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Photography Tips & Tricks

7 tips for creating great character headshots at home

Getting a great character headshot at home needn’t be expensive or boring. Whether you’re looking for a headshot for a creative business, or a picture to use as a poster for a show, here are some simple ideas that can help you make the most of whatever camera you have to hand.

Disclaimer: All the pictures in this article were taken on my camera phone, which does not have a great quality lens! You’ll likely get much more success from iPhones or high-spec Huawei phones.

1. Use what you have

Want a funky coloured background to inject some energy into the shot? Hang a bed sheet over a door. Make sure you iron out the wrinkles first, but if you’re only taking a head-and-shoulders shot then you don’t need to worry too much as long as it’s not too distracting. Otherwise, a nice, bright, single-colour wall will do the trick – just try to avoid taking pictures in marked or stained areas.

Another option is to buy some coloured A1 card from your local craft shop. It’ll probably set you back around £3-4, and you can then use blu-tac or electrical tape to stick it to whatever you surface you wish. See the pictures below.

2. Shoot during daylight hours

There are lots of things you can do creatively with household lights. For instance, pointing a desk lamp at one side of your face, and/or covering the light source with a coloured A4 folder to obtain some funky colour. But to give yourself the best chance of obtaining a nice, clear, in-focus shot – do it during daylight hours in a room where there is plenty of natural light. You don’t necessarily need to be next to a window, as long as there is a good amount of light coming into the room.

The reason for this is that if you’re shooting on a camera phone (or any camera that is using automatic settings), the camera will increase it’s light sensitivity setting (or “ISO” for those of you with DSLRs) to compensate for the lack of light, and a side-effect of this is that grain is added to the picture. How much grain depends on the processing capability of your phone’s built-in image processing software. You also risk a blurry picture as you camera will be shooting a very slow shutter speed.

Of course, this can also be used a stylistic choice – so if you WANT grain and/or blur in your picture – shoot out of daylight hours with artificial lights!

3. Use a tripod

If you have access to a tripod, use it. The tripod I use for anything I film on my phone is a simple piece of plastic I bought from a pound shop about six years ago! You can get them on sites like eBay and Amazon for a couple of quid including p+p, and it will make your life so much easier. If you want to spend a little more or position your camera at a higher point, you can get a standard tripod for around £15 that will be more than enough for a camera phone, though you might still need to get the phone holder adapter.

Above pictures: (L) My mini-tripod, and (R) My phone camera’s timer menu.

My camera phone also has a palm-detect function. This means that once the camera is in position I can flash the palm of my hand at the lens, and it will count down from three and then take a picture. Be sure to have a nose through the settings of whatever camera you’re using – and play around with the settings to learn how to use them. Don’t be afraid to take lots of photos – no one has to see them except you, and this is often the best way of understanding your camera! If you don’t have the palm-detect or similar function, most phone cameras will have a timer that gives you up to 10 seconds to get into position before it takes the picture. Some will also have a “burst-mode” option – this means that the camera will take between 5-10 photos in quick succession when the timer runs out. This can be really handy for capturing candid moments, though it will mean you have a lot of photos to delete.

The beauty of a tripod is that it allows you to structure the shot, then leave the camera in position. This is particularly useful if you’re taking your own pictures, as you’ll be able to work out the composition of the shot you want before you put yourself into it. Each time you come in and out, the camera will still be in the same position, so at this point you only have to focus on your own appearance.

4. Have someone directing you

While it can be fun to take photographs on your own, it’s always better if there is someone behind the camera who can direct you. A good character portrait can be enhanced by the smallest movements – particularly if you’re taking a shot of only your face. Having someone who can see the effect of each slight movement in real time can save a lot of frustration, and a lot of time involving you going back and forth to the camera after every single shot.

Above pictures: In the shot on the left, my ear has been cut off, and the phone leeches outside of the blue background. I recomposed for the image on the right, but this would have been a lot quicker had someone been telling me “lift the phone up, bring your head forward…”

A second person is helpful for generating ideas, particularly if it’s someone that knows you well. It can also help you relax, and feeling comfortable during a photoshoot is one of the most important aspects of capturing a great photo.

Crucially, a second person can select the correct focus point once you’re in shot. If you’re using a camera phone, this could be the difference between a good and a great shot.

5. Get stupid and use props

Seriously. Even if you’re taking more formal shots. Why? Because playing helps us relax and get to the core of who we are. Pull faces: open your eyes as wide as you can, flare your nostrils, stick your chin in the air, show your teeth, look suspicious, scrunch your face in anger, put a finger up your nose, hold your head, turn and point your ear at the camera, stick your tongue out – I could go on.

