To excel in portrait photography, you don’t necessarily have to use expensive DSLR or mirrorless cameras and lenses, but you must know how to use the correct camera settings for portrait photography.
Even if you are not a professional photographer or you don’t own that gorgeous expensive camera, you can still capture great photographs if you know how to properly tweak your camera settings and choose the right shutter speed, aperture, exposure, and lens. You can also use more advanced techniques such as reflectors of natural light in order to dramatically improve the results of your photos.
Below, I put together for you some of the fundamental settings for your camera in order to improve your portrait photography. You’ll learn tips on choosing the right lens, using aperture and shutter speed correctly, and maximizing flash and white balance.
And for some portrait inspiration, you can check my article: 50 Beautiful Portraits to get you Inspired
Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners
1. Use the Right Lens
Using the right lens is imperative if you want to deliver amazing photos. For instance, a wide 17mm lens makes the subject head to be distorted, while a short telephoto 75-100mm lens makes the face look perfectly normal and helps to obtain a blurred background.
If you want to be creative, then you can use a wide-angle lens. You can shoot from a low angle for example and make the subject appear taller than he or she is in reality. To add even more drama to the photo, you can simply tilt the camera a few degrees sideways. The distortion produced by the wide-angle lens will do the rest.
If you need to shoot a close-up and you want to flatten your subject, you need to use a lens of around 70mm to 100mm. With that focal length, it will also be possible to blur the background pretty easily. If you need to do an environmental portrait, use a wide-angle lens of around 30mm or less.
This is also valid if you want to learn how to take a good selfie.
Of course, you should experiment with a few lens until you find just the right one for you and your style.
2. Get Out of Auto Mode
Try to get out of auto mode as soon as possible to get more control over your images.
In most cases, you’ll want to learn how to shoot in manual mode or shoot with aperture priority.
Aperture priority allows you to get more depth of field, image sharpness, and light. In this mode, you’ll have the freedom to choose your own aperture and the camera will set the shutter speed for you to balance the exposure.
3. Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners: Aperture
In general, try to set the aperture as low as possible. For the best portraits, professional photographers use an aperture of around f/2.8, up to f/5.6.
This combined with a focal length of 75mm and up, makes the background behind the main subject to be blurred, while the subject’s features are enhanced.
Advanced prime lenses allow you to choose an aperture of as low as f/1.4, so you can blur the background even further. This makes the subject to get more light and the perfect exposure.
4. Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners: Shutter Speed
In Aperture priority mode, you’ll be able to set the aperture and the camera will take care of the shutter speed.
At this point, you need to remember that a slow shutter speed will potentially result in a blurred image because camera shake when handholding.
A tripod will allow you to use a slower shutter speed if you’re shooting in low light conditions. But make sure that the final image is not blurred because of the subject moving when using a tripod.
Try to use a fast shutter speed, especially if you are taking photos of your kids since they are always on the move.
In the end, shutter speed should be chosen depending on the subject you are working with. If you work with kids or subject that move a lot, make the shutter speed as fast as possible. Start with a value of 1/250th of a second.
If you are getting blurry images, because your shutter speed is slow, maybe it’s because there’s not enough light and your aperture priority mode chooses a slow shutter speed to compensate.
And to solve this you can increase your ISO.
ISO is directly connected to shutter speed and aperture. Together they form the exposure triangle.
In the case described above, when you don’t have enough light or your shutter speed is too slow and you don’t want to change the aperture value if you increase the ISO until the images are perfectly clear.
The camera will choose a faster shutter speed since the camera is now taking into account that more light will be captured and a slow shutter speed is not needed for getting the right exposure.
Often, you’ll need to increase the ISO from ISO 100 to ISO 500. In very low light conditions, you’ll find that a value up to ISO6400 is what you need.
As a rule of thumb, if you can maintain the ISO to between 100 and 400, you’ll be able to obtain the best quality photos possible.
6. Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners: How to Use a Flash
Using flash in portrait photography can help take your images to the next level.
To start off, you need to know that with the majority of strobe units you won’t be able to shoot at a shutter speed faster than 1/200th of a second, that’s the camera’s sync speed.
When using a flash you’ll need to expose for the background and the flash will illuminate the face of the subject or her/his body if you are shooting artistic nude photography.
If you shoot outdoors you will need a particular type of flash that allows you to shoot at faster shutter speed, up to 1/8000th or if you don’t have a high-speed sync flash a trick is to use an ND filter so that you can increase the aperture.
Also, remember that to get better results when the sun in not too harsh. Aim to shoot closer to the golden hour, either sunrise or sunset.
7. White Balance
Ultimately, you need to set the right white balance to enjoy superior photos. Don’t be afraid of choosing one of the presets of your camera for starters, such as shady or daylight.
Choose the preset that matches the light conditions outside. If you shoot inside, I recommend to try to take a picture with each preset and see which one gives you the best picture.
And in my recent article Portrait vs Landscape, you can also learn the difference between these two camera orientations when it comes to compose your shots.
Use the portrait photography settings presented above and master your camera.
Nailing your shots the first time you take them means less work you’ll have to do processing the photos or modifying them in Lightroom and Photoshop.
Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.