How to Photograph People: 7 Tips for Photographers Who Never Photograph People

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No matter what type of photography you specialize in or prefer, at some point you will find yourself having to photograph a human, or multiple humans. For favor, for fun, or because they share your genetic make-up or home address. If you own a fancy camera, there you will be at least once in your photographic life (but probably many more) where you will find yourself taking a portrait. Taking pictures of people is much different than beautiful mountains, scenic oceanscapes, historic architecture, butterflies, plates of food, or whatever it is that you usually photograph. Here are some basic tips to get the best portrait possible, especially for you if don’t usually see a human on the other side of the lens.

#1 Be realistic

Don’t overpromise your abilities or expect too much out of yourself. If someone asked me to take a picture of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains, which, as they have been my entire life, are right outside my window and something I know like the back of my hand, it would not be a good picture. I lack the skills for landscape photography, and more importantly, the interest. In my favor though, people aren’t likely to ask me to take a landscape image near like a non-portrait photographer will be asked to take portraits. Be upfront if you are willing to try it so that in the event it doesn’t go as planned, it won’t bother you enough to affect how you feel about photography in general.

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#2 Simplify everything

Backgrounds, clothing, props, light, etc. – simplify everything. Give yourself a running start out of the gate by having a solid foundation to work with. Look for flat or level backgrounds, horizon lines that don’t run through people’s heads, even lighting, and solid colors. I can’t emphasize this enough. The details which are the focus should only relate to the person, whether it’s a portrait of just the face or a full body, everything else should compliment this, or completely disappear to the viewer’s eye.

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#3 The easiest setting I know

At the risk of starting a heated discussion or this becoming a dumping ground for comments debating otherwise, I am going to share what I consider to be my best general setting and equipment advice.

First a few disclaimers: I shoot Canon and have no idea if these will translate to something else. Also, you must promise you will not be upset if this doesn’t work for you; sometimes finding what doesn’t work is just as important as finding what does (I tell myself this often to justify my many mistakes). Lastly, taking a great portrait is a lot more complicated than just one setting, but you have to start somewhere. There are likely to be people who disagree with my advice and I hope that this could start a supportive discussion on what has worked for others, rather than unhelpful commentary. Now, on with it…

  • Using natural light only if at all possible, dial in your ISO for something that makes sense; ISO 200 if it’s bright, 400 if it’s cloudy but even, 600 if it’s darker.
  • Shooting in Aperture Priority mode will allow you the most room for error, and is how many portrait photographers shoot regularly.
  • I like the f-stop to be at f/2.2 for one or two people, and f/2.8 or f/3.2 for groups of three or more (obviously this is speaking very generally and would best be used as a starting point to find what works for you). These settings will give you that “portrait blurry background effect” known as good bokeh.
  • Shooting in RAW will give you more wiggle room later when editing, though it takes more space on your memory card.
  • Use a prime lens if you can; I shoot nearly everything I take with my 50mm L1.2. This is a fancy lens no doubt, but any prime lens will typically be faster (have a larger maximum aperture) than a zoom lens, and with everything else going on, I find that using my feet as my zoom is one less adjustment my eyes and hands have to do.
  • I typically underexpose my images one stop. This works for me because I like to get the details and then bring it back up as needed myself in post.

This may not work for you, and there is absolutely no shame in running everything you aren’t sure about on auto. This doesn’t make you less of a photographer. All it means is that you think in this scenario, your camera – a magnificent piece of machinery that was created by thousands of professionals over decades with countless research, information, and experience – might guess better than you. That’s all.

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#4 Shoot from their eye level or higher, and at an angle

While photographing a person from below and not capturing an amazing view of 15 chins they don’t even have is possible, it’s not easy. For the best, most flattering set-up, shoot at their same eye level or above. I often have people kneel down and look up at me while I remain standing. As someone who has 20 different chins that only come out and play for pictures, I’m sensitive about this one and I find that even a child with the most adorable chubby cheeks and double chin is best photographed on a level playing field.

Additionally, taking pictures of someone straight on is both unflattering and uninteresting. Asking them to twist at the waist, shoulders, or neck and not face their body square-on, but rather follow their face’s direction will not only be much more forgiving to any subject (every single human has one eye that is smaller than the other – I’ve researched it), but will also make for a more professional finished portrait.

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#5 Don’t command a smile

Don’t command a smile, or instruct “cheese!” or say “hold still!”, or anything that could be interpreted as you attempted to force your feelings, or agenda, onto your subject. Even if you are going for a serious tone, and are trying to catch an image when they don’t realize or least expect it, you are much better off engaging them in conversation than setting up the moment and expecting a single second of utter perfection. A true portrait is genuine at its very least.

