As far back as the 1850s, the family portrait was an uncomfortable affair. Back then, you would need to hold your pose for up to eight minutes for the camera to register an image. To keep you from moving, the photographer might strap you into a chair and prop your head up with a steel vice. The procedure was so arduous that some photographers resorted to drugging their subjects or even threatening them with guns [source: Leggat].
While photographic technology may have come a long way, the family photo can still be an awkward and excruciating ordeal. Around the world, there are thousands of photo albums bedecked with cringe-worthy snapshots: A trio of scowling teenagers trussed up in wool turtlenecks, high school sweethearts forced into an uncomfortable prom night embrace, or a picture so poorly lit that it's hard to tell Grandma Hazel from Aunt Gladys.
Your photo album doesn't need to be a catalog of embarrassment. Even with a basic point-and-shoot camera, you can be on your way to creating captivating portraits, thrilling action shots and touching candid photos by following a few simple guidelines.
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Go Into the Light
If you've ever wondered why Hollywood movies always look different than home movies, look no further than the end credits. For every actor in front of the camera, there are dozens of crew members keeping the actors well-lit with spotlights and reflectors.
Light is everything in photography, and your skills as a photographer are based largely on how well you can recognize light and capture it. Used correctly, light can enhance a subject's features and alter the atmosphere of a photo. A light shining in from the side can make a subject appear menacing. A light coming down from above can make them appear angelic. Used incorrectly, however, light can also highlight wrinkles and distort a subject's features.
In the typical portrait studio, you can find as many as six lights pointing at a subject. Since you probably don't have any large studio lights hanging around, you can substitute a large piece of white cardboard in a pinch. Just sit your family next to a window and use the cardboard to reflect light onto them.
In most cases, beginning photographers will find that their best photos are taken in the great outdoors. When outside, strive for indirect, diffused light. Instead of blasting your subjects with direct sunshine, you want it to be sprinkled lightly around them. That's why overcast days may make for bad tanning -- but they're gold for photographers.
If you're still getting a bit of shadow, you can always light up an outdoor scene using your camera's flash. But beware: The flashes on point-and-shoot cameras are notorious for making photo subjects appear dazed and washed out. Experiment with your flash to know its range. Too far away, and it won't work. Too close, and your subjects will appear sickly under the extra light. To soften the glare of a particularly vivid flash, you can also try shielding it with a Kleenex.
Get the Right Background
In Leonardo da Vinci's famous Mona Lisa, his female subject is seated in front of a simple Italian landscape. There's a bridge, a river and a few mountain peaks -- it's nice, but it doesn't attract attention away from the Mona Lisa herself.
Just like Leonardo, keep the backgrounds of your family pictures simple. Your goal is to focus attention on your human subjects, and if you're photographing them in front of a switched-on television or a cluttered coffee table, the focus will be lost. What you'll want to look for is a neutral background: Something that's not too flashy and won't overpower your subject. Outdoor settings are cheap and easy to light, but be careful that you don't put your family in front of trees or poles -- they'll look like they're growing out of the person's head. In any outdoor setting, scout around for the backdrop that's least likely to stand out. If your family is at the beach, photograph them with their back to the ocean rather than the parking lot.
The weather's a little rough? If you live in a city, you're probably surrounded with free indoor backgrounds. Pack the family into a minivan and drive them to a nearby university atrium, library or hotel lobby. Many portrait photographers also choose to photograph subjects in their natural environment -- such as the office, home or laboratory. If your son plays soccer, photograph him on a soccer pitch. If your wife loves gardening, get her posing in the tomato patch.
In all cases, try adjusting your camera lens so the backdrop is out of focus. With a blurry background, your subject is instantly made to leap out of the scene.
Be a Poser
Photographing someone directly from the front is often the most unflattering angle: The subject looks heavy, and his or her facial features are squished into two dimensions. That's why few people look good in passport photos.
Angle is a subtle trick to control how good someone will look in your photos. You know how some people are known for being photogenic? Often, it's just because they know how to pose.
When setting up a family portrait, take the time to direct the members of your family into poses ("move a bit to the left," "cock your head to the side," and so on). If your uncle is holding his arms straight, ask him to bend them. If your father is standing rigidly upright, have him shift his weight onto his right leg. If the picture is a close-up, have the subjects lean slightly toward the camera. Instead of your sister keeping her hands clasped, have them resting on her hips, a prop, or the shoulder of someone next to her.
Also, think about what your family is going to be wearing. Dressing your entire extended family in matching shirts is a little much, but you should plan some sort of color scheme that won't clash. You don't want a situation where everybody is dressed in dark browns and your sister suddenly shows up in a red dress. Also, avoid short sleeves and short pants. The eye is naturally drawn toward bare skin, and it can distract attention away from a subject's face.
Posing is a great tool, but don't overdo it. It's okay to be meticulous about posing your family for portraits, but if you're constantly forcing your family to strike a pose ("Do that one more time for the camera, honey"), you're just going to aggravate them -- and aggravated families make for poor photos.
