This article was originally published on November 20, 2015 and has been updated to include current product information.
One of the most pleasant experiences of the holiday season is the chance to spend time with extended family and friends you don’t get to see as often as you’d like. I’m referring to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, old folks, newborns… you get the picture. Or do you? Do you keep your photo skills to yourself and your camera on the shelf, or do you take a few informal portraits of loved ones to remember how they looked at a special moment in time? Uncle Don when he had a full head of hair. His son Jerry before he got the neck tattoo. Your sister’s beautiful newborn daughter, Isabelle. Grams enjoying the festivities in her favorite easy chair.
This may all seem like boring stuff compared to the vacation photos you shot in Costa Rica, the rainbow you captured over Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona, or the race event you shot last weekend. I can state from experience that as wonderful as shots like these may be to us as photographers, they don’t mean nearly as much to friends and family. What they really love to see, and what will consistently earn you praise and compliments, is great photos of them. With the passage of time, you may discover that your informal portraits of friends and family become some of your most cherished images as well.
Keep It Simple.
When I use the term “informal portrait,” I’m referring to a photo that’s casual, yet not necessarily candid. Posing your subject, if you do it at all, should be minimal. You should be looking for relaxed and natural facial expressions. Although a light tripod may come in handy to help ensure consistently sharp images, you definitely shouldn’t be using studio lighting, reflectors, and backdrops. The holiday, the feast and the guests should be the focus, not you and how you photograph it.
You also don’t need special-purpose lenses. Any normal-to-medium telephoto focal length will do. If you’re shooting with a Canon APS-C digital SLR, such as an EOS Rebel model, this means something in the range of 35-70mm. If you’re shooting with a full-frame DSLR, you’ll do better with something more in the range of 50-100mm. Shorter focal lengths are great for environmental portraits where the surroundings are as important as the subject. At close distances however, their exaggerated perspective is seldom flattering.
I personally prefer prime (fixed focal length) lenses over zooms. Prime lenses generally have larger maximum apertures, which makes them ideal for shooting indoors in low-to-moderate light levels without flash. Primes also help reduce the need for excessively high ISOs, which can give skins tones a grainy, mottled texture. Slower zooms can work equally well of course, as long they’re image stabilized and you’re careful to avoid subject motion. You also have the option to shoot outdoors where the light is brighter, assuming the temperature is warm enough.
Speaking of temperature, there’s no way to predict what color temperature the ambient lighting will be and what white balance will match. One of the benefits of digital photography is that you can shoot a few test shots and see the results immediately. Look for whether white and neutral colors appear truly neutral. If they look too warm (amber tone), you’ll need to adjust the camera’s white balance setting. The Tungsten white balance option (approximately 3200° K) will often do the trick. If the whites and neutrals are still too warm, mid-range and upper-end EOS cameras offer another WB option, the K (Kelvin) setting. This allows you to use the Main Dial (just behind the shutter button) to set the color temperature manually. With average indoor tungsten or LED lighting, 2700° K will be close enough. A slightly warm white balance is generally more flattering to skin tones than an overly cool one, which can make fair skin look pale and sickly.
None of the above is really necessary if you’re shooting RAW images. Shooting RAW lets you adjust the white balance after the fact, either one image at a time or by selecting a group of images. With JPEG images the color balance is “baked in” and anything but the most minor alterations will cause a noticeable drop in image quality. The same is true if you’re using your camera’s video recording capability, so with JPEGs or video it makes sense to get the color as accurate as you can while you’re shooting. Canon’s Digital Photo Professional (DPP) raw conversion software, supplied on the free CD that came with your camera (or available as a free download on the Canon USA website), has all you need to produce great results from RAW original images, and there are plenty of other software options available. DPP can also be downloaded online by using your compatible camera's serial number.
Flattering light, flattering pose, flattering expression
A major benefit to using minimal equipment is it helps keep your focus on the three most important keys to successful portraits: flattering light, a flattering pose, and a flattering expression. If any one of them is lacking, your portrait will fall short of success and satisfaction. Professional portrait photographers spend their entire careers mastering just these three elements. Here are some tips and observations to help move you further along your path to mastery.
Use highlights to reveal.
In a photograph, your eye is first attracted to the brightest and most colorful areas. That’s a good thing if your subject is wearing clothing darker than their skin and there are no distracting bright areas in the background. Your eyes will be attracted mainly to their face and secondarily to their hands. Poorly placed highlights are a bad thing if there’s a big bright highlight on dad’s bald spot or grandma’s mole. A slight turn of the head or shift in body position relative to the main light source (the one that’s casting the most dominant shadow) can be all it takes to move a highlight away from where you don’t want it to where you do.
Use highlights to widen.
