Portrait photography tips every photographer should master


By: Ken Otieno

portraitsGetting the right portrait is never easy as far as photography is concerned. A skilled photographer will use their knowledge to adjust the camera settings and the end-results will be more than splendid. Another one will depend on the camera and the position of the subject they are capturing. For instance, if they are taking photos of kids, they would charm them to make them stay still in order to shoot great portraits out of them.

When all the things above fail to work, they upgrade to a more powerful DSLR, hoping to do better with the new equipment. In other words, the difference between a professional photographer and an amateur can be vast, depending on what an individual considers best. If you find yourself struggling with shooting great portrait photographs, here are some crucial tips to help you achieve a much better end result:

Tips on how to shoot the best portrait photos

Of course we’re going to consider the shutter speed of the camera, the aperture, and the kind of lens you’re using before anything else. Once we’re done, we’ll move on to the art of focusing as well as photo composition techniques. Lastly, we’ll show you how to use natural light and reflectors to produce the best photos ever.

We also believe that you should be familiar with the more advanced portrait photography techniques, so we’ll discuss how to use flashguns and other tools when shooting portrait photos.

These tips are useful to every portrait photography event. So whether you’re shooting at a family gathering, in a studio with friends, or just anywhere, they will help you become the best portrait photographer. Here we go:

1. When you should use exposure compensation

It’s very problematic when shooting portraits in a place where there’s a lot of bright light, such as in weddings where white is a common color. It’s just too difficult to capture clear portraits under such conditions. To solve this problem, you’ll need to brighten up the subject using Aperture priority mode. In this case, you’ll need the help of exposure compensation.

To lighten up the subject, you’ll need to dial in up to plus 1 of positive exposure compensation.

2. How to handle the Aperture

To shoot the best portrait, you’ll need to pay attention to the depth of the field. The idea is to capture a shallow depth. So you’re going to set the aperture wide enough, somewhere between f2.8 and f5.6. This will make the background appear blurred hence the subject will stand out.

To control the depth of the field, you’ll need to shoot in Aperture priority mode. When this feature is used, the SLR automatically sets the shutter speed to suit your needs. Alternatively, you may want to use specialist aperture lenses that tend to blurred backgrounds even further. That’s because they have a wider aperture, typically between f1.4 to f2.8.

3. Your lens choice

The kind of lens you use will influence the quality of your portraits. If you use a lens that measures 18mm in diameter, it will capture a wider view, so more of your subject’s surroundings will be captured.

And if you use a telephoto (over 70mm), it will capture a narrow angle of view, so less of your subject’s surroundings will appear on the picture frame. Keep in mind that the focal length will also affect the depth of the field.

If you’re going specifically for portraits, you’d do better with a telephoto because they capture less depth of field. In other words, they eliminate as much of the background as possible while making sure that the subject is the center of focus.

4. Increase your ISO

It’s practically impossible for people to remain on perfect pose-mode when being photographed. Sometimes they blink and even change their facial expressions. But how do you deal with this?

To avoid problems with motion blurred pictures, you should use a fast shutter speed. The faster the shutter speed, the sharper and clear the image especially where you’re using your hands to hold the camera and you want to avoid camera-shake.

While maintaining a wider aperture using Aperture Priority mode, simply increase your ISO speed, say from 100 to 400. However, just in case you’re shooting under low light intensity, such as indoors, you can adjust it up to ISO800, ISO1600 or ISO3200. If you adjust a little too high, you’ll end up with a little grain in your photo, but it’s better than using shooting blurred or unclear photos.

5. Your shutter speed settings

It’s very crucial that you consider the focal length of the lens when adjusting shutter speed. Otherwise, you’ll have to deal with not-so clear portrait photos in the end.

Rule of the thumb states that the shutter speed should be higher than the focal length. For instance, when shooting at 200mm, your shutter speed should be at 1/250 sec or even faster than that.

However, when using a wider angle lens, you can always get away with slower shutter speeds. For instance, if the focal length is at 18mm, you can do fairly well shooting at 1/20 sec of shutter speed.

6. Creative compositions

It’s very tricky to handle compositions, but you can do it with a little more effort. If you like, just zoom in to fill up the frame with the content of the photo. But there’s one technique you don’t want to miss, and that’s to position your subject on one side of the frame while leaving some space on the other side.

With this technique, you’re going to make sure that your subject is precise. We’ve seen people shooting at f2.8, focusing on the left eye so that the right eye is thrown out of focus in a more complex way.

7. When going the reflector way

To brighten up your subject in a professional way without working yourself too much, you’ll need to use a reflector. They are mostly used near windows or strategically placed outdoors in an area that will allow light to hit them and bounce back to the subject. Here are tips to master:

  • A white reflector will produce neutral results
  • A gold reflector will warm them up
  • A silver reflector will brighten them up

As you can see, the color of your reflector surface says a lot about the end result of your portrait. The best thing is that most reflectors come with two differently colored sides, or better still, they come with detachable covers, so you get the option to choose between the 3 colors. Furthermore, the white surface of a reflector can double up as a diffuser, so they tend to soften direct sunlight.

