Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners

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For many, the quality of our lives can be defined by the number of meaningful relationships and encounters we have. And for the photographically or artistically inclined, it’s natural to want to capture our loved ones, or the people we meet on our travels on camera. This guide offers tips for taking portraits to inspire your next photographs.

Words by Aaron Chapman

How do you take great portrait photos? Portraiture is one of the most challenging genres of photography and requires equal parts communication, intuition and a strong understanding of the technical camera settings.

Here are some portrait photography tips and techniques for beginners that will have you excitedly bothering your friends and family to become your subjects.

Tim Swallow PhotoTim Swallow

Portrait Photography Settings

Aperture for Portraits

Portrait photography is most commonly defined by a shallow depth of field that a large aperture produces. Photographers debating which lens is best for portraits will almost always be talking about which is the fastest lens, or in other words, which lens has the largest aperture.

As we learned from A Complete Guide to Aperture, a large aperture between f/1.4 and f/5.6 will isolate your portrait subject, bringing the subject forward, out of the landscape behind them. 

“Although capturing someone’s likeness in clear detail may be the common objective of portraiture, there are some great examples of slow shutter speed portraits being made by countless artists.”

Typically when taking portraits, it’s tempting to set your aperture to its maximum to create a shallow depth of field (this, of course, depends on your lens as the maximum aperture differs between all makes and models). But, be careful… f/1.4 is not for the faint of heart and is recommended only to intermediate-advanced photographers. Why? With such a shallow, razor-thin depth of field, the room for error is much greater. If a subject moves ever so slightly, sharp focus is often missed, and so too, the opportunity. 

Your lens will have an aperture ‘sweet spot’ that’s worth experimenting with to find. If you’re wanting to take pictures with a shallow depth of field, start at f/5.6 and work your way down to f/2.8. Commonly, lenses perform best in this range of aperture for portraits. 

Tim Swallow PhotoTim Swallow

Shutter Speed for Portraits

The best shutter speed for portraits depends on the lighting of the scene. There’s a generic guideline for shutter speed that suggests you don’t try and take a handheld photograph at anything lower than 1/125th of a second to avoid camera shake. For this reason, photographers should aim to keep their shutter speed around, or no slower than the 1/200th of a second mark.

It’s also important to consider any external lighting; for instance, if you’re shooting in a studio. Every lighting set-up has a flash sync speed, which refers to the highest speed a camera can use the flash function with the shutter completely open.

Although capturing someone’s likeness in clear detail may be the common objective of portraiture, there are some great examples of slow shutter speed portraits being made by countless artists. These artists, though, spent enough time at the faster end of the shutter speed spectrum to warrant their creative sojourn into slower and blurrier portrait making. 

Tip: If you can’t use a slower shutter speed without overexposing, try adding an ND filter. See the stunning portraits here

So, you’ve already set your aperture to somewhere between f/2.8 and f/5.6, and now set your shutter speed to 1/200th of a second. You may need to increase your shutter speed depending on the available light but try and make 1/200th your starting point. With these settings, it’s now time to talk about ISO.

Carla Step PhotoCarla Step

Best ISO for Portraits

ISO is where you’ll most likely be making compensations to the exposure triangle. Setting your ISO should really be in service of maintaining a large aperture and a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second or faster.

Because we know that an increase in ISO can affect the image quality through noise or grain, it’s best to form the habit of having your ISO as low as possible, and only increasing it when absolutely necessary.

Begin by setting your ISO to 100. This may be suitable for outside portraiture in harsh light but not suitable for indoor natural light portraiture. Adjust as required to achieve a balanced exposure. Having your ISO at its lowest possible rating given the lighting situation is important as you’re giving the image the best chance of sharpness and quality. 

Some lighting situations are truly unforgiving. You may be required to shoot portraits at ISO 6400, for example, which will no doubt produce a less than optimal amount of grain in the image. This could happen at a dusk shoot when the sun dips below the horizon far quicker than expected. Ensure you’re always shooting RAW in these cases as you’ll have far more flexibility when it comes to editing the results.

Composition for Portrait Photography

Just because you’re photographing a person doesn’t mean you should ignore the landscape around them. Portrait photography composition actually follows similar principles as landscape photography. The texture of the background, or how much you isolate your subject from the landscape behind them are all important portrait photography techniques to consider.

Some lighting situations are truly unforgiving. You may be required to shoot portraits at ISO 6400, for example, which will no doubt produce a less than optimal amount of grain in the image. This could happen at a dusk shoot when the sun dips below the horizon far quicker than expected. Ensure you’re always shooting RAW in these cases as you’ll have far more flexibility when it comes to editing the results.

Utilise these popular landscape compositions next time you’re photographing a person.

Carla Step Portrait PhotoCarla

Rule of Thirds

Whether it’s a tight crop on the face of your subject or a pulled-back full body view, aiming to compose a portrait using the Rule of Thirds is a great habit for beginner photographers. Try lining your subject’s eyes up on the vertical line of the grid for an intimate close-up.

Leading Lines

Leading Lines is another great composition for portrait photography to experiment with. See what surrounding elements can be incorporated into the picture to direct the viewer’s attention to the subject.

Portraiture is one of the most difficult genres of photography. Portraiture is equal parts photography and psychology. How you interact with your portrait sitter, how you make them comfortable is as important as the technical settings you select. It’s much safer being behind the lens than in front of it. But to truly take great portraits, you need to understand both sides of the lens and understand this unique relationship between photographer and subject. The renowned Mary Ellen Mark delicately captured marginalised individuals with great respect and candour. See how she handled the photographer/subject relationship here.

This relationship takes practice, practice, practice, as does mastering an understanding of appropriate camera settings. But once you’ve developed a basic understanding, you can begin experimenting with creative ways to take great portrait photos, as exemplified by ambassador Dino Kuznik. Check out 6 Creative Portrait Ideas You Can Try at Home. Have fun!

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Aaron Chapman

Aaron Chapman is an artist and writer based on the Gold Coast, Australia working across a range of mediums including photography, sculpture and public art. Chapman’s work is motivated by themes of home and memory, and in particular, childhood.

2022-11-01T02:29:05+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: , , |