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How To take better Portraits

Five ways to improve your Instagram photos


Five ways to improve your Instagram photos

I am completely addicted to Instagram. I love it. I don't post a ton - not even every day - but I'm on there lurking all the time. It's a bit of a no-brainer, really... Instagram is like the photographer's Twitter, but in my opinion, a picture can be worth so very much more than 140 characters.

My feed is a mixture of friends, photographers, and photographer friends, and the quality of the images varies pretty widely... which is to be expected. Instagram is as much a source of entertainment and connection for me as it is for inspiration, and you certainly wouldn't have to go too far back in my own photo roll to see that I don't require every photo I post to be a work of art. That said, I don't know anyone who would be opposed to making their phone photos a bit better and punching their IG cache up a few notches, so I thought I'd toss out a few ideas for how everyone with an camera phone can take their images to the next level.

(As a side note, all of the photos on today's post were made and edited with my iPhone only, and most have made it into my Instagram feed in the last year or so. They are not, however, presented in any particular order... just a random collection that hopefully illustrates the five principles listed below.)


As with all things photography, the number one key is light. With good light, you can make a good photo out of just about anything. Even better? Good light is all over the place. You can get lucky with a pretty sunrise or sunset, or you can get creative and make good light by moving your camera around in relation to whatever light source you have available. I can't tell you how many times I've used iPhone flashlights to light things for photos - including professional photos - in a pinch. It's not the light, it's how you use it...


One of the great things about your phone is that you've got it with you everywhere, so any time you find yourself in a particularly interesting setting, you can make a photo. Even if the setting isn't interesting, though - perhaps especially if the setting isn't interesting - consider changing your perspective to engage the viewer. Hold your phone directly over or under your subject, shoot your subject through another object, or skip your subject altogether and photograph him/her/it in a mirror or puddle. Make it your personal goal to avoid photographing anything from the vantage point that you'd normally see it.


Phone camera lenses are relatively wide-angle, meaning that they have a pretty large view of a given scene. This can be a drag when what you'd like is one of those pretty portrait lenses that flatters people and isolates the subject against the background, but it also lets you create some pretty dramatic photographs of landscapes and cityscapes. Phones also do a pretty incredible job of focusing up close, creating near-macro photographs. Keep your eyes open for the big and small scenes around you and you're sure to find some incredible things you can capture with your phone.


And what would Instagram be without the nifty filters it gives us to play with our photos? These photos don't have to be fine-tuned, people... the idea is that you shoot a photo, take thirty seconds to edit it, and get it out the door. People see these photos on a three inch screen, so impact is everything. I edit my Instagram much more aggressively than I do my professional work, because why not? It's fun!


Finally, the old standby: composition. I was watching the Grand Budapest Hotel recently and marveling at how Wes Anderson has dedicated his entire career to shooting scenes framed dead center... he pretty much started a whole movement around it. But whether you like to frame things dead center or go with the more traditional rule of thirds, do consider the composition of your images. Especially when you're working within a tiny square, the strength of your composition is your best advertisement.

So that's it! Don't overthink it, but don't underthink it either... and hopefully I'll see you on my screen sometime soon!




Bad Lighting: what it is, and how to correct it | Chapel Hill Photographer


Bad Lighting: what it is, and how to correct it | Chapel Hill Photographer

Today I thought I'd tackle another reader question from my Facebook query a little while ago. This one's from Ali (Thanks Ali! Starbucks GC coming your way!): Q: Is there an idiot-proof way to make photos come out decent when you're stuck in really bad lighting (low-lighting, flourescents, etc.)?

A: First off, I wanted to take a moment to discuss "good" lighting and "bad" lighting. I think it's important to note that because photography is an art form, the lines around good and bad are drawn loosely and are broken all the time - in some instances with fantastic results. That said, there are certainly some generally pleasing and generally displeasing lighting situations. I'll tackle several instances of the latter here.

