One of the great things about portrait photography is its variation.
Here’s what I mean…
I can take a portrait of my family in the backyard and then go to the beach for some candid shots of my son.
From there, I can create a portrait of a perfect stranger on the street, and then try my hand at creating some nice silhouetted portraits.
But despite the wide array of types of portraits, one thing remains the same (ok...several things): There are a number of fundamental rules of thumb, that, if followed, will get you better portraits each and every time.
From camera settings to composition, we’ve got 11 essential tips and tricks that will set you on a path to portrait photography success.
Let’s get to it!
Essential Camera Settings
Take Control of Aperture
Typically, large apertures (i.e. f/2.8, f/4) are used in portraits to get a nice, blurry background, as is the case in the image above. The larger the aperture, the shallower the depth of field, and the more separation there will be between the subject and background. In this image, you can see a large aperture was used to create a depth of field that keeps just the little boy in sharp focus.
One of the easiest ways to control aperture is to shoot in aperture priority mode (notated as A or AV on your camera dial). When in aperture priority mode, you select the desired aperture, and the camera selects a shutter speed that matches for a well-exposed image. Aperture priority also allows you to control the ISO, so if you find that the image is a bit too bright or dark, you can make changes to the ISO as appropriate.
Don’t Forget Shutter Speed
In portraiture, aperture is certainly the more important setting.
However, it’s a misnomer to think that portrait photographers can ignore shutter speed.
For starters, it’s an essential component of exposure (along with aperture and ISO). That means that if you need to step your aperture down to get a slightly larger depth of field, you can slow the shutter down accordingly to retain a well-exposed image.
Because a lot of portraiture is done handheld, you’ll have to take into account the minimum shutter speed you can use without introducing camera shake.
The question is, how does one do that?
In the video above, Practical Photography’s Ben Hawkins explains precisely what to do.
It’s simple: ensure that the shutter speed exceeds the focal length of the lens you’re using.
So, for example, say you’re shooting with an 85mm lens. To keep camera shake at bay, you’ll need to keep the shutter speed at around 1/100 seconds or higher.
Let’s try another example: If you’re shooting with a 50mm lens, keep your shutter speed at or above 1/60 seconds.
It’s that simple! So long as your shutter speed is commensurate with your focal length, you should be good to go for sharp portraits when handholding your camera.
Make ISO Adjustments When Needed
Not only is ISO going to help you get a well-exposed photo, but it will also allow you to manipulate your aperture and shutter speed in order to get better photos.
Here’s what I mean: say you’re taking a portrait of a couple that’s soon to be wed. You think you’ve nailed the engagement photo, but when you zoom in, you notice the young lady’s eyes are tack-sharp, but her fiance’s eyes are not.
Since she’s positioned closer to the camera, her eyes fall within the focal plane where his do not. This is a result of a depth of field that’s too shallow.
To increase depth of field, you need to use a smaller aperture. The only problem is that a smaller aperture means less light.
That’s when ISO comes to the rescue!
ISO changes the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to light. That means if you use a smaller aperture, you can dial in a higher ISO value to make up for the reduced light.
As a general rule, it’s a good idea when shooting portraits to use a higher ISO, say, 400, as opposed to 100 or 200. Doing so enables you to use smaller apertures if needed, and also allows you to use faster shutter speeds. Higher ISO values are needed for low-light shooting as well.
Remember, the faster your camera can capture the image, the less time the model has to worry about not blinking and maintaining their smile!
Try Exposure Compensation
Modern cameras have sophisticated metering systems that help you get the exposure as close to perfect as possible.
But those metering systems aren’t foolproof.
Neither are the photographers that operate them!
That said, there will be times when the camera’s meter reading just doesn’t cut it. Usually, the biggest errors occur when the portrait includes large areas of highlights or shadows.
The key to overcoming this problem?
As Tony and Chelsea Northrup explain in the video above, this handy feature allows you to add or subtract exposure levels from your shots. So, for example, if you’re taking a portrait of a person with fairly light skin, the camera’s meter might think that the scene is brighter than it is, which usually results in an underexposed image.
