When we see professional photographers on the news and in the movies it often appears that only the dSLR cameras and super-fast lenses they carry are capable of making great images. Most amateur shooters want to take good pictures too, but they don't want to spend a lot of money on esoteric photographic gear or learn anything about f-stops. Consequently, many amateur/casual photographers believe that only complex and expensive gear can produce truly beautiful photographs. Socket wrenches and screwdrivers don't fix cars--good mechanics do! Cast iron skillets and French saut--pans don't create delicious meals--good cooks do! The camera (like a cast iron skillet or a socket wrench) is simply a tool. And learning how to use that tool is how you can create amazing images.
Here's an example: about thirty years ago I attended a long weekend photo workshop with F64 founding member Beaumont Newhall. At the end of the third day Mr. Newhall told us a story. For Christmas one year, Mr. Newhall and his old buddy Ansel Adams had agreed to spend no more than $10.00 each on their Chistmas gifts for each other. When they exchanged gifts, both were surprised to discover that they had received exactly the same present. Each of them had bought the other a Diana 6x6 camera. Diana cameras were cheap plastic cameras manufactured in the USSR that featured junky, light-leaking bodies, inaccurate and primitive spring driven mechanical shutters, and polished cast plastic lens elements. Folks who used Diana cameras had to first load their 120 roll film and then apply black electricians tape to all body seams to keep extraneous light from leaking into the camera and fogging the film. Diana cameras could be attached to a tripod, but the cheap plastic tripod socket was so thin that photographers had to be extremely careful not to attach the camera too tightly or the tripod's metal screw would pierce the thin plastic bottom plate of the camera and create yet another light leak.
Mr. Newhall showed us about a dozen 8x10 B&W enlargements printed by Ansel Adams from the negatives that the two of them had shot with their Diana cameras and those pictures were all astonishingly good--gallery quality enlargements indeed. The moral of the story is--it isn't the camera that creates great images, it is the person behind the camera. So, if you believe that you can't shoot professional quality portraits with your compact P&S digital camera, you are mistaken. P&S digicams are cheaper, smaller, lighter, and generally easier to use than dSLR cameras and, up to 8x10 inch prints, good P&S enlargements are essentially indistinguishable from dSLR prints of the same size.
The digital imaging revolution increased the public's interest in photography exponentially, but the first generations of digital cameras were worse than Diana cameras in terms of image quality. Since then, however, image quality, operational speed, and general performance have improved greatly. I have been a photographer for over forty years and I've been writing camera reviews since 1994 so I have used hundreds of different cameras. In my opinion, today's P&S digital cameras can consistently produce excellent results.
Over the next few weeks, DigitalCameraReview.com will be publishing a series of articles that highlight how to take great pictures with your point and shoot camera. In this first article we will explain how to get great "people shots" with your camera. In the next article we will talk about how to get great action shots. Other articles will follow showing newbie photographers that getting great images is not as hard as it looks.
Think of some really cool places in your neck of the woods, because location choice can easily make the difference between a good picture and a great picture, or a good picture and a mediocre picture. Make mental notes whenever you're out and about and you see a really cool location that makes you think, "That would be a really good place to take some pictures."
Check Backgrounds Carefully
When choosing a setting you generally want to find somewhere with a simple background. You don't want anything too busy, because that can get really distracting and take away from the subject you're shooting. You really want to stay away from or at least minimize locations that are chaotic, busy, and full of distractions, or that feature graphic visual patterns. Blurry backgrounds can look pretty cool, but they are very hard to achieve because of the super short focal lengths of modern P&S digicams--which feature absolutely incredible depth of field.
Lighting for Portraits
For beginners, the sun should be behind you as you shoot your subject (front lighting) or off to either the slight right or slight left of your subject (side lighting). Usually the best time of day to take good pictures of people is about an hour after sunrise or about an hour before sunset--these brief windows of opportunity are called the "Golden Hour." Avoid shooting portraits in the middle of the day because the lighting is bright and harsh--which creates hard shadows, dense dark areas, and burnt-out hot spots.
Framing and Composition
This is really the most important part of portrait photography, and it is primarily what separates the professionals from the amateurs. Framing and composition has to do with where you put the subject in your photo frame. The basic rule when shooting portraits is to try to fill the frame with your subject, leaving just enough extra to include a bit of their environment around the subject. The closer and tighter you are on your subject, the better the portrait usually looks. Single subjects generally look good in vertical format. Use the horizontal format for group portraits or for reclining (full body) portraits of single subjects. Remember that the most interesting part of a person is their face.
When people smile for the camera, most of the time it looks posed and contrived. If you want a more realistic photo - then you really should try to get your subjects to smile naturally. Tell a joke (or do something to get them to laugh) while you are lining things up and then snap the picture when your subject laughs or smiles - naturally.
Some of the best people photos are captured when the subjects aren't aware they are being photographed. Try taking people pictures when your friends and loved ones are engaged in the business of life. This is where P&S digicams really shine. Most P&S digicams are rather small and not intimidating to subjects, so people are more relaxed and more likely to be unaware of the camera than they would be if you were using a dSLR. Finally, find the best angle. It's not only about left and right though, it's also about how high or low you angle your camera. For example, positioning yourself too low will only catch an unflattering view of flaring nostrils or double chins. Positioning yourself too high will unflatteringly shorten faces. Try position to yourself at eye level with your subject. An eye level angle gives a realistic view of your subject's facial features.
People love to take pictures of their pets. Unfortunately the vast majority of amateur pet portraits aren't great. Most amateurs and casual shooters stand above their pet(s) and shoot downward. The secrets to really good pet portraiture are to get on the same level as your pet and then get close. Squat or kneel down to put you on the same plane as your subject, then take the picture at their level and be sure to focus on their eyes. Interestingly enough, the same advice applies to photographing children.
Some important "Do Not" Rules
Don't always place your subject in the exact center of the frame. This placement looks like every other portrait ever shot and is often boring. For example, a picture of a person is often more interesting if the person is slightly off to the side rather than smack dab in the middle of the frame.
Don't cut off arms, legs, feet, and hands. You don't always have to include your subject's entire body in the portrait, but never cut anybody off at the waist or at the knees. Generally speaking, if you show head and shoulders you are fine. If you want to show more than head and shoulders...show everything. It gives viewers a sense of continuity and completeness.
You don't have to buy the latest (or most expensive) camera model to capture fantastic people photos. All it takes is a little bit of patience, adhering to a few simple rules, and some practice. Good luck and good shooting.