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Portraits are a significant portion of the digital photography taken by hobbyists and professionals. Many casual pictures of family members and friends are portraits by definition, even if they are just instant snapshots with no planning or setup. Many professionals make a good living from shooting formal portraits in a studio or a more-relaxed family portrait in the home or an outdoor setting. This last example can be described as a “lifestyle” portrait: An individual or family is placed in a less formal or familiar setting, which also helps to reveal more about the character, personality and life of the person or family.
It’s not just that many people are uncomfortable in a portrait photo studio, under the hot lights. It also divorces them from much of what makes them who they are. A well-planned, well-lit and carefully composed photo of granddad in his woodworking shop is a much more interesting image than of him in a studio setting. He is surrounded by his tools and examples of his work, and could be posed in the middle of a task or project to emphasize his hobby even more.
Your daughter is a young gymnast; so instead of (or in addition to) a formal pose in a new dress in the garden, photograph her in an empty gymnasium among or on the various devices with dramatic sunlight streaming through high windows creating interesting shadows. Many people identify strongly with their jobs. Ask your co-workers to pose for you after hours in their office, at the machinery they operate, etc. Every person has one or more places where his or her portrait will be of higher quality and interest, and reveal your photography skills.
To capture lifestyle portraits successfully, there are specific tips and techniques to follow.
Learn about the person.
Your lifestyle portrait planning begins with a study of your subject. If you want to show more of his or her personality and life, then you must spend time with him or her. Ask about his or her daily schedule and responsibilities. You may also want to talk to his or her spouse, friends, co-workers, etc. to obtain some third-party perspectives. With that information, you have a realistic basis from which to choose a location for the portrait and what kind of picture you want to compose. Equally helpful, as you spend time with your subject, he or she will become familiar with you and more confident about what you want to accomplish.
Selecting the place.
Once you know your subject better, ask him or her about locations that may be appropriate. Then, visit those places together. Determine the best time of day, angles, lighting opportunities, etc. You’ll also be able to observe how relaxed your subject acts in these environments.
Whatever location(s) you choose, it should be an extension of your subject, with a few interesting elements that help tell his or her story. The location must offer the right balance without dominating the portrait.
In most cases, the location for the lifestyle portrait won’t be ready-made. You may have to do some arranging. For example, there may be a lack of interesting, supporting elements, so don’t hesitate to add props if they will help. You also want to eliminate background and/or foreground clutter and find subtle, neutral backgrounds.
Make sure your subject is appropriately dressed for the lifestyle portrait. If your brother or cousin likes to work on cars, then a greased-smeared shirt or face may show more about his enthusiasm for his hobby than a clean set of clothes.
This also applies to how you direct your subject’s facial expression. If he or she is in an environment that is motivating or generates happiness, then that should be seen on his or her face instead of a somber or formal look.
You will also want to control your subject’s pose even more so than in a studio portrait. Again, this is an opportunity to pose your subject in unusual or even humorous ways that would never be done in a studio. Ask your daughter, the gymnast, to hold a handstand at the end of the beam or a contorted pose on the mat from a floor exercise series. Ask your car-nut brother to roll partially from underneath a car and shoot him from above.
Expose and focus creatively.
Lifestyle portraits also give you more latitude when it comes to exposure and focus settings. That is why planning and visiting the location in advance of your shoot is so important. You’ll have time to think of some creative exposure and focus combinations. If the background and foreground is critical to the portrait, then a smaller aperture is needed to increase the depth of field. There may a legitimate reason to shoot with less depth of field, so you can show just a close-up of your subject and an object that is held close to his or her face to help to define him or her.
Lifestyle portraits may quickly become one of your favorite types of photography; especially after your subjects tell you how happy they are that you were able to capture more of their personality and inner being.
Photo by PhotographyTalk member Lori Gillespie