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Vol. 35, No. 2

Professional Photography Tips

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Do you find that you’re often the one assigned to take photos at bar events, even though you don’t have any particular training in photography? If so, do your subjects often end up looking older or heavier than they really are—or just plain ghoulish?

Professional freelance photographer Fred J. Field was in Portland, Maine, in October at the National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop to offer advice for ad hoc bar photographers who would like to achieve better results. Field’s work has been seen in such publications as Time, People, Sports Illustrated, and dozens of newspapers, and can be viewed at

Field strongly recommended that those using simple point-and-shoot digital cameras upgrade to digital SLR (single-lens reflex) models. These are more expensive, he conceded, but they allow the photographer much more control over one of the key elements of photography: light.

“Light is the essence of photography,” Field said; if you know how to light your subjects properly, you can overcome the fact that they are 3D and your photograph is not. Most of Field’s tips pertained to how to work with light and, reflecting his strong preference, many depended on the photographer having access to at least the most entry-level digital SLR.

Your portable photo studio

As a bar professional, chances are, you don’t often have ideal photo conditions to work with, Field said. The lighting in meeting rooms or at social events is often either too harsh or too dark, and you’re trying to snap your subjects in a hurry so they can get on with the event. Even in these imperfect conditions, Field noted, your subjects generally hope and expect that you will help them look younger and thinner than they actually are.

So, what can you do? First, Field recommended, if you have a digital SLR, consider buying a special cord (the one he uses costs around $85, he said) that makes it so your flash can be detached from your camera while still allowing the two to “talk” to each other. There’s a computer in the camera and in the flash, and the two can work together to adjust to the lighting conditions.

This setup will help you avoid the dreaded “Johnny’s birthday party flash,” in which the flash is attached to the camera, leading to red eye, washed-out subjects, and hard shadows. Direct flash is “harsh, hard, ugly, and gross,” Field believes, and a digital SLR with a cord for the flash will let you do a few easy tricks to diffuse the light in a more flattering way.

Your best option, he said, is to move your subject toward a wall (especially one that isn’t overly busy with electrical outlets, ornate wallpaper, light fixtures, etc.). You then stand a few feet away, holding the flash off to the side and slightly up (Field uses a 45-degree angle). The light bounces off the wall, creating a professional’s “soft box” for free.

If you can’t get to a wall, your second best choice, Field believes, is to take a few papers and wrap them around the back of the flash, securing them with a rubber band. You would still have the flash off the camera and connected with the cord in this instance.

If you’re in a situation where you can’t use either of these diffusing tricks, Field said, you’d still be much better off detaching the flash from the camera; using the flash straight-on and mounted on the camera should be your absolute last resort.

Another idea, Field said, is to direct your subject to stand near a window (ideally, perpendicular to the window, rather than with the subject’s back to it), as long as the sunlight isn’t blazingly direct. “If there is a God, God produces window light,” he joked, noting that the kind of diffuse light often present in a window is another “giant soft box” that can reduce dark under-eye circles. This is also a good choice if your flash dies and you don’t have spare batteries, Field noted; window light is often sufficient even without the flash.

More quick tips

Field shared a few more recommendations, some of which can be useful regardless of whether you have a digital SLR or point-and-shoot camera:

Take some time to learn how to focus your camera manually, rather than using the automatic settings. Field likened auto focus to training wheels on a bike: It might seem much easier and simpler at first, but ultimately, it will get in the way of your really learning how to use your camera to its fullest.

As you’re setting up and actually taking your photograph, look through the lens rather than at the preview window on the back of your digital camera. The lens is much more precise and will allow you to see almost exactly what your camera sees.

Whether point-and-shoot or SLR, your digital camera should have at least five megapixels. Models that meet that standard have come down in price over the past few years.

If a photo “disappears,” it might not really be gone. Software called Image Rescue can be used to recover lost or deleted files from any type or brand of memory card. (For more information, visit products/lexar-image-rescue-4-software?category=2459.)

If at all possible, avoid shooting in the rain, as this can damage your lens. If you find that you do often have to take photos outside in inclement weather, invest in a jacket for your lens.

Likewise, bright outdoor sun, especially near noon, can be a problem. Position your subjects so the sun is behind them. This way, they won’t squint, and there will be a “nice rim of light” around them, rather than hard shadows. For better results, Field again recommended moving the flash to the side rather than keeping it directly mounted on the camera.

If you’re in a dark indoor area, such as a bar, your best bet might be to see if you can take your subject to a different, brighter room, preferably one where you can bounce the flash off the wall.

Wondering what kind of lens, or lenses, you’ll need? A lens in the range of 85 to 135 millimeters is great for portraits, Field said. You might also consider a telephoto lens; in particular, a short telephoto lens has a “foreshortening” effect, which Field said makes noses look better.

A lens hood—different from a lens jacket—is another accessory to consider (and one that sometimes automatically comes with newer SLR cameras). While lighting from the side with your flash is a great way to diffuse the light, too much extraneous light from the side can cause glare. A lens hood helps block the light you don’t want while still letting in the diffuse light you do want.

Act like a pro

No matter how proficient you are with your camera and any accessories, Field said, you also need to know how to work with people. In part, this involves knowing how to pose them so they’ll look their best.

Find an uncluttered background and have your subject (or subjects) remove any name tags they might be wearing. Ask them to stand with their hands gently behind their backs. Tell them to tip their heads just a little—this is called “triangular portraiture” and is flattering for faces. If you’re using window light, it can be extra flattering if you can position them so there’s a bit of light on the cheek that’s farther from the window (this is called “Rembrandt lighting”).

If your subjects don’t feel comfortable with their hands behind their backs, another option is to have them cross their arms in front of them, Field said. A lot of people think this position is to be avoided because it makes the subject look “formidable,” but Field said this can be overcome with a friendly smile. Having subjects cross their arms is preferable to having them put their hands at their sides, Field believes, as this can result in a posture that is unflattering to the body.

Also important, Field said, is knowing how to talk to your subject. Even professionals are anxious when they first start approaching people to photograph them—Field himself was—but this nervousness can make your subjects nervous, too. Many people don’t like to have their picture taken, but rather than playing into that by apologizing that this needs to be done, or admitting that you’re unsure of your ability, be upbeat and assure them that you’re delighted to take their photo and you know the result will be great.

Your confidence will help you gain your subject’s trust, Field said, and there’s nothing more flattering than a nice, calm smile.