Masterclass with Brett Harkness

February 7, 2011

The Amateur Photographer Masterclass with Brett Harkness

Photo by Chris Thornton

Brett Harkness shares his advice on how to capture brilliant lifestyle portraits using natural light. Gemma Padley reports

Chances are you wouldn?t dream of leaving your camera at home when you?re out and about with family. Indeed, carrying a camera to capture those fleeting moments has become part and parcel of everyday life. Certainly days out at the park or zoo can present all manner of photographic opportunities for capturing informal candid family shots.

Even just relaxing at home in the garden with the kids can lead to some great compositions if you know what to look for. The key is to train your eye to spot those moments as they happen. In this month?s Masterclass, Brett Harkness shows three AP readers how to make the most of fleeting moments and explains how to create natural-looking images using daylight and a reflector.

The focus of the day is to learn how to photograph family members with thought and care using a more structured approach rather than relying on grab shots. Brett invited two sisters and a father and his three-year-old daughter along for the shoot.

?Lifestyle portraiture is about anticipating moments and being ready,? says Brett. ?The aim is to create a ?feeling? in the image and to capture expressions as they happen. It?s about learning to tune your eye into a scene and reacting quickly to what?s happening.?

Working handheld, the participants brought their own cameras and lenses with them. On a typical lifestyle shoot, Brett uses his Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with either a 70-200mm or a 50mm lens. He sometimes takes a 50mm macro lens with him to capture details when photographing babies. ?A standard 50mm lens is great for environmental portraiture,? says Brett. ?A wideangle lens is less suitable because it causes too much distortion?.

Brett also uses a TriGrip reflector to reflect light onto his subjects when needed. He uses the silver side for darker skin tones and the gold side to warm up paler skin. ?When using a reflector you want to avoid reflecting the light directly on the subjects? faces,? he explains. ?Look at how the light is falling on your subject and think about where best to position the reflector to balance light and shadow. You don?t have to hold the reflector right up close to your subject or subjects. Try bouncing the light off nearby walls ? white walls are best, to avoid an unwanted colour cast. A reflector is also a great way to reduce a green colour cast if you?re shooting on grass.?

Brett was on hand throughout the day to advise on composition and shared his advice on how to keep the subjects relaxed. ?You have to adopt a psychologist?s mentality in lifestyle photography,? says Brett. ?You need to cotton onto people?s way of behaving within seconds, and find a way to make them relax?. With their cameras primed and ready, the participants braced themselves for a full day?s shooting, eager to learn as much as possible.

Your AP Master?

Brett Harkness

Brett graduated from Nottingham Trent University in 1996 where he studied photography. Shortly afterwards he became chief photographer on a Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship, overseeing a team of photographers. Brett used this opportunity to work on his travel photography and he developed a passion for photographing people.

In 2001 he and his partner Kristie and founded Brett Harkness Photography in Rochdale, Manchester. Together they run studio and location-based workshops throughout the year. From documentary wedding photography to lifestyle shoots and model portfolios Brett is an expert on all aspects of portrait photography.

The AP Readers

Chris Thornton

Chris, 30, lives in Castleford, West Yorkshire, and works part-time for Lloyds bank. His interests include lifestyle, wedding and sports photography. He uses a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and 70-200mm and 24-70mm lenses. ?What stood out today is how important it is to make the shoot fun,? says Chris. To see more images by Chris visit

Sarah James

Sarah, 39, is a nurse and lives in Liverpool. Currently expecting her fifth child, Sarah has been interested in photography since she started having children, but was also inspired by her dad who encouraged her to take pictures. She uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a 24-105mm lens. ?I found it interesting to see how light falls on the subject,? says Sarah. To see more images by Sarah visit

Andrew Frost

Andrew, 47, lives in Beverley, East Yorkshire, and is interested in fashion and portrait photography. He uses a Canon EOS 40D with 17-85mm and 70-200mm lenses. ?Today has opened my eyes to how spontaneous you can be when doing lifestyle photography,? he says. To see more of Andrew?s images visit

Would you like to take part?

