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Focus On Photographing People: Focus on the Fundamentals

Focus On Photographing People: Focus on the Fundamentals

by Haje Jan Kamps

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Taking good photographs of people is a combination of many factors: What is the best light for the subject? How should they stand? What aperture should you use for maximum impact? This easy-to-follow, highly visual guide to portraiture explains the technical and aesthetic considerations of creating great images. Step-by-step instruction, tips from an experienced


Taking good photographs of people is a combination of many factors: What is the best light for the subject? How should they stand? What aperture should you use for maximum impact? This easy-to-follow, highly visual guide to portraiture explains the technical and aesthetic considerations of creating great images. Step-by-step instruction, tips from an experienced professional photographer, project assignments and gorgeous photography make learning how to take good photos of people quick and easy. Aimed at beginners or amateurs toting a DSLR and wanting pointers on how to make their people photography really shine, this book offers the basics on composition, lighting, posing, street photography and post-production techniques in a fun andconversational manner.

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Taylor & Francis
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Read an Excerpt

Focus On Photographing People

By Haje Jan Kamps


Copyright © 2011 Haje Jan Kamps
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-240-81470-4



The day I was born, my father took one look at me, and walked to the nearest camera shop. He bought his first SLR camera—a Canon A1—and a couple of lenses. I still have that camera, and it serves as my reminder of why photography is so important.

To me, photography is very closely linked with people. Don't get me wrong, I love taking photos of landscapes, and I have been known to take the occasional still life and macro photo in my time. Nonetheless, for me, photography really comes alive when I'm taking photos of people, be it in a formal setting (like studio portraiture or wedding photos), a bit more relaxed (impromptu photo sessions with friends), or even if I'm sneaking around taking photos of complete strangers when I'm abroad somewhere.

People are ever-changing. We are all expressive, creative human beings in one way or another. Capturing the essence of a person can be a challenge, but it is incredibly rewarding to photograph someone and see a particular aspect of his or her personality shine through.

As an experiment, think about someone you hold dear: a partner, a boyfriend, girlfriend, or a lover. You might decide to photograph him or her in many different ways; a straight-up passport photo would look very different from a photo of him or her as a super-villain, a manga character, or a subject of your affection, for example.

In portraiture, you can take a documentary approach ("this is what they look like"), or you might decide to tell a story. Dig out some old clothes and play dress-up: Ask your models to dress up as pirates, bank managers, porn stars, Roman-era gladiators, or emo-kids on hot pink skateboards. Does that sound ridiculous? Are you laughing? Good. Photography is meant to be fun, and portraiture all the more so.

Let's have some fun, while learning everything you need to know about how to take great pics of people in the process. Grab your camera, and let's get started!

What is portraiture?

So, you've picked up a book on taking photos of people. Perhaps you've had a camera for a while, and you haven't quite been able to get your pictures as good as you dreamed of. Or maybe you've only just bought a camera, and have just figured out which way to hold it. Don't fret, weary traveler; we'll cover all of that in due course.

I don't have to tell you that portraiture is "taking photos of people"—that much is straightforward. But what are you actually looking for in a good portrait? To me, the most important element is personality. I don't know about you, but I'm not interested in staring at a vacant, bored face. As a photographer, one of your challenges is to engage with your models and in the process immortalize them. No pressure!

Is the person you're photographing mischievous, sexy, funny, or harder than nails? Capture that mischief, sexiness, hilarity, or hardness. We'll get to how to capture somebody's true personality later on in this book, but before you can go and capture the essence of someone, you have to find out what defining characteristics you want to show. If you know your models quite well, you might be able to guess the key aspects of their personality yourself. If you don't know your models, engage them. You may want to get a "feel" for who they are or how they want to be portrayed; spend time getting to know your subject.

Of course, you might instead decide to do the exact opposite: create a persona for your models, and ask them to act it out. For example, you can make someone who is quite shy look bold or sexy or make someone who is usually quite extroverted and extravagant look like a paper-shuffler at a local government office. People who know the model will find it hilarious: Imagine your class clown as a police officer or the wallflower in your group of friends as a can-can dancer! The possibilities are endless. Remain creative at all times.

How to use this book

Right now, you might be thinking: If a book comes with a user guide, can it be any good? Trust me, you'd be surprised how many people don't finish a book about photography because the first couple of chapters didn't work for them.

I've written this book to be as modular as possible. That means if you're curious about knowing the basics of photography, turn to the chapter on Photography Basics. If you enjoy editing photos you've taken, Chapter 7, "Photo Editing," is your new best friend. In each chapter, look for the little yellow sticky notes. If I'm talking about a concept you may have missed from another chapter, I'll cross-reference it; so when I start talking about large apertures and fast lenses, I'll include a sticky note to refresh your memory.

Of course, even if you feel you're a world champion photographer, it may be worthwhile having a look at some of the chapters you would otherwise skip. I include tips and advice for all levels of photographers throughout. And even if you don't learn anything new, a refresher can't harm!

So, have a look at the table of contents, find something that tickles your fancy, and dive right in.

Why take pictures of people?

Why would you want to take photos of people? Personally, I think people are one of the most versatile subjects you can photograph. They are an emotional subject. If you ask people what they love the most, they will usually say their friends, family, partner, children.... You get the idea.

People are able to do absolutely incredible things: They overcome huge adversities, create beautiful art, and explore the world. The next time you walk past a street performance, take a close look at the performer. Look for incredible feats of human strength, agility, sense of humor, and physical expressions. Turn your camera on the crowd. You'll see myriad expressions: slack-jawed awe, amusement, skepticism, and bemusement—all worthy of photographing.

