Tips for Getting Your Portraits Right In-Camera

Getting your portraits right in-camera is a skill that every portrait photographer should strive to develop. Doing so will save you time and improve your photography across the board.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t post-process your images, and it doesn’t mean that Photoshop is cheating. But by putting in the extra time and effort at the capture stage, there will be less post-processing to do.

It’s also good if you have certain post-production techniques in mind. If you are able to shoot to the requirements of the technique (that is, if you’re able to get it right in-camera), then the whole process will be easier.

Putting extra effort in at the capture stage will help you to get the best results possible straight out of the camera. If you take a lot of portraits, this will wind up saving you hours upon hours of time in the post processing stages.

This article will provide you with a series of tips to help you create better portrait images during the capture stage of the process. It should be noted that the points discussed here fall firmly on the technical side of things. Subjective things like composition, posing, expression, etc., won’t be discussed.

Also, nothing discussed here is a rule. I would hesitate to even call it a guideline. If you try something here that doesn’t get you the results you are after, that just means it’s the wrong tool for the job. By all means, do something else. 

Aperture

One of the easiest things you can do in the pursuit of getting your portraits right in-camera is to prioritize sharpness. One of the easiest ways to do this is to choose the right aperture.

Shooting wide-open can be great in low-light conditions, and it can also provide a nice shallow depth of field for aesthetic purposes. The trade-off comes in terms of getting the focus right. The focal plane of a wide aperture lens (f/1.8, f/1.4, etc.) is very, very narrow, making it very easy to miss the focus on your subject’s eyes.

Left: Shot at f/4, this image has a shallow depth of field. Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro | 50mm | 1/125 sec | f/4 | ISO 100

Right: Shot at f/14, this image is sharp from front to back. Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 35mm | 1/125 sec | f/14 | ISO 100

A good way to combat this is to choose a smaller aperture. By selecting an aperture around f/5.6 or f/8, ensuring the focus is where you want it to be becomes much easier. When you’re starting out, this can be the difference between a couple of sharp images (or even no sharp images) gained out of luck and a memory card full of them. 

Again, this is not a rule, and shooting wide open is fun and has plenty of its own merits. But that doesn’t mean you should always shoot wide open

Taking control of the light

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Photography is light.” It’s everywhere, but it cannot be repeated enough. If you want to take better photos, you need to learn to take control of the light. This is especially important for portraits. 

Natural light

With natural light, you will want to learn how to find the light with the qualities best-suited to the portrait you want to create.

For the most part, you will want to avoid shooting in midday sun. Instead, learn to find patches of soft light. This can be an area of open shade, it can be window light, or it can be garage door lighting. 

Looking for situations like this overcast day, where the light is more flattering for portraits, is a key skill to develop. Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 | 85mm | 1/320 sec | f/1.8 | ISO 200

Studio lighting

In the studio, you will have a somewhat easier time of things.

After all, a studio should be designed from the ground up for you to alter the light at will. Use the right modifiers, learn some of the basic lighting patterns, and use modeling lights whenever possible. All of these will make it easier for you to take control of the lighting in your portraits. 

Studio lighting is a lot easier to control as you are in charge of everything, but there are a lot of options to sort through. Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 35mm | 1/125 sec | f/14 | ISO 100

Flattering light

Another thing about light that is important when getting your portraits right in-camera is whether or not the light is flattering. While this is quite a subjective topic, there are a few things for you to keep in mind that will help you to get more flattering light. 

Light from above

In most natural circumstances, we humans are lit from above. This is how we generally see other people. Lighting your subject from other angles will result in oddly-placed shadows that won’t feel right to your viewer.

By placing the main light source above your subject, you are working to ensure that you are presenting your subjects in a way that people will recognize. 

Lighting from above will help to ensure that your studio lighting looks more natural. Also, bringing the light source in close softens the light, making it more flattering.

Soft light

As mentioned, using a soft light source will help you get more flattering results. This will reduce the overall contrast in your images, and help to reduce the appearance of skin textures in your portraits. It will also help to make the transitions from shadows to highlights smoother. 

Using as soft a light source as possible reduces contrast and provides more flattering light for your subjects. Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 35mm | 1/125 sec | f/5.6 | ISO 100

Lens choice

Selecting a focal length suitable for portraiture is another important thing that will help you get your portraits right in camera.

The focal length you choose will dictate how your images are distorted. At the extreme ends, wide-angle and long telephoto lenses cause significant distortion in your images. In order to avoid this, you will find that most portraits are taken at a focal length somewhere between 50mm and 135mm. As a general guide, you can’t go wrong by selecting a focal length in that range. 

Left: With a focal length of 35mm (taken up close), you should be able to see the distortion on the subject’s face caused by the wider angle lens. Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 35mm | 1/125 sec | f/8 | ISO 200

Right: A 50mm focal length is a safer choice for portraits and is close to how the human eye sees. Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro | 50mm | 1/125 sec | f/5.6 | ISO 100

Now, that is, once again, not a rule. There are some amazing examples of portraits taken at extremely wide focal lengths, just as there are plenty of portrait examples taken with much longer focal lengths. If you think an extreme focal length is right for your portrait, go ahead and try it. 

While you can use extreme focal lengths (such as 16mm, used in the photo above) if you want to, you will find that it’s usually best to stick to more traditional focal lengths for most purposes. Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 16mm | 1/125 sec | f/5.6 | ISO 100

Perspective and viewpoint

Your viewpoint as the photographer has a huge impact on your portrait images, and there are a few things you can do and avoid to help you get better portraits. 

Viewing angle

For the most part, try to keep your lens at the same level or below the level of your subject’s eyes. Shooting above and downward toward your subject has the effect of making your subject appear vulnerable and weak.  

(This is my bias speaking. I really don’t like taking photos from above, but it is still not a rule.)

For stronger portraits, try to avoid that.

Left: Here, the camera was on a level with the floor. You can see the mild distortion this viewpoint has caused; the subject appears to be falling backward. Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 | 85mm | 1/160 sec | f/9 | ISO 100

Right: Bringing the camera up to navel-height has removed the distortion. Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 | 85mm | 1/160 sec | f/9 | ISO 100

Distortion

Just like when you are photographing buildings, having your camera not level to the ground can cause distortion in your images.

Converging verticals on a human subject look even weirder than they do on buildings. If you are shooting from above your subject, this can lead to distorted facial features. If you are shooting from below, it can cause distortions of the legs, arms, and torso that just won’t look right to your viewer.

Some of this can be mitigated by selecting a longer focal length or stepping further away from your subject, but this won’t completely prevent distortion. To avoid any of this distortion in close-up portraits, shoot from eye-level or just below eye-level. To avoid it in half-length to full-length portraits, shoot from the level of your subject’s navel. 

Exposure

For the most part, exposure is another subjective topic. There is often no right or wrong exposure, but if you’re starting out with portraits, there are a few things that will help you along the way. 

To ensure that you are retaining all of the details in your images, take test shots and watch the histogram as you are building your scene. Here, the spike on the left is the background, and the rest of the tones fall well within the two sides of the histogram, denoting relatively low contrast.

Portraits can have a lot of contrast in them. Just imagine a subject with light-colored hair who’s wearing a black shirt. For the best outcome, you will want to ensure that the exposure retains details in both extremes. 

If you have access to them, tools like the light meter and the ColorChecker Passport shown above will help to give you accurate exposures and colors just about every time.

To ensure that you have retained all the details in your images, you can refer to the histogram on the back of your camera. A simple way to use this is to make sure that the information depicted by the histogram does not go past either the left-hand or the right-hand sides of the graph.

If the histogram goes off the right-hand side, your image will be overexposed and you will be missing details in the highlights of your image. If the histogram goes off the left-hand side, your image will be underexposed and you will be missing details in the shadows. 

Manipulate the exposure

Sometimes, you won’t be able to retain all the detail in a given scene, as the contrast will be too high. In order to keep your shadows and highlights from clipping, you will want to manipulate the scene. There are a lot of ways you can do this.

You can use a reflector to bounce light into areas of the scene that are too dark, thus reducing the overall contrast of the scene. You could do the same with flash as fill light

Using a reflector is a great way to help control the contrast in your images. Here, a piece of polystyrene (styrofoam) board from a package did the job and didn’t cost anything.

You could also use a diffuser in front of your main light source to soften the light and reduce the overall contrast in the frame. This works with both natural light and studio strobes. 

Of course, in a studio, you could always opt to use a bigger modifier, or move your light source closer to your subject. Both of these have the effect of softening the light and reducing the overall contrast in your scene. 

To soften your light, use bigger modifiers or bring them in close. Alternatively, as shown in the image above, do both and add a reflector for good measure.

If you are new to portraits but familiar with other aspects of photography, you can think of this as similar to using graduated neutral density filters in landscapes.

By placing a graduated neutral density filter in front of the lens, you are (usually) increasing the exposure time needed for one part of the image (usually the sky) so that it falls at a value closer to the foreground, reducing the contrast in the image by however many stops the filter represents.

You can think of these tools for portraits in the same way, except that they manipulate the actual light in the scene in front of you, rather than fitting onto the lens and manipulating the final exposure. 

End

I feel the need to reemphasize that this article is in no way anti-post processing. Doing what you can at the capture stage is simply about better camera craft and obtaining a better starting point. Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 35mm | 1/125 sec | f/5.6 | ISO 100

While this article is definitely not a complete and exhaustive guide to portrait techniques, these few basic tips should help you get your portraits right in camera. If you take your time to be mindful of your choices regarding camera settings, lighting, and exposure, you will start to find that you need to spend much less time in post-production. 

Of course, if there are any tips that you use to get your portraits right in-camera, please feel free to leave them in a comment. 

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John McIntire is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.
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