Find props: If you have anything you use in your business or show that could be used a signature item – try playing around with the placement of it within the frame. Look at it, put it in places it wouldn’t normally go, point with it, tell it off, put it in your mouth (if it’s clean), put in on your head. If you don’t have a signature prop, do the same thing with household objects: a broom, a chair, a banana, an item of clothing, a toy, a newspaper, a phone, a pencil… you get the idea. Immediately you’ve added an interesting narrative to your picture – even if you don’t know what the narrative is yourself!

The benefits here are two-fold: Firstly you might get a picture that you wouldn’t have thought about staging, or it might give you an idea to stage something more specific. Secondly, even if you don’t use any of these pictures, you’ll have warmed up some of the muscles in your face, probably made yourself laugh, and helped yourself to relax – meaning that if you take “straight” pictures afterwards, you will likely look a lot fresher!

6. Think about your style / talk to a graphic designer

Here’s a first-hand example of how not to do it: For a show I wrote and produced a couple of years ago, after I’d done all of the above, I took it even further and wrote the word “ARSE” on my head in red lipstick. Some of the pictures looked so ridiculous that I decided that I just HAD to use them.

The above images didn’t present my show in the correct light.

What I hadn’t considered was that this had nothing to do with my show. What I had produced was a poster suggesting that my show involved fooling and self-idiocy (is that even a phrase?), whereas the show was actually about pointing out the stupidity of those in power. I received feedback that audience members expected a more clown-based show, based on the image on the poster. So consider your style if you’re a performer. Is your character calm and serene, or loud and shouty? Do you have a deadpan style of delivery or are you loud and boisterous? This will affect your choice of colours, props and expressions. 

If you’re taking a photo for a website, consider where it will sit and how it will look within the site. For example, if your website has muted pastel colours, you probably don’t want a bright yellow backdrop ruining the vibe.

If you’re taking a picture for a show poster, try to visualise the layout of the poster before you take the picture. Where will the title go? Where will the show details (venue, time, date, cost etc.) be placed. If you’re unsure where to start, google some show posters for inspiration. If you’re employing a graphic designer, speak to them first. Failing any of those things – take as many pictures as you can in as many styles as you can, and a good graphic designer will be able to create something suitable for you. See the next images for an example of how to leave enough space for text.

7. Use the highest resolution, don’t crop unless necessary, and only use editing apps that export at high resolution

If your image is to be used for printed materials, check your phone’s resolution setting and always use the highest resolution possible. Don’t crop your image unless absolutely necessary – focus on getting the composition right in camera. Small crops are okay (for example, cropping 5% of the image in a corner to remove a distracting object) but remember that each time you crop the image, you lose detail. This could be crucial if you’re planning on printing posters larger than A3.

Don’t judge the design skills – I’m not the most skilled graphic designer! These images show how a graphic designer would use negative space, and how small details like the fact you can see the wall in the bottom-left corner can be eliminated fairly easily.

There are lots of amazing editing apps out there that allow you to add filters, stylise, and colour your images. If you are creating an image for a poster, ensure that the app can export in high resolution. For example – Instagram will export images with a file size of around 0.2MB, which would look terrible printed at anything above 6x4in. A graphic designer may be to advise and/or recreate filters, so always save the original version of a photo to pass to them.

Some quick bonus tips:

  • – Always make sure your lens is clean before shooting.
  • – For posters, shoot in portrait mode at a 3:2 ratio if possible. Some phone cameras default to square (1:1), 4:3, or 16:9. While this isn’t the end of the world, most poster sizes are in 3:2, meaning a 3:2 photo will fit more naturally. If you’re shooting in anything other than 3:2, be sure to leave lots of negative space (space with nothing of consequence in it) as you will probably need to crop the image for your poster.
  • – Shoots outside on location can work if the location is relevant to whatever you’re promoting, and the backdrop is not too cluttered and distracting.

I hope you’ve found that helpful. I’d love to know how you get on, and see some of your efforts! Drop me an email or connect with me on Facebook or Instagram if you have any questions or feedback.

The quality of your results will be dependent on the quality of your camera phone. If you find you’re not getting the sharpness or professional look that you’d like, you can book a character photoshoot with me from just £67 by clicking here.

Did you enjoy this article? Make sure you tell your friends! Want more tips & tricks directly to your email box a couple of times a month? Then sign up to my mailing list now – you’ll also be entered into a draw to win a free photoshoot at the end of every month in 2020!

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Take Better Cat Photos (part 2)

Thanks for all the feedback so far and I hope you enjoyed the first part of this post. If you haven’t already taken in part 1, start here!

I’ll be following this up with some how-to videos in due course. Remember to sign up to the mailing list if you want to know when they’re released – where you’ll also be in with a chance of winning a free photoshoot EVERY MONTH!

