Shooting people

People photography is one of the most enjoyable types of picture-taking, and digital SLRs are especially adept at it. Whether you’re posing friends, family, and colleagues for casual or formal portraits, or attempting to catch the next rock star wannabe onstage, your dSLR has the features that you need to excel.

Compared to point-and-shoot digital cameras, digital SLRs provide more flexibility in choice of lenses, more control over depth-of-field (so you can throw a distracting background out of focus), and better image quality
with the longer exposures sometimes necessary for people shots at night. Despite all you have going for you, be sure to keep the compositional tips in the following sections in mind while you snap away.

You can use thousands of good poses for individuals or groups, but you don’t need to memorize dozens of options to get good portraits. If you’re a beginner at people pictures, you might want to look at some poses that work in magazines and books. However, a few simple rules can help you build workable subject arrangements from scratch. Read on for details. 


Composing portraits of individuals is theoretically easier than pictures of groups because you have only one subject to worry about. Of course,
you have to please that subject with your results. Everyone wants to be portrayed in a flattering way, and the photographer needs to make a subject
look the way that he or she imagines himself or herself — or better! 

Here are some individual-portrait tips:

  • Make sure that your subject is relaxed and comfortable. Sitting is better than standing for anything short of a full-length portrait, and a stool is often the best seat because no back or arms intrude into the photo and a perch on a stool discourages slouching. However, a picnic bench, handy rock, fence, or even the kitchen table can provide a place for your subjects to relax while you capture them for posterity.

  • If your victim isn’t facing the camera, have him or her look into the frame, rather than out of it. Otherwise, the viewer wonders what’s going on outside the picture area that’s so interesting.

  • Choose a good angle that flatters your subject. As I discovered from
    my days photographing models, even the most attractive people can have hands and feet that are positively grotesque when photographed from their worst angles, which are the backs and palms of the hands and bottoms of the feet. Most of the time, you don’t make bare feet a prominent element in your portraits, but if you photograph the edges of hands, they can become an expressive part of your photo. Exception: Baby hands and baby feet can be cute from any angle, particularly to the parents and close relatives. But be aware that some childless adults and a few other types are powerfully sick of adorable pictures of somebody else’s kids, so this charm isn’t necessarily universal.

  • Compose your shot to de-emphasize problem areas. Bald heads
    aren’t necessarily as problematic as they used to be because athletes, musicians, and those who aspire to coolness often shave their heads specifically to get the bare-pate look. If your subject is sensitive about involuntary baldness, or if his or her particular attempt at being cool is, um, a poor implementation, lower your camera slightly and elevate your subject’s chin. If you’re using external lights, avoid adding glare to the top of the head.

    Long, large, or angular noses might be a badge of honor and personality for some, and perhaps a plus for thespians seeking character roles for their distinctive faces. For everyone else, try having subjects face directly into the camera.

    Alfred E. Neuman, Dumbo, and H. Ross Perot just wouldn’t look the same without their distinguishing ears. Less-famous folk sometimes appreciate it if you minimize their prominent ears in photographs
    or, at the very least, avoid making them the center of interest. Try shooting your subject in profile, or arrange the lighting so that the ear nearest the camera is in shadow.

  • Diffuse lighting to diminish defects. To minimize wrinkles or facial defects, such as scars or bad complexions, use softer, more diffuse light- ing, as shown in Figure 10-3. Shooting in the shade or bouncing light off a reflector (which can be something as simple as a white shirt worn by an assistant or passerby) can provide a more flattering rendition. A diffusing filter on your lens or diffusion added in your image editor can help, too. You can also zoom out or take a step back to shoot your subject from the waist up. That approach reduces the relative size of the face in the final picture. 


    Avoid reflections off eye- glasses. Have your subject raise or lower the chin a bit so that the glasses don’t bounce light directly into the lens. If you use a flash, position the flash at an angle. You can see many reflec- tions through your SLR view- finder, but for flash shots, review your picture and reshoot if reflections are a problem. 

    Group Photographs

    Group photography has all the potential pitfalls of individual portraits, multi- plied by the number of people in the shot. However, the following special considerations are unique to photographing groups: 

    Remember that each group shot is also a portrait of all the individuals in the shot. The guidelines for creating flattering portrayals remain basically the same. (I list those guidelines in the preceding section.) Unfortunately, optimizing everyone’s visage in a single shot can be tricky because you can’t have one person in profile, another from a low angle, and a third with special lighting to minimize yet another kind of defect. Fortunately, though, because individual faces in a group shot are relatively small, these problems can take care of themselves, as long as you keep everyone relaxed and smiling.

