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.

  • Kerry

    I really want to start taking better portraits of my toddler daughter, especially with the holidays coming up and the beautiful fall colors.

    I’m going to take your advice and set my focus points on her eyes (and move away from automatic). It is a gurantee that my daughter will not sit still for the session though, so should I anticipate having to reset my focus points every time she moves?

  • If you’re photographing a busy toddler, you may not want to move your focus point around a lot. Stick it in one spot for your focus point and then just point that little square to her eyes and snap as fast as you can, before she moves again. 🙂 I’ve written a couple of other articles that may also help you with a toddler: https://digital-photography-school.com/capturing-busy-little-ones-forget-the-perfect-pose-and-get-photos-you-truly-love/ and https://digital-photography-school.com/5-unposing-tips-for-kids-for-more-natural-photos/

    Good luck! Capturing that perfect moment with a toddler can be tricky, and sometimes frustrating, but OH SO worth it! 🙂

  • Kerry

    Thank you! I have captured some great moments thanks to this website’s help! I will read your other articles, thank you.

  • TomMcIn

    I am assuming you recommend a 50mm on an FX camera which would be a 35mm on a DX that gives an effective 50mm?

  • Really, either the 35mm or the 50mm would be fine on a DX. The 50mm is less expensive, and will actually compress a bit more with the added zoom on the DX, which can be a benefit with portraits. The drawback would be if you are in tight quarters and can’t move back far enough.

  • Vik Kumar

    What’s your opinion on this one please

  • What an adorable little girl caught in a fun moment. 🙂 Thank you for sharing!

  • Vik Kumar

    thanks.. she is my 2 year old. but more of i was looking if you can advise some feedback on how to improve on.

  • I love how clearly the bubbles show up, I love her expression, the colors are beautiful. The only thing that I can find that I would change is the angle of the pose. It looks a bit awkward to me. If she would have been sitting up, or standing, reaching to the bubbles, this photo would have been perfection. Honestly, though, I had to dig deep to find anything that you could improve on. It’s a great photo!

  • Vik Kumar

    Thank you I agree completely ! Though there is no excuse but this is not a posed shot. She fell down and was back up on her feet in less than 10 secs. So, i thought to shoot where ever I was standing in that little time.

    Thanks for the feedback! Your work is amazing….

    I post some at 500px.com/vikceo

  • I totally understand! Sometimes you just capture what happens! Thank you so much for the comment and the compliment. 🙂

  • Bruce Harrison

    As a hobbiest who is very new to protraits, this was a really helpful article. 🙂
    I’m still getting the basics down, but I’m having alot of fun practising.

    Here’s one of my recent portrait shots, and looking through your advice in the article I can see several things that I need to improve upon. The young girls eyes are covered by her hair and the top of her coat is overexposed. I think If I took this again I would start further away and crop it in post if needed, so I will definitly be experimenting with distance and orientation in future.

    Thanks again.

  • Lisa Wilson

    Just starting to photograph people. I normally shoot sports, and just for fun so the parents and kids have memories. this was my first try last fall, photographing my niece for her engagement pics. I got some good ones, but this was just a fun shot on a break and was my favorite.

  • Mark

    I got a 50mm for my canon recently, have been waiting to afford one for awhile, and very pleased with it. I shot this one of my son, wide open at 1.4 and although not following the rules I’m quietly pleased with it. Any thoughts on improvement Melinda, or is it more a case of just trying different styles?

  • Sudhakar Madhavan

    Here’s one of mine. Met this guy during one of my vacations to India. He had a tragic past. Wanted to capture the sadness in his eyes

  • TomMcIn

    My regular lens is an 18-200 zoom f3.5-5.6 – so it cannot be as open as my f1.8 35mm on a DX that gives me an effective 50mm. A true 50mm would give my about 85mm which is closer to what I have seen recommended for portraits in other articles. I have to either get closer or crop.
    I bought the 35mm to get the “nifty fifty” which is close to what we see with our eyes.

  • I think you accomplished that! Nicely done. 🙂

  • I love the freckles, and the eyelash shadows in the eye. Keep on practicing! I think you’ve got a nice photo here!

  • Beautiful girl and beautiful photo!

  • I try not to crop in post unless absolutely necessary, because it cuts down on the size/quality of the photo. However, it’s not always a bad thing. 🙂 You captured an adorable moment here! Nicely done.

  • Lisa Wilson

    I shoot with my Canon EF 75-200 because it has the 2.8. I do have a 50 MM 1.8, just have not messed with it much. Most comfortable with my big lens because that is what I shoot for sports. thanks for the helpful article, I will try my 50mm.

