10 top tips for shooting portraits

If you’ve always wanted to shoot portraits like a professional then you’re in luck – there are just a few things that you need to do and your shots will instantly improve. 

Portraits are actually really easy to shoot. It’s a bold statement, but as long as you have a camera, a subject and a suitable location then you’re already 75% of the way there. 

The most difficult part of portraiture – that final 25% – is the finer points that are easy to miss, or you’re simply not aware of. We’re going to cut through the technical fluff to get you straight to what you need to know. 

So, if you’ve found your portraits have become stuck in a rut, or you’re simply looking to take your shots to the next level, you’re in the right place.

1. Plan your shoot

Image: Koldunova_Anna, Getty Images

When thinking about a portrait shoot it’s easy to simply head out with a model hoping for the best. And while this can work, there’s nothing better than having a list of location ideas that you know will work at different times of the day and in different weather conditions.

The easiest conditions to shoot in are overcast days; this because the cloud acts like a giant softbox, which gives you fairly even lighting throughout the day. On clearer days, shoot around sunrise or sunset when the sun is low in the sky, and position your model with the sun behind them. And whether you’re shooting on location or in the studio, practise the techniques you’ll be using with a friend so you can get everything perfect on the day.

2. Shoot wide with a prime lens

A prime lens is one that has a fixed focal length such as 50mm, 85mm or 135mm – all of which are classic portrait focal lengths. The advantage of a prime is that they most often have a larger maximum aperture than zoom lenses, which means you can create a shallow depth-of-field more easily to isolate your subject.

Read more: The 8 best portrait lenses for Nikon users

One problem you may face when shooting outdoors, and in the studio with flash, is that you can’t achieve a correct exposure with the aperture set to f/1.4 or f/1.8. The way to get around this is to use a neutral density (ND) filter. These filters reduce the amount of light entering the lens with no effect on colour, which means you can shoot with a wider aperture in bright conditions. Two-stop NDs and variable NDs are the best options for portrait photographers.

3. Aim for focus perfection

Focusing is a critical skill regardless of the subject you’re shooting, but if you’re using a wide aperture such as f/1.8, getting it right becomes much more difficult. With a wide aperture like this depth-of-field is incredibly shallow, so focus has to be absolutely perfect and on the right part of the subject.

When shooting wide open, focus on the subject’s eye that’s closest to the camera. This is to make sure that the part of the image that connects with the viewer – ie the eyes – are pin-sharp. Set the camera to single-point AF and select the focus point closest to the subject’s eye when composing the shot through the viewfinder. 

One of the potential issues here is that the eyelashes can be picked up by the AF point, and this is more of a problem when shooting tighter headshots. For waist-level and full-length crops, focusing in the eye area is still advised but less critical.

4. Think about backgrounds

You’ve probably heard this a million times, but the background should ideally be clear and free of distractions that could potentially draw attention away from the subject. 

Potential backgrounds can be elements within a scene such as walls or foliage, but you can also introduce them – whether that’s a pop-up backdrop, a sheet of wood, material, A1 card or something else.

Another way of simplifying a background is to shoot at a wide aperture. This will throw the background out of focus, but will maintain a sense of place. It’s still worth looking out for objects in the background that could be distracting even when out of focus – look out for bright colours, people and objects like lamp posts.

5. Use Auto ISO to ensure shake-free shots

When you’re in the thick of a shoot, directing the model and concentrating on things like focusing, it’s easy to forget to keep an eye on shutter speed. With Auto ISO the camera will automatically select the lowest ISO setting possible to achieve a shutter speed that's fast enough to avoid camera shake with the lens you’re using. Many cameras even allow you to manually set a faster minimum shutter speed than the camera would select automatically.

Read more: Cheat sheet – How to understand ISO settings

Auto ISO allows you to set the minimum desired sensitivity, which should be ISO 100 or ISO 200 depending on your camera, alongside the maximum you’d be happy to go up to. A safe option is to set the maximum to ISO 1600, which is much higher than the desired setting of ISO 100, but will ensure sharp images even if light levels change. And don’t forget, the camera will always select the lowest setting possible.