Scenario 1: Not enough light.Chapel Hill Photographer

Photography is all about light. In order to create a photographic image, a camera's sensor must be exposed to light. Taking pictures when there is little light can be challenging, and is one of the most significant arguments for investing in a better camera. The size of the sensor, the ISO capability of the camera, and the maximum size of the lens aperture all affect how well a camera reads light, particularly in low-light situations.

If you find yourself in a low-light and are either reluctant to turn on your flash or have no access to flash, here are some suggestions that you can use individually or together to capture better exposed images:

  • Increase your camera's ISO to the maximum number that will give you an acceptable image. As you increase your ISO, your images will look grainier or "noisier". Depending on your personal preference, any noise-reducing software you might use, and the nature of the image itself, a certain amount of grain may be acceptable or even desirable, but at some point, the image quality suffers.
  • Open your lens aperture. All DSLR lenses and some point and shoot lenses allow the photographer to widen or narrow their aperture. Increasing the size of the aperture allows more light into the camera when the image is created.
  • Stabilize your camera. When you're shooting in low-light situations, your shutter is usually open for longer periods of time than it is in brighter light, often resulting in blurry pictures. In order to combat that, put your camera on a tripod or table, or practice to gain a steadier hand.
  • Increase the amount of light on the scene. Well, duh... but really - if you can turn on lights or move your subject into more light, you may very well be able to avoid using the dread pop-up flash.

I didn't want to turn on my flash, because I didn't want to ruin the effect of the candles, so I cranked my ISO to 4000. I chose to use these pictures as an example, because the grain in this second shot is pretty apparent, and in this case, I thought it was worth it to get the picture just as I saw it.Chapel Hill Photographer Scenario 2: High sun/Overhead lightChapel Hill Photographer

As we've discussed in the past, though the sun can be a fantastic light source in photographs, it can also present an obstacle, depending on where it is in the sky. If you've got low-hanging, sideways sunlight, there are a hundred ways you can position your subject with great results. If the sun is high in the sky, though, things get a little trickier. In the middle of the day (or in a room with overhead lighting), be sure you're looking carefully at your subject's face: you want to avoid dark shadows around the eyes and under the nose. Ideally, there won't be any hard shadow lines on your subject's face at all! If there are, consider

  • moving your subject into open shade
  • turning your subject so their back is to the sun (if the sun isn't directly overhead)
  • filling the shadows with fill flash
  • if you're indoors with overhead light, consider changing angles and having your subject look up into the light

This picture, taken just a minute after the earlier one, benefits from the tent that provides open shade. The details of the faces are much clearer, and there are no harsh shadows.Chapel Hill Photographer Scenario 3: Colored interior light.

Chapel Hill Photographer Of course, the problem with turning on lights and using those as your light source is that most lightbulbs cast some kind of unnatural-looking color on your subjects. Normal lamp (tungsten) lightbulbs cast that yellow-y, orange-y light and flourescents make everyone look green. One option in those situations is to change your white balance settings accordingly. To be honest, though, I find it easier to change white balance after the fact, and shoot almost entirely on auto white balance. Any modern photo editing software will allow you to change the color scheme on an image with a single click, so I say go for that. I'm not usually one for shortcuts, but that's a pretty good one!

For the correction here, all I did was use my white balance eyedropper tool (most photo editing software has one) and selected the white on the bride's bathrobe to correct the yellow cast from the tungsten lighting in the original image:

Chapel Hill Photographer Scenario 4: Mixed light.Chapel Hill Photographer

Much harder to deal with is the common problem of mixed light - a combination of tungsten, flourescent, and/or natural light, creating different color casts in different parts of the image. I frequently see this problem when people have turned on interior lights during the daytime to add to the light coming in from the windows. In these pictures, the subject is often one color and the background another, making it impossible to solve the color problem with the single click of a mouse. If I have control of the light in this situation, I generally opt to avoid this situation altogether, by turning off the interior lights and move my subject toward a window, or alternatively closing the blinds/curtains to eliminate the natural light.  If I'm not in control of the light (usually during a wedding or event), I try shooting from different angles or else use my flash to overpower the ambient light.

