Portrait photography

Don’t Say “Say Cheese”: 7 Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners

Daven Mathies / Digital Trends

Portrait photography captures a person – great portrait photography captures a personality. While portraits are a staple of the photography industry, they require a lot more than just pointing and shooting. From the pose to the framing to the lighting, several elements must work together to create a good image. With a few simple tips, however, you can start to capture more than just a pretty face.

Goofy subjects mean goofy smiles

One of the keys to capturing a subject’s personality is to help them feel comfortable in front of the camera. News flash: Nobody feels comfortable in front of the camera, at least not at first. As a photographer, it’s your job to help the subject relax and feel confident despite having a camera pointed at their face. Don’t just throw a ‘say cheese’ and expect a genine smile.

Sigma 135mm F1.8 Art Sample Portrait Woman Shallow DOF
Daven Mathies / Digital Trends

First of all, use casual conversation – silence is awkward. Learn more about your topic and ask them what interests them, what makes them happy, what annoys them. Keep the conversation going as you shoot. Avoid a forced smile. Tell stories, ask for their stories or tell jokes to get a genuine smile. Portrait prompts – questions or activities to help the subject relax during the shot – are useful for photographers who don’t have that naturally outgoing personality.

Wide angle lenses tend to be the least flattering

Photographers don’t need expensive equipment to shoot great portraits, but that doesn’t mean the gear you choose doesn’t matter. A camera with a larger sensor – like a mirrorless camera or DSLR – will help create that soft background that is typically found in portraits, often referred to as bokeh after the Japanese word for blur. The lens, however, is the most important part of the equation.

Wide-angle lenses create distortion and accentuate distance, which will make your subject’s nose appear bigger than it actually is – and that’s usually not what people want. To resolve this issue, use a lens with a focal length of at least 50mm (in terms of full frame, see our guide to working with the crop factor to find the proper focal length for smaller sensor formats), with 85mm lenses and more even better. You can get a good portrait lens on a budget by skipping the zoom and purchasing a 50mm or 85mm prime lens.

Daven Mathies / Digital Trends

That’s not to say that wide-angle lenses have no place in portrait photography. The wider angles are suitable for full body shots and environmental portraits where the background is important to the story. Just try to keep your subject closer to the center of the frame and further away from the camera to reduce distortion. Other times, the distortion may actually be desirable – such as in concert photography or if you go for a edgy or slightly unsettling vibe.

Use the aperture to exclude or include the background.

In many portraits, a blurred background is ideal. This is the result of shallow depth of field, which refers to the depth of focus in the photo (see our explanation of depth of field for more information). This is created by using a large aperture (longer focal length lenses are also useful). To get that background blur, you want a large aperture, indicated by a small f number. Set your camera to aperture priority mode or manual mode and a low f-number, such as f / 2.8 or lower. Just be careful when working with large apertures, as getting precise focus can be difficult.

Sigma 135mm F1.8 Art Sample Portrait Woman
Daven Mathies / Digital Trends

Also note that not all lenses can open at f / 2.8 or higher. Most kit lenses cap at f / 3.5 or f / 5.6, depending on their zoom in – in this case, just use the widest available.

Hillary Grigonis / Digital Trends

In environmental portraits, the background plays a role in the history of the image, such as photographing an artist in her studio or a newborn baby in her nursery. If you don’t want to blur this background, use a narrower aperture (larger f-number). The larger the number f, the sharper the background will be. Try an f / 5.6 or an f / 8. When shooting multiple people, you’ll also want to use a higher f-number to keep everyone in focus, unless each person is exactly the same distance away from the camera.

Focus on the eyes

Eyes are the key to a good expression, so keeping them in focus is the key to a good portrait. For best results, set your camera’s autofocus area mode to single-point autofocus. This allows you to set the focal point exactly where you want it: on the subject’s eye. Ideally, you should focus on both eyes, so if the subject’s face is facing towards or away from the camera, you will need a slightly narrower aperture to make both eyes in focus.

Hillary Grigonis / Digital Trends

Alternatively, if you are using a camera that has a good eye detection autofocus mode, you can just use it to automatically focus on the eyes.

Find – or create – good light

All the big expressions, camera settings and sharp focus can’t make up for poor light. Beginner portrait photographers should look for a soft light that is easy to create great photos with. Full shade on a sunny day or anywhere outside on an overcast day is a great light for novice portrait photographers. An hour before sunset (or after sunrise) with the sun to the side or behind the subject also makes good portrait lighting. It’s slightly trickier to get proper exposure here compared to full shadow, but can be more dramatic. Indoors, in front of or next to a window, it also works well.

While flat, even lighting is the easiest to work with, positioning your subject against a darker background can be a good way to make the portrait stand out. A darker background will naturally draw the viewer’s eye to the subject.

Daven Mathies / Digital Trends

As you gain more experience, you will learn to create your own light. A simple reflector that reflects some of that golden light is an easy way to start manipulating the light – or use a diffuser to create your own shadow on sunny days. From there, you can develop a diffuse flash over the camera at low power to create catchlights that brighten up the eyes. Don’t try to jump into advanced lighting too early – start with natural light before moving on to more advanced techniques.

Learn what to pose and what not to do

The pose can be an art form in itself. But even to get started, there are a few dos and don’ts of posing to create flattering portraits. A key concept to remember is that anything closest to the camera looks taller. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s actually an important concept to keep in mind. Unless you’re shooting maternity photos, you probably don’t want to take belly-height photos with a pose that places your subject’s belly closest to the camera. Most people may not find this too flattering. In addition to understanding that the closest equals the greatest, here are a few other quick pose essentials that even beginners should note:

  • Do not “shorten” the limbs. If an arm, leg, or fingers are pointed directly at the camera, that limb will appear oddly short. This is a phenomenon known as foreshortening, and is especially common with telephoto lenses (which compress distance, the opposite effect of using a wide angle).
  • Do not trim at the joints. Portraits don’t need to be complete, but when they aren’t, be sure not to cut off people’s arms or legs at the joints. Cropping at the widest point of the body is also not as flattering as cropping where the body narrows.
  • Understand the differences between female and male poses. While it obviously depends on each individual, men and women generally prefer to be posed in different ways. Female poses often create curves with arm placement or body position, while male poses tend to emphasize straight lines.
  • Give them something to do with their hands. “Where do I put my hands?” Is a common question from portrait subjects. Help them feel comfortable by giving them instructions for their hands. Separating the arms from the torso can help make the subject narrower.
  • Don’t leave your feet flat. Flat feet create stiff poses. Have the subject shift their weight to one leg or bend one knee for a more relaxed position.
  • Don’t assume that everyone wants to look skinny. Standing with the torso at an angle to the camera helps the subject appear slimmer. But it’s not ideal for all subjects. An athlete, for example, looks powerful and dominant on camera.

Try “action poses” for more authentic results.

The pose is important, but don’t get so caught up in the pose that you feel stiff and uncomfortable getting back to the subject. Action poses can create more natural poses that are even more flattering. Walking, for example, is easy and relaxing. For women, having them put one foot directly in front of the other as they walk creates more curves. Jumping is also a good action pose, which can also help people relax. Action poses are even better when working with multiple people, like couples or a family, because they create interaction.

Hillary Grigonis / Digital Trends

Portrait photography and capturing someone’s personality can be difficult at first. But with a little practice, you can create memorable portraits that will leave your subject smiling even after the shutter clicks.

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