Who amongst us hasn’t had those uncomfortable ‘posed’ shots taken when we were on vacation with the requisite say “cheese’ instruction that we look back on and wince. Taking bad shots of people is easy but don’t worry, taking good shots of people is not as hard as you think as long as you work on getting a few things right:

  1.  The subject matter
  2.  The background
  3. How you’ll frame it
  4. Light

These are relevant whether or you are dong a studio portrait shot, an outdoor scene or a moment when people are unaware of you (paparazzi style). Once you get the hang of getting these fundamentals right you can add a few additional tricks I’ll mention as we go along to make sure your subjects will love how you’ve portrayed them.

1. The Subject Matter.

So basically there are two kinds of subject photographs. The posed shot, often used to focus on the physical characteristics of the person themselves and the candid shot, more commonly used to capture what they are doing. It may seem obvious to say, but people tend to look best in photographs when allowed to be themselves and it’s important you remember that regardless which method you choose.

Generally I like to try and get what I call the ‘unguarded moment’. This is partly because my job is to document all that goes on at the ranch and not interrupt people’s fun. But mostly it’s because I do believe that without the apparent distraction of the camera people are more natural, relaxed and uninhibited and in capturing that moment you end up with a truer portrait of them. To get this paparazzi style shot it helps to get your long lens out and/or use your zoom. Plus you need to be take plenty of pictures when people are distracted by doing something they are enjoying even if it’s just being engrossed in a good conversation or intently watching someone else. The downside is it’s time consuming and you have to do a lot of deleting.

Woman and Hugo

If you don’t have time for this and want to set up the shot remember that people need to feel relaxed and comfortable. Talk to them, put them at ease, keep them entertained. Anything that distracts them from the moment you want to go ‘click’. An old pros trick is to take photos in the set up when people think they are getting ready for the shot. ie just before ‘the pose’. If you have a ‘burst‘ or multiple shot setting on your camera don’t be afraid to use this to get the before and after shots. You’ll often find these are more relaxed and ‘real‘ than the one they think you’ve taken. Another idea is to give your subjects a prop to work with or a character to embody. Again this helps distract from the self-consciousness and awkwardness that people often experience when having their photos taken by giving them something else to concentrate on.

sepia cowboys wrangler victoria

2. The Background.

Not just to avoid a potential pole sticking out of someones’s head, what goes on behind the subject can be positively instrumental on how the person is portrayed. So in many ways it’s just as important to think about as the subject itself.

Many portrait photographers especially when shooting ‘head shots’ like to have a very neutral background in order to accentuate the person. Of course you can simply choose a very plain background:

clown at steamboat springs rodeo

But if you don’t have that option available to you, you can also ‘neutralise’ a busy background in other ways (and even combine the two).

a)  Reduce the depth of field. If you can, set the camera on aperture priority or if it has no manual settings on the manufacturers portrait setting. This will make the subject be in sharp focus and the background soft and fuzzy.

b) Use your zoom. Step back and then use the zoom to get close to your subject. It will achieve a similar effect of softening the background drawing the eye to them.

cowboy at heart


Perhaps surprisingly, contrasting or even similar backgrounds can also have a similar accentuating effect, especially if they are strong graphic patterns or textures.

young cowboy

young cowboy
Here the similar colours of the background and Thatcher’s T-shirt make his face and the caption stand more out.

But sometimes the background is important in order to put the subject into a context. So if you find something that looks good behind them it can be nice to work it into the shot. If you are working on a set up portrait you can even orchestrate the scene a little to tell a good story and reveal more about who your subject really is. In this picture (below) proud new father Ryan May was uncomfortable with posing looking at me, so I got him together with things that really mattered to him, the ranch, his new baby girl, horses and his dog and asked him to ‘look away into the future’.

baby grace and ryan

3. Framing

What your subject is doing and where will impact your framing choices. Think about whether you should be shooting wide, head to toe, waist up or close up. The good news is, if you’ve thought about the first two things we’ve covered, how to frame the shot best will become readily apparent to you.

Don’t be afraid to fill the frame by focussing on one or two elements, even cropping things that aren’t as important out. Conversely getting all that is going on in a wider shot can be more effective in a different situation.

shooting range
Conveying Intense concentration while shooting a gun for example is often all about the eye and the trigger finger
roping in arena
Whilst here I felt I needed to be wide enough to see what was making Zach’s face strain so hard

If you are photographing two people who know each other rather than having them look at you, it can be a nice alternative to have them look at each other.

young avery


When shooting a group of people think about re-arranging them so they are not all shoulder to shoulder in one line  Try positioning them so some are above others or even get them to just angle their bodies differently towards you and It’ll make your group portrait look more interesting and connect people up more.

three wranglers at black mountain ranch

boots and a hat

You can even frame your subject in a frame…

barn shot

Think about your angle of shot. Photographing people at eye level is a good starting place, which means you need to get on their level. With kids this may mean squatting down, and with babies getting even lower. But don’t restrict yourself to this. A different angle sometimes give a really nice alternative perspective. Here’s two very different angles of baby Grace May.

baby grace Image 15

Be prepared. Have any camera settings ready and zooms set so when they enter the frame you can get them right away. This makes anything they do feel more natural. WIth this shot of ranch owner Nowell May (below) I knew the horses were kicking up great dust in the light when looking across the arena and I wanted both the horse and the rider in shot. I set things up then just as Nowell came into frame I called out to him. He looked up and smiled and I immediately hit the trigger and got the shot.

Ranch Owner, Nowell May

One last thing to remember about framing is not to chop off limbs at awkward places. Visually this is usually the joints. So if you are going to shoot less than head to toe don’t frame at ankles, knees, elbows or shoulders. Go either side of them and you’ll be fine.

4. Light

It’s a common misconception that to take photos of people you position the light (usually the sun) behind you and have it shining directly on them. Not only does it make your subjects squint uncomfortably but the harsh direct light creates unflattering shadows on their face and shows up every imperfection. What you want is ambient or diffused light, side light or back light.

a) Ambient (or diffused) light is when the light particles are evenly scattered, either by a cloud, a shady spot or non-direct light that enters a window. It gives a lovely soft light with very little harsh shadows that is complimentary for most people.

Amy and Grace

b) Side lighting gives your subject depth and dimension through the highlights and shadows cast on their face. It can also thin out a face as only half or parts of it is lit but be careful to pay attention to the increased depth of the shadows as they can be unflattering.


c) Backlighting can give a lovely ‘halo effect’ to the subject as well as avoiding any harsh light on their face. In order to avoid the face being too dark against the background (or the subject silhouetted at all), use a reflector board (any old piece of white or shiny metallic card will do) to bounce the light from behind them back onto their face or use the flash on your camera to ‘fill in‘ their face.

Image 20

The most important thing to remember about taking photos of people is to have fun. Experiment, try different things and if they are aware of it engage your subject in the process. If you both enjoy it – the good results will show.

anna simons, head wrangler



Next blog:  ‘How to take Action Photos’

One Comment

  1. Kitty

    Awww Grace looks so beautiful, a belated congratulations to Ryan and Amy!

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