My first try at portraits


TPF Noob!
Jan 26, 2012
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I am brand new to photography. I've always been interested in it, but I just last month got my first camera that is not a point and shoot, a Canon Rebel XS. I've been interested in taking portraits since I got my own senior pictures done more than a decade ago, but haven't made time to look into it until now. I know I'm not very good at this yet, but I'd like some pointers on how to make my photos better. I am open to constructive criticism. I'm interested in everything...what I do terribly wrong, if there is anything I do right, whatever! I know that the best way to learn is to get out there and practice, practice, practice, but I don't want to be making the same mistakes over and over. I can take criticism, since I want to learn and improve, but please remember I'm new. :)

Thanks for any input.




I know I cut off the top of his head. I did so on purpose because before I went out and shot, I looked at a ton of photographers' web sites, mostly senior pictures. This was a style that they did often in my area, so I thought it was the "in" thing. However, when I showed it to my uncle, who has been a photographer for 30 some years, he was completely turned off by it and said I should never cut off the tops of heads. He had a term for it which I've since forgotten. So I was wondering what other people think. Is it acceptable? Or not? Or a matter of preference?


I appreciate anybody taking the time to give me some pointers.

I'm a noob, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

One is underexposed to me and maybe a little warm in wb.

Two is cute but would look better if off Center more to the right do we wonder where he's looking.

Three is nice exposure, but I think would look better in portrait orientation.

I'm not a big fan of just chopping off the top of the head. Filling the frame is one thing but head chopping is something different.

Learning some composition ideas like rules of thirds would be helpful too.

(How'd I do guys?)
Thanks for the input. All great ideas. I appreciate it!
You have a nice camera and you can do a lot with it as you progress.

There are many things people can and will suggest such as reading books on digital photography in general and then into understanding exposure etc etc
Which you should do if this is more than just a passing interest.

Other than that and talking specifically about having a camera in hand:

First - I suggest starting with placing the camera on full auto and practicing your compositions. Of course these samples you posted look like simple snapshots, but now you have a little time and the motivation - consider your composition.

Consider your background and if it is pleasing or not. Consider what the overall image conveys. Is it pleasing?, or just a picture of a cute kid.
While doing that and learning how to properly expose an image (all aspects including white balance, lighting etc) you will improve overall.
It all goes hand in hand, but even a fantastically lit super color image doesn't do much if the composition is poor.

While you're at it, get the book Understanding exposure by Bryan Peterson, available in most bookstores and online.
Exposures need some help (many of these are underexposed) and on my monitor there also appear to be some soft focus issues. You're shooting at f/5 which should be sufficient DOF to avoid soft focus, but maybe try shooting around f/8 or f/11 and see if the results improve. When you get better, you can then go back to shooting with a shallow DOF to create nice bokeh behind the subjects.

Compositionally, on portraits be really careful about avoiding busy backgrounds that can distract from the subject. You did okay in 2 and 3, but in 1 and 4 there are wood pieces "piercing" the subject's head--cutting them in half. Watch for that.

Number 4 the background is blown out and out of focus. Also underexposed.

Are you using a flash? Outdoors in bright lighting conditions you really need a flash for fill light. This will help with your exposure issues. Once you get that handled, you can start thinking about off camera lighting to avoid what many will call "flat lighting" which is caused by using the pop up flash on your camera.
Thanks to all. These are exactly the kinds of comments I need at this stage. I checked, and I was not using flash since I was outside. Since then I've read that it really helps for fill light, as you mentioned. Perhaps this would help my under-exposure issues? Ha ha, I did not even notice the "pierceing" heads, but now that you point it out, it is definitely distracting from the photos. I always watch for things "growing out of heads" but didn't take into consideration that horizontal version of that.

Composition...I guess I didn't think much about it since my subjects were filling most of the frame. I'm much more conscientious about that when I'm taking pictures that are not so close up. But after reading the comments on composition, I realize I probably should have thought about it regarding to which features were placed in what area of the frame. Like maybe using rule of thirds with the eyes, instead of just putting eyes in the middle.

Regarding exposure, how can you tell under/over/correct exposure? Is this something that is learned with time and experience and study? I will check out the Brian Peterson book. Thanks for the recommendation. I find that I really need work on recognizing correct exposure in the first place on other people's photos as well as my own. I've read a few books on it, and I've found that when they have several examples of exposure, often I think the one that's not correctly exposed looks fine. So I need to work on that. Hopefully it's something you can develop with practice.

Thanks again to all.
Regarding exposure, how can you tell under/over/correct exposure? Is this something that is learned with time and experience and study?

Read your manual, then re-read it a few times. The camera has a sensor that automatically adjusts for exposure when in automatic mode, and when in one of the other modes (aperture priority, shutter speed priority, etc.), there is an internal diagram that shows you what the exposure will be. Learn how to use it and how to adjust for the exposure you are looking to achieve.

Study ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed and learn how they each affect exposure.

Then go back and read your manual again. ;)
Good advice, jwbryson1. I was just thinking that even though I read my Canon Rebel for Dummies book when I first got the camera, I need to go back and reread the whole thing now that I know my way around it better and have a better handle on the terms and concepts of photography (at least understanding what I've read instead of being lost in photography books). I think part of my problem is that when I took these pictures, I was under the impression that if you were in Manual mode and changed the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed so that the internal meter rested on 0, you'd get a correctly exposed image. Now that I've been reading about 18 percent gray, high key, low key and all that, I realize that getting it to be on the 0 doesn't necessarily mean correct exposure...
That's true, but if you are using evaluative metering and you are outdoors on a brightly lit day, it will expose for the bright background sunlight which will result in the faces being underexposed as you see in your images.

Check out this link:

Understanding Camera Metering and Exposure
Hmm...I looked after reading your post, jwbryson1, and all my pictures from that day are evaluative metered. I wonder what would have happened if I used Partial or Center-Weighted metering. So many things to learn! How nice to have a forum like this where more experienced members share their knowledge with newbies :)
I would think about shooting some verticals on close-up portraits of the kids. As in shot #3 of your son. If that had been framed as a vertical, we'd get to see the top of his head,and more of "him" and less "the sides" of the picture. I would keep working on technique, composition, and on how to identify the best kind of LIGHTING SITUATIONS in your area. Look for good LIGHT. Try different types of lighting. Think of it in terms of the time of day, and which way the subject is facing....north? west? south? east? when? Before NOON, the sun will be coming from the east, and shining toward the west...

I'm not kidding on this.
I had a go at fixing the chopped of head...

I think vertical composition would have helped that picture very much, Derrel. Not only would the head not have been cropped off and the sides limited, but his eyes would be in a more appealing place, compositionally, rather than center. I need to try to think vertically. My instinct is to shoot horizontally. Thanks for the suggestion.
Wow! How did you fix the chopped off head? Did you take hair from the other picture and do a photoshop thing? If so, that's pretty cool, and I need to learn how to do that, too!

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