- Don't be afraid to increase the ISO setting.
No one wants to look grainy in a portrait. If you understand the effects of the ISO setting on noise in your photos, you've probably avoided cranking it up to avoid those effects. Unfortunately, this can often lead to shots blurred by camera shake, missed smiles and that shot of Cousin Jeff with his eyes half closed and mouth half open.
Fortunately, if you're using a fairly up-to-date digital camera, chances are good that the sensor is much less prone to creating noise at higher ISO settings than you may think. You also have access to a whole world of modern software that can remove digital noise surprisingly well. Don't hesitate to start with an ISO setting of 400 or so and in low light situations, you might even want to increase it to 1600 or 3200. Dealing with a little grain is much better than missing or messing up the shot.
- Let the camera do some of the work.
While I always encourage novice photographers to learn to control their exposure settings manually, it's important to keep your shooting situation in mind. It's one thing to be in a studio with a flash meter, lighting you can control and the time to preset exposure settings. It's another to be shooting outdoor portraits where lighting conditions can change in an instant and wind, people and other distractions can interfere.
There's nothing wrong with using a shooting mode that lets the camera's built-in metering system handle the exposure. Guess what - the pros do it, too! My preference is aperture priority (A or Av) mode, because it gives me control over the depth of field in each shot.
- Never let the camera do ALL of the work.
When you're shooting in an autoexposure mode, it's easy to put too much faith in the camera. There are going to be many situations that will fool your camera's metering system, such as backlight, clouds or sky in the frame, and low- and high-contrast lighting. The most common problem with these situations is underexposure of the subject and you've probably seen it as dark faces in your shots at one time or another.
There are two great devices in your camera to circumvent these problems. One is exposure lock and the other is exposure compensation. The tricky part to using them is that YOU have to recognize the situation and set them correctly. Learn when and how to use these two features and, most importantly, don't get so wrapped up in posing and framing that you forget about the lighting conditions.
Bonus tip: While we're on this subject, let's touch on autofocus. There's nothing wrong with using autofocus if you know how it works and where you're focusing at all times. Like autoexposure, autofocus systems can be fooled, in low-contrast situations, for instance. In fact, they can be utterly useless in low light. Get to know the autofocus system of your camera and lenses, and be aware of when it's time to take over and switch to manual focus.
- Wider apertures are usually the best choice.
While you might not want to shoot wide open in a portrait, it's usually best to stay at the lower end of the scale on your aperture's f-stop setting. This gives you the advantage of higher shutter speeds, which are almost always the best choice for portrait shots. It also creates shallower depth of field, which can help you emphasize your main subject by blurring backgrounds and other objects in the frame that might be distracting.
If your lens opens up wide enough, it can give you great bohek effects that can really make a portrait look special. Keep in mind that you'll want to be sure you're not blurring important facial features, too.
- Longer is better - or not.
I'm talking about focal length. There are a few very good reasons to use a lens with a little longer reach when shooting portraits:
First, while you want your subject to fill the frame, there's no better way to make your subject self-conscious than to literally get in her or his face. A longer lens will let you back off a little and still keep the framing tight. It might even keep you from getting hit - accidentally or otherwise.
Second, A longer lens will emphasize the effects of shallow depth of field.
Third, longer focal lengths tend to "compress" as they magnify, making the distance between things seem shorter. This compression can be very flattering to the features of a model.
There are also some very good reasons to stay away from higher focal lengths:
First and foremost, camera motion is magnified as well as the view through the lens. That means that 600mm may not be the best choice for portraits if you want them to be sharp.
Second, a slightly wider field of view can add an interesting quality to a portrait, if you can move in close comfortably. (You'll need to be careful not to distort the features of your model.)
Third, that compression at longer focal lengths can also make background objects appear larger, so they can become more dominant, which is generally not what you want in a portrait.
There's a lot of argument over the "best" focal length for portraits, but many pros shoot with something in the 70mm to 200mm range for most situations. Experience will give you an idea of what works best for you, but the items above should help you narrow down your personal choices.
While portrait photography isn't for everyone, it can be one of the most fun - and lucrative - ways to use your camera. For many newcomers, it can also be one of the most frustrating. Before you agree to "do the honors" for your family or friends, check out this list of ways to improve your chances of results that you and your subject will enjoy. You might even find yourself on the path to a rewarding new career.
That's it for this segment. If I haven't answered all of your questions about the basics of portrait photography, never fear; I've got five more tips coming up in the next article. Meanwhile, get out there and practice with your favorite model with these tips in mind.