A person’s face is a three-dimensional object, similar in many ways to the moon. How much of the moon you see depends on its angle to the sun, its primary light source. Outer space makes an extremely poor reflector, hence the shadow. When the sun lights the moon directly from the front, the moon looks round. When the sun lights the moon from the side, we see only half the moon – a much narrower portion. When the sun lights the moon from the side but further behind, we see a crescent, which is narrower still. The same basic principle applies to faces: the smaller the area you place in highlight, the narrower the face will look. Portrait photographers call this “short lighting.” The broader the area you place in highlight, the broader the face will look. Portrait photographers call this — you guessed it — “broad lighting.”
Use shadows to hide and add depth.
Keep in mind that highlights only exist relative to shadows and vice-versa. If your subject’s face is lit so broadly and evenly that shadows are practically invisible, the look will be flat and soft. This might be fine for infants, young children, or elderly women. It’s normally a bit too soft for grown men. In contrast (literally), deep shadows add dimension, drama, and texture. High contrast lighting can be unforgiving though, so avoid it when you want to de-emphasize lines, wrinkles, facial hair, and textures in general.
Look for light that best suits your subject.
You won’t be doing lighting setups if you’re shooting casually. Instead, you’ll be keeping your eyes open for flattering light and light sources: soft, but not too soft; directional but not too directional. You’ll often find this type of natural light next to windows that face the open sky but not the sun, sunlit windows with white curtains, porches with overhangs or walls that create open shade, rooms lit by skylights, and so on. When you’re shooting indoors under artificial light, look for large light sources that are relatively close to your subject. Unless you want a spotlight effect, avoid small ones that are far away. Fluorescent lighting can be tricky. Aside from often having a slightly green or cyan color cast, overhead fixtures cast unattractive shadows (“raccoon eyes”). A crafty way to compensate is to position your subject at a table covered with a white tablecloth. Light from above will reflect off the tablecloth to fill in facial shadows from below.
Bounce flash is always an option.
Let’s face it: sometimes the available light will be so dim or so awful that there’s no chance of getting an acceptable portrait with it. This is when a single Speedlite can make all the difference. Bounce your flash off a nearby wall and the wall becomes a giant softbox. Bounce it into a corner where two walls and the ceiling meet and you have a giant umbrella. Light bouncing off the other nearby walls adds natural fill. If you choose to bounce light from the ceiling though, you’ll need a bit of front-fill to avoid the raccoon eyes referenced earlier. That’s where the LED on the front of the Speedlite 320EX or the reflector panel on the 430EX-series or 600EX-series Speedlites come in handy. They add just enough kick to fill in overhead shadows and add a touch of sparkle to skin. When bouncing, be careful not to accidentally blast people in the eyes with direct flash and wait until everyone is relaxed and comfortable.
Keep it loose.
I find that the more I try to pose a subject, especially if there are other people watching, the more self-conscious they become. If you’ve ever been a subject instead of the photographer, you know exactly how they feel. So try to be empathetic, keep the moment informal, and limit your posing suggestions to one brief but clear sentence. For example, if you want the main light to come from a different direction you could say, “Just turn your head toward the window and keep doing what you were doing.” Or, if you’re trying to capture a particular expression, say “Just keep thinking about whatever you were thinking before you saw me.” Whether you like what you see or not, shoot one or two frames and continue the conversation. If kids pull goofy faces, shoot a few frames and show them the results. They’ll laugh, their parents will laugh, and a good time will be had by all. This is, after all, a family get-together, not a portrait session.
As you continue these quick and casual photo interludes throughout the day, you’ll discover you become practically invisible, or at least no one bothers to pay much attention to you. All you have to do is find the right spot, wait for the right expression, shoot a few frames, then either join in or move on. After a while you’ll establish a rhythm and by the end of the day you should have some definite keepers.
There wouldn’t be much point in shooting all these photos of family and friends without sharing them. In fact, that’s where the real joy comes in. You can, at minimum, burn the images onto a CD or DVD that you distribute by mail. Easier still is to upload them to a cloud service such as Dropbox and distribute the link. People can then download and view the images at their leisure.
If you really want to make a strong impression, there’s still no substitute for the printed image. A small framed print suitable for a shelf or side table will earn you praise and gratitude far beyond its size. A photo book collection of your best photos will become a cherished family heirloom. Just be sure to add dates and suitable captions. It gets increasingly hard over the years to remember exactly when a photo was shot and who the subject is, even for you. A simple caption today can save a lot of doubt and confusion tomorrow or a generation from now.
Don’t be too surprised though, if what you originally intended as a one-time exercise becomes a family tradition. It’s great to aspire to being a famous travel, nature, sports, or fine art photographer, but you may discover that your title as “Official Family Photographer” is your greatest honor of all.