digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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Help Portrait 2012 and my Top 5 Random Portrait Tips

If you're a regular reader of Her View Photography, you may have realized by now that I spend a lot of time talking about giving back. This is because I believe so whole heartedly, that no matter what your situation is, time wise or financially, you can always give something. It's a choice. It is also a major driving force in every article I write, every comment I answer and everything I strive to do here on this site.

What is Help Portrait?

I'll start with an explanation of Help Portrait, which I learned about in April 2012 at the Google Plus Conference for Photographers. Jeremy Cowart, the founder of Help Portrait, was a headline speaker at the conference. When he spoke about why he started the annual event, and how it was helping people, I knew immediately I wanted to get involved.

The basic concept is really quite simple. Photographers, hair stylists and make-up artists get together to take people's portraits, print them on site and provide them at no charge. As a portrait and wedding photographer for many years I felt that my skills would be an asset, so I volunteered as a photographer to my local event chapter here in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

What if I'm not a professional photographer, can I still help?

There are many volunteer positions available and even if you don't feel confident doing the photography they also need photography assistants, help with hair and make-up, registration, photo editing and printing, and help getting donations and fund raising. One of my photography students came along with me and she had this to say about her experience:

I volunteered with Help Portrait in December, 2012. As a photographer’s helper, my role varied from delivering photos, to capturing stories or being the gopher between the photographer and printer. There was no shortage of ways to help. What I gained from my experience was confidence, that it truly IS okay to jump up and down like a clown (or idiot if you want …) to help engage and put your subjects at ease. This is a lesson which has already helped me during a recent trip, with a newfound ability to approach and engage people while making a portrait of them. – Dawn Sulyma Smith

To get involved, just go to the web site and click the Start Here button at the top of the page. You won't regret it! It was a rewarding experience, and I highly recommend participating or creating on event in your area.

My Top 5 Random Portrait Tips

These portrait tips directly relate to doing portraits on location, as we did in this situation, but the information is relevant for any portrait.

#1 – What equipment do you need for a location portrait?

Personally I like to keep things as simple as possible, especially when dealing with regular people. If you are doing a model shoot, or corporate all day shoot for a fancy shmancy brochure then maybe you need to take it up a notch. But for the most part keeping it simple will make your life easier and allow you to focus on the people, and not the technical stuff.

Remember: a portrait is supposed to be a “portrayal” of the characteristics of the person in the portrait. So how can you portray them if you spend all your time fiddling with your gear and don't interact with them? It IS all about THEM, not your “stuff” or what aperture you're using. Keep it this in perspective and your portraits will improve.

For this location portrait shoot, all I took with me was a two light kit (studio lights or strobes, not SLR speedlights), , extension cord (always have one of these in your gear bag, and gaffer tape!) tripod, camera remote trigger (cable release), hand held light meter (I use this Sekonic model), my camera and two lenses (24-105mm f4 and 50 mm f1.8) We were very limited for space as we had 6 photographers and 6 mini studios set up in a relatively cramped area so there was no room for background lights or extra things like kicker or hair lights.

If you are doing location portraits indoors like this you may also choose to invest in a good muslin backdrop. Muslin is a bit more portable than canvas as you can stuff it into a bag and it's supposed to be wrinkled. Canvas needs to be flat and rolled. 10'x20′ is a good size to start off with, in a nice neutral color like a grey muted blue. Avoid brightly colored ones they will draw too much attention away from the person in the portrait.

These girls each had an individual portrait done but they wanted a fun one together so we did the Charlie's Angels pose

Alternately, you can do as I've done here, use a wall at the location as your backdrop. I liked this tree branch that was painted on the wall, so I just worked with it. The wall is a nice neutral grey so it was not obtrusive. Other photographers had a nice brick wall to work with, and a few did bring backdrops. If you use a backdrop make sure you have stands and a crossbar for it as well, auto poles (go up to the ceiling) are a good option.

#2 – Simple two light portrait set up

As I mentioned above, I brought two lights for this session. I set them up using two bounce umbrellas (the light is aimed into the umbrella, vs white shoot through umbrellas where the light goes through them), one set up about 45 degrees to camera right and one pretty much behind the camera, like so.

You cold also opt for softboxes instead of umbrellas. They offer more control over the direction of light and less light bouncing all over the place (necessary if you want to create more dramatic portraits). In this case I opted for umbrellas due to space issues, and the fact that I find some softboxes cumbersome and somewhat annoying to set up, so I went for simplicity.

In this set up the light to the right of the camera is my main or key light, and as such is pumping out more power than the other light. I've used my light meter to set them up about 1.5 stops apart (3x more light from the main light) so the main reads f8.5 and the fill light reads f5.6. This gives me about a 3:1 ratio which is quite common for portraits. If you want to know more about ratios you can read Lighting Ratios to Make or Break your Portrait that I wrote for the Digital Photography School web site.

The other thing that I do is use a tripod and remote trigger (aka cable release) to fire the camera. I know what you're going to say, you don't like tripods, they're too inhibiting and you like to move around. I usually do too. But, when I'm doing a portrait session where the subjects really aren't moving that much it has two benefits:

  • it allows you to get out from behind the view finder and camera, and actually make eye contact with your subjects! People getting their photo taken are usually nervous and looking into a lens can make them even more so. So give them your smiling face to look at instead (more on that later)
  • it allows you to use back button focus (you focus using a button on the back of the camera, and NOT the shutter release), so you don't have to worry about the camera picking the wrong thing and ending up with a sharp background and blurry person. If you want to know more about this technique, I recommend this article by co-writer on Digital Photography School, James Brandon – 3 Reasons why you should use back button focus. If you aren't sure how to set it up, consult your camera's manual, most SLR's have this feature.