Every month we invite three to five AP readers to join one of our experts on an assignment over the course of a day. If you would like to take part, visit for details of how to apply. Please remember to state which Masterclass you would like to attend and make sure you include your name, address, email address and daytime telephone number in your application. Each participant will be able to use his or her own camera, lenses and other equipment.

The benefits of outdoor light

Photo by Andrew Frost

The Benefits of Outdoor Light

One of the main benefits of using natural light in portrait photography is the element of freedom and spontaneity it affords. No elaborate setup or equipment is required. While using flash to fill in shadows on a bright day is a useful technique to practise, it is possible to get some equally strong images using available light.

?The trick is to find the best light and move your subject/s into the light,? says Brett. ?Always look where the light source is coming from. On really sunny days you won?t need to use a reflector as the reflected light will be too bright and create too much contrast. Try to keep your subjects out of the most contrasty light. A little sun is great for creating a glimmer in the image but overcast light is better. I?ll often position my subjects 3ft (1m) within a doorway as this gives fantastic light, but you have to remember to underexpose otherwise the subject?s face will be overexposed as the camera tries to compensate for the dark interior and bright face.?

Getting a correct exposure

Photo by Andrew Frost

Getting a correct exposure

Brett advised the readers to use centreweighted metering and to adjust their exposure using exposure compensation when necessary. ?If the ambient light allows a fast enough shutter speed, I?ll use program mode and manually adjust the exposure to under or overexpose if I need to,? says Brett. ?Remember to check your exposure as you?re shooting ? there?s no point snapping away with an incorrect exposure.

I also tend to use auto white balance. In lifestyle photography, quick reactions are essential ? you don?t want to keep changing the settings as this wastes time, so only change your settings when you need to. In this way you can concentrate on composing your shots rather than fiddling with camera settings and missing opportunities. Don?t make things more complicated than you need to. I suggest keeping the ISO setting as low as possible and bringing the subject closer to the light if you need a faster shutter speed. Try underexposing to let the shadows encroach a little on the subject?s face.?

Spotting good backgrounds

Photo by Andrew Frost

Spotting Good Backgrounds

?Anything can be used as a background,? says Brett. ?Old wooden fences, weathered brickwork or painted barn doors can work well. You could also try using flowers and foliage. Try picking out colour in your subject?s clothes that matches or complements a colour in the background. Your aim is to capture the environment as well as the subject, so look for small details as these can add atmosphere to your composition. Avoid backgrounds with lots of conflicting elements and think about how you can use background lines to enhance your subject.?

In Andrew?s image, he accentuates the girl?s green eyes and green necklace by subtly placing his subject against a green barn door. The diagonal line of the door cleverly mirrors the line of the girl as she leans against a fence, helping to create a cohesive composition.?

Composition ? some things to think about

Photo by Sarah James

Composition ? Some things to think about

?When I?m photographing, I?m constantly looking around and creating images in my mind,? says Brett. ?You don?t want to be in a position where you don?t know what to do next. If you are photographing a family, the aim is to capture the atmosphere of the family unit. While you don?t want to formalise the scene, look for a loose triangle shape to weave your composition around.?

Brett encourages the readers to think of interesting moments they could encourage and also suggests incorporating movement to ensure their images aren?t static. Some suggestions include kids being tossed in the air, jumping in puddles or running towards the camera. ?There are times when you?re looking to create a timeless, classic portrait, but you don?t have to always go for standard, formally arranged compositions,? he says. ?Mix up light-hearted, natural shots with more posed shots and try to think creatively. You could try photographing from behind as a child is lifted over dad?s shoulder. Don?t feel you have to opt for a conventional viewpoint. Quite often not having the subject looking at the camera creates stronger images so think about how you can direct your subject?s attention away from the camera.?

Brett advises using autofocus to make sure each shot is sharp, especially if the subject is moving. He uses manual focus when photographing babies where correct focusing is even more critical. ?When focusing, lock your focus on the subject?s eyes, then recompose by moving the camera down vertically, keeping it parallel to the subject,? he says. ?Never lock your focus and then step back as this will throw your focus out.?

