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How to take better photos of people

Updated on November 14, 2014

Portrait photography can be easy and fun!

One of my hobbies is taking photos of people. The challenge of capturing the personality and emotional complexity of a person in an image is endlessly fascinating, and one I never tire of. Especially as it combines so well with that other passion of mine: travel!

My favourite aspect of photography is meeting the people - the world is full of the most fascinating individuals! I believe the trick to taking great photos of people is to capture not just their image but something of their story. This means getting them to open up to you and reveal something of their vulnerability and emotion.

In this article Iâll give you my top tips for taking better photos of people including how to improve your photographic composition, master lighting and choose a setting that adds depth to your image. I'll also give you some tips for bringing out the best in you subject. Portrait photography is easy when you know how!

All photos featured in this lens belong to the author.

Photographic composition

Composition is all about arranging the elements in an image so that they fit together harmoniously. This can be difficult when taking photos of people, as they are not static but constantly moving, talking, laughing and fidgeting. This is especially true of children! A few simple tips will help a lot:

* Be aware of your background - if necessary adjust the angle from which you are shooting to avoid any clutter that might draw the viewer's attention away from your subject

* Zoom in so that the subject is the central focus of the image, rather than a small part of it. This gives us a very intimate view of the subject which can be very moving

* Try to include in your composition objects that tells the viewer something about your subject and their personality

* Use the background to create balance such as in the photo here

Harmonious photographic composition

Click thumbnail to view full-size
From a certain age, kids love posing for photos!Unusual settings can make great portraitsWhat a backdrop for such a beautiful couple!Getting the composition right with a moving subject can be challenging but fun!The background of a photo can tell a story about the subjects
From a certain age, kids love posing for photos!
From a certain age, kids love posing for photos!
Unusual settings can make great portraits
Unusual settings can make great portraits
What a backdrop for such a beautiful couple!
What a backdrop for such a beautiful couple!
Getting the composition right with a moving subject can be challenging but fun!
Getting the composition right with a moving subject can be challenging but fun!
The background of a photo can tell a story about the subjects
The background of a photo can tell a story about the subjects

Best settings for portrait photography

I like to photograph people in their natural environment. They tend to be more relaxed and the photo will tell more of the story of their life, such this photo of a man in Southern Brazil enjoying mate tea outside his house as he watches the world go by.

To avoid the problem of people looking stiff, posed and anxious try to capture people when they are busy doing something they enjoy. This can produce wonderfully candid images however be aware that some people may find this rude, especially if they don't know you!

The most difficult settings to work with tend to be cluttered environments such as busy city streets, crowds or untidy rooms. Taking note of your setting is an important aspect of taking better photos of people because it can either distract the viewer with irrelevant detail or, if carefully chosen, help them to understand the subject better.

I'm a self-taught photographer - And I learned everything I know from books!

Portrait Photographer's Handbook
Portrait Photographer's Handbook

A beautiful and inspiring book by photographer Bill Hurter

 
The Portrait Photography Course: Principles, practice, and techniques: The essential guide for photographers
The Portrait Photography Course: Principles, practice, and techniques: The essential guide for photographers

Detailed and comprehensive this book contains everything you need to know to take amazing portrait photographs

 
Direction & Quality of Light: Your Key to Better Portrait Photography Anywhere
Direction & Quality of Light: Your Key to Better Portrait Photography Anywhere

Lighting makes or breaks a photo and can be difficult to master. This book shows you how

 
Portraits
Portraits

This book is by photographer Steve McCurry, famous for this image of a young Afghan girl featured on the cover of National Geographic

 

Getting the lighting right for portrait photography

Lighting is crucial for taking good photographs of people. Professional photographers will tell you that the best time for taking photos is the early morning or evening when the light is soft and there is less chance of glare or shadowing. At the very least, try to follow these tips:

* Avoid taking photos in a setting with a big contrast between shaded and brightly lit areas. Move the subject to a place with more uniformly lighting

* Flash photography is almost always horrible! Avoid if at all possible

* Have the subject face the sun (or other light source) to avoid shadowing of the face however be aware that this may cause them to squint if the light is too bright!

