Keep Your Distance for Portraits

28.08.2017 |

Episode #3 of the course Master smartphone photography by Tom Ang



Today, we’ll share tips on how to get lovely portraits of your friends and loved ones.

By a long way, the most popular subject for smartphone photos is the portrait. Yet often, the portraits aren’t very flattering or they are so distorted, they look downright silly.


It’s All in the Wide Angle

The problem is that the majority of lenses used in smartphones are wide angle. In photographic terms, the focal length equivalent is typically 28mm. Some go wider to 24mm, some a little narrower to 30mm. This means they all “see” or take in a little more than a normal single eye.

This is perfect for making group shots and for scenics and landscapes. But for portraits, they’re not so perfect. That’s because we have a tendency to fill the picture frame with a face for a portrait, but that’s not a great idea with wide-angle lenses.

The reason is that wide-angle lenses exaggerate the difference between the sizes of objects at different distances. This makes near objects look bigger than normal, while distant objects look smaller than normal.

Now, look at a face. Some parts, like the nose and mouth, are nearer to your camera than other parts, like eyes and ears. If you get too close to a face, the lens makes the nose look larger than normal while other parts of the face look smaller. Result: People can look bulgy with fat cheeks, big noses, and receding foreheads—not very flattering!

The Answer

For the technical minded, the exaggeration of scale disappears when you look at the image from the correct distance: very close to the screen. For the rest of us and most of the time, the solution is easy:

• When photographing people, keep your distance. As a guide, if you can reach out and touch them, you’re too close. Take a step back.

This means that faces become a little smaller in the picture than we’d like. You can zoom in to make the face look bigger (look out for more on this topic in Lesson 9). Or, much better, you work with what you have.

A versatile approach is to use the background to complement and add interest to your portrait. Line your subject with a wall, items of furniture, or a landscape view to place them in an attractive composition (we’ll learn about composition in Lesson 6).


Smooth Lighting

Here’s another tip that will help you create winsome and winning portraits.

• Make portraits indoors next to a window, in the shade, and on cloudy days. Avoid snapping faces in bright light.

In strong lighting, it’s easy to get washed-out blank skin tones on one side and deep, black shadows on the other. The result is tricky to control, so it’s best to avoid.

Why not try these tips now? Get someone to sit by a window for beautiful light. Keep your distance and use the background to help frame your subject.

Tomorrow, we look at simple smartphone housekeeping that will speed your photography on its way.

Happy clicking!



Recommended book

David Hume Kennerly On the iPhone: Secrets and Tips from a Pulitzer Prize-winning Photographer by David Hume Kennerly


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