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#6 Resist the urge to run your final images through every Photoshop trick you’ve ever learned

If you don’t usually photograph people, the idea of playing around with editing tools might be fun. There are so many! This one turns their eyes into laser beams. This one makes their skin look like pure plastic perfection. It’s fascinating, I get it. However, if you’re wanting to stick to the basics, there isn’t much that needs to be done. Clean up blemishes with the Spot Healing Brush Tool, run a basic sharpen (I like the oddly named Unsharp Mask at 60%/2.0/0), and adjust your color and levels if needed. If I get stuck while editing an image, I ask those thousands of professionals what they think by running auto color, tone, and contrast just to see what it does. It nearly always takes everything too far, but it gives me an idea of where I want to go sometimes, just by showing me where I don’t.

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#7 Don’t try to turn it into something it’s not

Oh how I wish this image had a little more POW. A little zing. I’d love it if her entire face was showing and her hair was either more haphazard, or more perfectly fanned out. I wish there was more background showing. However, this is not a picture for a fashion magazine cover, but rather an image of my stepdaughter I took with my iPhone. We were on a walk and I spotted the purple flowers on the ground and told her to go lay in them. And because all of my stepdaughters do whatever I say, and think that I am totally magical, she raced right over and did it. Then an enchanted unicorn wandered up and flew us home. It’s drastically cropped, not necessarily for effect, but because she was giving me a snarl and wearing a very busy shirt. Is this a portrait? To me, it is. It’s a perfectly fine, authentic image and the subject herself loves it.

That is probably the most important thing when taking pictures of people.

Do you have any other tips you’d like to share? Please leave a comment below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Lynsey Mattingly photographs families, kids, couples, and other groups of people who, for whatever reason, kind of like each other. Her portrait work has been featured in People Magazine, Us Weekly, BBC Magazine, and on national TV including CNN, Oprah, and Ellen, but most importantly, in the personal galleries of clients across the country. Her photography can be viewed at www.lynseymattingly.com or on Facebook.

  • Baxngolf

    Lynsey thanks so much for very instructive handling of a topic I certainly struggle with as an enthusiast photographer. I much prefer a landscape I can present and shape how I wish. The people I photograph don’t translate well with a 3 stop soft grad filter…. One question I have is as you engage your subject in conversion, etc. are you kind of snapping away when you see a potential moment to capture? Do you feel it’s important to move around to engage your subject in a variety of positions?

  • Jimmy

    I’m intrigued by the decision to underexpose by one stop intentionally. I always thought with digital’s linear gamma capture there is more detail in the highlights and better/easier to recover highlights vs. enhance shadows. Can you or anyone else expound on this?

  • Mark

    Great article Lynsey. I am coming at this from the unusual perspective of a concert photographer. I’ve covered all sorts of artists from Shania Twain to…but who cares, my problem is only a few times have I ever shot someone in a “portrait” (nieces make for good lab rats ;). It really is a different beast than the detached comfort of shooting from a media pit where the artist can barely see you anyway.

  • Johan Bauwens

    When you say you underexpose a stop, do you use spotmetering or evaluative metering ? Makes a huge difference too. I always like to overexpose so I just don’t have blown out lights, but enough of a soft look and a bright pic.

  • Jeff

    Surprised about under exposure. CMOS sensors contain the most data in the highlights, then in the midtones with the shadows having the least amount of data. Boosting the shadows in post will bring out more noise than overexposing by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop and pulling back the highlights in post. In the days of film is was acceptable to underexpose but not with today’s CMOS sensors

  • Thank you for this. I could probably ‘guess’ my way through a shoot, but it’s nice to have some guidelines to follow. I’m one of those who doesn’t photograph people. I know I’m limiting myself, but it’s simply not an area where I’m comfortable (I keep telling myself – step outside the comfort zone, step outside the comfort zone).

    Thankfully (to me anyway), I’ve only had one person ask me about my photography skills. I was honest with her, telling her that I have never photographed people in portraiture. I was panicked that we were even discussing it. lol I figured that said volumes…I wasn’t ready.

    Some day I may talk to her about it again. She’s become a friend, and perhaps her kids can be my guinea pigs. Who knows? I might find that I actually enjoy the work.

  • Joel Minton

    Great article. I shoot mostly portraits and follow a couple of these rules myself. I’ll have to try shooting from above my subject. I typically shoot at the same level, but I love some of your shots with the subject looking up!

  • Cheers Lynsey, the article is about photography tips for people who are not photographer actually. I’m just an amateur photographer and i hope it’ll help me a lot.

