Humiliation in the name of SCIENCE

Actually, not so much on the science, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?  I have whole days where I add a long dramatic pause, and then, “for SCIENCE!” at the end of all statements of intent.  “I must eat this salsa before it goes bad…for SCIENCE!”  “Damn, I tripped over the laundry and hit my leg on the bed…for SCIENCE!”  “I’m going to have to sell you all on Ebay…for SCIENCE!”

This is less for science than it is for others who may want some photography tips from someone who is a decided amateur.  And hey, fair enough, because I’ve looked at pro tips and they’re well above my head.  I’m still learning the basics, so talking about the technical stuff is beyond me.  Anyway, here are some things I’ve learned about photographing people/posing for photographs.

The first thing is to take a bajillion pictures, more or less.  People move.  They make funny faces.  The light hits them strangely.  A posed scene that looks good in real life may look awful when you go to look at it later.  For every one good picture that you get, there will be five to ten that turned out anywhere from not-quite-right to downright awful, and that’s OK.  With a digital camera, you don’t have to worry about wasting film.  Snap away.   You only need a few good shots and you’re more likely to get them if you just keep snapping.

When I’m working with any sort of model, I tend to prefer natural looking shots.  I’ve found that for me, this is best achieved if I engage my subject in conversation.  You get a natural play of expression across the face, and the general feel is more relaxed and real.  Generally speaking, if you tell someone to smile, the smile you get doesn’t reach up to their eyes, and even when it’s not something we consciously think about, we can identify a smile that isn’t real.  I want real smiles, so I try to talk with the people whose pictures I’m taking.  Natural expressions happen fast, so as I’m snapping, I’m going to get some very odd micro expressions.

You can see that in these two pictures from the Paulette photo shoot.  These were shot minutes apart, in slightly different parts of my yard, which is why the lighting is different in each, and in one, Nora is in the middle of transitioning from one expression to another.  In the other, she is relaxed.  I would not have gotten the good second shot without the first, bad shot.  I was talking to her and snapping as we talked.

The “good” shot here is still far from perfect, but it’s a huge improvement over the first.  The light on her face is actually reflected up from an open book on her lap.  She likes to read, so I brought one of her books outside to help keep her cheerful and busy.  It ended up doubling as a reflector.  You can make a simple reflector of your own with a large white piece of posterboard, and use it to deflect natural light in the directions you’d prefer.

Light is a huge thing when shooting.  Natural light is usually your best bet, but time of day and quality of light matter.  Harsh light will put harsh shadows on your subject’s face and show any blemishes or discoloration far more than it might even show in real life.  A lot of those shocking pictures of celebrities looking like ogres are achieved by snapping photos in harsh light before they’re ready.  Here comes the humiliation.  Both of these pictures were taken on the same day, while it was quite light out.  The first was snapped outside in harsh light.  Keep in mind that I knew this picture was being taken, so the badness cannot be explained by someone popping out and ambushing me.  It’s simply a matter of too much light on very fair, somewhat damaged skin.  The second picture was taken inside a few minutes later when we realized that the light outside was too harsh.

Same camera, same model, almost the same pose and smile, but the light is very different, and the pictures are very different as a result.  Wrinkles around the eyes are natural with smiles, but the light deepens mine in the first picture and the shadows give my face a ghoulish look.  This is particularly bad when you are photographing women.  Our standards of feminine beauty allow for fewer crags and etchings, and harsh light will sometimes make a female subject look masculine.

Cloudy days are wonderful for shooting outdoors because you get the lovely natural light, but with a natural filter that will even out the tones and keep the subjects from becoming too washed out or too shadowed.  Otherwise, wait until Magic Hour.  Magic Hour is that time of evening when the light comes in at an angle from the horizon, rather than from straight above, and it turns golden.  This light is ideal for shooting people.  (Wow, take that sentence out of context and panic!)  The golden color lends a healthy glow to the skin, and the angle of the light does not create harsh shadows.

This photo was taken at Magic Hour.  A lot of people have told me they like the autumnal look of it, but it was taken during the summer.  The golden light makes the scene look more rich and autumnal than it otherwise would.

I hope this is helpful!  If so, I’ll be writing more about photography in the future.  It’s something I’m still learning, and I don’t know a whole heck of a lot, but what I know isn’t a bad place to start.  And truly, the failures often teach more than the successes.  At least I keep telling myself that.


9 Responses to “Humiliation in the name of SCIENCE”

  1. Ingrid Says:

    Thanks so much for this really helpful article – your successful vs unsuccessful shots illustrate your points perfectly.

  2. Leah Says:

    Yes, thank you for the mini-tutorial! My husband is a former pro photographer but he’s rarely around when I need help with my knit photo shoots. These tips really are helpful!

  3. Jessica Says:

    As a very unphotogenic person, I thank you for these tips. It always astonishes me that I have to take 99 ghoul-like pictures to get one pretty one but I seem to have a combination of features that’s not very camera.

  4. Jessica Says:

    Hmm. I lost part of my comment somehow. I was trying to say my particular features are not very camera-friendly though they are nice enough in real life.

  5. Alice Says:

    Great tips! You’re so right that taking tons of photos is key. I end up with tons of bloopers in the process of getting decent shots!

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