    Watch the eyes! Make sure that everyone in the photo is looking in the same direction, which should generally be in the same direction that their noses are pointing. Check for blinkers and nodders, too.
    Try to take at least one photo for every person who’s in the photo (for example, take at least six photos for a six-person pose) just so that you can get one in which everyone’s eyes are open. Then, double that number to be safe. 

    Arrange your subjects into interesting pat- terns. Make sure that all the heads aren’t in a single horizontal or vertical line. If you are shooting a couple let them be higher and lower rather than at the same level.

    Triangular and diamond shapes work best for groups of three or four people. If you have more people than that in a shot, break them up into multiple triangles and diamonds. Rembrandt’s - The Dutch Masters 

    (or just buy yourself a box of cigars), you can see that it contains a cunning arrangement of three triangles to represent just six people. The trio on the left make up one triangle, the three on the right make up a second, inverted triangle, and the same figures produce a third triangle if you look only at the three gentle- men in the center. 

    Publicity photography is intended to make someone or something famous; PR photography is designed to make someone or something likeable.

    A typical publicity photo might show a rising 28-year-old TV/movie star out on a date with a 45-year-old thespian whose career has seen better days. If the picture captures the public interest, it’s likely to boost the careers of both, regardless of whether it portrays the pair in a favorable light, or was taken by a paparazzo or supplied by a publicist.

    A publicity photo can also picture an object, rather than a person. Perhaps a giant blow-up figure promoting a new movie has been stolen from the roof of a fast-food restaurant and now resides on the front lawn of a college frater- nity. Everybody wins here: the restaurant, the movie producers, and the college students who gain 15 minutes of fame. 

    Photos intended to improve PR are almost always provided by the PR agency or publicist of the person or product that benefits. If the 28-year-old and 45-year-old stars happen to be arrested after crashing a sports car through the window of a jewelry store, you can bet that some PR photos will soon appear picturing those same personalities doling out dinner at a soup kitchen or entertaining the troops in some foreign country.

    Of course, the approach isn’t quite that cynical in the real world, and both publicity and PR photos can be used for quite serious and laudable purposes, I’m told.

    Your job, if you choose to accept it, is to create pictures that do their intended job. As such, you must realize that publicity and PR photos don’t revolve as much around a particular subject as they do a particular purpose. This category can include portraits, sports photos, landscape pictures, and even travel photography, so follow the guidelines for each of those kinds of pictures. But, in particular, keep these tips in mind: 


    These photos all have a particular message or two to convey. Your composition should revolve around that message, whether you hope to portray a particular person as a fine upstanding citizen, represent a product as a good value, highlight a premium-priced luxury item, or show a technological breakthrough that’ll save the world. Keep your message in mind at all times.

    Keep It Simple, Silly (KISS). Exclude everything from the photo that doesn’t help convey the message. You don’t want viewers of the picture to become interested in something other than your subject that they find more compelling.

    Look for unusual angles, subjects, and treat- ments. Your historical society had a Civil War buff give a presentation on a recent recreation that he participated in. Ho hum! If you want a newspaper in your area to run your PR shot, avoid a traditional head-shot photo. Instead, shoot an eye-catching picture of him in character, make it look like an old-time Civil War- era photograph, and watch the newspaper’s editor sit up and take notice.

    If you’re shooting a PR picture, you must rep- resent the person or product accurately, within reason. If your photo isn’t accurate, your image loses credibility, and reputable news media will decline to run it. No adding marbles to a bowl of soup to make the vegetables rise to the top. Don’t show your company’s CEO running a marathon when the most exercise she gets in real life is pounding on the boardroom table. That doesn’t mean you’re obligated to picture every defect and problem, only that you shouldn’t deliberately use your photographs to mislead the audience.  

    If you’re shooting a photo for publicity, go ahead and ignore all the advice in the preceding paragraph. Nobody takes your efforts seri- ously, anyway. Your photos are desirable only if they’re a bit over the top and perhaps more than a little sensational. A photo showing an Academy Award winner punching out one of his mates in a bar is a lot more saleable than one of him mending a fence on his ranch. The latter is more likely to be a PR photo released when he’s out on bail — and a much tougher sell.