I noticed the light on the wall while taking the above image, so once the bride's earring was in, I had her turn ever so slightly and changed my angle to avoid the light in the back:Chapel Hill Photographer Scenario 5: Direct Flash

Flash can be a fantastic way to light a scene or even out imbalanced lighting situations, but when you're forced to shoot that flash directly at your subject, it often flattens their appearance, washes out skin tones, and adds dark, unflattering shadows. I almost never use direct flash - I typically bounce my flash off of nearby walls or ceilings - but there are instances in which I have no choice. When shooting outside at night away from buildings and other large objects, for example, without a fancy lighting setup, a front-facing flash to illuminate your subject. The best way to handle this scenario is to use a flash modifier. Flash modifiers can be small or large, simple or elaborate, expensive or nearly free. Basically, it's anything that increases the effective size of your flash. The flash on your camera is small and creates hard light. By diffusing that light, it becomes softer, and the bigger the diffuser, the softer the light.

I had to dig deep to find a direct, un-diffused on-camera flash picture in my files... I just don't take them, period. But here's a picture of me and my beautiful friend Cami from 6 years ago (like I said - I had to DIG). Whoever took the picture clearly tried one shot with the flash on, and one with it off. They both have their issues, but I figured I'd show you for comparison's sake:Chapel Hill Photographer

and here's one using a Gary Fong diffuser - which I pretty much only take out of my camera bag for this one shot at the end of the wedding reception:

Chapel Hill Photographer Just recognizing these issues for what they are is a BIG first step toward improving your images. Look closely at pictures you really like, and pictures you don't, and try to identify what the light source is and how it's illuminating the subject. Practice the above tips and let me know what you find works for you!





5 Techniques for Creating Better Portraits (for free!) | Chapel Hill Portrait Photographer

Thank you all for your feedback on the new site! I've known for months that it needed to be updated, but a new website is not a small job, and I'll admit I kept putting it off. For better or for worse, my hand was forced two weeks ago when my oh-so-well-meaning husband accidentally hit the "publish" button on a new blog theme, essentially erasing my site. I had to decide then and there whether to do a lot of work to get my old site back, or to cut my losses and do even more work to design and build a new site, like, NOW. I guess you can see what I chose to do, and I'm glad I did... it's like moving: once the drudgery of cleaning and packing and lugging furniture up the stairs is behind you, it's really fun to decorate your new house! And speaking of decorating, one of the last pieces I need to address is my "about me" page, which is currently nothing more than a couple of lines copied and pasted from the Megapixie Facebook profile and a quick snapshot from over a year ago. Writing the bio is a daunting task, so of course I wanted to wait to get some new pictures... but where does a photographer go to get a new portrait of herself? Why, to another photographer, of course! I called my friend Heather (the lovely and talented owner of Wander and Scrawl Photography) to see whether she might be willing to do the job, and it turned out that she was on the market for a new profile picture too! Perfect!! So we met in downtown Carrboro for an hour one beautiful Fall evening and took turns being in front of the camera for once.

Headshots are deceptive. They seem simple enough - frame the subject's head and shoulders, aim, and fire - but there's actually quite a bit more to it than that. The good news is that in the case of portraits, technique trumps equipment, so I thought I'd share how you can join in the fun without spending a dime at the camera store :D

1. Posing: whole classes are taught on this subject, but here are three quick rules of thumb.

  • Have your subject turned 45-ish degrees from the camera, so they're not facing the camera straight on, but also not looking way over their shoulder - the angle helps slim the body and gives visual interest.
  • Generally, shoot women from slightly above, and men from slightly below. The higher angle opens a woman's eyes and slims her face, while the lower angle makes men appear taller and stronger.
  • Consider the old portrait photography adage that if a joint can bend, bend it. In particular, hands (if they're included) should be relaxed and turned so the back of the hand isn't prominent in the picture.