To rectify the situation, you can add a stop or two of positive exposure compensation. What this does is lighten the subject’s face to be more reflective of the actual lighting in the scene.
Fill the Frame
Many photographers, particularly beginners, hesitate to get too close to their portrait subject.
That’s a shame, because getting in close and filling the frame with your subject’s face can make a very powerful visual statement.
Not only can you put the fine details of the person’s eyes, skin, or hair on display, but it also helps the viewer establish a more personal connection with your subject.
Note in the sample image above how the close up of the elderly woman is highly emotionally evocative - the portrait is incredibly intimate, giving viewers a stronger emotional connection with the subject.
Additionally, if you’re shooting a portrait in an area with a distracting background, for example, you can eliminate that background by filling the frame. That means you can create gorgeous portraits, even if the surroundings aren’t all that beautiful.
Be Purposeful With Focus
Focus is important for any photo, but for a portrait, where you usually have a very strong subject, having the focus just right will make your photo rather than break it.
This is easier said than done, though.
When shooting toward the wider range of apertures (say, f/2.8 or f/1.4), the depth of field is so narrow that if your focal point is off just slightly, the focus of prominent features like the eyes could be off as well.
To avoid this, be purposeful about where you focus. For close-ups, focus on the eyes. For environmental shots from further away, focus on the model’s forehead. In group portraits, use a smaller aperture to give yourself additional depth of field, then focus on the person in the middle of the shot.
Make focusing easier by mastering the use of your camera’s individual AF points. The number and arrangement of the AF points varies from camera to camera, but, by and large, you can pick a single point from which your camera derives its focus.
In the video above, Mark from SnapFactory gives us greater insight into the AF points of digital cameras, and explores how choosing an individual AF point will result in getting the focal point just right for your portraits.
Have Them Look Away
When you think of a portrait, you probably conjure an image in your head of a subject looking right down the barrel of the lens.
And though that’s a worthy arrangement, you can add creativity to your photos by having your subject look someplace other than at the camera.
Note how this technique gives the image above a more informal, laid-back vibe. What’s more, the subject looks more comfortable and natural, as though the camera caught a candid moment.
You can use this looking away technique in combination with another portrait trick - giving the model space to look into.
Note how the man in the photo above is positioned toward the left side of the frame, looking to our right. With the extra space on the right side of the image, it seems as though the man has room to look at something beyond our view.
His positioning also adheres to the rule of thirds, which can help you compose images that have more visual interest and are better balanced as well.
Get Yourself a Flash or Reflector
Many portrait photographers pride themselves on only using natural light.
But natural lighting isn’t always available, nor is it always perfect.
In fact, there will be times when you need to utilize a flash to act as fill light for a natural light portrait.
Imagine this scenario: You’re at a beautiful spot in the late afternoon, and the sun is out and shining brightly.
But that bright sun is causing you difficulties because of the harsh shadowing that’s occurring on your model’s face.
By using a flash or a reflector as fill light, you can help minimize those harsh shadows to get a more pleasing portrait. With that added light, your camera will be able to generate a much more even exposure. Why? Because the camera will expose for the background, but with the added light from your flash, your subject’s face will be nicely (and evenly) lit as well.
In the video above, follow along as Karl Taylor explains how to get ideal fill light for a natural light portrait. He also offers up a few bonus tips for getting the best portraits possible.
Help Them With Their Hands
If you surveyed ten portrait photographers, the chances are that most of them would say that the subject not knowing what to do with their hands is a common problem for creating pleasing portraits.
Hands and arms hanging stiffly at one’s side is not a good look.
Yet that’s what many of us do when we’re in front of the camera. That, or we cross our arms awkwardly and tightly.
Instead, give your portrait subjects something to do with their hands!
Have them hold a prop or engage in an activity. Doing so helps the subject relax and it keeps those hands occupied.
Alternatively, depending on the subject, you might have them place their hands on or near their face, on their hips, or even outstretched above them.
The point is that the portrait isn’t just about the person’s eyes, smile, or face. If their hands, arms, and the rest of their body aren’t posed well, an otherwise beautiful portrait can fall flat.
So, give them something to do with their hands, and you’ll likely get a better portrait as a result!