#3 – Group portrait posing tips

Once again, sticking with the KISS theme, there are only a couple of things you need to keep in mind when posing a group portrait .

  • make sure you keep them relatively on the same focus plane so as to get them all in focus. What I mean by that is if you make two rows of people, and the second row is 2 feet behind the first row, you're going to need like f22 or f32 just to get them both in focus. But having the back row closer, and getting them to lean in towards the front you can use a shallower depth of field like f5.6 or f8 and still get your background a little softer too. Remember the string the school photographer used to use? What they were doing is measuring the distance from the camera to your nose. Imagine you have a string tied to your camera, and try and keep everyone's nose as close to the same distance away from the camera as possible to avoid focus issues.
  • arrange your group in such a way as to vary head height and space them apart side to side so as to avoid the totem pole affect (one head directly on top of another). Try and form triangles if you draw a line from each head and do connect the dots (heads). If you have two rows make sure the people in the second row are each in between two people in the front row (forming triangles) and not stacked. This will ensure a more dynamite arrangement and make sure that every face is visible.
  • do use an appropriate aperture to make sure your depth of field covers all the people in the group. I will often do individual portraits at f2.8 or f4, but switch to f5.6 or f8 for groups for this reason.

#4 – Relating to your subjects

Earlier I mentioned that I recommend using a tripod because it allows you to get out from behind the camera, that's just the first part in relating to your subjects. If you are used to photographing your family and friends, then it's a bit easier. You already have a relationship with them, and they know and trust you. But the first time you photograph someone you don't know, either for something like this, or an actual paid job – how to related to them becomes all that much more important.

Know this: most people are as nervous having their portrait done, as they are going to the dentist! It's part of your job to help them feel comfortable and relaxed.

Being a portrait photographer involves more than just knowing how to get good lighting and the correct exposure. It's also about being personable, friendly, making people feel comfortable in front of the camera. I will go as far to say that you will never get really great portraits if you do not have great rapport with your subjects.

So how do you do that?

It's quite simple really, ask them questions! Get them talking about themselves. What do they do? What are their hobbies and passions? You might find a common ground, something that you both love, and can talk about freely. At the very least, it will make your subjects feel more comfortable. Everyone likes to be noticed and accepted. By asking about them, and taking an interest in what they say, they will usually open up and trust you more. You can also find information that you can use in the portrait as well.

One of the first images of John. It's okay, but notice how his eyes don't seem engaged with me or the camera?

Take John here, for example. I learned by talking to him that he comes from WAY up north in Canada, (a remote place called Tuktoyaktuk, NWT) and he is a sculptor. He carves art pieces and works with his hands. So, upon learning this, I decided I wanted to incorporate his hands in the portrait somehow, as they are such a big part of who he is as a person. As an art lover myself I was interested in his technique and where he was displaying his art currently. I asked him things like how long it takes him to carve one piece and his favourite stone to use. He told me stories about his grandfather, hunting in the north and his art. In the matter of less than 5 minutes I learned a lot about the man who moments ago was a stranger, and we had a connection. In return he responded to my idea of using his hands in a positive manner, and it think it shows in his expression and the overall image.

Second time around, I much prefer this portrait over the first version!

Take the time, either before your portrait session or during, to talk to your subjects. Get to know them as human beings. Take an interest in them, and you will be rewarded, I promise!

John's photo with his hand writing, telling his story. My apologies for the crappy out of focus photo from my phone.

#5 – Working with kids

One of the comments I got at the end of the Help Portrait session was that I was great with the kids. So much so that many of the families with small kids ended up in front of my camera. Wanna know my secret to get portraits with kids?

Act like a total idiot!

There it is, my big secret. All I do is literally, and figuratively get down on their level. Kids are goofy, so I act like a goof. Kids do silly things, so I do silly things. I usually have a little ducky puppet in my camera bag and I'll use it to tickle the kids (if you're a man you have to be VERY careful about this, get parental permission first) under the chin with his “feathers” and make quacking noises. For slightly older kids (6-12) things like fart noises and fart jokes usually do the trick. By telling the younger brother “I think your brother just farted” I can usually get a laugh from both of them. Or by insisting that they STOP SMILING right now!


These kids just came alive when they realized they had permission to be silly with me.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I never, ever, tell kids to “smile” or say “cheese”! This usually just gets a strained grin and not a natural one. If the parents have trained them to do this, you need to untrain the parents. I tell parents to let me handle getting expressions and for them to keep looking at me. I'll often use the ducky on mom or dad too, which can even loosen up even the stiffest men and gets the kids laughing even more.

One of my assistants for the day putting the ducky into action!

Make the photos about having fun and being silly, and the kids will usually respond with genuine smiles and laughter. They will also come away from the session having a great experience and feeling like the photo studio is a fun place to go, rather than “it's what you have to do” and a chore.

Action Plan

As always, I encourage you to take some action after reading this article. How will you use this information? Will you go do a portrait? Will you volunteer with Help Portrait or another charity close to your heart? Share with me what you are going to do and the results after you've done it.

Now get out there and do some photography!

I had to get in one photo myself, this is John and I!

Please email, Pin, Like, +1, or Tweet (however you prefer to share) this article with anyone that you think might enjoy either volunteering with Help Portrait, or might like to have their portrait done in 2013. Help spread the word about Help Portrait!

Cheers and Happy New Year!


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