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10 Tips for Powerful Portrait Photography

In this tutorial Tuhin Subhra Dey shares some tips on taking portraits.


1. A photographer friend of mine once told me that “there should always be some “wow” elements in your photos, if you think that your photo lacks that characteristics, don’t show the photo to the others”!! Although I personally believe that it is not easy to capture “wow” moments in every shot, but keeping that goal in your mind always helps to get a better framing (for example, I took the picture (picture -1) of the angry Sadhu at Gangasagar fair, he was badmouthing the pilgrims for not giving him enough alms . I was watching his movement and preparing myself for the precise moment to press the shutter).

Picture -3.jpg

2. Always try to capture a picture which itself tells a meaningful story (for example I took the photo (picture -2) of these schoolgirls during a heavy downpour when they were eagerly waiting for another friend of them to come!). Sometimes try to interact with the subject instead of being a mere voyeur, try to know the story behind and recompose, if possible. In picture -5, I captured a street orphan with a very painful face. Try to depict a specific mood of your subject. In picture -6, a Sadhu is glued in smoking.

Picture -4.jpg

3. Learn to compose the patterns. For “unaware or semi aware” type of pictures, I think the shot and composition has to be planned very quickly in most of the time. Train yourself (only way to do this is taking more and more photographs) to quickly measure the direction of the light, the unique interesting POV, shapes, the aperture and shutter speed. If there is enough light, I usually use Aperture priority mode, since it helps me to get the perfect DOF, but if I am not sure or I don’t have enough time to set the settings I switch to Program mode (P).

Picture -5.jpg

4. For “fully aware” type of pictures, you get more time to set your camera and composition, even then don’t make it just a posed lifeless photograph, get something meaningful out of it. For example in picture -4 the little girl is a cow trader’s daughter, everyday she helps her father to chase the cows to the market with her little stick.

Picture -6.JPG

5. Look for a relevant or clear background. If the background is disturbing, use smaller aperture values. In picture -7, I was very lucky to have a clean background , however in picture -10, I found the background where a lady is drying her saree as a very interesting one, because it seemed to me as if the Sadhu was remembering about his past life , his family and probably his wife as well, who knows!

Picture -7.jpg

6. If you need to take a closer shot, approach your subjects confidently. Show your camera to them and ask for permission (of course with a smile please!). I have shot

pictures in India, Nepal and Europe; I have always found it much easier to shoot in India. Usually common people feel flattered when someone takes their pictures, so it is easier to get close-up portraits most of the time. Although sometimes you may need to answer some curious and weird questions. However in Europe, I have always found it difficult, since people are not so free when a stranger is taking their photograph. A telephoto lens may be useful for taking portraits if you are not so confident about asking for close portraits. But I don’t encourage this idea of using telephoto lenses very much as I believe, to take a good portraits, someone should get closer as much as possible. A wide angle perspective can be used as well for capturing the street scenes. don’t be upset if someone says “No”. Respect that and try someone else.

Picture -10.jpg

7. Avoid using flashes, they create unnecessary attentions. Use natural light. I prefer to shoot during the magic hours when the sunlight is very soft. Otherwise usually I use “Cloudy” white balance to get warm snaps. Sometimes you may need to boost up your ISO at the cost of not using flash. Do that, if necessary (for example: I took the shot (Picture-3) of the child beggar with a painted face inside a local train in Calcutta. There was very little available light and train was running and heavily shaking, hence I had to use very high ISO -1600).

8. While shooting in public, try to wear casual clothes and carry minimal gears. It will help you to stay unnoticed. I usually carry a Tamron 18-270mm and a Canon 50mm 1.8 lens with a Canon 450D camera body and sometimes, a Fujifilm S8000fd P & S camera.

Sadhu and his follower.jpg

9. Although may not be essential for everyone, but for me , reading some good books on Photography , regularly viewing and “reading” good photos on flickr and other websites makes a lot of difference .

10. Keep yourself safe. Don’t risk your life.

About Tuhin Subhra Dey: I am an Indian and by profession, a Doctoral fellow of Economics at University of Houston, although a serious amateur now but I cherish a keen dream of becoming a full-fledged Pro photographer someday in future. Connect more with Tuhin Subhra on Flickr and Facebook.

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