If you can’t afford a decent reflector, you can improvise one by using a large sheet of white cardboard. To achieve a silver effect, just cover it with tin foil and it will still serve its purpose.

8. When focusing the camera

Keep in mind that when you use a wide aperture, say at f2.8 or faster, you should expect to dramatically decrease your depth of field. That’s the reason why you need to be more careful with this, otherwise you’ll end up with out-of-focus facial features. Have you seen portrait photos where the nose is sharp while the eyes are soft? That’s what we’re talking about.

To shoot composed photos, focus on your subject eyes, with wider composition on their head. To emphasize on your focus, you can manually set a single auto-focus point for best results.

To get it right, select the central auto-focus point, then half-press the shutter button so that it focuses on the head and the eyes, before repositioning your subject off to one side and fully pressing the button.

Another way of doing it is to set the AF points in the top corners with the intent of placing them over your subject’s eye in order to capture them. Any of the two techniques we’ve mentioned will help you position them off the center of the frame for a more balanced composition.

9. Posing for portraits

How they stand, look at the camera or even smile will affect the final results. A slight change in their facial expression will alter the mood of the portrait as well.

When shooting, your best bet is to try and capture a number of expressions so that you can choose the best one to edit on your computer back home. You might also want to consider shooting when the subject is looking off the camera, up/down or when looking sideways. The idea is to play around and see what works.

10. Adding your artistic side with flash lighting

When you equip yourself with a flashgun, some remote triggers and a good size diffuser, you are opening yourself to a world of vast possibilities as far as lighting is concerned.

If you like, you can light the side of your portrait to add some touch of drama. Shoot at negative 2 stops of exposure compensation to create a moody background behind your subject.

The pop up flash feature on your digital camera will be very handy when it comes to what you can do with flash lighting. However, there are still good reasons as to why you should invest in a hotshoe flashgun.

A professional who is good at using flash lighting will take advantage of off-camera flash functionality. With this feature, you can adjust the lighting for a brighter scene, which enables you to set smaller apertures to put more emphasis on depth and field or simply light up a group of portrait-hungry individuals.

The best thing is that you have more control over its settings, meaning you can always point it up or downwards to bounce light off the walls and ceiling.

11. Using a flashgun stand

To shoot the best portrait photos, consider investing in a flashgun stand. There’s such a variety of flashgun stands out there, and prices also vary greatly, so you may want to go with a cheaper one if you’re working alongside a tight budget.

A flashgun stand acts as a secondary support. With this tool, you can always position your flash high up or low down, hence making sure that you can point your target’s head exactly where you want the light at.

Benefits of using off-camera flash

Technology has made it possible to use flashguns conveniently. For instance, some models of SLR can fire flashguns remotely without having to invest in additional gear. Flashguns are generally detachable, and they can be operated using a remote control via a cable or wireless network.

There’s always an option to use 2 flashes simultaneously for a more advanced lighting set up. With the remote handy, you can always fire the first and second flashlight at the same time. It only takes a push of a button.

To play around with light, you can attach diffusers and soft-boxes to achieve softer and more appealing versions of brightness.

12. How about using fill flash on brighter days?

It sounds odd to use flash when the sun is high up. However, this is the most appropriate time to use it. It’s very tricky when shooting during sunny days. As for the portrait photographers, the sun can cause all sorts of problems. For example, you may end up with unbalanced exposure because the flash is busy lightening up your subject while the camera exposes their background. Sometimes you may end up with shadows across their faces. These are problems you don’t want to deal with.

Classic portrait ideas you should master

Now that you have everything required, it’s difficult to know where to start. Do you want to shoot full-length, head to shoulder or face alone, or where it’s cropped to fill up the frame?

Here are some ideas:

  • If you choose to go the full-length, chances are that you want to capture a little bit of their surroundings, so you have to plan about that using the tips we’d explained earlier.
  • If you choose head to shoulder, the background is not important, so choose a good backdrop that’s either neutral or contrasting. Where the subject will be looking at is your own decision. So we cannot touch on that.
  • Lastly, the angle of the person’s face is very important. For best results, stick to a 3/4 view.

Taking photos of older people

If your subject is worried about their wrinkles, then choosing a softer light intensity is better. Don’t use strong side-lighting. But of course you can go with frontal lighting.

If you are capturing your subject’s photo near a white wall, lean them next to it for a good spread of lighting. The color of the subject can also influence the kind of results you get. But you can use warm-toned lighting instead.

For people with large noses, try focusing downwards with soft light so that the outline of the nose blends with the rest of the face.


The tips above are very helpful if you want to produce the best portrait photos, and will be especially helpful if you decide to start making money from your photography hobby. Portraits require some practice to master well, but you can do it as long as you’re passionate about cameras and you get lots of practice!

Thumbnail image credit: http://www.dannyst.com/gallery/portraits-of-strangers/

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