Anyway, on with the pictures!

Picture 4 – Darren

I love how this photo almost looks like the cat is taking a selfie! If the paw had been leaving the frame on the left hand side it would have been perfect, but it’s still a great photo. The strong eye contact, the face in full focus, and the way the top of the ears have been included make this a really satisfying picture. What makes this work so well though, is the series of lines that run through it at diagonals. The bars behind, the lines of blue and white blind, the radiator and the spaces between the sofa cushions all converge to help to draw the attention towards our feline.

There are a few things I would do with this photo if I was editing it using professional software– the first thing would be to straighten it up slightly. It only needs rotating a fraction, but it would make the picture that tiny bit easier on the eye. The other thing I would do is enhance the eyes a little post-production. I’d add a little sharpness and increase the exposure ever-so-slightly – to really enhance that eye contact. I’d also change the colour of the orange object in the background – the rest of the picture has this wonderfully consistent colour palette and it’s a really shame that the orange in the background is slightly distracting.

That said – given the dynamic nature of cats, this is a wonderful shot to capture. Some people might prefer to see the paw that has sneaked out of shot, but if Darren had carried on shooting from different angles or distances, the cat would have changed position and he may have lost the eye contact or the calming stillness in the shot. Remember – you’re always likely to be compromising on something.

Key points: Great colours, strong eye contact, face in focus, wonderful use of lines, could be ever-so-slightly straighter.

A picture of a cat

Picture 5 – Linda

Now for something a little more abstract. I love the atmosphere this picture evokes – a sense of calmness, simplicity, restfulness. There’s something incredibly cute about a cat’s paw. The little pads, the small spaces between digits, the tenderness of the fur. The choice to make this black and white is the right one – we don’t know what colours are in the background, but it immediately stops any attention being taken away from the subject.

It’s always really tricky to take close-up photos and keep them in focus, particularly when fur is involved. The autofocus sensor looks for areas of strong contrast to identify the subject, and fur is usually multi-layered and thus the contrast is subtle. A couple of potential changes spring to mind – one would be to put the focus on the claw that is sticking out. This can be done by using the rule of thirds (see bottom of post) and placing the claw on one of the power points. It would involve a change of angle but would highlight the sharpness of the claw in contrast to the delicate nature of the fur. Another way would be to move the camera to a slightly different spot and hide the white patch on the left side of the photo, which distracts from the subject.

This would look great on the wall of a cat-lover. I can see it as part of a collection of images looking at the detail of various parts of a cat’s body.

Key points: Good decision to go with monochrome, interesting subject, background could be less distracting, consider use of rule of thirds.

Picture 6 – Manon

The simplicity of this photo is wonderful. We’re all very familiar with seeing a cat on a shelf, and the use of a limited colour palette in the edit/choice of filter means this almost feels like a painting. The Tibetan singing bowl next to our subject adds to the air of peace, and there’s a very subtle colour change on the wall above the cat that helps fill the frame and maintain interest. We have back-to-front sharpness, the shelf is perfectly straight and this really could have been taken by a professional.

There are two things I would have been tempted to do differently, but these are entirely subjective. The first is I would have tried moving the camera to the right slightly to remove the reflection from the bowl. The slightest movement can make the biggest difference. The second is a technical aspect using professional editing software – I would look to raise the shadows (the darkest parts of the image) ever-so-slightly slightly to bring out a little more detail in the fur.

Key points: Nicely balanced composition, lovely colour palette, wonderful feeling of peace.

Rule of Thirds Explained

In picture 5 I mentioned the rule of thirds. This is a very simple, but very powerful composition technique that can easily boost the quality of your images. Take a look at the picture below.

Many camera phones and compact cameras will have the option to select an overlay when taking photographs (see above). Have a snoop through your menus and see if you can find it. Don’t worry if it’s not there though, because all you need to do is imagine that the picture is split into three sections both horizontally and vertically.

The eye is drawn naturally to anything positioned on the points where the thirds meet – indicated by the places at which the lines meet on the overlay. You can see there are four “power-points” – if you place your subject on these power-points you will naturally make your subject stand out. If you are taking a portrait of a person or an animal – try to place one of their eyes on the power-point for extra emphasis. You might need to play around to find out which eye works best, but that’s what photography is – playing around within the knowledge you have to find the composition that works best for your photo!

I hope you enjoyed this post and found it helpful. Let me know how you get on by sharing your pictures to me on Facebook at my Brighton Cat Snapper page!

Keep your eyes peeled for some tutorial videos and don’t forget to to subscribe to my newsletter to receive free photography tips and tricks, and to be entered into a draw to win a free photoshoot every month this year!