Set the Mood
New York photographer Annie Leibovitz can get her subjects to do anything. She's immersed Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub full of milk, she's covered Sting in mud, and she's even convinced a pregnant Demi Moore to pose in the nude. Leibovitz's secret is connecting with her subjects. Minutes after they've walked in the door, her subjects feel relaxed, trusting and comfortable. In 2009, Leibovitz pulled U.S. president Barack Obama away from the Oval Office for a surprisingly peaceful family portrait.
It's hard to get good portraits when your family is stressed out. That's why, as the photographer, it's your job to project an air of calm over the scene. Speak softly, put on some music, and offer drinks to the adults and ice cream to the kids. The best photographers are masterful at establishing a rapport with their subjects. Since your subjects are also your relatives, you've already got a leg up.
Above all, never say "cheese." For some reason, many amateur photographers are obsessed with making sure that everyone has a big toothy smile before they click the shutter. The result is photographs filled with people cracking half-hearted grins. Some people actually look better if they aren't smiling -- and if you force your humorless brother to look instantly ecstatic, it's just going to look unnatural. So, instead of saying "cheese," just keep a constant conversation going with your subjects while you repeatedly take pictures. After a few seconds, they'll overcome their camera shyness and adopt an expression they're most comfortable with.
"If your picture isn't good enough, you're not close enough," said famed war photographer Robert Capa, and it was a philosophy he took to heart. Whether it was jumping out of a landing craft on D-Day or crawling along the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, Capa was constantly risking life and limb to get as close to the action as possible.
You probably won't have to dodge any bullets in your family snapshots, but by following Capa's advice, you can fill your photo albums with much more intimate images. A pair of children playing with a puppy is a fantastic image, but not if you photograph from the other side of the yard. Get down, get dirty and get in the action. You might get dog slobber on your lens, but you'll capture action shots instead of just snapshots. Children, especially, are too often photographed from above by taller adults. By stooping down to their level, you can establish direct eye contact and capture a more engaging picture.
Time Magazine is renowned for featuring extreme close-ups of celebrities and politicians on its front cover. You may have seen hundreds of pictures of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, but when his life-sized face is suddenly staring at you from a newsstand, it has a dramatic effect. Don't be afraid to follow Time's lead. Try photographing only your grandmother's eyes. Zoom in so close to your baby's face that you can see the individual pores on her skin. Up-close-and-personal photos are a bit more challenging to take, since it requires you to shove a camera into your family's face -- but you'll capture details that are well worth the effort.
Forget those awkward family photos! HowStuffWorks talked to two photography experts on how to look your best in every photo, every time.
More Great Links
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- Chauvin, Yanik. "15 Steps to Perfect Family Portraits." Dec. 3, 2008. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://yanikphotoschool.com/tutorials/15-steps-to-perfect-family-portraits/
- DigitalCameraTracker.com. "5 Steps to Being More Photogenic." March 22, 2010. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.digitalcameratracker.com/5-steps-to-being-more-photogenic/
- Farid, Hany. "Photo Tampering Throughout History." (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/farid/research/digitaltampering/index2.html Greenspun, Philip. "Portrait Photography." (Dec. 8, 2010) http://photo.net/learn/portraits/
- Hinds, Alex. "Best colors to wear for a family portrait." (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.helium.com/items/1609538-family-portrait-photography-styling-advice-tips
- Hochwarter, Vanesa. "Photoshop me! The truth behind digital retouching on your favourite models and celebrities." (Dec. 8, 2010) http://blog.modelmanagement.com/2010/03/01/photoshop-me-the-truth-behind-digital-retouching-on-your-favourite-models-and-celebrities/
- Jones, Ben. "Benji's Studio Lighting and Posing Tutorial." (Dec. 8, 2010) http://lumitouch.com/benstudiotutorial/index.html
- Kennedy, Randy. "The Capa Cache." Jan. 27, 2008. (Dec. 8, 2010)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/arts/design/27kenn.html
- Kodak. "Top 10 Tips for Great Pictures." (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.kodak.com/eknec/PageQuerier.jhtml?pq-path=317/10032&pq-locale=en_US
- Leggat, Robert. "Portraiture." Nov. 23, 2008. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.rleggat.com/photohistory/history/portrait.htm
- Museum of Hoaxes. "Oprah's Head Transplant." (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/photo_database/image/oprahs_head_transplant/
- PicturePundit.com. "Better Family Photos that Don't Suck." Oct. 22, 2010. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.picturepundit.com/2010/10/22/better-family-photos-that-dont-suck/
- ScienceBlogs.com. "Victorian Post-Mortem Photography." Jan. 20, 2008. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2008/01/victorian_postmortem_photography.php
- SimpleMom.net. "9 Tips for Taking Great Family Portraits." Nov. 10, 2008. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://simplemom.net/9-tips-for-taking-great-family-portraits/
- Spectrum Photography Tips. "Ten Tips for Photographing Family Portraits." (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.spectrumphotographytips.com/ten-tips-for-photographing-family-portraits.html
- Stumblerz.com. "Why don't people smile in old photos?" Nov. 26, 2008. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.stumblerz.com/why-don%E2%80%99t-people-smile-in-old-photos/
- The Digital SLR Guide. "How to Pose for Family Portraits." (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.digital-slr-guide.com/how-to-pose-for-family-portraits.html