2. Color/Background: 99% of the time, I shoot wide open, which - without getting technical - basically means I like my subject's eyes perfectly focused, and my background blurry.* That doesn't mean, though, that I don't think about my background. I don't really need a particularly pretty background, but I do look for colors that will complement my subjects' clothing, eyes, or hair. In this case, Heather has extraordinary green eyes, and she was wearing a chocolate brown shirt, so when we found this green wall, I knew the colors would all work perfectly together.Raleigh Portrait Photographer

3. Light: Over and over again, I see people running out into the sun to take pictures. No problem there, necessarily, but it's what they do in the sun that could be improved. Sunlight directly on a subject's face will do three things: overexpose his face (making it too bright relative to the rest of the image), make him squint, thereby ruining the most important part of the image (the EYES!), and either remove all shadows from his face, or create small, harsh shadows around the eyes, nose, and mouth. Try these tips the next time you shoot a portrait on a sunny day:

  • Try to take your pictures in the early morning or late afternoon/evening light - the light is naturally softer and will create softer shadows.
  • If shooting in the middle of the day, either put your subject in "open" shade (not dappled light from a tree... I'm talking in the shade of a house), or turn their faces 180 degrees away from the sun, effectively putting the subject's face in open shade.

In this image, I turned Heather away from the sun, but kept the sun far enough out of the frame that I didn't have to worry about sunflare or too much haze (want sunflare? Play with putting the sun closer into the frame!). Her hair is beautifully lit up, separating her from the background, but there are no weird shadows on her face and she could keep her eyes comfortably wide open.Raleigh Portrait Photographer

And if you're shooting on a cloudy or rainy day, don't despair! Clouds can be a great diffuser for your light if you approach them right! One of my favorite locations to shoot is in front of a north-facing (or otherwise non-directly lit) window/exterior door. Depending on the light, you may have to bring your subject right up close to the door, but the light is great, especially if you can find a second light source to add a highlight in the background. Try facing the subject directly toward the window, or 45 degrees away, creating those soft shadows. Outside, turn your subject toward where the sun should be and work on finding that pretty background color!

4. Reflectors: Sometimes the balance between the light and shadow sides of the face is off, or in the case of shooting your subject backlit by open sun, the shadow on their faces makes them TOO dark. Enter reflectors! You can go buy professional reflectors, of course, but didn't I promise you no spending? Why not instead position your subject near a white wall, a white car, a window or mirror (just make sure you don't blind anyone!), or your own white shirt? Different colors work, too, but may cause a color cast on your subjects' face. The nearer your subject is to the reflective surface, the brighter the reflection in their face. And if you don't want to rely on the reflectors that exist out in the world, you can spend $3 on a piece of foam core or poster board to carry with you... they work nearly as well as the pro gear for a tiny fraction of the cost!

5. Expression: Here's the kicker. You can know all there is to know about lighting and posing, have the best equipment on the market, and be shooting the most beautiful people in the world, but if you can't nail a good expression, you're no good as a portrait photographer. Different people prefer different styles, of course, but if you're reading this blog, chances are you're more or less into what I'm into: beautiful, natural expression of all kinds (no "say cheese" smiles allowed!). One of the things I found a little tricky when I was starting out was striking a balance between keeping my clients engaged and comfortable (which usually meant getting them talking) without then having a hundred images of them mid-sentence. What I realized was that it just required a bit of patience: get them talking and laughing, but always be on the lookout for that perfect moment, and have everything else set so you can just click the shutter. Heather made it easy, of course, because a: she's a knockout, and b: she knows what to do... rarely do you get both of those qualities in a single person. But with practice, it's possible to catch anyone looking their best.Raleigh Portrait Photographer

* Bonus tip! You can control your depth of field to some extent, even with a point and shoot! Put your camera in A or Av mode (aperture priority) and program the associated number to be as low as possible; put as much distance as possible between your subject and the background; zoom in as far as you can with your lens (not your digital zoom!); then get as close to your subject as you can while still framing them properly. Your depth of field may not be as shallow as a more expensive camera/lens setup will allow, but if you master all of the above techniques, it won't matter: you and your P&S will have a leg up on what I'd guess is about 90% of the big-fancy-camera-carrying population :D

So who learned something here? And who has something to add? I'd love to see your comments below - whether to share a tip or link to a great shot you were able to get using one or more of these ideas! Be in touch!!