Before I started getting into photography, I never really thought much about what makes up a great image. I liked what I liked and I thought I had a pretty good eye for choosing what ‘worked’ and what ‘didn’t work’. Then you point and then you shoot, right?
Well, sort of. These days I’ve realised that a great shot rarely just ‘happens’ (although it does sometimes). A great-looking shot, like a great-looking gal, is generally thoughtfully groomed and styled to look that way.
Now, there’s a difference to me between staging a shot and styling one. A staged shot would be the ‘whole hog’ of careful preparation, including lighting, outfits, props – creating a look from scratch. A styled shoot, on the other hand, is working with what you’ve got. Smoothing and massaging a natural presentation – making natural even nicer. That’s my theory anyway, I’m sure there are courses for these things that would have a defined difference between staged and styled but, hey, we’ll just get on with it, shall we?
The first step to lifting your photo from mere snapshot into something special is to see your shot before you even begin. What does it look like? What story are you telling? What do you want your image to convey? How do you want it to feel?
All of these questions will help you decide how your image needs to look. What’s in the photo, what techniques you’ll use to produce it, what you might do to post-edit it.
Is your story an ‘everyday’ story or is it more of a fairytale? (See that abandoned sock up there? I guess I’m more about the everyday… although see point 5 below!!)
Part of creating your story is going to be about colour. Bold, splashy kind of colour or subdued, calming kind of colour or tonal, moody black and white kinda no-colour. Colour will set the mood of your image faster than any other parametre.
When you’re shooting portraits, what your subject wears is going to be the most immediate form of colour in your shot.
It’s obvious that for a harmonious, happy-family kind of shot, you’re going to need to consider asking your subjects to select their outfits from a set range of colours. Under no circumstances go mad with this – the family uniform of white tee-shirt, jeans and white trainers went out of style around the time those jeans were stone-washed. Instead, offer a set pallet and let them choose their own outfits. Complement, don’t match! And ask them to watch the patterns – patterns are hard work to make go together.
The story you’re trying to tell will guide you in choosing your range. Greys – blues – whites work nicely on most people and are neutral in a shot, but any range of colours will work (as long as they work together!). If you’re choosing a colourful background (the blue of the sea, a bright orange wall, a circus tent), you can choose the outfit pallet to either pop against the background colour so your subjects stand out, or blend in so the scene stays soft and neutral – a great way to bring attention to faces.
Remember to always, always keep the ‘whole shot’ in mind when you’re shooting. It’s no good getting a gorgeous capture of your subject if there’s a large pine tree sticking out of their head in the background. Or a kid photo-bombing with a crazy face. Or just your massive pile of unwashed dishes lying rancid just behind.
Of course, if you want to get all artistic and really capture ‘life as it happens’, you’ll leave those dirty dishes right there. Or socks, as it happens..
You can adjust your aperture to ‘blur out’ a poor background, but the simplest way to control background noise for a portrait shot is to know at least 3 ‘go to’ places that you can use as a neutral backdrop. A clean, neutral background lets your subject really shine. Have three at home (because that’s where a lot of kid shots are taken, right?) and three in your neighbourhood. These days, after doing my online photography course, whenever we head somewhere that I know I’ll want to get shots of the kids, I’m instantly scouting for a good backdrop.
Using relevant props in images are one of the least used resource by us amateurs, but they can have a massive impact on your ability to tell your story. Props also help your subject relax and often gives them ‘something do do with their hands’ – hands are often the most awkward aspect of a portrait (after frozen smiles, of course!).
Children’s portraiture particularly lends itself to including carefully selected props: their favourite bear; their latest favourite toy; a leaf they plucked from the garden; a tiny bug they’ve befriended. Giving your child something to interact with will allow them to be natural and concentrate on something other than the lens. When using this technique, be ready to crawl and crouch and lie down. A child will drop their head to focus on something in their hands and you want to be under to still capture their face.
Not every shot needs attention to detail – don’t ever miss a moment to capture a detail. But if you want a professional edge to your shots, focusing on the little things will help you get there. Careful attention to detail will give you that sheen, that glow, that amazing composition that a styled shoot manages to capture. A ‘real’ stylist won’t rest until every blade of grass in the meadow is standing to attention. We can be a little more relaxed, but we’ll at least consider smoothing the immediate vicinity.
Carefully examine every aspect of what’s in the shoot and make small changes for big results. A quick check-list for detail-finessing might include:
Smart grooming – trim nails, calm eyebrows, moisturise hands, apply lip balm
Smooth clothing – fix floppy bows, create crisp collars, iron creases
Don’t let a crazy ‘do distract the eye – clip hair out of eyes, smooth down flyaways
Check pattern clashes – remove patterns that don’t complement the image colours
Remove anything from the scene that doesn’t need to be there – tidy up, remove clutter, dust and polish surfaces
Check lighting – use reflectors to direct the light where you want it to be
Consider texture – textures in your shot will be what the light will seek out, remove any that will detract light from your subject
Pay attention to composition – move things around as much as you need until you’re happy
Get close – don’t just shoot the ‘whole scene’ but focus in on the details you’ve so carefully prepared: a hand, a shoulder, the edge of a pretty skirt, a smile.