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How to Shoot Portraits in Public (And Avoid a Crowd)

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Read Time: 5 min

If you're out taking photos in public, there's often little you can do to avoid crowds of people. The scenery could be beautiful, the light perfect, but if there's someone making a face in the background—the picture is ruined. This tutorial will give you some tips on isolating your subject, even when surrounded by swarms of people.

f/4, 1/1250 sec, ISO 100, 40mm

When the trees and flowers are in bloom, the local parks fill up quick. Luckily, there are lots of ways to create the illusion that you're all alone. 

f/4, 1/320 sec, ISO 100, 40mm

Look familiar? This is your average photo that you’ll get with your phone, point-and-shoot camera, or medium-length DSLR lens on automatic. All of the following examples were shot at camera settings that can be easily attained on most starter kits and entry level lenses. If you take these basics up a notch by using high quality prime lenses, you can amplify these effects even more.

Use a Wider Aperture

Wide apertures create shallow depth of field, and that background blur is your friend in a crowded place. Both of the following photos were shot at the same focal length in the same place.

f/8, 1/50 sec, ISO 100, 200mm

First, here's an image with a narrow aperture. The other tourists are out of focus, but still identifiable. 

f/4, 1/400 sec, ISO 100, 200mm

This one's got a wider aperture, and the people in the background have all but disappeared. I shot this at f/4 but you can amplify this effect if you use faster lenses.

Use a Longer Lens

This helps in two ways. First, there is a smaller section of background for people to walk through and disrupt your shot. Second, using a telephoto lens, even at the same aperture, will give you a shallower depth of field, blowing out the background into a nice blur. All of the following  photos were shot at f/4 with the model in the exact same place. For each photo, I zoomed in then walked back until the composition was the same. 

f/4, 1/400 sec, ISO 100, 50mm

A 50mm lens creates an average field of view, comparable to what your eye sees. That means if you can’t see a gap in between the crowds, then your camera won’t either. Time to use your camera to do what your eyes can’t.

f/4, 1/160 sec, ISO 100, 75mm
f/4, 1/160 sec, ISO 100, 100mm
f/4, 1/125 sec, ISO 100, 200mm

Just to recap, let's take a look at all those images, side by side. 

Even though the crop hasn't changed (there's roughly the same amount of space around my model in each of the shots), from the first photo through to the last there's a drastic change in how much of the background is visible. In the first image you can see three green trees, a building, and a group of people. In the last image, only the large pink tree remains.  

Patience, Patience, Patience

When you are in the middle of a crowd, chances are there will be an ebb and flow of activity. It doesn’t need to be hours until all the activity disappears—all you are looking for is a split second where you see a gap in the crowd. Many times, it’s not something technical, but rather patience, that gets you the photo you want.

f/4, 1/640 sec, ISO 100, 200mm
f/4, 1/500 sec, ISO 100, 200mm

These photos were taken less than a minute apart. Having patience doesn't always mean waiting a long time!

Step Aside

Sometimes eliminating an unwanted background detail can be as simple as reframing your shot. Whether you or your model need take a step to the side, you can reframe and block people in the background. If you can’t get other people out of frame, hide them behind your model!

f/2, 1/1000 sec, ISO 100, 50mm

Even with a shallow aperture, you can still see the people having a picnic over her shoulder.

f/2, 1/800 sec, ISO 100, 50mm

One small step and we've got a nice empty background.

Angle Your Shot Up

All the rules of portraiture tell you to never shoot up at your model. Shooting upward can introduce a double chin, unflattering angles, and a good view of the inside of their nose. But when you are in a crowd, shooting up can be a surefire way to get rid of people in the background.

f/4, 1/320 sec, ISO 100, 40mm

Shot at normal height, head-on.

f/4, 1/400 sec, ISO 100, 40mm

I took a knee and angled my shot up. To compensate for all the bad things that happen to portraits from this angle, have them bend forward at the waist. When they angle toward you, you are no longer shooting “up”. Relative to them, you are shooting head on facing your subject, with the added advantage of having nothing but nature in your background.

Angle Your Shot Down

If you can’t shoot up, you can always shoot down. The advantage of this is it can create all the flattering portrait angles that don’t come naturally when shooting up. The disadvantage is you pull the landscape out of your photo. When you shoot down it becomes more about the portrait, and less about the place it was taken. Might not be the best if you’re trying to remember your trip to the Eiffel Tower, but it certainly makes for a great portrait.

f/2, 1/125 sec, ISO 100, 50mm

Head on at eye level.

f/2, 1/640 sec, ISO 100, 85mm

From the same place, the model sat on a bench, and I angled down to get a shot from standing height.

Now you have an arsenal of ways you can take portraits in public without giving away just how many people were around. Find these tips useful? Let me know how your next outing goes in the comments.

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