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.
01 When to use Exposure Compensation
A common photography problem when shooting portraits light skin tones is under-exposed portraits. 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.
To brighten up subjects when using Aperture Priority mode, you can try using Exposure Compensation.
Try dialling in up to +1 stop of positive Exposure Compensation to lighten up people’s faces. For more on when to use this feature, see our free cheat sheet on using exposure compensation.
02 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 SLR 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.
03 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 1/20 sec with an 18mm focal length.
For more on this portrait photography tip, see our guide to common mistakes at every shutter speed – and the best settings to use.
04 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 ISO800, 1600 or even 3200. A little grain is infinitely better than a blurry, useless photo.
A telephoto (over 70mm) lens captures a narrower angle of view, and less of your subject’s surroundings will appear in frame. Focal length also affects depth of field (DoF).
A wide-angle lens will capture more depth of field compared to a telephoto lens. This is why telephoto lenses are favoured over wide-angle lenses for portraits, as they further knock backgrounds out of focus to make people more prominent in the scene.
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