People pictures are one of the favorites of photographers everywhere. In fact, there are probably more pictures taken of people than anything else. Getting good pictures of people relies heavily on composition and lighting. Let's take a look at these aspects, starting with composition.
Looking back at the previous post about composition (Let the Games Begin), the "rule of thirds" (the grid) plays an important part in creating pleasing images of people. Let's look at the type of images that are referred to as portraits. Whether you realize it or not, the first thing that draws your attention in a portrait is the subject's eyes, the "gateway to the soul."
Even though the entire subject may take up most of the image area, it is the eyes that need proper placement. When composing a portrait of a single subject, the eyes should be placed on or near the upper imaginary line of the grid. You don't want those eyes in the center of the image. In addition to placement, the next most critical factor is sharpness. If the eyes are not in sharp focus, the image will not be friendly to the viewer.
Many poses are at a somewhat oblique angle which puts each eye at a slightly different distance from the camera. If you are using techniques to minimize depth of field (to separate the subject from a blurred background), you need to choose the point of focus carefully in order to keep both eyes sharp. For these oblique poses, it is usually best to focus on the inner corner of the eye closest to the camera. By doing this, even shallow depth of field will provide good sharpness to both eyes. The remainder of the subject can be slightly "soft" as long as the eyes are sharp. In fact, many subjects benefit from this since it tends to minimize imperfections in the skin.
Compact cameras make this task somewhat easier since most now have face recognition that will hone in on the eyes. The down side, of course, is that compacts have so much depth of field that it is difficult to get the background blurred out. See the last post for some tips about how to deal with that. More advanced cameras give you far more flexibility in controlling the final look.
When shooting portraits with more than one subject try to make sure that each of them is at a slightly different height within the image. If one subject is taller, this takes care of itself; if they are the same height, have one stand and one sit. When shooting more than two subjects in the same image, try to arrange them so that their faces are placed to form triangular patterns. In all cases, though, keep their eyes near that upper portion of the image or near one of the imaginary side lines of the grid. Also, try to keep all of their faces the same distance to the camera so that they will all be in sharp focus.
Lighting is the other major "make or break" factor in people pictures. Back when baby boomers were young, the suggestion that Kodak used was for the photographer to have the sun at his back or behind one shoulder. That was bad advice. If you dig out some of those old photos, you will see people squinting from having the sun in their eyes and faces with little definition.
Whether you are shooting outdoors or inside, subjects should be lit from the side or the back. Side lighting will create shadows that help define the face and will allow the subject to keep their eyes open naturally. Open shade is a good way to light a subject, particularly if there is something close to the subject that will reflect some stronger light on them. You can even create your own open shade by having the subject stand with their back to the sun. This not only puts their face in their own shade, but gives a gorgeous highlight to their hair. This technique requires the ability to manually set the camera metering to properly expose the face, something few compact cameras will allow you to do.
Posing people is an artform in and of itself. Sometime soon, we'll delve into it, but for now work on composition and lighting.