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Portraits & Group Photography

Photographing portraits
People often ask the staff at Berger Brothers Camera how to take portraits. Is it having the best portrait photography lens or portrait photography camera? The lighting? A well-equipped studio?

Professionals are known for taking portraits in front of a white or gray seamless background, which makes it easier to focus on the person. If you don't have a studio for portrait shooting, you can turn this disadvantage into a plus.

The most valuable thing you can do to for taking portraits is to get to know the subject. The more you know about them, the easier you will find it to get the most natural expressions. Portrait shooting in the person's natural environment is another secret of how to take portraits. If it's an outdoorsy person, do it outdoors. If they are readers - the library. It's not essential to get much of the background visible when taking portraits, or even less, in focus. But including a little bit of background gives a personal touch which the subject will appreciate.

Taking portraits is easier if you can control your background, so there are as few distractions as possible. When portrait shooting outdoors, keep the person at least 15 feet from anything behind them. This will help keep the background out of focus. A good portrait photography camera will help, as will the right portrait photography lens.

Choosing portrait photography cameras and portrait photography lenses

And what is the best portrait photography camera? Ideally, for taking portraits you'll want a DSLR camera, high in megapixels with exchangeable lenses. But it's possible to take very good portraits with point and shoot cameras even. One of the biggest drawbacks to point and shoot cameras, is it's much more difficult to blur the background of the subject. So it's essential that your backgrounds contain as few distractions as possible when portrait shooting with a pocket camera.

And of course you can't use the best portrait photography lenses with a point and shoot camera. A good zoom lens can be a big help in taking portraits, as you ideally should stand several feet from the subject when portrait shooting. Standing back makes features like the nose not appear too large, due to the perspective of shooting portraits from close-up. Since you want the person to fill most of the frame, a good zoom lens is important. Also, wide angle lenses can make the features of the face seem larger, which means telephoto lenses are the portrait photographer's lens of choice. A good place to start is with a 50 mm lens (often found on pocket cameras too), though 70-200 mm will give you the most versatility. Or you can go with the classic range of 90-135mm.

So for the best portrait photography camera, you'd ideally want a full-frame DSLR camera, with a couple of high quality portrait photography lenses. And if you can't afford that right now, you simply have to learn a few more tips about how to take portraits, and be more creative.

Portrait shooting and waiting for the light

The best light for taking portraits is said to be an hour before sunrise and sunset, when the light is softer. A good second choice for portrait shooting by natural light is just before or after the rain, when the light is diffused by the moisture in the air. One of the advantages of these times is there are fewer cast shadows.

If you can't control the time of day or weather for taking portraits, and you don't have a studio with professional lighting, you have to improvise. A bright lamp, or a window letting in light can do just fine, but keep in mind that portrait shooting with the light coming from the side is preferable to light coming from the front. Also, it lessens the likelihood that the subject will be squinting. But lighting from the side can mean the other side of their face is in shadow. Consider turning on a smaller lamp on that side of them, or even a large piece of white poster board can be positioned to reflect just enough light into the shadows to keep that side of the face from being too dark. Also, a light behind the head can result in a halo effect which can be quite nice.

The old masters preferred the north light when painting portraits, and it works great for taking portraits with a camera as well. Look for public spaces with a lot of light, such as museums and airports for surprisingly good results.

Several of the most frequently asked questions about how to take portraits involves lighting. When shooting inside, quite often you might find yourself in situations where the light is less than ideal. Increasing your ISO setting will help, as will a DSLR camera with a high speed lens. But there will come a time when you'll probably need to use a flash to get the shot you want.
A popup flash will give better results than a flash built into the body of a point and shoot camera. And of course an external flash mounted on the top of the camera, as typically found on DSLRs is even better. Flash can provide a harsh light, so the further you get the flash from your lens, the more natural your light will appear. The best results are found with a directional flash, which allows you to bounce the light from nearby walls or ceilings, resulting in a much more natural looking photo. In addition, if the flash isn't going off in the person's face, they will be less likely to scrunch up their features in anticipation. A diffuser will also eliminate some of the harshness from an external flash, very important when shooting portraits.

Another problem inherent in taking portraits with a flash is red-eye. Thankfully, even most of the cheapest point and shoot cameras now come standard with this feature.

How to take portraits without striking a pose

The best portraits appear to be natural, so forced poses get low marks. Never prop a person up against a wall before taking portraits. For one, you tend to get a hard shadow behind them. But most important, they feel like they're in front of a firing squad. Let them sit in a chair, perch on a counter or table, lean against a mantle. Let their hands do what the hands naturally do. Hands can be a wonderful addition to a portrait. But be careful that their hands aren't outstretched towards you, or they can appear unnaturally large.

Also, try to stand to the side of the person, rather than head on. You might try taking portraits from an angle slightly above, as doing so will help do away with double chins. Experiment with different angles, though be careful about portrait shooting from below, as taking portraits from that angle can make a person look like they have a large body and small head.

Getting a group to say cheese in portrait taking

One of the most difficult jobs in taking portraits is getting everyone to smile and keep their eyes open. Thankfully, many cameras now have features which make this easy. Some are able to tell when the person's eyes are open before taking the portrait, or will warn you if they were closed. Some wait till the person actually smiles before taking the portrait. Look for these features when choosing your camera, or better yet, ask the helpful staff of Berger Brothers Camera to make a recommendation.

Another feature to look for is continuous shot mode. It's possible to take three or more shots per second, making it much more likely to get just the expression you're looking for, on the most people at one time.

There are a wide range of group poses to choose from. Simply putting the tallest in the back and lining people up is dull. Look online or in photography magazines or books for other options.

Taking portraits from the camera to the computer

There are many software programs which can add a wide range of variety when portrait taking. Sometimes you can make up for not having the best portrait photography lens or portrait photography camera by having the best software, which is often far cheaper. Many of the traditional portrait filters such as soft focus and color tints can be done easier on a computer. And there's the advantage of having the shot without the effect, in case that turns out to look better. There are individual plugins for specific effects, as well as complete software suites with everything you might need to replicate the effects you'd have on hand in a complete darkroom.

Getting help from Berger Brothers Camera

Of course learning to use software, as well as all the features that come with your camera can be a daunting task. Berger Brothers offers classes as well as individual instruction in all of these, as well as seminars and workshops. There is no place more qualified or willing to help you pick out the right camera for how to take portraits than our friendly staff. Contact Berger Brothers Camera today. We'll be happy to assist you in choosing the right camera, suggest classes to help you take better photos, or just answer questions and talk photography.

Still have questions? Contact customerservice@berger-bros.com.


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