Tips on How to Take Better Portraits

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Although portraiture is probably the most popular field in photography, it is still one of the trickiest to do well. The difficulty lies in that a lot of factors have to come together to make a great portrait such as lighting, location and the how well you can capture the personality of the subject. This post will not instantly turn you to a great portrait photographer but instead, it will focus on the basic principles to help you on your way.

What is the best lens to use for portraits?
Pros often use lenses that have a focal length between 85mm to 100mm. There are two main reasons why 85mm to 100mm are often called portrait lenses.

1. Using a short telephoto lens lets you stand around 10 feet away from your subject and still be able to fill the frame with their face. If you use a wider angle lens, you’ll end up having to stand very near your subject and no one feels comfortable with a camera lenses inches away from their face. On the other hand, using a focal length longer than 100mm will take you to far away from your subject that you’ll have a hard time interacting with them.


CC Photo by *Zara

2. Using a wide angle lens will distort your subject’s facial features. If you take a close-up shot with a wide angle lens, your subject’s nose will look larger and their ears will look smaller. This is what we call the clown effect.


Are prime lenses better than zoom lenses for portraits?
There are both pros and cons for using either of the two types of lenses so it will be up to you to decide. Prime lenses will always be sharper than zoom lenses which is especially important in portraiture but you will need to move around a lot if you want to frame your shot differently and you can end up missing some great shots.

(Lisa’s note: I’d recommend a 50mm lens. It’s prime, cheap, and a must-have if you can’t spring for an 85mm or 100mm lens.)

What aperture is best suited for portraits?
If you are shooting against a plain background then the rule of thumb is to use f/11 which will give you great sharpness and depth of field. You can use your lowest aperture setting such as f/2.8 to throw everything but your subject out of focus.

What should you focus on?
Unless you are trying to emphasis a specific feature on your subject, always focus on their eyes. Even if the rest of the photo is slightly blurry, as long as the eyes are tack sharp, the photo will still look great.


CC Photo by Arwen Abendstern

What is the best light to use?
Some people will disagree but we prefer working with available light when taking portraits. It just looks better. Position your subject beside a window that is not exposed to direct sunlight to get soft and diffused light. If the light is too strong then you can try using sheer window curtains to act as a diffuser.

If you’re outside and light is too harsh then you can move your subject under a shade to avoid getting unpleasant shadows on their face. You can tell if the light is just right when your subject doesn’t have to squint to look at you or in your general direction.

Aside from the basics that we’ve discussed, the most important thing in portraiture is your connection with the subject. Your subject has to be comfortable enough with you so that the expressions you get are natural and not posed. You need to be able to talk to people, and connect. You have to be observant enough to notice their little quirks that make them unique and find a way to include it in your photo. These are some of the things that separate a portrait from a regular snapshot.

That, and shooting from a higher vantage point every now and then. Shooting from above is flattering for most people. It makes subjects look thinner, and hey, who doesn’t love that.

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