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Take Better Cat Photos (part 1)

In December I wrote a blog asking you to send in pictures of your cats, which I would then use to offer some simple tips for improving your photography.

Thank you

Thank you to everyone that submitted their photos. What’s interesting is that these photos are all wonderful as they are – they’re very clear, they have the subject in frame and in focus, and they all show the character of their felines! Photography is subjective, and my feedback is around what I would do to try take the quality up a notch – not to correct anything that is wrong – so you may or may not agree with me and that’s fine! I’ll be talking about some basic composition techniques that anyone can use – I’ll be doing my best to illustrate them with some examples but if you have any questions please drop me an email and I’ll do my best to expand on my point or link you to other online resources.

Right, let’s get started!

Picture 1 – by Charlie

A black cat lying on its back on a blue floor

I love this picture! You really get a feeling of playfulness and attention-seeking. The face is in focus, there’s adorable eye-contact with the camera, the paw sticking out to the right gives us just enough information to know they’re lying down, and the light blue background and light-coloured floor provide a lovely contrast to the black cat. The reflections in the eyes show that this was taken in environment with a lot of natural light, and this is really useful for bringing out the detail in the black fur. The whiskers help fill the frame as well. This is a really great photo, taken on an iPhone 8.

There are a couple of things that I would have been looking to do differently as a professional photographer. One is something that only a nit-picking photographer like me would be doing: the left eye is ever-so-slightly out of focus, so I’d be looking to widen my aperture to make sure it was in focus. Most camera phones don’t allow you to change the aperture setting manually, so to get around this you can back away from the subject slightly. This will increase the depth-of-field (the amount of the shot that is in focus) – just make sure that the camera is focussed on either one of the eyes, or the space between the eyes.

That also links to my second suggestion. I’d love to see a tiny bit more of the head. By moving the camera away slightly, the ears will come into shot, as will as a little more of the body.

This really is a wonderful photo as it is – great work Charlie!

Key points: Fill the frame, keep eyes in focus, strong contrast between background and subject works well, strong natural light for black animals will bring out details in their fur.

One caveat here that will apply to all of these photos – and indeed all pet photography – is this: Animals are lively! Everything I’m suggesting is in a best-case scenario. The “perfect” photograph is almost impossible – you’ll always be compromising on some aspect of the photo – the only really important thing is that you like it and it means something to you!

Picture 2 – by Rachael

A white cat with grey nose and mouth, surrounded by toys

Look at that cute little kitty! In many ways this picture is perfect. A perfectly central composition, lots of other items in the frame that are relevant to the subject (toys, litter tray etc.), and that gorgeous look of expectation in kitty’s eyes! The spot of light on the head provides a wonderfully-satisfying curve over the eyebrows, before the shadow kicks in beneath the face – this really helps draw attention to those gorgeous eyes.

Going back to my caveat – this is a great photo of a great moment, and that’s the most important thing – the only thing I would be looking to change in a professional shoot is removing some of the other items from the shot that are a little distracting: the grey and orange tag on the left-hand side, the cushion/pillow in the top-right corner, and the sock beneath kitty’s paw. I might also tidy up the litter tray and distribute some of the toys up the right hand side of the frame. BUT in doing this you are of course creating a false situation and relying on kitty to get back into the correct position for the re-shot, so it would depend on whether you are looking for an authentic or an ideal photo. Personally, I prefer authentic and I think this is a great photo as it is.

Key points: Frame is full of (mainly) relevant objects, strong eye contact, could be tidier for a “perfect” photo.

Picture 3 – by Staci

A cat wearing a red bow tie, on top of a hamper

A wonderfully colourful image! I love the contrast of the burgundy bow tie with the blue background. The hint of the Christmas tree behind our subject, and the wonderful warm colours suggest a cosy winter theme. I love the cat’s expression, and the relaxed paw positions. It was a great choice of shoot from below the subject as well – it’s a different angle to what we as humans usually see, and it really brings us into our subject’s world.

Capturing the perfect moment with animals is always tricky, particularly when the photographer probably had to stabilise their hand in an unnatural position to take this, but in an ideal world I’d love to see the top of the ear, perhaps with a little space separating that from the top of the frame. Something else you can do is crop the image to either a 1:1 ratio (square) or a tighter 3:4 ratio, and take out some of the hamper that is dominating the picture. I’ve posted examples below – both place more emphasis on the subject, but lose the sense of height on the hamper. Which do you prefer?

Key points: Lovely colours, warm and relaxed seasonal vibe, subtle crop can bring the attention more towards our subject.

Tighter 3:4 crop

Square crop

You can read part 2 here, and don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter to receive free photography tips and tricks, and to be entered into a draw to win a free photoshoot every month this year!