What I learned on a one day portraiture course

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Before coronavirus took hold of our lives, I was lucky enough to participate in a portraiture workshop running as part of the Canon Collective program. The workshop was run by Scott Stramyk, who took us through hands-on activities, photographing subjects indoors, outdoors and in a studio setting.

As I am still very much on the amateur side of the photography spectrum, I have compiled some of Scott’s general tips and foundational advice for portrait photography.

1 Your subject’s mood is everything 

When shooting, make sure your subject is comfortable, because how they’re feeling will really come across in the images you make. A simple tip for getting your subject to feel at ease is to play music and make conversation.

A good idea is to break the ice by asking them what kind of music they like and then put that on to play. Straight away they will likely feel good listening to their favourite music.

It’s important to build rapport with your subject, and it can be really worthwhile meeting up with your subjects before a shoot to develop that rapport with them. For example, if you are going to be shooting family portraits, it can be helpful to build separate rapports with each member of the family so that you know how to make each person feel relaxed and happy during the dynamic flow of the photo shoot. What makes Dad feel comfortable can be quite different to what makes a toddler feel at ease.


© Elaina Moulds
© Elaina Moulds

2 Eyes are the window to the soul

Scott gave some helpful hints for creating images that are properly focused. As a true novice, I listened intently to this advice because it is something that I had never thought about before.I learned that it's important to focus on the eyes of your subject and it really helps if you reduce your camera to a single focus point.

Some cameras these days even have face and eye-tracking settings, which can be helpful to do this. If your subject is at an angle, which they often can be, it is best to focus on the eye closer to the camera to capture a properly focused shot.

3 Lighting is key

There’s a reason the order is lights first, then camera, then action! The lighting in your scene can make all the difference to the success of your shot. While we shot outside, we learned it’s best to shoot in direct light or in complete shade, so that there is an even light covering the subject and there are no hotspots that might blow out the colours and lighting in the final image.

While outside, we experimented with adding extra light sources into the scene, such as using reflectors to shine even light onto the model while she stood in the shade. You can also use mirrors to achieve a similar effect. Be mindful to check in with your subject though, as we saw it can make them feel quite hot.

When shooting inside, a similar approach can be applied, but since inside can be quite a bit darker, a simple tip for creating beautiful images is to consider the direction of the light. One way to photograph your subject inside is to position them beside a window with the light cast onto them. You will notice as you move your subject closer to the window light, the light fills out their face. Sometimes to get the best shot of your subject, you'll find yourself pushed right up against the window.

Another way to photograph your subject is to position them inside a doorway, photographed from outside the house looking in, as the natural light will illuminate their face and the background of indoors will remain contrastingly dark.

© Elaina Moulds
© Elaina Moulds

4 Double Check the Background

Another piece of advice that I found useful is to check the background of your shot. Sometimes we can get so focused on our subject in the foreground that we don’t realise we’ve positioned them with a tree sticking out of their head, or telephone wires running through their ears. Sometimes changing your own positioning can make all the difference. So, if you spot anything odd in the alignment of your subject and background, consider moving left or right, or crouching or standing on a stool to get rid of any photo-ruining elements.

Also, the aim of a portrait shot is to draw attention to your subject so try to make sure the background isn’t too distracting or busy. Try to make sure your subject stands out from the background, rather than getting lost in it.

Sometimes, even when you think the background is fine because it’s something plain like a wall, it can still be detracting from the potential beauty of your final image. While we shot some outdoor photographs, one tip that I liked was to shoot your subject along the wall rather than square onto the wall as this will help with your depth of field and make for a more interesting photo.

5 Get creative

It can be fun to get really creative during your shoots and experiment with different levels and types of shots, but sometimes you can get carried away with all the experimentation and forget to adjust your settings, leading to images that aren’t properly focused. For example, if you move to a close-up shot, you should increase your aperture to about f8 to give a greater depth of field.   

A handy tip for photographers like myself, who are only just starting out, is to put your camera into TV mode, which gives you some control over camera settings, but not so much that you get overwhelmed. This mode allows you to change and control the shutter speed, but the camera will control the depth of field for you and even the ISO as well if you want. 

© Elaina Moulds
© Elaina Moulds

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed the hands-on experience of the workshop. It was beneficial to my learning  to be able to work with a real model, to meet a professional photographer and ask them questions in real time, experiment with different camera bodies and lenses which were available at the event space, and best of all, meet like-minded people who share my passion for photography.

As part of the Canon Collective initiative, six brand ambassadors run photography-related events nearly every day, spanning every genre of photography. At the moment, workshops have limited spaces and adhere to strict COVID-safe regulations. Private in person and online tuition sessions are also available.

If you’re interested in getting involved in the Canon Collective program, you can find out more information on the website here, join the closed Facebook page here, get inspired on Instagram here or participate in their weekly challenges on social media.




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