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How to Take Photos of People Like a Professional

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Read Time: 6 min
This post is part of a series called Portraits.
15 Ways to Pump Up Your Portraits

Have you ever felt intimidated by the thought of taking photos of other people? Believe it or not, once you're over your initial nerves, people are one of the easiest subjects to photograph. Why is this? Well, imagine that you're taking landscape photos. Most of us don't live in a spectacular landscape, which means we have to drive somewhere to take the photo. Once there, if the weather and light aren't good, there's not much we can do.

Photographing people, however, gives you complete control. All the elements of good photography are in your hands. You're surrounded by potential subjects: friends, relatives, and even strangers if you have the courage to ask. Every potential subject is unique. If the light isn't great, you can do something about it, like move to another location or use flash. You can ask your subject to wear different clothes, or do something a little crazy—your only limit is your imagination.

And this is the key to great people photography—imagination. Have fun, and if you don't know much about your camera settings yet, just put your camera into an automatic mode (most cameras have an automatic Portrait mode you can use) and concentrate on making some beautiful photos. You can learn the technical details afterwards.

One of the best ways to improve your photography is to learn from the professionals. Here are some tips to get you thinking like a pro, and into the correct mindset to take some amazing portraits.

1. Build a Rapport With the Subject

This is the most important skill of all! Master this, and you're well on your way to becoming an expert photographer. A good tip, especially if you're starting off, is to photograph someone that you know, who likes to play around for the camera. Your job as a photographer is to get them to relax and have fun. If you can do this, good photos will follow.

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Shoot with family and friends. The connection you have will help make your pictures great. Image via Unsplash.

When you're looking for a model, girlfriends or boyfriends are a great place to start.

2. Pick the Right Lens

The focal length of your lens is very important. You need to understand the nature of your lenses and how to use them to your advantage. The good news is that if you have a digital camera with a standard kit zoom (typically around an 18-55mm focal length range), then you already have an excellent tool for taking photos of people. Just set it to 55mm and work from there. Instead of zooming in and out, use your feet and change your position. You'll learn the characteristics of the focal length that you're using.

If you want something even better, both Canon and Nikon make a cheap 50mm f/1.8 that is perfect for portraits; the wider aperture blurs the background more.

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Even wide-angle lenses can take great portraits. Image via Unsplash.

Don't ignore the wide-angle end of your kit lens either. Documentary photographers and photojournalists like wide-angle lenses because they can get in close to their subject. The photos are intimate, because the photographer is so close. Wide-angle lenses are also a great way of showing your subject in their environment. It’s just a different style of portrait.

Beware of getting too close to your subject's face with a wide-angle lens. It will distort their features, and you won't receive any thanks!

3. Play With Different Light

The best light for portraits may not be when you think. Overcast skies and late afternoon sun are good. Direct sun is bad—it casts harsh shadows on faces and makes people squint. Backlighting is very exciting, although you have to watch out for flare, and you'll need a reflector or flash to put light onto your subject's face. Window light is very beautiful for taking photos indoors, though again you'll need a reflector to put light back onto the shadowed side of your subject's face.

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Try different light sources to find out what you like. Image via Unsplash.

What's a reflector? It's anything that reflects light back onto your subject so that the shadows cast by the light aren't so strong. You can buy purpose-made reflectors from manufacturers like Lastolite, or you can make your own from a large piece of white card or a white sheet. Photographers need reflectors because the available light is rarely perfect. Reflectors enable you to take control of the light.

4. Learn How to Use Your Camera's Settings

To take great pictures, you need to be in control of your camera. Don’t just leave it in automatic mode. Learn how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO will affect your images. 

When you’re next shooting portraits, try using aperture priority mode with the aperture set to the widest value possible. It will give you a nice blurry background. If it’s a sunny day, try ISO 100. If it’s cloudy, try ISO 400. Shutter speed will take care of itself.

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Learn to use your camera properly so you can take images like this. Image via Unsplash.

You should always be shooting RAW images. They give you the most options in post production.

5. Avoid the "Pose"

You can learn about posing from studying photography and fashion magazines. But don't get too carried away with posing—you'll often get better results by encouraging your subject to play around for the camera. Get them to have some fun and be spontaneous. The resulting photos will be full of life.

Even untraditional poses can work. Image via Unsplash.

6. Play With Movement

Get creative. Ask your subject to stand still while the people around are moving. Put your camera on a tripod for the best result.

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Don't just take the same photo over and over again. Play with movement, or different elements like windows. Image via Unsplash.

7. Get a Model Release Form

If you're planning to sell your photos, get a signed model release form. A model release form is a simple statement that the model signs to give you permission to sell their photo. 

As a general guideline, a photo published on a website or in a magazine doesn't need a model release form as this is regarded as editorial use (as long as you're not defaming the subject). If you're going to sell the photo to be used in advertising or other promotional material, you need a model release form.

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If you want to sell your images, you need a model release form. Image via Unsplash.

Check the laws in your own country. Some countries, especially in Europe, have strict privacy laws that govern how you can use the photos you have taken. If in doubt, get a model release form. It's much better to have one, and to sell your photos with the permission of your subjects, than not to have one.

Alamy have a good model release form available here.

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