Five Tips for Better Portraits

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When I think about photography, I imagine a National Geographic photographer standing at the edge of a desolate plain, quietly photographing wolves with a lens that's as long as a baseball bat.

But that's just me. I know that the main reason most people buy digital cameras is to take photos of people--and great portraits can be hard to do. So this week, let me share with you five of my top tips for taking pictures of people.

1. Shoot at the Right Time of Day

Lighting is the single most important element in any portrait, so it pays to plan ahead. Your best photos are taken outdoors, in natural light--unless you have a thousand dollars worth of studio lights, reflectors, and diffusers, of course. Indoor shots that rely almost entirely on your camera's flash often have a harsh glare.

Try to take your photos in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is not directly overhead. Some shade or cover works best, where you can position your subject out of direct sunlight. If you are in the sun, even small variations in shade and sunlight can create shadows and overexposed parts of your photo, such as the badly exposed portrait here.

2. Use a Fill Flash

Even though you're outdoors, I recommend using your flash. Check your camera's user guide to see how to set it to fill flash mode. Your flash can add a little light to the subject's face, rescuing it from the shadows and adding a subtle amount of energy to the shot.

Learn more about your various flash settings in "Master Your Camera's Flash Modes."

3. Use a Narrow Depth of Field

When you're taking a portrait, your subject is the star of the photo: Make that obvious by blurring the background.

To do that, shoot with a narrow depth of field, so your subject is sharp and everything else gently blurs away. The easiest way to control the depth of field is to set your camera to its Aperture Priority mode and then dial in the widest aperture (the smallest f/stop number) that your lens allows.

If your camera does not have Aperture Priority, it probably has a portrait mode that tries to pick the aperture for you automatically. Check your camera's user guide for details, or read "Master Your Camera's Depth of Field."

4. Set the Zoom in the Middle

Like a funhouse mirror, the focal length of your zoom can affect the way your subject appears in the photo. A telephoto lens, for example, compresses the foreground and background, making them look artificially close together. A wide angle lens, in contrast, can distort facial features and exaggerate curves, making-folks look fatter than they really are, as in the wide-angle portrait to the left.

What's the best focal length for a portrait? Something in between, often called a "normal" focal length. If you have a typical 28-120 mm lens, that's right in the middle, between 50 and 80mm.

5. Clone Away Blemishes

Your photo editing program probably has tools you can use to minimize blemishes on your subject's face. I like the healing brush, which clones a nearby region at partial opacity, which is kind of like dabbing a little makeup on the person's face. The healing brush is a great way to minimize pimples and other distractions. If your photo editor doesn't have a healing brush, try using the clone tool with about 40 percent opacity. You can find this tool in most popular photo editors, including Adobe Photoshop Elements and Corel Paint Shop Pro (though Corel calls it a Makeover tool).

Read more about clearing up our people pictures in "Touch Up Portraits."

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Low Tide," by Todd Deery, Milton, Ontario

Gerald writes: "In Alma, New Brunswick on the Bay of Fundy (home of the world's highest tides), boats need to rest on stilts at low tide. I took three bracketed exposures of this scene at sunset, and then used Photomatix to make the high dynamic range photo that you see here."

This Week's Runner-Up: "Sun Flower Power," by Archie Plump, Vicksburg, Mississippi

Archie used an Olympus Evolt E-500 with a 14mm lens to capture this image.

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

This story, "Five Tips for Better Portraits" was originally published by PCWorld.

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