Here is a quick list of some of the top people photography mistakes newbies make, and tips on how to avoid them. Whether you are doing posed portraits, or candid photos of your kids, you should find some things in here helpful for you.
Mistake #1 – Using the wrong lens
If you want flatter your subject make sure you use the right lens for the job. A wide angle will distort things, and force you to get really close to people. That often leaves the person's face looking stretched and overly large. Nobody likes a giant head, so step back a bit and use a longer lens.
Read: How to Choose the Right Lens for more info on this topic. For people photography a short to medium telephoto lens (85mm-150mm on full frame, 50mm-100mm on cropped sensor) is often preferred.
On the other hand if you want to include more of the environment, or add a sense of humor you may want to use a wide lens. Just make sure you don't make any of these: 5 Mistakes Beginners Make Using a Wide Angle Lens and How to Avoid Them.
Mistake #2 – Having a distracting background
There are four things that will draw your viewer's eye, they are:
- Color (bright and warm colors even more so)
So make sure that you do not have any of those things in the background, behind your beautiful subject. For example if you put your subject in the shade (because the light is less harsh), but the background is brightly lit – it will draw more attention than your person, and the viewer will be distracted. Keep your background as simple and clean as possible to focus attention where you want it – on the people in your photo.
Mistake #3 – Background too sharp
This goes along with the point above, notice the last item that draws attention – sharpness.
So you want your subject to be sharp for sure, and ideally to have the background less sharp or slightly out of focus. To do this you need to:
- Get the subject away from the background. If they are standing right in front of a tree you will never get the tree out of focus. Ask your model to move forward, away from whatever is behind them, at least six feet – more is better.
- Use a larger aperture for a more shallow depth of field.
- Use a longer lens. See mistake #1 above, if you are already using a telephoto lens that will also help you throw the background out of focus. Much harder to do with a wide angle.
Mistake #4 – Shooting from the wrong angle
For people photography the most common camera angle is just slightly above eye level. If you shoot from lower than that you will be looking up their nose, and making them look down. That can cause a double chin and is not flattering. Shooting too high can make the person look small, or emphasize a receding hairline.
Experiment and find just the right camera height for your subject – it may be different for each person. For kids, get down lower in their level!
Mistake #5 – Light too harsh
Learn about the quality of light (hard and soft) and which to use for people. Most often soft light is better, and more flattering. Putting people into direct sun, or using a direct flash (with no light modifiers) can make them squint, enhances skin imperfections like blemishes and wrinkles (nobody wants that either), and creates overly deep shadows with no detail.
Mistake #6 – Poor direction of light
Another property of light that's key for people photography is the direction of light, in other words where is the light source relative to the subject.
Backlighting is tricky and can create an overly dark subject (can't see their face). So unless you want to create a silhouette, I recommend staying away from light coming from that direction, at least until you have more experience.
The only way to fix backlighting is to add more light – a reflector is not enough, you will need flash. Read: Three Ways to Fix Dark Backlit People Photos
Front light from using your flash on-camera (the built-in one, or a speedlight on top) or sunlight aimed directly at the subject will wash them out, and make their face look flat. You want a subject with dimension and life, not a flat one.
Overhead lighting can happen indoors (lights in the ceiling) or outdoors on an overcast day. Watch for shadows under the eyes, or dark eyes with no catch lights (the light reflected in them which adds life and sparkle).
Side lighting is ideally what you want. Remember to also consider the quality of light (soft). Look for light from an angle hitting your subject. Finding a spot under a big tree with overhead branches, or a porch with an overhang will help block overhead light and give you nice side direction of light. Remember if you can't move the light source (as in daylight or the sun) you can move your subject and yourself.
Mistake #7 – Improper focus
For people photography you always want to strive to focus on their eyes. If you are doing a posed portrait where they are not moving that's easier. Set your focus to a single point, single focus (not continuous or tracking) and lock it on their eye. If one eye is closer to the camera than the other – always focus on the one nearer to you.
Mistake #8 – Depth of field insufficient
Having the right depth of field is about finding a balance between keeping the background blurry, and making sure your subject is totally in focus.
When photographing a single person you can get away with larger apertures like f/2.8 or even f/1.8 (is a very stylized look though, and focus point is critical). Just make sure you follow #7 above and nail the focus point.
Shooting a group photo however requires a bit more depth of field, and therefore a smaller aperture. Aim to position people close together (try to avoid rows far apart) so you can work with f/5.6 or f/8. Focus about halfway into the group (midway between the front of the person in front, and the back of the person behind).
Mistake #9 – Blur from camera shake
This is one of the biggest newbie mistakes and applies to all kinds of photography, not just people. Make sure you use a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze the image and not get camera shake if you are hand holding the camera.
Ideally, use a tripod if you can. Otherwise, this is the general rule of thumb – keep your shutter speed faster than:
Mistake #10 – Too much flash
If you need to use flash make sure you don't over do it. Too much flash (especially direct from camera, see #6 above) will make the person you are photographing look flat, or even like a deer in the headlights.
Learning how to balance flash and natural light is tricky and a bit advanced. But one simple thing you can do right now is to set your Flash Compensation (check your user manual to see how) to -2/3. That will underexpose the flash a bit. Just make sure you put it back if you are shooting indoors where it's dark.
Mistake #11 – Bad cropping
Bad cropping includes things like cutting off people's hands or feet, or cropping at the joints. A general rule of thumb is to either include their whole arm, hand and fingers (legs and feet also) or to crop in to make more obvious. Missing portions of fingers or toes just look amputated, watch for that when you're framing your shot.
Cropping into the head is okay too, but just make sure you leave some of their shoulders in the lower part of the image as a base. A face that's cropped into the forehead, and only shows just below the chin looks like a floating head.
Mistake #12 – Boring composition
This is another common mistake across all kinds of photography. To combat boring composition you first want to start by putting your subject anywhere besides the middle of the photo. Get the subject positioned off-center and your composition will improve by leaps and bounds. Try different aspect ratios and shapes too, like square.
Another thing you can do is vary your orientation and try shooting both vertical and horizontal portraits. If find that beginning photographers shoot almost everything horizontal (landscape mode), but when it comes to people photos or close-up portraits, they do those mostly vertical (portrait mode). Switch it up a little!
Here are some articles on composition to give you ideas:
Mistake #13 – Poor choice of location
Portrait photographers choose their shooting locations very carefully. Most will go ahead of time to scout it out. This is a good idea! If you do so use all the points above and look at:
- The direction of light – can you find side lighting?
- Background options – you want attractive but not busy.
- Other things that might be distracting (garbage cans, parking lot, etc.)
- Quality of light – can you find shade or a porch?
Keeping those things in mind, does your location measure up? If not, spend some time finding one that does. Better yet, find a few that you like so you can suggest locations to your portrait subjects. The more you control the process and help them, the better the final photos will come out.
Mistake #14 – Shooting at the wrong time of day
You may have heard the term Golden Hour before. This is the time right before sunset (and after sunrise) where the sun is low on the horizon. The light is soft (diffused by angle it goes through the atmosphere) and more from the side than at midday (avoiding overhead light and eye shadows).
Hence this is the prime time for portrait photographers to shoot. Most pros prefer to go out at this time of day as it's much nicer, warmer, more flattering light. You will find you won't have to fight with the light as much as if you go out at noon. Make it easier on yourself and work smarter, not harder. Most times when I shoot in the evening during Golden Hour I do not have to use a flash, or even a reflector. The light is that nice.
Your turn to practice
By avoiding these 14 people photography mistakes and using the tips provided, you will be on your way to taking better images of your family and friends.