8 portrait photography tips every photographer should know
Are you struggling to take professional-looking portrait photos? In this tutorial, you will discover eight very effective techniques that will take your portrait photography to the next level. You will learn how to set up the scene to get the most impact and the best camera settings to use. At the end of this article, you will be able to take stunning portrait photos with a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
1. Choose the perfect background for your theme
In portrait photography, the background is as important as the subject. A busy or distracting background will distract the people in your photos.
Generally, for portrait photography, you need a neutral, clean background that does not distract the viewer from the subject of the portrait.
However, you do not have to choose a completely solid color background. For example, interesting walls or fences can provide wonderful colors or textures.
Another technique is to include an object in the background to provide more interest or context. For example, the artist in front of the easel, the fisherman in front of the boat, or the musician in front of the guitar.
2. Prepare your portrait subject for shooting
If your subject is unprepared, uncomfortable, unrelaxed, and feels best, even the best and most expensive camera equipment will produce poor results.
Being photographed is a very unnatural experience, so it is a kind of pressure on the subject, so as a photographer, your job is to make the experience simple, fun and stress-free.
Break the deadlock through small talk. Even if you know the person well, they may still be worried.
Explain what kind of lens you want-or ask them what kind of lens they want. Be open to suggestions on your subject.
For portrait photography of children, please lower to their level and talk to them gently. Tell them you will have a great time. And encourage them to play and forget the camera.
If possible, make your subject wear neutral colors—dark colors are best—as this helps to make the subject’s face stand out.
Check if your subject has any distractions, such as fluff on clothes, uneven buttons and zippers, collars, lapels, draped clothes, shirts half tucked in, etc.
One of the best preparations you can do is to prepare yourself. Set up your camera and any other equipment, and take a few trial shots before expecting your subject to concentrate.
3. Put your portrait subject like a professional
Now that your subject is ready, comfortable and relaxed, you need to keep them in place throughout the shooting. Work quickly but confidently and calmly, giving them clear instructions when shooting.
They are unlikely to know how to pose for you, so you need to constantly guide them.
Don’t overwhelm them with complicated requests. Just ask them to make small, simple adjustments, such as “raise your chin a little bit”, “straighten your back” or “look at me now”.
Let’s explore some different posture techniques you can try. Let your subject sit down. This keeps them still and they feel more relaxed and comfortable.
Move the subject slightly closer to the camera for a more attractive pose (or shoot slightly from above for the same effect).
Keep their body and shoulders slightly away from the camera to get a natural feel. Or, to get a more confrontational image, place their shoulders flat on the camera, as shown below.
For something slightly different, shoot from an unusual angle, such as very low or very high.
If the subject moves his or her waist away from the camera, the waist will look slimmer.
Introducing props is a great way to add something special to the shoot. These may include hats, party glasses, balloons, pens, flowers or musical instruments.
If nothing happens, it will help break the deadlock and ease emotions-even if you end up not using props in all shots.
4. Make sure your subject is well lit
Generally speaking, natural light is the most attractive light source for portrait photography—especially if you don’t have dedicated studio lighting.
A slightly cloudy day will provide lovely soft light to make your subject more charming. Direct sunlight is generally undesirable because it will produce strong and hard shadows on the subject’s face. In this case, it is best to find some light colors to locate your subject.
Or, take the opportunity and shoot (carefully) at the sun, with the subject facing away from the sun. This is called backlighting and can produce golden light around the subject.
Remember, shooting the sun does require you to provide some “fill light” light to illuminate the shadows on the subject’s face.
The fill light can be reflected sunlight, using a reflector or even a simple white card to reflect it back to the subject’s face. Alternatively, you can use the camera’s built-in flash or an external flash as shown above.
You can also use natural light indoors. For best results, place the subject near the window with the subject slightly facing the light.
You will not be illuminated by the light from the window in the part of the subject. This can add depth and drama to the image.
If the shadows are too dark, try using a reflector to reflect some window light back into these shadow areas.
5. Use a likable focal length
Focal length has a major impact on your image because it introduces a predictable amount of image distortion, which may affect your portrait photography.
Find out the focal length provided by your lens by checking the lens barrel. The focal length is displayed in millimeters, such as 18mm, 55mm, etc. If you use a fixed lens or a fixed focus lens, there is only one focal length.
To select the focal length of the zoom lens, rotate the zoom ring on the lens barrel. If your camera does not have a zoom ring, please use the zoom +/- buttons on the camera body.
