Portrait photography is a tricky but rewarding skill to master. There are many different aspects to a good portrait; you need to capture the uniqueness of your subject, their spirit and personality. Having the right equipment is a good place to start. You’ll want a camera that can deliver excellent results, as well as a lens that’s up to the task. Many photographers prefer a wider-angle 35mm or 50mm, whilst others will choose either an 85mm or zoom lens. Equipment aside, there are a few really great tips that can help you on your way. We’ve outlined 15 of our most useful tips to take stunning portrait photographs, below.
Camera Settings for Portrait Photographs
Let’s start with the camera settings that you’ll need to use. There’s a lot of theory behind how to take a good portrait, but with these simple tips you can instantly start seeing results.
Tip 1: On Aperture
There’s no one hard and fast rule when it comes to aperture. One particular setting isn’t better than another, but there are certain ranges that apply to certain situations. Your first step is to purchase a lens capable of reaching wider apertures, something with f/1.8 as a minimum starting point. From there:
- For a portrait of an individual, shoot at between f/2 and f/4. This will give you a really great background bokeh. You can definitely shoot wider than this, at f/1.4 or f/1.8 for example, but you then run the risk of areas being out of focus on your subject due to the narrow depth of field.
- For shooting multiple people in a portrait, use a smaller aperture such as f/5.6 or f/8 to ensure that everyone in the frame is in sharp focus. Try and keep everyone on roughly the same plane, otherwise if people are closer and further away from the lens, they’ll start slipping out of focus.
Tip 2: On Shutter Speed
Choosing the right shutter speed will be determined in large by your subject and the situation they’re in. The more active they are, the faster the shutter speed you’ll need. For example:
- If you have one subject (an adult or teen for example) who isn’t moving much or making big hand gestures, you can get away with using a 1/15th or 1/8th of a second shutter speed. Even in low-light this should be sufficient if your subject isn’t moving too much.
- If you have multiple (excitable) subjects, you’ll need to use something faster. A big group, or excited children, will require something around 1/125th and you can adjust from that point. If things are too blurry then go faster, but you may also need to adjust either the aperture or ISO as well.
Tip 3: On ISO
Your aim here is to get the best possible image quality when taking your portrait. This usually means having the lowest ISO possible, but this has to be balanced against shutter speed and aperture. Here’s our ISO advice
- To have the least amount of image noise, shoot at around ISO 100-400. This should be sufficient if the lighting is good.
- If you’re shooting inside, or in the shade, then increase this to around 800 to compensate. You can probably also get away with ISO 1600 as well, although be sure to keep an eye on image noise on your LCD.
Balance your ISO with aperture and shutter speed, being sure to get a balance that allows you to capture in focus shots that have minimal image noise.
Tip 4: On Focus
Correct methods of focusing are often overlooked when it comes to portrait photography. Here are a few pointers to get you on the right track:
- Use single-point autofocus rather than zone or multiple-point. This puts the control in your hands, rather than leaving it up to the camera which often gets it wrong.
- Focus on your subject’s eyes for the best clarity. These are often the focal point of a good portrait, so they need to be in sharp focus.
- Choose single-shot rather than continuous autofocusing. This will mean your autofocus locks to the subject, rather than tracking focus.
Equipment Tips for Portrait Photographs
Now that we’ve covered the settings on your camera, let’s look at some of the top equipment tips you should know for portrait photography.
Tip 5: On Lenses
The type of lens you use will depend a little on your personal preference (and budget), but it will also be affected by how much space you have.
- A short telephoto lens, around 70-200mm, will help you compress the perspective and still allow you to create a soft blur in the background. It also means that your subject won’t become distorted in the picture, which can happen with a wide-angle lens.
- User a wider angle if you are shooting in a wide open space, a group, or a full length portrait. This allows you to fit more in the frame. Something around 35mm-50mm should do the trick.
Tip 6: On Tripods
If you don’t already own a tripod, you should definitely go out and purchase one before you start getting serious about taking portrait photographs. There are some real benefits of using one, and they’re becoming increasingly lightweight and sturdy, so encumbrance is no excuse. Here are two reasons you should use one:
- It stops you rushing. When you have to take the time to get everything set up and ready, it stops you rushing and getting overly trigger happy. You will have to check settings and light before taking a photo, meaning your overall results will be better.
- It gets you out from behind the camera. Once you have your setup perfected, you can then get out from behind the camera and interact with your subject. This allows them to relax and means you can make finer adjustments to their pose and arrangement.
Tip 7: On Remote Triggers
This is advice that ties in a little with some points we’ve already mentioned above. You should use a remote trigger because:
- It allows you to use a slower shutter speed. Once it’s mounted on a tripod, using a remote shutter reduces any camera shake further because you don’t have to touch the camera.
- It gets you out from behind the camera. Again, this will relax your subject and leave you free to chat with them and help make them relax and act naturally. This is particularly useful when working with children.
Creative Ways to Take Stunning Portraits
Now that we’ve looked at the technical side and the equipment, it’s on to the more fun stuff. Taking a good portrait is about using the subject, space, and camera to get results that capture personality and vividness.
Tip 8: Get a New Perspective
When you think of portrait photographs, the first thing that springs to mind is a shot taken at eye level, usually head on. Although this can produce good results and is a tried and tested method, there’s so much more you can do. Try getting up high or down low when capturing your subject. These different perspectives can create something stunning and unique.
Tip 9: The Eyes
We’ve already mentioned that the subject’s eyes can be the focal point of a portrait, but that doesn’t mean they have to be looking directly down the lens (although this can produce pleasing results). Having your subject look away, or into the distance, can create a sense of a candid moment, where the subject is unaware they’re being photographed. One other tip is to have your subject look at an object or person inside the frame. This creates interest for the viewer, and when it’s between two people it can create a real sense of connection in the picture.
Tip 10: Try Different Lighting
Lighting is the foundation of photography, so getting creative with it can produce some fascinating results, particularly for portraits. Experiment with different lighting situations and see what they produce. Try side lighting for something deep and brooding, or backlight to create a stunning silhouette.
Tip 11: Shoot Candidly
This is something we mentioned briefly earlier, but candid shots are a great way of getting the natural personality of your subject. A lot of people feel quite awkward when posing for a picture, so get them doing something enjoyable, in a situation they feel comfortable with, or other people they connect with. This eases the tension and means you can get some amazing photos of them
Tip 12: Use Props
As we mentioned above, this can be a way of getting people to relax a little. It also creates a point of interest in the shot. Don’t use anything that distracts from the portrait’s subject, but try and use something that compliments them and their uniqueness.
Tip 13: Create a Series
Rather than the end result being just one picture of a posed or candid shot, try shooting multiple shots in series. If you switch to burst or continuous mode and get your subject doing something interesting or fun, you can present a series of images that may be far more interesting than just the one.
Tip 14: Use a Wide Angle
Above we said that wide angle lenses can create distortion. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Wide angle shots can emphasize or exaggerate certain body parts, creating striking images. You can use a wide to capture your subject in a stunning wide vista as well.
Tip 15: Use a Different Angle
Our first creative tip suggested using a new perspective to create interesting results. The same can be said for the angle you hold the camera at. Often it’s important to get your camera straight so that the framing looks square and neat, but by changing the angle drastically, you can capture some different and fun shots of your subject.