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Better People Photos with a Digital Camera

I have a Nikon digital SLR, and I use it a lot. But I'm not that experienced at what I still think of as "real" photography -- in fact, my current digital SLR was my first experience with manual exposure and focus and so on. And I still shoot on automatic a lot of the time.

Yet people have started asking me to photograph them, for their websites, or when they need some pro-quality photos for business. Is it my innate artistic talent? No. Is it that they're crazy? Well, maybe. But mainly I think it's because I've stumbled onto something very effective: Get close to the subject.

Basically, when people are the subject of the picture, I try to get them to fill the frame. My uncles are smoking cigars at a family wedding and laughing at each other? I don't back off so I can capture the rooftop patio scene around them -- I capture just them, clipping the back of one uncle's chair and the edge of another uncle's elbow. They burst out of the picture with a lot more energy that way. And I'm not afraid to take close-ups of head and shoulders alone -- that brings a lot more attention to a person's eyes and smile, for a more arresting photograph.

I didn't realize how well this worked until digital photos arrived and I started to crop high-resolution photos however I wanted, at my computer, and then erase the effect and start over. Before that, I'd been taking more typical photos: two friends, standing and smiling in front of a vast landscape of rolling hills, completely out of place against the greenery. I wasn't doing justice to the scenery or the people.

Nowadays, I don't try to get people in stunning landscape shots -- and I certainly don't try to force a landscape into my people pictures! All I need is a small part of the surroundings to get a sense of what was going on, and then I can focus, no pun intended, on what's going on in the people's bodies and faces.

Obviously, there are all kinds of ways to get even more effective people photos, like shooting on your camera's Portrait mode, which leaves the subject in focus but blurs the scene behind him or her, or getting a lens for your SLR which is optimized for portraiture (I have my eye on a 90mm macro lens for that purpose). But what has made the most immediate difference for me is this "get close" approach. So I'm passing it on.

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