Love to Take Those Pictures | Forget Sunsets—Portraits Rule!

What’s the most important part of a portrait? The eyes.

I’ve been in love with  photography ever since I was about 12. It was then that my father allowed me unlimited access to the family Argus, and I began to snap 35mm shots of the usual things that present themselves as subjects to 12-year-old photographers: family, neighbors, squirrels in trees. Film cost 49 cents a roll and developing 89 cents. Since my allowance was 50 cents a week, I had the resources to shoot a roll every third week and still buy a candy bar or two.

To this day I remember the smell of the camera . . . a heady brew of the leather on its back and its intricate metal interior. It had no light meter, so I was forced to guess at f-stop and shutter speed. Through trial and error, I got quite good at approximating the right amount of light onto the film.

Today, I am quite content to let my new Sony digital camera sweat the exposure readings. I rarely photograph squirrels today, but more often than not, it’s people who interest me as subjects. I find that I spend a lot more time photographing people than I do sunsets. It takes more nerve to photograph a person than a landscape, and the rewards are sporadic, but as in all photography, if you take a lot of pictures, you vastly increase your chances of taking a good one.

The number of shots taken separates rank amateurs from serious amateurs and professionals. Serious photographers take lots and lots of pictures, planning to discard most of them in favor of keeping a few choice ones. When handed a camera, non-photographers take a couple of pictures and then expect to be disappointed.

I buy two cameras a year. Yes, it’s an addiction, but a manageable one, for I can sell the older cameras at a tolerable loss on eBay every time I want to buy a new one. The pace of development in digital photography equals that of computers. Who wants to be stuck with a four-year-old gizmo? My latest camera, which I bought for less than $200, defocuses the background for portraits, making it seem like a much pricier single lens reflex. The lens is sharp as a Sicilian razor, and the resolution is so high it burdens my two-year-old computer to process the images.

So what do most people want to see in a portrait? The eyes. Those windows of the soul must be in sharp focus, and lit. If you want to take really sharp pictures, use a tripod. You can buy one at your local Goodwill for $6. Camera shake is the biggest cause of so-so photos. Put your camera between an open window and your subject and make sure the background behind the subject is as dark as possible. Zoom in a little. Nobody looks good in a wide-angle lens. The light coming in the window should be indirect. Direct sunlight will cause your subject to squint and your photograph to be over-exposed in all the wrong places. Remember, we want to be able to see eyes.

Take 20 photos for every one you expect to come out. Remember, there’s no penalty for trying too hard and you’re certainly not “wasting” anything. Even camera batteries are almost all rechargeable nowadays, so at worst you’re guilty of squandering a few electrons.

The most impressive pictures I’ve taken have been candid portraits, usually done when I’m holding the camera chest- or waist-high and snapping as rapidly as the camera will allow. In a way I’m stealing images, without taking the time to develop relationships, but, heck, Henri Cartier-Bresson made a career of it and we’re all the better for it.

Of course, children are the easiest subjects to catch, right after sleeping bums on park benches. Candid portraits are the most interesting, because almost everybody makes the same face when asked to pose for a photo. It’s the face they’ve been making since eighth grade.                    

Visit the Index for more essays by Dan Coffey and other Iowa humor writers.