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.

  • Laila

    My first attempt on a low key shot of my bf.

  • Ravi Kashyap

    Thanks Melinda so kind of you.

  • Paul August

    I’m one of those people who enjoy walking up to strangers and asking if I could take their picture. Backgrounds can be difficult (in markets, etc), so I have to get close. Any comments? I saw her and her boyfriend at a street market and asked if she would mind. I try to get an email address so I can ship them a copy when I’m done in Lightroom/Photoshop. Critique would be greatly appreciated.

  • Adrian J Nyaoi
  • vivek verma

    thankyou Melinda

  • Allison W

    This was an excellent article with great advice!

  • Balachandar Jeldi

    Thank you Smith.

  • Thank you, Allison!

  • So compelling. Thank you for sharing!

  • What a great thing that you are fearless, and can capture photos of whoever catches your eye! I wouldn’t worry too much about always getting in close when you are doing street photography. Capture the environment that you are shooting in! Street photography is a style all its own, and you could create some amazing stories, since you enjoy walking up to strangers. πŸ™‚

  • Nicely done. Thanks for sharing!

  • Laila

    Thank YOU πŸ™‚

  • Judith Laguerre

    Very helpful tips and advice, Melinda πŸ™‚ I can relate to tip #4, taking the time to do the homework with the subject definitely pays off. What are your thoughts about the enclosed photograph? All the best…thanks

  • Kamaljeet Chugh

    A very practical lesson in Portrait photography. Children make the best subject to shoot.

    The attached picture is of interest to me. The parents of this child put up an enlargement of this photo on the wall, in the drawing room, and every one liked it. However, one day during winters the grand father of the child had this picture removed because he thought the child must be feeling cold, without clothes.

  • Thank you for sharing. πŸ™‚

  • Thank you for your comment! I love the smile you captured! Beautiful. πŸ™‚

  • Michael Bogert

    Opinions???

  • Abhishek Dey

    here’s a pic from baby portraiture session.. (ignore that watermark..:P )
    i have Nikon D5100 with kit and 35mm…
    35mm prime is like 52.5mm in aps-c..it serves me well.. πŸ™‚

  • Beautiful baby, and such a sweet photo. Thank you for sharing!

  • Great portrait of a beloved pet! πŸ™‚

  • Widhi Adi Cipta

    Try Black and White πŸ™‚

  • Widhi Adi Cipta

    So cute and great moment πŸ™‚

  • Vik Kumar

    thank you very much

  • Jayprakash Parmar

    Excellent snap

  • Vik Kumar

    thank you Jayprakash

  • ronald1216

    preety the girl with the necklace

  • Jerzy Janusz Tarkowski

    What’s your opinion on this one please

  • Nicely done!

  • Thank you!

  • Fun photo! Maybe try different compositions next time, just for added interest. (For example, instead of a square crop with the face centered, try the face to one side or the other).

  • swatichauhan1205

    Do tell me about this portrait:) Taken during a photowalk πŸ™‚

    http://www.swatichauhanphotography.com

  • I would agree it’s a great moment, nice lighting, well composed – hard to find things to improve but I’d say you could make it a bit warmer in processing. There seems to be a lot of blue in the shadows and warming it will bring out her skin tone more. Also the dark vignette – maybe dial it back just a touch. Other than those really small tweaks it’s great.

  • Vik Kumar

    thank you for a constructive feedback

  • Fabulous! I love the colors and his eyes really draw me in. Nicely done. πŸ™‚

  • thanks Melinda

  • Stephen Herron

    Thanks for the useful tips! Here’s a shot of my very happy pup πŸ™‚

  • What a beautiful photo of a beautiful furry friend!

  • Paul August

    I now carry 3 lenses with me on the street. Since I’m using crop body (Nikon D5100) I carry 35mm 1.8G, 18-55, and 55-200… haven’t found anything that one of these lenses wasn’t perfect for (yet)… I also just bought the Peak Design Capture Lens… so switching lenses is a SNAP… πŸ™‚

  • richie_pour

    Loved this tutorial. And your portraits are beautiful!

  • Gretchen Beard

    Great article! I was on the fence about what lens to buy next and you have convinced me to get the 50 mm prime lens. Thank you!! Here is a favorite pic I took of my daughter recently.

  • Justin Osborne

    Happy 16th Birthday.

  • Great photo!

  • Gorgeous! I love the colors, and her eyes! My daughter has ice blue eyes too. πŸ™‚

  • Thank you so much, richie_pour!

  • Vyne Agoc

    hi, good read. πŸ™‚

    i love taking portraits too, but i’m just starting and need to dig more about it.

    could you give me advise on my shot? thanks.

  • Kenneth KarirΓΊ Muchiri

    That’s a rare moment captured in that photo. To me it’s perfect.

  • Vik Kumar

    thank you !

  • Beautiful girl and beautiful portrait. I like the framing of the out of focus leaves in the foreground. Nicely done. πŸ™‚

  • Chamika Viduranga

    can anyone tell me the exact preset or post processing technique like these photos. Because i want to know the effect she used here to retouch them.

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