If you were asked to name the subject of the majority of photos taken every day, you would probably guess, correctly, that it is people. (If you guessed incorrectly, let me know, and I'll try to be less subtle in my blog titles.) ;-)
It makes sense to me. People fascinate us, and we will look at photos of just about anyone, in any setting. There are many reasons we make photographs of people: to capture important world events; record the routine, small moments of daily life; to illustrate a human condition; or special family event. We have industries dedicated to photos of famous people, forgotten people, historic people, cute people, funny people, naked people, and villains. Those photos can be broken down into formal portraits, candids, environmental, snapshots, fine art, photojournalism, and many other categories. In other words, we shoot a whole lot of people, for a whole lot of reasons.
This can be overwhelming to new photographers who are trying to expand their skills. There are videos, books, and workshops on each aspect and scenario of photographing people, and many give conflicting advice. Some are very specialized - I have a 400-page, post-processing book, titled "Skin." (It's a great book, by Lee Varis. I highly recommend it.) Where do you begin? How do you improve your portraits?
We'll keep it pretty general today, and get into more specific things in upcoming blogs. Here are a few basic steps.
First of all (and you've read these words here before), learn the basics of your camera. You need to understand what happens when you turn the right knob to this setting as opposed the left button to that setting. That means practice. Yeah, like the piano teacher used to tell you before you convinced your mom that you weren't going to be the next Van Cliburn. Once you know how your camera operates, you can push that part aside and concentrate on whatever subject matter you point the camera. Practice gives you permission to open the creative side of your brain.
Know the purpose of the photograph and critique yourself. This is a snapshot of a cute kid, playing on a summer day. If that's what you were trying to create, so be it. Don't apologize for snapshots; they are part of people photography and can capture treasured moments. Snapshots are only bad if you meant to get something else. You are recording a moment here, not creating fine art. Give your snapshots a critique, but keep it at the appropriate snapshot level of "good" and "needs work". Good: I'm at his eye level (more interesting); I've told the story (he's playing in the pool); and the image is sharp (I used appropriate camera settings). Improvement needed: The pickets are distracting (I should try to change my position; there are steps to the right of the pool); framing (I probably don't need the entire pool to tell the story; I should have only used half of the pool or, at least, not cut the middle of the right leg); his expression is kind of bland. Done? Now, let it go. This one won't win the Pulitzer, but you learned something while you took a snapshot that his parents can cherish.
Work on telling a story with your photographs. Why did you take it? Is it showing something humorous? A moment of success? A time for reflection on our mortality? Ideally, the viewer should know what is going on in your photograph. Generally, if your viewer understands your image, they will appreciate it more. The story may be simple or complex, but it should be present.
Do you understand your camera mechanics? You've practiced so that the buttonology doesn't slow you down? Can your viewer understand the story of your photograph? This might be a good time to go back and review your images again. What seems to be your favorite segment of people photography? Hint: you probably have more of this type of people photos in your files. This is probably a good place to start working harder at the details and jump into learning some of the more subtle skills to make your photographs stand out. You shouldn't stop photographing all the other areas you enjoy, but, if you can decipher what you like the most, you'll probably learn faster in that segment. By the way, most of the skills you learn will overlap other varieties of photographing people (and even other subjects).
The goal is simple: you want to improve your photography. As you grow more skilled, you'll be able to create a planned session; with the right camera settings; without distracting elements in the scene. A posed shot that everyone else thinks you just happened upon.
To quote one of my favorite people, "This ain't rocket surgery."