The Casual Portrait

“You’re a photographer, could you please take a picture of me?”

It happens all the time… especially when I’m traveling, visiting friends or family or otherwise engaged in activities unrelated to picture making – the fact that I’m a photographer seems to compel people to ask me to take their picture. Most of the time this is a very innocent: “Oh, could you take my picture? I can use it for my facebook profile!” but occasionally it can be something like: “I really need a new headshot for my promo cards, maybe we can do something this afternoon…” When I was younger I used to resent it – don’t they know this is how I make my living? I should get paid for this… I’ve mellowed out considerably these days. Of course everyone wants you to take their picture and there’s no reason not to…

Yvonne

My sister Yvonne, up on the roof at sunset

The trick for most “professional” photographers is to relax and try not to get all worked up about doing a good “job”– this is a casual photograph and your subject will be ecstatic if it manages to look better then what they could have done pointing their “point & shoot” into a mirror! Let your perfectionism go and just have fun with it. The casual portrait is a skill to be cultivated for its own merits. Of course, photo journalists are already comfortable with the spontaneity of the situation but the rest of us can sometimes find it difficult to give up control over the light, the environment, hair & makeup, etc… One has to learn to work with what you’ve got!

The photo above was taken when my sister and I were admiring the sunset from her Arizona home’s rooftop. The sun was very low and it was fairly easy to get her face illuminated with the soft warm glow and get the mountains behind her – no attempt was made to shoot a gray card or otherwise balance out the light as it would have destroyed the quality of that warm light. This is a very easy situation to deal with because the light isn’t too intense, its just enough off to the side enough that she doesn’t have to squint – there’s a reason they call it the “magic hour.”

But what about all those less than ideal situations one can find oneself in? Here is one suggestion I’ve found helpful time and time again… Break the first rule of lighting – you’ve heard this many times, “place the light behind your right (or left) shoulder – NO! Unless you have an ideal lighting situation like the photo above, its much easier on your subject to put the light behind them!

Yvonne & Andrea

My sister and her music partner Andrea stand next to a Saguero cactus.

I was asked to take a picture for my sister that she could use as a promo for her music act – she’s partnered with Andrea, a great viola player and singer. I had them stand next to a Saguaro cactus with the sun to their backs. In the shot above, you can see that there is another cactus just out of frame to the right – this provides shade for the camera so I don’t get flare in the lens.

Yvonne and Andrea, closer view

A closer view doesn't reveal the cactus to the side acting as a camera flag or shade.

The shot above was what I was aiming for. The trick in this situation is to manage to put a darker background behind them so that the highlight in the hair can read against the background. There is nothing behind me except open sky so they have a large soft light source as a beauty light – much more flattering than direct sun! Its always best if you can arrange to stand in the shadow of some object, a cactus in this case but the side of a building or a tree would work just as well to block the sun from flaring into the lens. The image above is pretty good for not having any reflectors or supplemental lighting.

Yvonne and Andrea under a tree

Yvonne & Andrea under a tree

Above we find a common problem with this approach. Here they are standing under a tree which provides the requisite lens shade but also shades the faces from the open sky. Less light is reaching them so when I compensate to get a good exposure on them, the background blows out and their hair highlights don’t separate from the background giving the impression of flare eating away at the edge of their heads. Not horrible but it would be a lot better if the area behind them was also in the shade so it didn’t blow out to white!

Yvonne & Andrea

Yvonne and Andrea standing next to a hidden Saguero cactus

The last example above shows the difference the darker background makes. The darker hills behind the women allow the highlight rim to show up, giving the hair a nice full look. Here you can see that Yvonne’s head comes up higher over the hills into the white blown out sky – the hair above the hill looks smaller than the portion below the horizon. If I had been able to elevate the camera I could have placed both heads against the darker background.

I uploaded a web gallery with all of the photos from this casual portrait shoot here: http://goo.gl/rEHOO

 

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