How to take a more pleasing family portrait

Before gathering to snap that priceless shot, keep these tips in mind

Family Matters

December 14, 2003|By Michael Kitada | Michael Kitada,Knight Ridder / Tribune

The holidays are coming and, like a song that you can't get out of your head, so are the relatives. Kids are scrubbed up and paraded in front of loved ones, and everyone wants a picture.

So, to avoid years of therapy and a drawer full of unidentifiable photos of loved ones, here are a few tips to make taking family portraits a lot easier -- and more enjoyable.

Location, location, location

Please, not the fireplace. Everyone loves the fireplace / mantle photo. But it usually means dark surroundings and distracting elements in the background. Grandma will not be pleased with moose antlers looming behind her head. Also, your subjects will be jammed together like last-minute Christmas shoppers around the counter at Macy's.

So, look for a clean background that will not compete with your subjects. If possible, try to put some distance between your subjects and the background to give your portrait a more three-dimensional look.

A great idea is to find your background first. Compose your image, then add your subjects. This way, there's far less chance of unwanted surprises in your photos.

Go to the light

The sun is our friend, except when we can see it through the viewfinder. This results in silhouettes.

What you see with your naked eye and what the camera captures can be two different things. Shadows and highlights are much more pronounced in photos than what you see when you take the picture. For example, high noon is possibly the worst time of day to take photos. Shadows in the eye socket create the unflattering "raccoon eye." Early morning and late afternoon offer the best lighting.

Try to keep the sun behind you, so it illuminates your subjects from the front. Another great effect is diffused light, such as light coming through a window or in the shade of a porch awning or tree.

But be careful that the area behind your subject is not brighter than the light falling on your subject. This also could result in a silhouette. That's great for photo contests, but not if you want to see Uncle George's and Aunt Betty's faces.

Everything in its place

Composition -- where you place your subjects in the viewfinder -- is almost as important as lighting.

Remember the rule of thirds. This is not as complicated as it sounds. Visually divide the frame into thirds, horizontally and vertically. Where the lines intersect are the most pleasing areas in the viewfinder to place subjects. All rules are made to be broken, but learn this one first, and you'll be rewarded quickly with better images.

Get closer

Get closer! Photographers call this filling the frame. Typically, most amateur photographers stand too far away from their subjects.

Also, place your subjects so their eyes are not at the same level. Try having someone sit or having others take off their shoes or even stand on a book. (Don't worry, you can crop the book out of the final image.)

The world isn't all the same size, so vary the level and the angle of your camera.

Try shooting low to include some of the foreground. And anyone with a double chin can tell you that getting up high and shooting down from a high angle flatters just about everyone. A high vantage point also lets you include more folks in the frame.

Tools of the trade

You just unwrapped the new camera with all the latest bells and whistles. Now, what do you do? Humble thyself, and read the manual. You'll learn a lot about your camera and accessories.

Most cameras have a built-in flash that automatically kicks in or can be manually overridden. Indoors, the flash adds light if needed. Outdoors, the flash can compensate for tough lighting situations.

A tripod helps to stabilize the camera and lets you look into the viewfinder without moving the camera's position. (My mom should have had one of these.)

ASA and ISO. What? Are we at a Star Trek convention? ISO and ASA are the same thing. Both are the light ratings, indicating how sensitive to light your film or digital cameras are.

Think of it this way. Bright sunny day, low ASA / ISO. Inside where it's dark, high ASA / ISO. A good versatile setting is ASA / ISO 400.

Digital cameras, which record images electronically, have similar light-rating systems. The great thing about digital is that you can change your ASA / ISO on the fly. Outside, 200 ASA. Run inside, switch to 800 and shoot away.

Don't be shy

Go ahead and shoot, shoot, shoot. Film is cheap, and digital cards can be reused. Why go through all the steps to making a great portrait and take only one frame? Don't be afraid to hold down that shutter and shoot a bunch.

Maybe Uncle George blinked. Maybe you goofed. It doesn't matter. If you don't have the shot, you'll have to answer to the family. So, shoot liberally.

They say clothes make the man. They can make or break your photo, too.

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