  • Russell

    Thanks Lynsey – great stuff. Mostly because it makes me think I could actually do shots I’ve always put off as something I’m not ready for…
    Cheers

  • Karen Quist

    Great article and I especially agree with #6. Too many images I see on the web right now have been passed through so many filters that they bear little resemblance to the subject, and are destined to look dated in a few years’ time. Love your work, Lynsey πŸ™‚

  • Thank you!! That makes my day!

  • I’m so glad this was helpful to some! I enjoy reading every comment and looking at the work of the people who post their sites or profiles.

    With respect to the under exposure comments–as I stated, it’s a personal preference with my exact equipment, style, editing, and direction of the wind. πŸ™‚ To take this piece apart and explain it thoroughly (which in all honesty, I doubt I could), would defeat the entire purpose of both this article and my ideas about photography. For some of you, it’s an exact science that has rights and wrongs. For others of us, it’s an art and things like under-exposing are similar to picking a certain brush to paint with. My choices may not be “acceptable” by some of your standards, but this is photography–not brain surgery. And I think there is plenty of room for us to all try it different. πŸ˜‰ In an effort to explain for those curious, though not defend, I have found in 10 years of photographing people in the setting I do, using the editing software I do, if I underexpose a stop and bring it back up, I have less blown-out areas and better/clearer detail. Just a small detail of my own portrait photography choices. πŸ™‚

  • Bryce Steiner

    The reason to underexpose in the highlights is because it’s the most noticeable if it’s blown out. Shadow detail being lost doesn’t ruin a picture.

    I don’t think every picture has meet all the rules though. But that is the reason.

  • Mark

    Thank you for the great advise! Well written and easy to understand. I might even try a portrait or two.

  • Bob Gonzales

    Great article. Solve the under/over exposure debate by bracketing.

  • Linda Bon

    Lynsey, you continue to crack me up with great advice! Still expecting lunch when I make it to Colorado! πŸ™‚

  • I have to agree. Rather than rely on the ‘expert’ theory I have learnt over time (and which appears here), I actually went out and tried the idea, and it works. So either you and I have unique CMOS sensors, or there is more to taking photographs than what the theorists believe to be the case πŸ™‚ Just as an aside, I have lost count of the number of times I have been told it is ‘unacceptable’ for me to do something, despite the fact that I personally love the effect created. Art versus science indeed! Or perhaps, creativity versus dogma πŸ™‚ Luv ya work, Lynsey

  • I enjoyed this very much … I’m one of those who doesn’t often snap people, so when the opportunity arises I tend to try to backpedal. I’m hanging onto your post in case the call ever comes again!! Tweeted!!

  • Thank you for explaining this so simply!

  • Ursula

    I agree with your comment of personal preference. We all take pictures for different reasons and they are all different in style and subject. I have a certain imagination of how I want my
    subject to be portrayed and it is my choice. As long as I like it and it satisfies my feelings of accomplishment, I feel that I have done good.

  • Mark Andersen

    Or we could solve the debate and set our camera to auto bracket exposure by one stop each way and choose the one we like or even play around with a little HDR!

  • mammatroll

    Oh, drats. You made me well up with that last one! Thank you for a great post.

  • Eugena Earwood Burrows

    I’m just a mom with a Nikon that likes to take pictures and have been asked by several to take their senior pictures or prom and even engagement pictures, when my subjects are “prepping” for the next picture I have switched my camera to sports mode & multiple shots instead of single and catch them laughing or looking deep into each other’s eyes in a way that isn’t caught when they KNOW you are taking the picture!! My niece used one of these on her wedding invitations because it captured their relationship perfectly and is priceless. Yes it uses more space on the card but you might just get a great shot!

  • KC

    Nice suggestions. “Make the camera disappear.” I learned this 35mm SLR days. Even though you may be hired to capture these images, you’re introducing elements into the scene that throw the dynamics off. Yourself, the camera, and sometimes lighting. The sound, appearance, and fidgeting with controls of an SLR is a distraction. Losing eye contact is a distraction. Your movements are a distraction. You get the idea. Nothing is worse than people putting on their “camera face” and “posing”. It’s unnatural.

    You should be completely comfortable and natural with your camera. Can you “shoot from the hip”? What that means is can you actually point your camera, and capture the subject (well enough), without looking through the viewfinder or screen? That sounds absurd, but it’s not. It’s part of visualization, the “mechanics” of handling a camera. It’s a fun thing to practice, too.

    This applies on location and in the studio. Maybe more in the studio. Yes, I happen to like a prime lens for “life” shots, too. It’s flexible.

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