Three Rules for Taking Better Portraits on Your iPhone

Taking Better Portraits with iPhone, Part I


People sometimes offer me real American dollars for the pix I take of them, their kids, or their pets. One guy had me take photos of his house. It was a nice house, but hardly magazine worthy. Still, I got bucks for the job, and I made a new friend.

To take good portraits you have to get right up into your subject's business, get to know at least one or two unique things about him, her, or it. Then your job is to capture the subject's uniqueness

I, unfortunately, do not take great portraits. I take good portraits, but I often fail to capture the essence of my subject. It's why I'm writing this and not out taking meaningful pix of President Obama.

Though my portrait pix are only OK, they're consistently OK, which is a good thing. That is what I intend to cover in this three part mini-series on taking portraits with your iPhone.

Yes, three parts. Taking a consistently good portrait isn't as easy as you might think. On the other hand, it can be falling off a log simple. It depends on the situation and you can never depend on the situation to be the same.

In this first installment I'll briefly go over what I see as some of the basic rules for taking any type of portraits, but I'll focus on staged portraits, which can be the most challenging because while you may have some control of the subject, environment or both, you don't have or even want full control. You optimize your environment as much as you can and hope for the best.

Those rules I mentioned can help you get the best shot possible for any given situation. I call them my Discipline of Film.

When I first started in photography there was only film, and film was expensive. To get the most out of the film I bought, I cobbled together a checklist that I went through before I took a shot. Consequently most of the shots I took were consistently decent, some were very good. Now that I'm shooting digitally there is an attraction to get happy with the shutter then toss the crap shots, but I avoid doing so and shoot as if my iPhone is loaded with Kodachrome, and the resulting photos I take continue to be consistently decent with some very good shots in the mix.

I digress. You want to know what the rules of my Discipline are. I only have time to lay out the first three, I'll cover the rest in later articles. So, lets get to it.

RULE #1: Let There Be Light! And Lots Of it!


All photography depends on one thing, light. The more light there is the better chance you have of taking a properly exposed shot.

That may seem obvious at first until you start looking at the environments you find yourself in when you want to take a photo.

When taking staged shots you may have the opportunity of finding the best lighting, which tends to be bright, but diffused. That may not be an option at your location, and that's when you have to improvise. For instance, if you know you're going to be shooting in direct sunlight bring along an umbrella, the lighter and bigger the better. Black umbrellas may cast too much of a shadow, but lighter color bumbershoots can filter the light enough to reduce harsh shadow on your subject. White sheets and sheer curtain panels also work as excellent diffusers.

Another tool you should buy and keep around is a small collapsible reflector. You can pick up a 12" reflector disc from any camera shop for less than US$20.00 and they come in handy.

Note the harsh shadows in the first unretouched photo of Angie. The bright sunlight can make for an unflattering shot.

Angie in direct sunlight.
All photos by Vern Seward

The shadows in the second shot, taken a few seconds later, were filled in with reflected light from my disc, held about a foot from her face.

Angie with fill-in light on the right provided by a 12" reflector

There are other lighting options too, but I'll go into them in part 2 or 3 of this series.

Next: Focusing and Inspections

Page 2 - Focusing and Inspections


RULE #2: Focus On The Subject


Again, that rule may seem obvious at first. Take a look at Alexa. When you look at the photo your eyes are not distracted by a busy background or other objects in the picture. You just see Alexa.

Alexa with a nice background and fill-in from a reflector on the right

If you're taking vacation photos then by all means include the background, but with staged pix try to choose a background that's as boring as possible. If you have the option to pick a background color then choose one the compliments what the subject is wearing. Again, avoid any backdrop that's too busy. That's not to say it should be plain. The wall in Alexa's photo has a interesting texture which add a bit of depth to the shot.

RULE #3: Inspect Your Exposure


Don't trust your camera to get the exposure right all the time. Check it before you snap the shutter. Even if you're shooting in TIFF (or camera raw) format, grossly under or over exposed shots can't be fixed in post processing.

PureShot and other high end camera apps will highlight areas that may be getting too much light (blooming or overexposed) or not enough (underexposed). That way you can adjust make adjustments before taking the shot.

That's it for this week. I have a few more rules to touch o when I talk about candid portraits in my next installment. Stay tuned.