Okay, so I lied a bit, I can’t really tell you how to improve your photography, as that depends entirely on where you are and what your objectives are. I can, however, describe the process I have been through to improve my own portrait photography.
As artists, you know how it is. You’re never really quite happy with the work you produce; you’re always looking for ways to better your work and reach that point when you can finally say ‘that’s the best I can achieve’. It’s a funny thing, because whenever I get that feeling of having improved, it doesn’t take too long for me to look back on that work and think ‘mmh, now I’m not so keen’. I think that’s quite normal, it’s a bit like winning levels in a computer game, where you get the satisfaction of completing a level, but you’re still nowhere near completing the game. Unfortunately, photography is a never-ending game, you can always do better – and I’m okay with that, it keeps me going.
So, how have I improved my portrait work?
When I started out, I was so concerned with the settings on my camera, and appearing to look like I know what I’m doing, that fundamental compositional elements got completely looked over. I would take images with bright sun on their face, or hard shadows, or with a lot of background distractions. What’s more, is that I didn’t even think they looked that bad (to be fair I had seen worse).
I had read a lot about what settings would be best, and every account seemed to differ. I use a crop sensor DSLR, and a 50mm f1.2 lens, which is supposedly meant to give you the perspective for something around 80mm, which you’ll read is the most common length for portraits. But then you’ll read in the next article that a 50mm on a crop-sensor doesn’t adjust perspective, as it’s just that, a cropped perspective of 50mm. I discovered that f1.8 to f2.2 with a 50mm on crop did give me pleasing results, though.
The above image is such a shot, but I do often find I have to really work the shot to fill the frame, and really work my position to find the most flattering angle. I feel like this is where one needs to spend their time. By working the shot you ensure you don’t have unflattering shadows, and that you’re not too high up or too low down. Consequently, I found shooting from lower down to give me the best results. It’s funny, because all my life I have been told that shooting from lower down are the least flattering.
I’ve just never found this to be true. Although when I say lower down, I don’t mean shooting directly up at close quarters, I just mean that I’m nearly always crouched when taking shots like this.
In the image above I have a shallow DoF and I’m crouched, and I would say the result is really flattering. The other difficulty I keep encountering is changeable cloud cover – should I let me camera figure out white balance, and shutter speed or not? To have total control, you’ll find you’re changing these settings constantly to fight the changing environment and I imagine it’s a good skill to learn. It’s not a sunny image, but it is balanced an even, and maybe to some that’s not very interesting. I might be inclined to agree, but you can only work with what you have.
I also used to bring my strobe everywhere, but I rarely do that anymore either. Nearly all my portraits are done in natural light. It’s not that I’m scared of using a strobe, if anything, I want more of an excuse to use it, but I just don’t find I need it that often.
All that said, I am generally pretty happy with the results.
Feel free to contact me to let me know what you think, or if you have any advice.