How do you know which focal length to use? There is no right or wrong here, but the following information will help you decide which method is best for you.
The 50mm focal length will provide you with the most accurate subject performance because it will not cause facial distortion. The photo above was taken with a 50mm prime lens.
If you shoot with a focal length below 50 mm, you will start to see some undesirable distortions in facial features. For example, the size of the subject’s forehead, nose, and nearest cheek will be exaggerated, while the size of other features such as ears, chin, and hair appear to shrink, as shown below.
Although this produces interesting results, it is usually not ideal. In addition, you need to be close to the subject to fill the frame. This may be too close for you and your subject!
A focal length of more than 50 mm can make the facial features of your portrait subject begin to appear flat. In moderation, this is very flattering-but in extreme cases, it can make a person’s face look wide or fat. 80 mm is a popular focal length for portraits, although some photographers prefer a focal length of 100 mm or longer.
In addition, the longer the focal length, the further away you must be from the subject in order to fit them into the frame.
This is useful when shooting frankly for more natural and relaxing results or if you feel that your subject will benefit from having some space. However, if you don’t have enough space away from the subject, this may become a problem-for example when shooting indoors.
6. Use aperture priority mode to blur the background
A reliable way to improve the level of portrait photography is to shoot with a shallow depth of field. This allows you to bring your subject into focus when the background is blurred or out of focus, making your portrait subject stand out.
You can control the camera’s depth of field by adjusting the lens aperture. The aperture is the opening inside the lens that allows light to pass through the camera’s sensor from the front of the lens. Your lens will have a minimum and maximum aperture range.
Aperture is measured in units of f/stops. The larger the lens aperture, the smaller the f/number. The larger the aperture (the smaller the f/number), the more blurred the background.
Generally speaking, you need to select the maximum aperture (minimum number of apertures) provided by the lens. F/4 is the preferred aperture for portrait photography because it should provide enough depth of field to keep all subjects in focus.
To change the camera’s aperture, make sure to set the shooting mode to aperture priority or AV mode.
Then use the thumbwheel, dial, buttons or menu settings to increase or decrease the aperture value. On my Canon 5D mk ii, use the main dial behind the shutter button to change the aperture value.
You can try to use smaller and smaller aperture sizes, but the golden rule is to make sure that your subject’s eyes are at least in focus, preferably the tip of the nose is also in focus.
If the background does not look blurry enough, try moving the subject further away from the background. The further away the background is from the subject, the more blurred it will appear.
7. Expose the subject’s face
Exposure refers to the brightness or darkness of an image. In portrait photography, the most important part of the scene is the subject’s face. Therefore, make sure that the face is properly exposed-not too dark (underexposed) and not too bright (overexposed).
For portrait photography, a background that is too dark or too bright is better than a face with insufficient or too bright light.
According to your shooting mode, you can easily adjust the camera’s exposure compensation (EV) setting. This allows you to increase or decrease the exposure to suit.
On my Canon 5D mk ii, I press and hold the ISO/Flash +/- button with my right thumb, and then use the main dial with my index finger to adjust the exposure compensation value.
Or, set the camera’s metering mode to spot metering or center-weighted metering. This tells the camera to ignore areas that are too bright or too dark around the edges of the scene, which may induce underexposure or overexposure of the lens.
8. Focus on the eyes
Portrait photos look best if the eyes are in focus. This improves the sense of eye contact between the subject and the viewer, creating powerful and compelling photos.
Therefore, when shooting portraits, especially shallow depth of field, be sure to set the focus point carefully.
Your camera will most likely have multiple AF/AF points visible in the viewfinder. Use the AF option in the camera to select the center AF point, and then place the center focus point directly on one eye of the subject.
Now press the camera’s shutter button halfway to lock the focus. If necessary, move the camera to recompose the picture to get the best composition, and then press the shutter button to shoot.
If you recompose the picture, make sure not to change the distance between the camera and the subject, otherwise the eyes will no longer be clear.
Many cameras provide the ability to zoom in on the scene in the viewfinder, which is very useful for checking the focus before shooting.
To really “light up” the subject’s eyes, try the following techniques that all the best professional portrait photographers use. Just make sure that your light source is reflected in the subject’s eyes, as shown in the image below.
These reflections are called “capture light,” and they are very effective in turning a boring portrait into something truly special. For maximum effect, only one capture light per eye, and the goal is to bring them closer to the top of the eye.