Good portrait photography technique is more about connecting with the person in front of your lens than it is about photography. That said, in order to connect with your subject, you need to know your camera and portrait photography techniques really well, so that you don’t have to think hard. This frees you up to concentrate on making your subject relax and enjoy being in front of your camera.
So, here are 5 techniques that you need to learn until it comes naturally so that you can be more present and therefore a better portrait photographer.
1. Eyes are the most important part of portraits
Portrait photography techniques include capturing connection and emotion, which is the most important aspect of portrait photography, so I’ve listed it first.
As humans we want to connect to the person in the photo, to feel something, and there are two ways of achieving this:
- Body language
So eyes are very important in portrait photography.
Because eyes convey emotion, the viewer will take cues from the subject’s gaze, if the face is visible or the subject is looking to camera. Flat, lifeless eyes can ruin a photo… unless of course that’s the emotion and atmosphere you’re trying to create.
However, it’s also perfectly possible to create emotion and connection when the subject’s not looking to camera.
In which case their gaze can be used as a fantastic composition tool for leading us around the image, because it makes us follow their gaze to see what they’re looking at. Humans are curious.
2. Portrait photography composition
Because eyes are so important in photos, where you place your subject, and specifically their eyes, in a photo requires thought. Here are two composition techniques to consider for portraits:
The rule of thirds
It’s the first rule of composition that many beginner photographers learn and, while it’s not the only rule to bear in mind when composing portraits, it’s a good place to start. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the areas in an image where the lines intersect on an imaginary rule of thirds grid.
To follow the rule to the letter, if your subject is turned slightly to the side, position them in the frame so that the eye that’s closest to camera is at the intersection of the rule of thirds. Unless you want to create tension, make sure that they’re facing into frame so that they have space in front of them, rather than to the edge of the the image.
Alternatively, frame your subject so that their eye/eyes are on the top horizontal line. Or if they’re lying down, on the bottom horizontal line.
Further reading: Why you need to know the rule of thirds, and how easy it is
Center dominant eye
And because photography is full of contradictions, another great composition technique for portrait photography is to center the dominant eye in the frame.
Position your subject in the frame so that the eye that’s closest to camera is in the center of the photo. The most famous recent example of this composition technique is in Steve McCurry’s photo, “Afghan Girl”, that was on the cover of National Geographic.
Or take a look at one of the most famous portraits ever painted, the Mona Lisa.
3. Where to crop portrait photos
Portraits can be:
- full length
- three quarter length
- head and shoulders
What you exclude from a photo is as important as what you include. So, one of the critical portrait photography techniques you should know is how you crop the photo. A bad crop can ruin an image.
Luckily it’s fairly straight forward. The basic rule of thumb for cropping portraits is not to crop through a joint. So, instead of cropping at the elbow or wrist, crop half way down the forearm.
Further reading: Cropping portraits for flattering results
Now let’s have a look at the technical aspects of portrait photography techniques…
Lit by natural light to camera left and from behind the models. The position of their heads changes the portrait lighting pattern in these photos. On the left loop lighitng is used and on the right the lighting pattern is short lighting.
4. Portrait photography lighting
Regardless of whether you photograph with natural light or artificial light, such as flash or constant LED lighting, how you position your subject in relation to the light is important for two reasons. Lighting:
- Creates atmosphere
- