shade side of a building. You want something that's going to give you an even exposure all around. Make sure there are no eye sores such as trash cans, air conditioners, light poles, etc. Yes, this is boring. However, it's also safe. When you are starting out, safe is your best friend. Eventually, when you've learned to nail a photo by being safe you'll move on and start getting creative. In an upcoming segment I will talk about how to spot great light.
2) While you learn the basics, put your camera in auto mode. Cue gasp. That probably goes against every thing you have ever heard, and I most definitely agree. But, there are very basic things that you need to learn before graduating to manual. If you are attempting something like the gal from my story, it's crucial that you are able to provide them with a clean, in-focus portrait. That's the primary goal. When you're just beginning, something that simple can be challenging. It is much better to have the camera in auto mode and get a workable image than be trying to set an exposure when you don't really know what that is. Knowing you should be working in manual and knowing how to work in manual are two very different things. Practice working in manual on your own time, and I'll try to hit up what that means in a lesson coming up. Make sure the area you have selected is bright enough that your pop up flash doesn't trigger. Pop up flash is your enemy when shooting portraits.
3) Do not look up the subject's nose. I mean it. Nostrils are perhaps the most unflattering part of every person so this is an easy way to eliminate a portrait mishap while you are still learning how to pose different body types. Do yourself a favor and always photograph your people by standing one step above them. To do so, stand on a small step stool. New photographers always have a tendency to try and get fancy, or "creative" and shoot from the ground. I'm not sure why this is, but thats a great way to provide your customer with an image they are embarrassed to show anyone even if it were free.
These tips will not get you very far. In fact, you could accomplish all of them with nothing more than a smart phone. However, my hope is that they will help you know where to start. Photography can be very overwhelming if you are picking up a DSLR for the first time. The tendency is to hit Pinterest and start trying to recreate amazing images found on there. However, you cannot recreate a shot without first being able to recognize what makes it a great shot to begin with. A quick search of "Pinterest Fails" will bring up a ton of examples of why this is a bad idea. You can't just put a kid in a pumpkin and create a successful portrait. You'll become frustrated and will want to give up. If you give yourself simple tasks to begin with you will be able to celebrate small successes.
To close up, I thought it would be fun to post "then" and "now" images to show where I've come from. The first photo was taken in 2005 of my sister who has had the unfortunate task of being my test subject for the past decade. I had my first DSLR and knew very little about portraiture. All I knew was that this was a sweet bridge. However, there's nothing sweet about this picture. There are many things wrong, but the one that stands out the most is the terribly unflattering lighting. You never want the "Raccoon Eye" effect (if you don't know what I mean by this, try viewing the portrait by relaxing your eyes). The second image was taken at a senior session in 2014, 9 years after the first.