Photographers have the power to make people look like cruel monsters or bona fide everyday heroes. You can take documentary photos of your kids and see how they are changing, or you can take an artistic approach. Either way, it's all about the people you are photographing and how you're able to capture the essence of their being.

Some cultures believe that being photographed is tantamount to stealing their souls. While I don't think that theory holds much water, I think making the assumption that portraiture is about laying a person's soul bare is an interesting way of approaching photography. It's fiercely difficult, but trust me: You'll know when you succeed, and your photos will be all the better for it.

This book is designed to show you how to bring your viewers closer to the "souls" of your subjects.

Six steps to taking better portraits

Throughout the years, I've run a lot of workshops and done numerous photo critiques.

In doing so, I've noticed that photographers who are just starting out tend to make a lot of the same mistakes: Their portraiture gets caught in a "holding pattern," making it difficult for them to start taking good photos of people until they have solved some basic issues.

So, before you start on anything else in this book, have a look at the following six tips. Learn them by heart, and continue to run through them like a checklist in your head the next time you're taking pictures of people. You don't have to use all of them all the time, but keep them in mind, and you'll see your portraits improve immediately.


It always amazes me how photographers have a horrible tendency to be complete equipment fanatics. The "my camera is better than yours" and the "Canon versus Nikon" discussions rage on the Internet, at pubs, and at the sidelines of sporting events; wherever photographers meet, there'll be a fierce discussion about what's best.

Let me let you in on a secret: On the whole, very few photographers are held back by their cameras, especially when it comes to camera bodies. To prove that point, I made a decision many years ago to only use bottom-of-the-line camera bodies. With very few exceptions, all the photos in this book were taken with affordable equipment. The picture on the cover of the book? It was taken with a Canon EOS Rebel XSi (or 450D if you're in Europe).

The point I'm trying to make is that if you're going to invest money anywhere, invest it in travel and good lenses: Go to places that inspire you, and bring with you some "good glass," as photographers like to call it. If anybody tells you that you need a top-of-the-line camera body with all the most expensive lenses costing more than your car, send them my way, and I'll have a word with 'em. Truly, honestly: If you know what you're doing, you can take awesome photos with just about any camera.

Nonetheless, a book like this wouldn't be complete if I didn't say a few words about equipment that's particularly well suited to portraiture. So here we go ...!

Choosing a camera body

If you're starting from scratch, the first choice you have to make is which camera body to go for. The great news is that it's very difficult to make a truly poor decision when it comes to buying a digital SLR body. I can't think of a single bad digital SLR or EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens) camera from the past ten years.

Don't be afraid to buy a second-hand camera if you're on a budget; a lot of people upgrade after a few years, and there are many great bargains to be had.

If you decide to buy new, I would suggest you think about how sturdy you need your camera to be, and how well it fits in your hands. If you do a lot of traveling and tend to abuse your equipment, then buy a mid-range camera. If you are careful with your equipment, then you're in luck: The entry-level camera probably does everything you need.

I'm not going to get involved in the Canon/Nikon debate. I'm a Canon snapper, but mostly because I bought a Canon D30 many, many years ago. It was the first affordable digital SLR camera on the market. I already had some fancy EOS lenses from my film days and decided to stick with Canon.

If you don't have any equipment, pick your brand, but be aware that the choice you make will follow you for many years to come, especially if you invest a bit of money in good lenses, too. In general, I tend to recommend you choose either Canon or Nikon because those brands have the most extensive range of lenses and accessories. In practice, all camera manufacturers build some fine cameras, so you can't really go wrong. Buy a camera, and don't look back.

Buying lenses

There are two important things to look at for in a good portrait lens: You'll want something sharp and bright. The "sharp" part means that you need a good quality lens. "Bright" refers to the maximum aperture, such as f/2.8. A consumer-grade lens with an f/5.6 maximum aperture usually won't cut it. As we'll see later in this book, it's useful to be able to shoot at a large aperture, to throw the background out of focus.

Don't let the above put you off, though: You can take portraits with just about any lens. Give it a shot with whatever equipment you have already, and you will probably find that you can get some good results. If you're ready to take the next step, however, it's worth thinking carefully. Why? Well, you're probably about to spend a lot of money....

There are a lot of different schools of thought about what makes a good portrait lens, and I'll discuss some of them here. One thing I would say right off the bat, however: Do you remember how I said that you could get away with buying a cheap camera body? The same rarely applies to lenses.

On the bright side, if you buy good quality lenses, they will last for a very long time indeed. I have a few lenses that I bought more than ten years ago that are still going strong. Remember that Canon lenses can't be used on Nikon, Sony, or Pentax cameras. This is why it's important to make an informed choice if you make the splash and buy some expensive lenses: If they aren't transferable to your next camera body, you'll have to buy new lenses, too. That quickly gets expensive. The great thing is that if you look after your lenses, they will easily outlast a camera body, so you just buy a new body, and keep using your favorite lenses. I have one particular Canon warhorse that I paid a lot of money for a decade ago. I've used it on eight different Canon camera bodies through the years, but it still gets me the shots I want.

The point I'm trying to make is that when it comes to glass, you have to be a discerning customer. Try the lens you are considering before you buy it, insure it properly against accidental damage and theft, and be extra careful with it.

Excerpted from Focus On Photographing People by Haje Jan Kamps. Copyright © 2011 Haje Jan Kamps. Excerpted by permission of Elsevier.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Haje Jan Kamps has been a freelance writer and photographer as well as an editor. In addition to his popular do-it-yourself photography blog, photocritic.org, Haje is known for his creative inventions such as the macro extendion tube he made from a pringles can.

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