  • Olivia White

    Wow, that was a wonderful read. Thank you!
    This is my sister. . . I wanted to capture her eyes (I find them fascinating!), and the second picture is through a hollow log. I’m not sure I like it though. Thoughts?
    (She’s wearing 13th century garb for an event–all hand-sewn by her)

  • I think they are both interesting photos. The one through the log has a mystery to it, and the framing of the log around her definitely draws the attention to her. Could you perhaps edit the green cast out of it? Her face looks on the green side. 🙂 The close up is beautiful. Simple, and her eyes are compelling. Thank you for sharing!

  • Charlie Barker

    A great shot Vik, you could wait a thousand years and never get another like it, definitely one to treasure.

  • Charlie Barker

    Great shot shame you spoilt it with the copyright garbage.

  • Vik Kumar

    thank you @barrywilkinson:disqus. I did another one recently. See if you like it at 500px.com/vikceo

  • Charles Kaufman

    Nice article: I would add one more point of praise for the humble 50mm. As lenses go the 50mm prime lens is one of the sharpest made. I take a lot of pictures with a 100 f2 prime, however, one day in the park I wanted to see what the 50mm 1.4 could do — and produced one of my favorite portraits.

  • Beautiful! Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  • Nicole

    Hi there,

    I am really interested in portrait photography but as a student I’m having trouble finding people to take pictures of (I know it’s a strange problem.) I have lots of friends with kids but am not sure how to ask our where I should look to get started. Any advice?

    Thanks so much for the great article.

  • Charlie Barker

    Wow Vik so many great shots, Love Girl talk and the monochrome 1st Birthday. I really must get out more. Lol

  • If you have lots of friends with kids, that’s a gold mine right there. 🙂 Just tell your friends that you need some cute little models, and tell them you’ll give them 5 (or whatever number you determine) edited files that they can print if they will bring their child for you to photograph. Most people will let you photograph them willingly if they get free images out of it. 🙂 You might even be able to do a few portraits of the parents while they are there too, to give you practice on adults. Good luck!

  • Nicole

    Ok I’ll try that. Thanks so much!

  • This one was taken on the road while waiting for my signal to turn green.

  • Great capture!

  • Vik Kumar

    thank you Charlie for taking time and going through my work!. Really appreciate.

  • Mark

    Thank you, and I will – have just joined my local camera club, so will get plenty of chances 🙂

  • Sam

    I enjoyed reading your article. Whats your recommendation when taking indoor photos of people dancing in a big room where its not as much lighting and you cannot bounce flash off the wall. What lens would you recommend, and would it be better to use speedlite?

  • lapasan

    You are recommending a 50mm lens for a portrait because it has a wider aperture of f1.8 or even f1.4 which will produce a nice bokeh. However, if one uses an aps-c size sensor instead of a full frame one, his angle of view will increase to something like 75mm. Should one who has aps-c dslr use a 35mm lens to compensate for that 1.5 increase?

  • Julian Rodriguez

    I took this one a few weeks ago, hope you all like it 🙂

  • vivek verma

    Please tell me about this one ….

  • Ravi Kashyap

    Hello , mam , Can you please guide me regarding this portrait ?

  • Balachandar Jeldi

    Hello Melinda Smith,

    Here is one of the pic which I captured. Help me to get improve by providing your views on this.

    Thank you

  • Gina Cronin

    I took this photo at my granddaughters soccer game last week. What is your opinion

  • Great photo! I love the depth of field and her sweet smile. Nicely done. 🙂

  • Beautiful photo! I like the silhouettes of the people in the boat.

  • Great portrait! Maybe try a less cluttered background next time. I love the glasses and the little smile! What a cutie. 🙂

  • Sweet photo! I love his eyes. Nice capture!

  • Thanks for sharing!

  • Really, either the 35mm or the 50mm would be fine on a DX. The 50mm is less expensive, and will actually compress a bit more with the added zoom on the DX, which can be a benefit with portraits. The drawback would be if you are in tight quarters and can’t move back far enough.

    The biggest benefit for a beginner in getting a 50mm lens for portraits is the ability to use wider apertures. (And it is a super inexpensive way to change what one can do with the camera vs. a kit lens). If the beginner knows enough to care about focal length on an FX vs a DX, then they will know enough to make an informed decision about whether they want the 50mm or the 35mm. 🙂

    Thank you for your comment!

  • That’s definitely a tricky situation. I use a fast lens, like the 50mm 1.4, and bump up my ISO. I prefer moody grain to flash, but that’s just my preference.

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