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Quick Tips For AWESOME Portraits: Part One

It never ceases to amaze me to see the technological advances that are happening in the photography world.  Today many compact point and shoot digital cameras have more megapixels than most hockey players have teeth. It's becoming more and more difficult to find a camera that DOESN'T also record HD video, and the lists of additional features, modes, and picture-styles are so long I swear some of them could stretch to China and back with a few miles to spare. Despite how hard Canon and Nikon (and the slew of other companies) try to create a camera that is so automated your pet ferret (who actually owns a ferret these days??) could use it and get incredible results, there are still skills and techniques no setting or mode can perform. This series of tutorials will feature some ├╝ber simple tips to help give you better results the next time you're out creating your own masterpieces.

I convinced my beautiful wife to let me take a few quick portraits of her for your viewing pleasure.

Before I get into the nitty gritty, here's a brief definition in case you're not fluent in camera geek jargon:

Focal Length: The number that corresponds with how much of a scene is visible to your sensor.  In 35mm equivalencies 17mm is very WIDE and will show a lot of a scene, while 200mm is very TIGHT and only a small amount of a scene will be visible.

Here's a visual example. Forgive my drawing un-skills. I can't draw for the life of me, especially on a computer. The black mass is supposed to be the camera...

And now onto the tip!

Zoom In!

Pretty much all cameras these days, both point-and-shoot's and DSLR's, come with a zoom lens. Zoom lenses are great for being versatile and allowing you as the photographer to only carry one lens instead of leading a pack mule with an arsenal of bank-account-obliterating fixed focal length lenses. This does require you, though, to decide (WHAT?? My camera won't do it for me?) at what focal length to photograph your subject.

Here is a wide angle example:

While the exposure is good and the lighting is nice, the wider angle doesn't give a flattering perspective to my subject. Here's a few reasons why:
  • It distorts her facial features and figure to make her appear larger in some areas. (More exaggerated the closer you get)
  • The background plays a bigger role than the subject, making this image more about the background than my wife.
  • The distance from camera to subject becomes much shorter the wider you shoot, and may cause your subject to become uneasy and self conscious, which only makes your job more difficult.
Here's an example of a zoomed in portrait:

Why this is a more flattering perspecive:
  • It gives a more natural appearance to the subject.
  • The longer focal length compresses the background so it's not as distracting and helps create better bokeh. (More on bokeh in a future post)
  • The increased distance between camera and subject can help them feel more relaxed and comfortable.
Like most rules in life (ok, not all rules...), this one is meant to be broken. My best advice is to learn to follow the rule, then learn how to (appropriately) break it. Get out there and experiment. The best way to learn is to do it yourself and then learn from your successes AND your mistakes!

I hope this tip helps. Please comment and let me know if there are any tips you are eager to read about!


Bryce Olsen graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara California.  After spending two years in Austin where his wife recieved a Masters Degree in Musical Performance, they moved back to Utah earlier this year.  You can view more of his work on his website and his blog.

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