Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Travel portraits: family, friends, and interesting subjects

In front of Old Christ Church, Philadelphia, PAWhen traveling with friends and family, most travelers eventually want to get a nice travel portrait or two. Travelers often try to capture interesting portraits of a local inhabitants.

Sometimes the friend/family exposure is dictated by where and when you're there. Sometimes the “choice” of background and light is made, in part, to keep a famous background in the photo, to say, “We were there.”

Sometimes you can choose the time of day your photographing, the background, and the way your traveling companions are facing, thereby control how light illuminates your subjects but more often, locations and schedules dictate exposure details.

The place and time for portraits of local inhabitants is rarely in the traveler's control, but the photographer can often control their position to help set up the portrait.

The best sun position for natural light portraits is when the sun is halfway between the horizon and directly overhead. The worst portrait lighting conditions are when the sun is directly overhead or right in the face of your subject.

Direct, intense light can be quite harsh. It's why photographers rarely aim a flash unit directly in someone's face, but instead bounce or diffuse its light. While we love to travel on bright sunny days, its light is tough for portraits. Harsh light intensifies the contrast between light and shadow and produces unflattering facial tones and shadows. When the sun is directly overhead, portrait subjects typically have dark shadowy eye sockets, and neck shadows, which make them look tired. When the light can be diffused, contrast is reduced making the portrait more flattering.

When the sun is shining brightly, a shaded spot is often a great location to capture portraits. In a shaded area the light is diffused. Try photographing your subject under a porch, awning, or perhaps the shade of a big tree.

When using shade, be sure the subject, especially their face, is evenly lighted. Any bright sunlight shining through on subject will eliminate shade's advantages.

At the First Bank of the United StatesCloud cover on overcast days naturally diffuses the sun's light. It's normally great for natural light portrait photography, but often requires the use your flash as a fill flash, to help your subject’s features stand out.

Professional photographers often use a fill flash to help make their available outdoor light portraits bring out the best in their subject's face. On the other hand, for portraits of a local, fill light may be intrusive and produce undesirable results. Each travel photographer must evaluate when to use a fill flash and when to turn it off.

Digital camera white balance is critical for portraits to get skin tones right. If your digital camera can set a custom white balance, use it. If you can, try saving your images in RAW format. While RAW images generally require postprocessing, if your white balance is a bit off, white balance correction is easier to accomplish with RAW files, than JPG files.

When you can't avoid lighting with direct sun, knowing how to position yourself and your subject, if you have that flexibility, is important. Many have been taught to position subjects with sunlight shining directly into their face to light their features. This is rarely the best choice.

Looking toward the sun makes a subject squint, contorting their face, and causes shadows around the eyes giving them a “lined,” tired appearance. Try positioning your subject with the sun behind them. Backlighting can highlight the hair (great with many women/girls). With the sun behind behind you're subject you'll need to use a reflector or fill flash (my preference due to the precision which can be achieved) to fill in the facial shadows, and light up the face as a whole, as necessary.

You can also try placing your subject with the sun to the side and slightly behind. This is a more challenging lighting choice, but can produce wonderful results.

To determine your outdoor portrait lighting needs, walk in a circle around your subject, while they rotate to continuously face you. This will enable you to see how the sun shines on them in various positions.

For portraits, focus on the eyes using single point focusing. They are the most important portrait facial feature. Having them in sharp focus improves the sharpness of the whole photograph. For small group portraits try to align the group so their eyes are in the same plane. For large groups you'll need to depend on depth of field (DOF) to keep everyone in focus. I prefer manual focus for portraits to achieve maximum accuracy.

At the Grand CanyonUse a mid telephoto focal length lens, such as 135mm to 150mm for a full size DSLR or its equivalent according to your camera. This will eliminate "portrait distortion" and help improve bokeh. Set your aperture to give a (DOF) to keep your subject's full face in good focus. For a group, you'll need an elongated DOF to compensate for the group depth.

Be aware, at these focal lengths, about 1/3 of your DOF is in front, and 2/3 in back of your focus point, so if your DOF is too big, it's mostly going to keep your background in focus, more than keep your subjects' facial features in focus.

Finally, be very careful of your background. You don't want something growing out of the subject's head, or being generally distracting.


Tom - Detroit said...

Wow Ned, that's an incredibly helpful article.

Jim - London said...

So how do I compensate if I want back lighting. My photos have dark faces then. I point and the camera takes over and does a lousy job unless my wife's face is in the sun.

Ned S. Levi said...

Jim, I think you've got to start controlling your camera by taking it off automatic exposure. People are smarter than cameras once they've gotten some education about photography. What kind of camera do you have?

Jim said...

Thank for getting back to me so quickly. By the way if you were thinking London, UK, I'm actually in London, Ont.

I've got a Nikon D5100.

Ned S. Levi said...

Jim, try using aperture priority "A." You set the aperture, (F-Stop) and the camera will set the shutter speed. You should set your ISO too.

Then if the camera is underexposing the face, and you don't want to use flash to fill (my preference) then use your EV compensation (start at an over exposure of 1 f-stop) and go from there. Remember you background will likely be overexposed when the face is right, which is partly why I suggest using a fill flash. You can try the pop-up flash on your D5100 for that.

I'd suggest the book "Understanding Exposure ..." by Bryan Peterson. I think it would help you a lot. It's not expensive from Amazon.

Good luck.

John said...

Thanks Ned. Great tips. Jim, For challenging light with portraits when traveling I often will also spot meter the skin and exposure lock or manually expose.

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