Ah, the eyes! From day one as a mother, I would gaze into my children’s eyes. It became a point of connection. Hard to quite put into words how much you fall in love with the way they light up when they smile, tear up when they’re in pain or trying so hard to be brave, the far away glances as they are deep in thought and of course those long long lashes! (We won’t focus on those angry scowls accompanied with the pursed, pouty lips for this post!) In portrait photography, it is the eyes that draw you in. They can tell a captivating and emotive story.
A few years back in my portrait business, though the portraits I took were okay, they often lacked that ‘wow’ factor. I would long for the tack-sharp eyes and blurry backgrounds that I would see other photographers achieve. What was I missing? I suppose I assumed this sparkly-eyed look was a result of good post-editing and a healthy budget for the right gear and editing programs! Though this can certainly be part of it, I do not believe they are the only factors.
So, you want the tack-sharp eyes, the soft, creamy skin and the blurry background? This is a good starting place! Here are a few starting tips that I hope you can use to add that extra dimension (aka Va Va Voom!) to your portraits.
I am a huge advocate of being able to achieve beautiful photos without investing your entire life savings! However if you are serious about portrait photography and on a tighter budget, I would encourage one simple investment that I believe you will NEVER EVER regret – purchase a prime lens. The most basic upgrade for me was a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 Lens, at around $100 this will do the job very nicely and will produce the beautiful crisp subject (child’s eyes) and a soft, blurry background. Very basically, most kit lenses (the 18-55mm lens that came with my DSLR) don’t let in the amount of light needed for these results. I wish that I’d made this simple investment years ago!
Perhaps you get tired of hearing this word! But, it is your best friend. In this case I am talking about natural light. For both indoor and outdoor shots, if there is enough light then it will allow you to use the optimal settings for a great photograph and make post-editing far easier. Of course, finding your available light will differ.
In both the first and above image, the child was indoors, facing a window but not in direct sunlight. You notice how the light bounces off her eyes. This is what you are looking for.
When nature provides you with a giant soft box, take it! You will get great results on an overcast day, so don’t call off your portrait session just yet! You may have to adjust your ISO setting, but not enough to cause noise. Be aware that even on an overcast day, such as the image below, you can still have unflattering shadows, so a little trick, for the light to be diffused evenly and to get the light into their eyes is to have your child look up at you.
When the sun is shining bright, look for spaces that are shaded. Open shade will mean that there is still plenty of natural light yet it is not dark. You are eliminating the sunlight hitting the skin, (or any part of your child) to avoid harsh contrasty shadows but this will also help avoid the squinty-eyed-look! Examples of this would be a covered porch, or a bright alleyway like the images below. I will still move around and direct them to look at me to find that sweet spot where the light seems to dance in their eyes!
Though we were completely shaded by the surrounding buildings, the alleyway walls in the below shot was white so it acted as a reflector, lighting up his face perfectly. You can see just how sensitive these lenses are if they are set to the widest aperture; note the difference between the eyes and his left hand holding the donut.
To start out, I suggest using the Aperture Priority mode on your DSLR rather than full manual. Once you feel comfortable using these settings then you could progress to fully manual. For those using Canon, it is the AV setting. Then depending on your environment and available light, I set the ISO. All the images here were set to 200 with the exception of the window light example which was 400. I try to aim to have the Aperture set to f/1.8, though if your subject is particularly active then you may wish to set it to f/2. Remember that anything lower than f/1.8 will maybe only have one eye in focus, this can create a beautiful artsy close-up, but you certainly won’t want this for all your portraits. Think variety!
Another important tip is to make sure you have your camera’s focal point (AF point selection) set on manual, not auto. You can then have full control over what you desire to be in focus when you look through the view finder.
Yep, you did just read that right! Boogers are a fact of life when photographing kids! Learn to keep wipes on hand. (You can thank me later!) If you are shooting close up, you will need to develop eagle eyes! I know there are already so many things to remember to better your skills, but believe me, you do NOT want to be wasting precious time editing out bits of food or other items stuck on their face ;-)
Even though your background will be out of focus, you may still have distracting items in the background. For these close-up portraits where you want to focus on the eyes, try to find the plainest of backdrop with little to nothing in the background and make sure the child is adequately away from the background. Different colored backgrounds can also work to your advantage, bringing out an extra pop of color of the child’s eyes. You can be highly creative with this!
To get those lovely crisp eyes, learn to push the shutter release slowly so your lens can fix on and adjust to the focal point.
On a less practical note, if there’s one thing I keep learning over and over, is to relax and not always feel so rushed with sessions, even when I’m just photographing my own family! Ultimately it’s then easy to become flustered and this doesn’t help your child or yourself! When I would have portrait sessions with clients, I often felt insecure that the longer it took me to get the shot right, the less trust they’d have in my ability. But this pressure (the pressure that we probably create ourselves!) would lead me to forget what I really did know and I’d rush through the session, giving up on these details such as finding the best light. And these skills, even if they can be retained in your head, will only come more naturally through practice. We ALL have to start somewhere and we are ALWAYS learning new things.
I hope some of these tips come in useful for you no matter what stage you’re at. Perhaps you’ve learned some other tricks along the way that you’d like to share below for starting out in portrait photography?