Portraiture tips and tricks

Everything i’ve learned about doing portraits in one condensed location! Portraits can be fun, but also stressful if you don’t have a lot of practice with them. With a little knowledge however, you can make some really great shots!

Lens Selection

You can use just about any lens for this task, however I would stick with ones that can shoot at apertures wider than f/2.8. The adage of increase aperture for clearer images does not apply here. Primes are king for the most part but you can still do well with a 24-70 f/2.8 or a 70-200 f/2.8 or f/4.

10mm-24mm focal lengths
-Keep your subject close and the background far away
-Your background will need to be really good because its going to be a BIG part of your image
– Shoot the largest aperture you can

28mm-35mm focal lengths
-Good for waist up portraits, unless you have a f/1.4 or f/1.2 lens, then full body shots work too
-Background becoming less important
-Shoot the largest aperture you can, f/1.4 is best

50mm-85mm focal lengths
-Good for full body portraits or really impactful closeups
-Background is far less important now
-Shoot the largest aperture you can unless its a closeup and, start closing down that aperture with the 85mm for headshots to about f/2.8

105mm-200mm focal lengths
-Good for full body portraits and closeups
-Background is basically pointless now for waist up shots.
-Again keep the aperture as low as you can, f2.8 or f4

lighting

Shooting at the golden hour will make just about anyone look like a pro. Mid day sun is awful for portraits, but you can still manage some shots by modifying the sunlight. If you are really stuck shooting when the sun is high in the sky use these tricks:

Find shade!
-Tall buildings (cities)
-Trees
-Use a reflector to block the sun, or a scrim to diffuse the light.
Go inside
-Turn off all the artificial lights and shoot next to a window
-Stick your person in a store front and shoot through the window, heck stick them in a car and do the same thing! Make sure you have a CPL filter to control those reflections though.
Shoot near reflective objects
-Bounce light off a white reflector
-Have your subject stand near a white or silver car, the sunlight will bounce off and fill in the shadows on their face. White buildings are also great for this and act like a reflector.

Location

Busy backgrounds are no good for portraits. Keep it simple. And think about what lenses you have available to you. Is your longest lens a 50mm? Find somewhere that your background can have a little distance from your subject. Isolating your subject doesn’t have to be hard. In general a busy background you’ll want to keep farther away from your subject because it’ll get more blurred out. Simple backgrounds are king.

Posing and direction

This one doesn’t have to be as hard as most people make it out to be. Even the most awkward people can take genuine pictures by simply being prompted to do something that has nothing to do with the picture taking. For couples portraits its much easier, you can ask one person to whisper something silly like spatula beavers in the ear of the other. They will inevitably laugh and you’ll get some good stuff. They sell photographer prompt cards on Etsy too! Models are a different story, I used to keep a posing cheat sheet in my bag in case I was doing a session and the model didn’t know any poses. Easily found on google images.

Flash

I never went too crazy with flash stuff. Its subjective, but I was always more of a fan of single light source shots when I used a strobe. Single beauty dish, or soft box. Even for the glamorous shots, one ring light shot straight at the subject or a simple speed light on camera perpendicular to your subject.

Camera settings

Here is where modern mirrorless cameras are king. With them comes things like eye auto focus, and face detection. I mostly used DSLRs when I was doing my more serious portrait work, you can still make it work but its just a lot more work. In general, you are going to want

Continuous focus (AF-C for Nikon and Sony, AI Servo for Canon)
Focus Area (for mirrorless, wide) (for DSLRs, spot focus and you’ll have to keep moving that spot to your subjects eyes or face)
Aperture set wide (the smaller the f/ number the better)
Aperture priority
ISO on auto (usually I leave mine between 100-1600, results will vary per camera body)
Drive mode, continuous. Somewhere around 5-6fps is adequate

Case studies

Camera: Canon 50D
Lens: Tamron 28-75 f/2.8
Focal Length: 50mm
Aperture: f/2.8
ISO: 400


Ok here’s a solid case of simple background making the subject stand out. Could have honestly gotten away with any aperture in this spot, the background is plenty simple enough. This was shot around mid day as well, but the tall buildings of Savannah acted as a diffuser.

Camera: Sony a7ii
Lens: Zeiss 55mm f/1.8
Aperture: f/1.8
ISO: 200


Great example of getting that background away from your subject. I tend to pick backgrounds more based on color than what it is. Mostly because you can just modify how much of it you can really see or know what it is by simply moving farther away from it. Color is however harder to fake. If you look closely to the wall shes leaning on its white. The entire patio area we were shooting in was white and bounced light everywhere giving great soft lighting for the shot. This was also shot with the continuous face focus on which helps keep your subjects face in perfect focus.

Camera: Canon Rebel t2i
Lens: Tamron 28-75 f/2.8
Aperture: f3.2
Focal Length: 28mm
ISO: 100


Studio lighting here on a white paper backdrop. There was a single strobe to the top right with a diffused silver beauty dish. Fan was set just under the frame to add some action to her hair. These shots are so easy to setup and have work out well. I think I have a hundred examples like this but the subject really makes the shot.

Camera: Sony a6000
Lens: Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS
Aperture: f/1.8
ISO: 640


Primo example of window light. The room needed a tiny boost of light, so I used a white reflector in front of the camera. You’d be amazed how that simple tool can make such natural looking lighting. Also something to consider, the less intimidating your setup the more natural the expressions will be from your subjects.

Camera: Canon Rebel t2i
Lens: Tamron 28-75 f/2.8
Focal Length: 42mm
Aperture: f/2.8
ISO: 100


Shooting with the light. This is a great trick if you can get your subject to keep their eyes open. Makes tons of contrast! Uniform textures make great backgrounds as well, its telling you just the right amount of information without being distracting. Had the trees been closer, it wouldn’t have the same punch.

Thanks all for reading this far! If this helped you at all please leave a comment below!

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