Covering the basics
Portrait photography tips can run the gamut from simple tweaks to your camera settings to the seemingly impossible task of getting children to stay still.
Although many photographers upgrade to a decent DSLR to give them more control when they take family portraits or pictures of friends, getting great shots of people is always a challenge.
The difference between amateur and professional portraits can be vast. So we’ve compiled this list of 14 of the most important portrait photography tips for any photographer to know.
We’ll start off with the basics on aperture, shutter speed and lens choice, then move on to focusing and photo composition techniques, before showing you how to use natural light and reflectors to dramatically improve your results.
We’ll then discuss some of the more advanced portrait photography tips, such as the benefits of using flashguns and other accessories when shooting portraits.
Whether you’re taking portraits of your friends or you’ve been commissioned to photograph a family, and whether you’re shooting in a pristine studio or outside in your local park, the helpful advice below will help you become a better portrait photographer.
1. When to use Exposure Compensation
Your camera’s metering system plays a vital role in picture-taking. It works out how much light should enter the camera to make a correct exposure. It’s very clever, but it’s not completely foolproof. The problem with metering is that it takes an average reading – either of the entire frame or part of it, depending on which metering mode you’re in – and this reading is assumed to be a midtone, or in other words, halfway between white and black.
More often than not this assumption comes out right, but a metering system can struggle when a frame is dominated by areas of extreme brightness or darkness.
When shooting portraits, light skin tones can easily trick the camera into underexposing the shot. You’ll notice this more when shooting full-face photos or when there’s lots of white in the scene – brides at weddings are a prime example.
This can be quickly corrected though with your camera’s Exposure Compensation controls. To begin with, try dialling in up to +1 stop of positive Exposure Compensation to lighten up people’s faces. Review your shots, and if you feel you they need to be lightened further, increase this further.
2. Aperture advice
When shooting portraits, it’s best to set a wide aperture (around f/2.8-f/5.6) to capture a shallow depth of field, so the background behind your subject is nicely blurred, making them stand out better.
Shoot in Aperture Priority mode to control depth of field; in this mode your DSLR will helpfully set the shutter speed for a correct exposure.
Specialist portrait lenses tend to have even wider maximum apertures (from f/1.4 to f/2.8) in order to blur backgrounds further.
3. Shutter speed settings
When setting shutter speed, factor in your lens’s focal length otherwise camera-shake (and blurred results) will become an issue.
As a general rule, make sure your shutter speed is higher than your effective focal length. For example, at 200mm use a 1/250 sec shutter speed or faster.
This also means you can get away with slower shutter speeds when using a wide-angle lens – such as 1/20sec with an 18mm focal length.
While it won’t help if your subject is moving around quickly, don’t forget to use your camera’s anti-shake system. While some camera systems have this built-in around the sensor, of camera systems prefer to have the system in the lens – the benefit being that you can see the effect in the viewfinder.
Not every lens will feature this technology though, but if you have it – use it. You’ll be able to shoot handheld at much lower shutter speeds than you would otherwise normally be able to do and still come away with pin-sharp shots.
4. Increase your ISO
People move around a lot as they’re photographed, not to mention blink and constantly change their facial expressions – and there’s nothing worse than a photo of somebody half-blinking or gurning instead of smiling!
To avoid these problems, and to prevent motion blur appearing, you’ll need to use a fast shutter speed.
This will also help to ensure sharp shots and avoid camera-shake because more often than not you’ll be shooting portraits handheld.
While in Aperture Priority mode and maintaining a wide aperture, to increase your shutter speed simply increase your ISO (from ISO100 to ISO400, say).
In low light (indoors and outside), you may need to increase it to ISO1,600, 3,200 or even 6,400. A little grain is infinitely better than a blurry, useless photo.
5. Lens choice
Your choice of lens has a big impact on your portrait photos. For portraits with visual impact a wide-angle lens is a must. Shooting from a low angle will make your subject taller than they actually are. This is a great technique for fooling the eye and changing the perspective of objects and people. However, be careful not to go too close, as you might see some distortion, which isn’t flattering at all! To add even more drama to a wide-angle shot, simply try tilting the camera to an angle.
When using a medium telephoto such as 85mm or 105mm, the model is still the main subject in the scene, but the background plays an important part in the image – the steps in the shot above appear out of focus and act as another point of interest. Always pay attention to what’s going on in the background.