* Indoor photography can be great when you have natural lighting from a window or open door

Lighting makes all the difference when photographing people

Click thumbnail to view full-size
This photo is beautiful however the bright light in the background makes the faces appear darkThe darkening evening gave this photo a blurry quality due to the shutter remaining open for too long without the support of a tripod. But the subject was too fascinating to ignore!The bright midday sun was perfect for capturing the beautiful dark skin of this subjectAgain, the contrast of a bright background and a shady foreground darkens the subjectShadowing can be a real problem although in this shot it is not too noticeable!
This photo is beautiful however the bright light in the background makes the faces appear dark
This photo is beautiful however the bright light in the background makes the faces appear dark
The darkening evening gave this photo a blurry quality due to the shutter remaining open for too long without the support of a tripod. But the subject was too fascinating to ignore!
The darkening evening gave this photo a blurry quality due to the shutter remaining open for too long without the support of a tripod. But the subject was too fascinating to ignore!
The bright midday sun was perfect for capturing the beautiful dark skin of this subject
The bright midday sun was perfect for capturing the beautiful dark skin of this subject
Again, the contrast of a bright background and a shady foreground darkens the subject
Again, the contrast of a bright background and a shady foreground darkens the subject
Shadowing can be a real problem although in this shot it is not too noticeable!
Shadowing can be a real problem although in this shot it is not too noticeable!

Making a good photograph great

There are a few things that can really improve your photography results.

* Take out your camera when everyone is in a good mood, happy and relaxed.

* When traveling always ask first before taking a photo. In some cultures people are very sensitive about having their photo taken.

* Take a few shots rather than just one – the first and second shots may be ok while the third is a true masterpiece!

* Let go of trying to capture the perfect shot and enjoy yourself – the creative process is more important than the product.

* Keep your camera with you – opportunities for great portrait photography can come upon you at any moment!

What are your tips for taking better photos of people?

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    • rstaveley lm profile image

      Richard Staveley 4 years ago from Burley in Wharfedale, Yorkshire, England

      I love taking photos but never seem able to get it right! I'll put your suggestions into action and hope to improve.

    • Digory LM profile image

      Digory LM 4 years ago

      I have none! I am terrible at people photography so thank you for the tips.

    • Erin Mellor profile image

      Erin Mellor 4 years ago from Europe

      My tip would be to take lots of photos,and review which ones work, and why. The more you take the better you get.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Lighting is important. I have photos when the faces are dark.

    • Magda2012 profile image

      Magda2012 4 years ago

      Well, I am still learning. thanks for your tips.

    • KamalaEmbroidery profile image

      KamalaEmbroidery 4 years ago

      Thanks for these tips. I really need to improve my photography. I love it, but I'm not very good.

    • rattie lm profile image

      rattie lm 4 years ago

      Great photos here and a very informative lens. Thank you.

    • profile image

      lionmom100 4 years ago

      Thank you for the photo taking tips. I need all the help I can get

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 4 years ago from New Zealand

      Nice page about taking better photos of people, good tips, next time taking photos I will try to remember all I learnt while reading this article.

    • Rosanna Grace profile image

      Rosanna Grace 4 years ago

      Very useful photography tips and wonderful photos that demonstrate your excellent skills. Well done! :)

    • justramblin profile image

      justramblin 4 years ago

      That's good tip to ask first before taking photos in foreign countries. Thanks for the good advice and fun look at your photos.

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 4 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      This is an excellent lens. You have many great tips for photography. I also appreciate the books that your recommended. I too love to learn from other photographers and always carry a camera with me.

    • Girlwiththorns profile image
      Author

      Girlwiththorns 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Agree! You have to be ready :)

    • Girlwiththorns profile image
      Author

      Girlwiththorns 4 years ago

      @Vera-S: I can def recommend the Lumix. It's the best camera I've owned so far!

    • Vera-S profile image

      Vera-S 4 years ago

      Good tips about portrait photography, I've got Lumix myself and I like taking pictures of nature. After reading your lens I'd like to try portraits as well.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Fantastic lens! I find my best photos are in the moment snapshots.