Friday, December 10, 2010

Christmas portrait photography

Christmas and New Year involve lots of family and friends getting together; the ideal time to practice your portrait photography and capture some memorable photos.

What makes a great portrait? There are no hard and fast rules but there are some useful tips. This tutorial will cover:

• Candid camera shots
• Formal families portraits
• Using the self timer and remote controls
• Flash photography
• Using ambient light
• Composition

Candid camera
A simple way to get started is to take candids. You can get natural expressions of people when their interest is elsewhere. You don’t need to hide the fact that you are taking photographs. In fact, it is much better to have the camera in the open and let everyone know that you are shooting. After a while they will be at ease with this and continue as normal.

At Christmas, for example, you can photograph people opening their presents, playing games, preparing a meal, or even washing up.

Formal families
Don’t miss the opportunity for a family group shot. The resulting photograph will be one for the family album to be treasured in later years.

If you want an older style shot, set chairs in the centre for the grandparents, with their children standing behind. Grandchildren can stand on either side, or sit in front. If you have any old family group pictures, it can be fun to try and copy the arrangements and poses. You can print them out there and then.

Many family groups have one person missing – the photographer. There is no need for this. Canon cameras are fitted with a self-timer. When set, pressing the shutter button delays the exposure by 10 seconds. This gives you time to join the group in front of the camera. The latest PowerShot and IXUS cameras, such as IXUS 1000HS, makes this even easier as have a Wink self-timer which captures a shot 2 seconds after a wink is detected!


Ideally, the camera should be fixed to a tripod but any solid surface will do. You can zoom the lens and compose the image, remember to allow space if you plan to join one end of the group. Most of the time the camera will autofocus and give the correct exposure. Sometimes it is better to switch to manual focus (if available) and adjust the lens before you press the shutter button – this makes sure that the focus is on the most important part of the scene.

Remote control
The problem with using the self-timer for group shots is that you can’t control when the picture is taken. People either anticipate the exposure and have fixed smiles, or they are taken by surprise.

Some Canon EOS cameras have a built-in infrared receiver that operates with the Canon remote control unit RC-6. You can aim the unit at the front of the camera and press the button to fire the shutter. Aim and press the button, then move your hand down to hide the unit before the picture is taken. Two seconds later a photo is taken.

The short delay givers people less time for a fixed smile and you can fire when everyone is ready.

Flash photography
Many of your festive family pictures will be taken indoors. In the relatively low light most Canon cameras will automatically fire the built-in flash. Sometimes the built-in flash can give harsh background shadows. To avoid this you should keep your subject well away from light coloured walls or curtains.

If you use a Canon EOS (or selected Powershots) and a Canon Speedlite flashgun you can attach a Canon Off Camera Shoe Cord. This allows the flashgun to be used at arm’s length from the camera. If you hold it up and to the side of the camera you can obtain better portrait lighting. With autofocus, it is relatively easy to hold and fire the camera with your right hand while holding your left hand out with the Speedlite.

Ambient light 
You might not need flash. Digital cameras are quite good at shooting in low-level ambient light, either daylight from a window or artificial light. You can change the ISO setting to increase the sensitivity of the camera to light. All Canon digital cameras offer ISO 1600; the top of the range EOS-1D Mark IV offers up to 102400!

The downside of high ISO speeds can be increased ‘noise’. Canon cameras use advanced noise reduction technology to minimize the effect. Take a few test shots at high ISO speeds to see if the results are acceptable.

In ambient light, the camera might set quite a slow shutter speed. Keep an eye on this. If the shutter speed drops below about 1/60 second you might need to use a tripod or support the camera on a table or chair back. You will also need to ask your subject to stay still for a moment as you take the picture.

When photographing a single person there is a temptation to place them in the middle of the frame. Better results are often obtained by moving them off-centre – this gives a more dynamic image. Take a look at how characters are shown in television dramas to pick up tips on portrait composition.

A portrait does not have to show the head-and-shoulders. Try moving back to locate the person in their environment. A study, workroom or kitchen can say as much about a person as their face. Or move in as close as your camera will allow to concentrate on the eyes and mouth.

Above all, experiment. You can check your digital photos right away on the LCD, delete the less successful shots and display your successes.