A telephoto lens like a 70-200mm f/2.8 is one of the best tools for creating stunning portraits. Enabling you to zoom in closer to focus more on your subject, you can then reduce the amount of background and foreground distractions on display.
Focusing and framing
6. Creative compositions
Don’t be lazy with your compositions. Too often photographers stand back, thinking it’s best to include all, or at least the top half, of their subject.
Zoom in instead to fill the frame for a more inspired photo composition. Positioning your subject to one side of the frame, with ‘space to look into’, is a great technique to master, as is experimenting with wide apertures to capture a very shallow depth of field.
7. Build a rapport
If your model doesn’t feel comfortable, then the final shots aren’t going to work. Take time to chat with your subject before the shoot – have a cup of tea or coffee and talk over your ideas.
When the shoot begins, offer them direction – don’t just shoot away silently. Tell them what you want and how you want them to pose. Remember as well to show them shots of the back of the screen as this can build confidence.
8. Use a reflector
A quick and affordable way to brighten up your portraits and to give them a professional look is to use a reflector. Use them indoors (near windows) or outdoors to bounce light back onto your subjects to fill in unwanted shadows.
Many reflectors come double-sided or with detachable covers, so you get a choice of white, silver and gold reflective surfaces. The white surfaces of reflectors can also double up as diffusers to soften strong direct sunshine.
9. Focusing your camera
If you’re really strapped for cash, you can make a reflector by simply using a large sheet of white cardboard – which you can also cover with tin foil for a silver effect – and it should still work a treat!
When using wide apertures (especially f/2.8 or faster), your depth of field decreases dramatically, so it’s crucial your focusing is bang on, otherwise you could end up with out-of-focus facial features; the person’s nose may be sharp but the eyes soft.
With tightly composed photos, focus on the eyes; with wider compositions, focus on the head. To help with pinpoint focusing, manually select a single autofocus (AF) point.
A good technique is to set the central AF point, half-press the shutter button to focus on the eyes/head, then recompose to position your subject off to one side before fully pressing the button – this is often a much faster way of shooting than fiddling with AF points.
Alternatively, set AF points in the top corners and place them over your subject’s eyes to take your shot. Either option will help you position your subject off-centre for a more balanced composition.
10. Posing for portraits
How your subject stands, poses and looks will have a dramatic effect on your results. A slight change in facial expression – such as whether they smile or not – can radically change the entire feeling of the photograph.
When shooting, try and capture a range of expressions so you can pick which you prefer when editing them back home on the computer.
Also consider setting up portrait shots where your subject looks off-camera, up or down, or to one side. Play around and see what works.
- How to pose a portrait: 54 creative ideas
- The 10 rules of photo composition
- The 10 best camera focus techniques
11. Using fill flash on sunny days
Although it may seem odd to use flash when the sun’s out, that’s precisely the time when you should use it!
The sun can cause all sorts of problems for portrait photographers: harsh shadows across faces, unbalanced exposures and burnt-out highlights.
Use a bit of ‘fill flash’ and you’ll instantly improve your portraits; your camera will capture a much more balanced exposure, because your flash will light up your subject while the camera exposes for the background.
12. Get a dedicated flashgun
A dedicated flashgun (or often referred to as a speedlight or speedlite) is much more powerful than the built-in one that’s on your camera, which means a brighter burst of light, enabling you to set smaller apertures to capture more depth of field, or to light up a group of people.
You also have more control over its settings, and you can angle it up or sideways to bounce the light off ceilings and walls.
13. Fire your flashgun remotely
A flashgun is detachable and can be fired via a cable, wirelessly using a remote control attached to your hotshoe or many camera systems let you trigger a compatible flashgun via your camera’s built-in flash.
Taking your flash off you camera can transform your results, allowing you to sculpt the light for much more professional results.
You can also use two flashes in unison for more complex lighting set-ups. Using a remote trigger will enable you to fire one flash, to act at the ‘master’, which in turn will fire the second ‘slave’ flash unit at the same time.
14. Get artistic with flash lighting
Equipped with a flashgun, remote triggers and a good-sized diffuser, you open up the possibility of a vast array of clever and cool lighting set-ups.
Light your subjects from the side to add drama to your portraits, and get creative by under-exposing the sky or background, dialling in -2 stops of Exposure Compensation to capture a moody backdrop behind your subjects.
Source: techradar – Gadgets
Updated: 14 portrait photography tips you’ll never want to forget