6 Tips to Get Started with Portraits

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People fascinate me. I love the diversity in personality and expressions, and I love using my camera to capture all those personalities! People are by far my favorite subject to have in front of my camera.

If you are new to photography and getting frustrated that you aren’t creating portraits like you hoped, I’m here to help! Let’s go through six tips to get started with portraits. You’ll be a pro before you know it.

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1. Get yourself a 50mm lens

Are there better lenses out there for portraits? Yes. But the 50mm is inexpensive, versatile and great to get started! Once you’ve gotten the hang of this lens, you’ll know what other lenses to invest in later and you’ll never regret having a 50mm prime lens in your bag. Your camera probably came with a kit lens that zooms in and out. The drawback of this lens is that you can’t open the aperture very wide.

Have you noticed portraits that have a creamy blurred background, and the subject just pops? This is achieved by setting the aperture on a very low number, usually between f/1.8 and f/2.8. Look at your kit lens. It probably can only go down to f/3.5, and if you zoom in your lowest aperture number is probably f/5.0. You could get the 50mm 1.4 or, if you’re really unsure about what you want, give the 50mm 1.8 a try. It’s the least expensive lens out there, but it will still give you a lot of bang for your buck. Trust me on this one! If I could only choose one lens to have in my bag for the rest of my life, it would be this one.

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2. Focus on the Eyes

Toggle your focus point of your camera until it’s right on the eyes; if your subject is close to you, put the focus point on one eye (if one eye is closer to you than the other, focus on that one). If you are still letting your camera automatically choose where to focus, change that in your settings now! Pull out that manual you hid away and put it to good use.

If your subject’s eyes are in focus, it will be a much more compelling portrait. After all, the eyes are the window to the soul! If possible, try to position your subject so they have some catchlights (or sparkle) in their eyes.

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Be cautious when you are shooting really close portraits. You want to make sure that you have your aperture number high enough that everything you want to be in focus will be in focus. If you are really close to your subject and your aperture number is really low, like f/1.8, you may notice that the eyes are in focus, but the nose is not. Just bump up the aperture a little at a time until you get the look you are going for. When you are learning and experimenting, it’s helpful to zoom in on the preview on the back of your camera after you have taken the photo. Sometimes it may look like everything is in focus, but later when you upload it to your computer, you realize that it definitely was not in focus. If you can find this out WHILE you are shooting, you have a chance to correct things and learn at a faster rate.

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3. Experiment with Distance and Orientation

Sometimes as beginners we might get stuck doing things always the same way, like needing to put the subject’s whole body into a portrait, or having the face fill up the frame. Neither is right nor wrong. The important thing is not to produce the exact same photo over and over.

Try stepping back a bit and include the surroundings in your portrait. It might tell a great story about the person you are photographing. Then try getting really close. Now get even closer. Don’t worry about what grandma is going to say – it’s okay to cut off the top of someone’s head in a photo.

You might notice that you almost always shoot vertically (portrait), or maybe you’re stuck shooting horizontally (landscape) all of the time. Don’t let yourself get in a rut! Try close-up portraits horizontally and try vertical portraits that take in lots of the surroundings (and vice versa).

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4. Create a True Portrait

We can stick anyone in front of a paint splattered backdrop, sit them on a stool, turn their shoulders at an angle, tell them to smile and call it a portrait. Or we can use our skills to make a portrait that truly shows who your subject is, and what they are about. I love the portraits that tell a true story about my subject because I know that I have captured something worth keeping.

Try to get to know your subject a little bit and use that knowledge to create a portrait that anyone could look at and know a little bit about who that person is. You could do this with props, expression or posing. If they’re passionate about something, they may want it included in the photo with them. If he’s a person who smiles all the time, a serious portrait may not capture who he really is.

Your job as the photographer is to make a portrait that will be treasured by everyone who knows your subject. They will know that you really caught who he is. It’s also your job to create a portrait that will be compelling to those who don’t know your subject. It should make them want to get to know him and let them know a little bit about who he is, even if they’ve never met.

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5. Lighting First, Background Second

Good light on your subject’s face is most important in a portrait. I look for good lighting before I look for a good background. The easiest lighting to work with for beginners is an overcast day (if that’s the way the cards fall that day) or shade. On an overcast day, try having your subject facing toward the light source. Even if it’s cloudy, often the direction you have your subject face will either illuminate their eyes or put their face in shadow. If you’re not sure which direction to have him face, just rotate until you have that aha! moment when the light is just right.

You might find shade on the shady side of a building (subject facing out towards the light) or in the shade of trees, but if the light is patchy in the trees have your subject put her back towards the sun. You don’t want to have dappled light on her face, or half-shadow and half-sun. Try to have the light as even on her face as possible. Also, avoid having full sun on your subject’s face. This can cause harsh shadows and make it almost impossible for some not to squint their eyes.

Expose for the face for portraits, even if it causes your background to not be exposed correctly. In a portrait, the person is obviously the most important part, so this makes sense.

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6. Don’t Worry About the “Rules”

It’s important to learn all you can about the rules of photography. Learn them, practice them, use them. Then be creative and have some fun without worrying too much about the rules. If you’re making a portrait, the eyes don’t have to be looking at the camera. The photo doesn’t always have to be divided into the rule of thirds. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing, either. Be true to yourself and have fun with it! When you create a portrait of someone, it can be truly unique. Nobody else will be able to take that same photo in that same light with that same expression. Make sure it represents who you want to be as a photographer and make sure it represents the person you are creating a portrait for.

Do you have questions about taking portraits? I’d be happy to answer everything I can in the comments. I’d also love to see your favorite portraits you’ve taken!

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Melinda Smith was born to be a teacher. She teaches violin lessons and fitness classes, as well as photography classes and mentoring. She lives on a mini farm in Eastern Utah with her camera, husband, kids, chickens, horses, bunnies, dogs, and cats. Visit her at Melinda Smith Photography.

  • Punya Pradhan

    i am thinking to buy 85 mm 1.8 is good for portriat

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