How to Take Special-Occasion Portraits

Here's how to choose the best camera settings for taking portraits, plus image editing tips for creating flattering photographs of loved ones.

Take Better Portraits

Welcome to portrait season--at some point between Thanksgiving and New Year's, every relative and friend within a day's drive will inhabit your living room. It's a great time to take pictures of all the folks you don't see very often.

This year, though, rather than just grabbing some casual snapshots, why not try to take some nice portraits that you can frame, preserve, and share? You don't need to ask anyone to dress up or pose. But you can dramatically increase the quality of your portraits with a little care when you set the proper exposure and flash settings, and then do a little editing afterward on your PC.

For more, see:

"Picture Perfect: Virtual Frames Enhance Digital Photos"

"Parlay Your Photos Into Holiday Cards and Calendars"

"Holiday Camera Gift Guide"

"Snapshot Photo Printers for the Holiday Season" (video)

Put Your Subject at Ease

Taking pictures of people can be intimidating--but if you think it's nerve-wracking to be the photographer, try being the person in front of the camera. Uncle Ted doesn't want to stand around getting photographed, trust me. It's hard to get a natural pose from people when they know they are being photographed.

To put your subjects at ease, try talking to them to get them to loosen up. Remember that your camera's LCD lets you frame your picture without holding the camera up to your face, leaving you free to interact with your subjects more naturally. Take pictures periodically as you pose your subjects, to get them used to the shutter going off, even if you don't intend to keep the shots. When you take the final shot, they'll never know it.

Set the Depth of Field and the Zoom

Your subject is the star of the portrait: Make that obvious by blurring the background. A common approach is to shoot with a narrow depth of field. This keeps your subject sharp but makes everything behind the subject blur gently 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 biggest aperture (the smallest f-number) that your lens allows.

Even if your camera lacks an aperture priority mode, it almost certainly has a portrait mode that does the same thing automatically (check your camera's user guide for details). You can read more about how aperture affects depth of field in "Master Your Camera's Depth of Field."

Another important setting is your camera's zoom, or focal length. If you choose a wide-angle position, the lens will distort your subject's features, or at least make them seem wider than they really are, as in the photo here. If you're photographing Uncle Ned "Big Nose" Jackson, the last thing you want to do is make his proboscis appear any larger. What's the best focal length for a portrait? If you have a typical 28mm-to-120mm lens, it's right in the middle: anywhere between 50mm and 100mm.

Lighting: Indoors and Out

Lighting is the single most important element in any portrait. Unless you have a thousand dollars' worth of studio lights, reflectors, and diffusers, your best photos are the ones you take outdoors, in natural light. If you have no choice but to work indoors, and you need to use your camera's flash, turn on the red-eye reduction mode and supplement the flash with as much natural lighting as possible. If your camera's flash is tiltable, bounce the light off the ceiling.

If you can work outdoors, try to take photos in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is not directly overhead. Even outdoors, you might want to use 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 various flash settings in "Master Your Camera's Flash Modes."

Set Up a Digital Workflow

After you take your portraits, you can do a few things to enhance and improve the shots. Many photographers follow a digital workflow, which is a fancy way of saying that they perform certain kinds of edits in a specific order to maximize quality. It's a good idea, for example, to crop your image before performing any sort of automatic color correction--your photo editing program will focus on the colors in the image that really matter. Below is a common digital workflow; I'm using Adobe Photoshop Elements, but the basic steps are the same in any image editor. You certainly don't need to do all of these things to each of your portraits, but you'll get the best results if you perform the steps roughly in this order.

  1. Copy the photo from your camera to your computer.
  2. Is the photo crooked? Set it right by choosing the Straighten tool (12 items down on the toolbar on the left side of the screen) and then drawing a level line across the photo that indicates a "horizon line."
  3. If the photo has distracting elements, use the Crop tool (ten down from the top) to change the photo's composition.
  4. If the colors look off, correct the white balance by choosing Enhance, Adjust Color, Remove Color Cast, and then clicking on a part of the photo that should be white or gray.
  5. Adjust the brightness and contrast if necessary by choosing Enhance, Adjust Lighting, Brightness/Contrast.
  6. Remove any ugly red-eye effect by choosing Enhance, Auto Red Eye Fix.
  7. Finally, apply other effects, such as skin smoothing, removing imperfections, and teeth whitening (see the following slides).

Editing Tips to Improve Your Portraits

Now that you've taken care of the preliminaries, such as straightening and cropping, you can do a little cosmetic surgery on a picture that could use some improvement. For example, I'll work on an old photo of my daughter and her grandmother, shown here. It's a wonderful shot that spans generations, but we can do a lot to make it more pleasing to the eye.

For starters, I see some wrinkles on Grandma's face. There's nothing wrong with wrinkles, of course, but let's smooth them over a little anyway. While we're at it, she has a few blemishes--dark spots on her face--that we can clear away as well. Both faces have "hot spots" from the camera flash. I hate that, so let's see if we can eliminate them. Likewise, some reflections are showing in my daughter's eyeglasses. We may not be able to completely erase those, but we can try. And, what the heck--let's see if we can whiten their teeth a little, too.

Reduce Wrinkles

One of the easiest ways to make a portrait of someone a bit more flattering is to smooth away any obvious wrinkles--especially in the forehead and under the eyes.

To do that, start by selecting the region of interest. If you're using Adobe Photoshop Elements, you can use the Lasso tool, available in the sixth cubby from the top of the toolbar on the left side of the screen. Click and hold while "drawing" an outline of just Grandma's forehead; lift your finger from the mouse once you've closed the loop of your selection. Then choose Filter, Blur, Gaussian Blur and set it to about 0.4. Click OK, and you'll get something like what I have. (Low values for Gaussian blur yield the most subtle effects; you'll need to experiment and find a setting that suits your taste.) Now repeat the process around the rest of Grandma's face to smooth things out a bit. I applied a little Gaussian blur to the forehead, both cheeks, the crow's feet at her eyes, and the chin.

Remove Imperfections

I find the reddish blemish just above the bridge of Grandma's nose a bit distracting. We can erase it by dabbing it a bit with some of her natural skin color.

Click on the Clone Stamp tool (in the fifteenth spot from the top of the toolbar) and change the size of the tool to about 12 pixels using the options toolbar at the top of the screen. While you're there, set the opacity of the Clone Stamp to about 50 percent. Then, Alt-click on some part of her face that has an even, natural look. You've just assigned that as the source of the clone effect. Now click the brush on the blemish above Grandma's nose. Just dab at it, clicking around to eliminate the reddish tone. Dabbing with the Clone Stamp set to a low opacity does more than just erase blemishes; both faces in this picture have some unsightly reflections from the flash, so work them slightly with the brush as well.

As you dab different parts of the face, take new source-location samples near the area you're working with. In this picture, the most important spots to get are the tips of both noses--it's like applying a bit of makeup to an actor's nose to absorb reflections from the studio lights.

The Clone Stamp can even help eliminate the reflection in the eyeglasses. First sample a region that has the same skin tone as around the eyes. Then zoom in far enough that you can easily see the problem area. Reduce the size of the stamp (I set it around 8 pixels), and dab gently to take the edge off the reflection. Don't go overboard here, though, because there are important details that you don't want to remove.

Whiten the Teeth

It's really hard to get good, realistic, whiter teeth in a photo, but a small amount of the dodge brush often gets the job done. First, zoom in and carefully select just the teeth using whichever selection tool you prefer. In this portrait, I think the Magnetic Lasso tool (sixth item down) works best, but use whatever works well for you. Then select Dodge (in the second spot from the bottom) and set the size pretty small--about 10 pixels, so that the brush is no bigger than the teeth. Then dab the brush at the teeth to brighten them just a bit.

Brighten the Eyes, Part 1

A lot of pros in fashion photography use a subtle trick: They brighten the whites of the eyes, making them seem to come alive. Suppose you have a photo like this one, in which the subject's eyes are an important part of the photo. It isn't bad, but we can do better.

Choose Layer, Duplicate Layer, and click OK in the Duplicate Layer dialog box. Then go to the Layers palette on the right side of the screen and choose Screen from the drop-down menu. The entire photo is now dramatically brighter. Now we want to erase most of the top layer, leaving the bright, "screened" section in place around the eyes. To do that, select the Eraser tool (in the sixteenth cubby from the top of the toolbar on the left side of the screen). We want to erase broad swaths of the photo quickly, so increase the size of the brush. In the Tool options palette at the top of the screen, increase the size to about 100 pixels, and then quickly wipe the photo to restore the bottom layer, careful to avoid erasing the subject's face. (Depending on the size of your photo, you might need to make the brush bigger or smaller to erase around the subject's face efficiently.)

Brighten the Eyes, Part 2

It's time to fine-tune the face, which is the one part of the top layer we haven't deleted. Set the brush size to a fairly small value so that you can accurately erase the face without eliminating any of the brightness from the eyes. It's also important to make sure that the brush has feathered (or soft) edges. Select the Brush Shape menu and choose a soft brush. For my photo, the 27-pixel soft round was just about right.

Now it's time to finish the careful erasure of the top layer, working around the eyes to leave them intact. The eyes will likely be a bit too bright, though. For the finishing touch, grab the Opacity slider in the Layers palette (on the right side of the screen) and pull it back until it looks about right--which, for this photo, I found to be about 22 percent.

For more, see:

"Picture Perfect: Virtual Frames Enhance Digital Photos"

"Parlay Your Photos Into Holiday Cards and Calendars"

"Holiday Camera Gift Guide"

"Snapshot Photo Printers for the Holiday Season" (video)

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by TechHive's Editors

Related Slideshows