Taking photographs: handy hints and tricks

Last changed: 13 December 2018

Sometimes you need to take the pictures yourself. Here are a few things that may help you on your way.

How to take portraits

There are a few things to keep in mind when taking portrait photos, but actually it's not all that complicated.

Taking a simple portrait photograph with a mobile phone:

  • The distance between you and the person you are photographing should be around 0,5-1 meters. If you are too far away you need to use the digital zoom and this effects the quality of the picture. If you stand too close to the person, on the other hand, the person's appearance might be distorted on the picture as a result of the wide-angle lens on the camera which tends to enlarge the objects that are the closest to the lens.

  • If you are using a mobile phone, use the portrait mode. This gives you short depth of field which results in a natural focus on the person in front of the camera.

  • If you use flash aimed straight ahead, have the person stand at least two metres from the background (see the section on cast shadows).

  • It is also an excellent idea to photograph without using flash, in existing light. The result may even be better, more natural. Stand close to a large window that lets in plenty of good-quality soft light (not direct sunlight). Existing light also makes it easier to photograph people wearing glasses, which can otherwise cause some reflection problems.

  • Have the person stand facing you at an angle, with his/her body and head turned slightly towards the light (at a slight angle; the person should not be turned so much as to appear posed and unnatural).

  • Have the person to look into the camera.

  • If you take a half portrait photo (half the person, from the waist upwards), make sure that the person is not holding their hands in an unnatural or posed way.

  • Ask the person to smile, smile a little more, be neutral, brief and varied. Different people look their best in different ways.

Taking a portrait with a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera:

  • Use a fixed focal length lens of say 50 mm or 85 mm or a zoom lens set somewhere in between 50-85 mm. Too much wide-angle will distort the appearance of your subject.

  • Use a ISO number as low as possible but preferably somewhere in between 200 and 600 (depending on what is needed due to the amount of light in the room). Higher ISO settings may cause disturbing noise.

  • Use portrait or Aperture-Priority mode (A or AV) with the aperture set as low as possible, preferably somewhere between 1.8 and 3.5. This gives you short depth of field which results in a natural focus on the person in front of the camera.

  • If you have an external adjustable flash, pointing the flash head towards a nearby ceiling or wall creates a softer light that reduce the glare from the skin, hair, and clothing of your subject.

Contextual portraits

Sometimes contextual portraits can offer appeal. Choose a relevant background that helps to explain who the person is or the context in which they are of interest.
Example: A marine researcher by the sea (or why not under water), a biotechnologist in a laboratory, a landscape architect in a newly created park, etc.

The context should not divert attention from the subject of the portrait; take a photo with a short depth of field and strengthen the sense of depth in the photo by putting something in the foreground as well.

Tidying up a photo

Look carefully before you take a photo; are there any unnecessary distractions in the background/foreground?

Example: Is the person standing holding a lunch box or a bunch of keys in their hand? Are they standing in front of a sign that is irrelevant to the photo? Can you achieve a cleaner, less messy photo by quickly removing something from a table, for example, or simply by moving a few paces to one side?

You don't have to remove everything; there are instances where objects, such as signs in the background, are needed to place the person geographically.

But be careful when choosing a background for your subject. Objects that appear to be sticking out of someone's head or body can look quite absurd.

Depth of field

Most modern compact cameras (and of course system cameras) have semi-manual settings that can be used. One very handy setting is the pre-set aperture (Nikon call this setting "A"; Canon call it "Av").

By using a wide or small aperture, you can control the depth of field, i.e. how much of the photograph will be in focus. With a wide aperture (around f 1.4 – 4.0) you will get a short depth of field, which will bring the subject of your photograph into clear focus. This is particularly suitable for portraits, photos of details or evocative nature photographs.

A small aperture (f 8 – 22) will give you a long depth of field, with virtually everything in focus. The most important thing in the photo will then not be as obvious, but this setting is good for general and contextual photographs or simply those where it is particularly important that everything is sharp and clear.

When the light is really bad, it is necessary to have a wide aperture (letting in as much light as possible) to be able to take any pictures at all. A short depth of field must then be accepted, whether or not that was the original idea. One alternative is then to use a tripod and, instead of a wide aperture, use a long exposure time.

Back lighting

To take portrait photos in strong back lighting, you should use fill flash, which is a weaker flash that throws a little extra light on the person. Otherwise there is a risk you will get a silhouette image of the person with a correctly exposed background.

Most compact cameras have a setting for fill flash. Since it is hard to give detailed instructions about how to use this setting on different cameras, you are recommended to study the camera manual to find out what options your camera offers.

Bird's eye and frog's eye perspectives

One way of avoiding boring, static pictures is to use a bird's eye or frog's eye perspective. Quite simply, you photograph from above or below. But you do not need to use the extreme angles exemplified in the sample pictures here; just raising or lowering the camera a little will also achieve an effect.

Indoor flash photography - avoiding cast shadows

Indoor flash photography often involves a risk of cast shadows. These are ugly dark edges around the subject – shadows cast on the background where light from the flash did not reach.

You can avoid cast shadows by placing the person further away from the background. Another method is to aim the flash at the ceiling (if you have an external adjustable flash and if the ceiling is not too high). This will ensure the flash does not throw direct light on the person; there will be indirect, softer light from the ceiling. You simply add to the existing "general" light in the room. If the ceiling is very high, you will not be able to reflect light off it using flash; the light will be too diffuse to do much good.

Photos of SLU activities

When looking at photos of people we usually appreciate to feel there is some form of "contact", i.e. that the faces of the people in the picture can be seen, or even that there is eye contact. To achieve this, you will often have to lower the camera and perhaps also use a wide-angle lens to capture both what the people are doing and their faces. Be careful though when placing people in the outer area of your picture as this placement may distort their appearance, particularly if you are using a wide-angle lens!

Another trick is to ask the people you photograph to suddenly to look up at the camera. This makes for a much more interesting photo than those showing someone whose head is turned away.

Panorama/overview photos

When you take panorama shots or overview photos, you can reduce the impression of emptiness by putting something relevant in the foreground. It is also a good idea to populate the photo, either by taking your photo when you know that people will be there, or, failing that, by asking someone to move through the area while you are taking the shot.

Bear in mind that if you use a wide-angle lens from a long distance, it will exacerbate the sense of desolation. Go closer!

Page editor: bild@slu.se