?Don?t make things more complicated than you need to. I suggest keeping the ISO setting as low as possible and bringing the subject closer to the light if you need a faster shutter speed?

Getting creative with your framing

Getting creative with your framing

Photo by Brett Harkness

Where you place the subject in the frame also has a huge impact on your shot. You could try placing the subject at the edge of the frame looking into an empty space, or with space above the head (see Sarah?s image).

Photo by Brett Harkness

If you?re feeling really bold, you could crop your subject completely and focus on a different part of the subject ? their shoes for example.

Photo by Sarah James

?Try to take a variety of full-length and head-and-shoulders shots, and don?t always feel you have to crop in tight,? says Brett. ?Try tilting the camera slightly and see what impact this has on your composition or experiment with a low shooting angle. Allow the subject to influence how you frame the shot.

For example, if your subject is leaning at an angle, tilt your camera to mirror this. Lifestyle portraiture is about not having an agenda but allowing ideas to form as you go along.?

Photo by Gemma Padley

Portrait or landscape format: which one to use

Photo by Chris Thornton

Portrait or landscape format: which one to use

Deciding whether to shoot in portrait or landscape format depends entirely on the subject you are photographing. If, for example, your subject is standing upright, portrait format may be preferable; conversely, if you are focusing on the subject?s head and shoulders a landscape shot might be more powerful. It?s important to remember that there aren?t any hard-and-fast rules. More important is to be willing to experiment and be prepared to adjust your approach depending on the scene in front of you. You could also try using other elements, such as tree branches to frame your subject as Chris has done (above).

Photo by Chris Thornton

A large aperture throws the surrounding subjects out of focus and ensures the viewer?s eye stays fixed on the main subject. ?When I?m shooting kids I?ll generally be wide open at f/2.8, f/3.5 or f/4.5, depending on the effect I want,? says Brett. ?When photographing a family group it is important to ensure all the subjects are on the same focal plane. I?ll often need an aperture of at least f/8 or f/11 to ensure everyone is sharp.?

Encouraging interaction and keeping things relaxed

Photo by Sarah James

Encouraging interaction and keeping things relaxed

Interaction between the photographer and subject is crucial for natural-looking images. ?You may need to allow time for your subjects, especially young children, to get used to the camera,? says Brett. ?One of the biggest benefits of shooting outside is you have more space to play with ? this provides more compositional opportunities. Kids can run around and so on. You have to keep the shoot exciting and find a way to get onto the kids? level, both physically, by crouching down, and mentally, by getting into their world. It?s all about having fun ? finding a way to make normal scenarios look exciting and create a story from the event you?re photographing. Keep talking to your subject as you?re shooting as this encourages interaction.? To keep the shoot moving, Brett suggests doing something different every couple of shots.

With toddlers and younger children it?s best to allow them to be themselves and not force them to do anything they don?t want to do. With teenagers it?s slightly different ? you have to take more control and suggest poses. In both cases it?s about working with the subject ? having a commanding air, but not being overbearing. This is a fine balance to strike and can take some practice, but photographing your family or people you know and trust is a good way to build up confidence.

Using props

Photo by Chris Thornton

Using props

Utilising props can be beneficial, but you don?t have to go overboard with elaborate setups. Certain objects such as a chair can be useful to retain a child?s interest and also help to add variety to the composition. Look for natural props outside ? on this occasion the readers used a discarded barrel.

?If you?re using a prop such as a chair, let the kids decide how the composition will look,? says Brett. ?Keeping the same setting and allowing the children to interact naturally will lead to a variety of shots. Even a reflector can be a prop ? a gateway into another dimension or a magic carpet.?

Black & White

Photo by Chris Thornton

Black & white

You don?t always have to produce colour images. Shooting in black & white or converting your images to monochrome afterwards can increase the impact of a composition. But black & white shouldn?t be used as an excuse for a poorly exposed or composed shot, warns Brett. ?I always envisage how the final shot will look when I?m shooting,? he says. ?The situation will determine whether the shot should be black & white or colour, and it?s usually down to the quality of light.?

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