Everybody loves a portrait, right? The difficulty, of course, is learning how to take a good portrait, one that has good highlights and shadows, that’s got the desired depth of field and framing, and is clear and sharply in focus.
So how do you get portraits like that? It starts with an understanding of basic camera settings and lens features.
Use a Wide Aperture
Portraits benefit from a shallow depth of field - that is, when the subject of the portrait is in sharp focus while the background is nicely blurred. Having that blurry background provides a nice backdrop on which your subject becomes the star of the photo. There’s nothing to compete for the viewer’s attention, just a beautiful, blurry background.
So how do you get that shallow depth of field and a blurry background? You use a wide aperture.
Remember that aperture is measured in f-stops, and that f-stops are inversely related to the size of the aperture. So, f/5.6 is a large aperture and f/16 is a small aperture. To get the shallow depth of field you need for portraits, you need a large aperture, so dial in a small f-stop, like f/5.6 or f/2.8.
Avoid Camera Shake
When taking portraits, it’s important that you maintain a sufficiently fast shutter speed to avoid camera shake. This occurs when you hand hold the camera, but the shutter speed is too slow, resulting in a blurry image.
To maximize sharpness when hand holding your camera, you’ll want a shutter speed that exceeds the effective focal length of your lens. For example, if you’re shooting with an 18mm wide-angle lens, the lowest advisable shutter speed would be 1/20 seconds. If you’re using a 200mm lens, use a shutter speed of at least 1/250 seconds.
Of course, you can also use a tripod and camera remote to ensure you’ve got sharp images. But tripods aren’t always beneficial for portraiture, such as in situations in which you need to be able to move around freely. When a tripod won’t work, use the focal length-shutter speed rule, and your images will be much sharper.
Use Exposure Compensation
If you find that your portraits look a little gray and dull, you might need to adjust the exposure. Often, when photographing people with fair skin or people wearing white clothing, your camera will be tricked into thinking the scene is brighter than it is, and darken it accordingly.
To return the image to an appropriate exposure level, use your camera’s exposure compensation feature. Exposure compensation is activated by pressing the +/- buttons on your camera. In this case, since the image is too dark, you’ll want to press the plus sign to make it brighter. Each press of the button increases the exposure by one stop, so press the button once, inspect the image for appropriate brightness, and if need be, add more stops until the image is nice and bright without being overexposed.
Choose the Ideal Lens
The type of lens you use to capture portraits will depend on what look you’re going for. If you want an environmental portrait, in which you photograph the model as well as their surroundings, a wide-angle lens will be needed. Wide-angle lenses have a shallower depth of field and will give you better blurry backgrounds than longer focal lengths, but they can also distort how your subject looks, if you aren’t careful. For example, photographing a person close-up with a wide-angle lens will make their nose look larger than it is.
Medium focal length lenses, like a 50mm, can produce nice portraits as well. Without the larger view of the wide-angle, portraits taken with a 50mm lens produce results that are less distorted. In fact, if you put some distance between you and your subject and shoot at an upward angle, the 50mm can actually make the person look taller and slimmer! It’s just a matter of finding the right angle.
If you want to create an image that’s framed tightly on your subject, try a focal length of 85mm or longer. These longer lenses give you the ability to take nice headshots with a narrow field of view. Another advantage of, say, an 85mm lens is that there is no distortion - if you look through your lens with one eye and keep your other eye open, you will see the exact same thing. This is helpful for beginners because you don’t have to take distortion into account. Longer focal lengths don’t have the nice, shallow depth of field of wide-angle lenses, but that usually doesn’t matter if you’re framing the shot tightly on the person’s face anyway.
There is a lot more to learn about taking great portraits, but the tips here will get you on the right track. Equipping yourself with the right lens, learning how to use aperture and shutter speed to get the best shot, and working with exposure compensation will help you get clear, sharp images that are properly exposed. Now it’s time to practice!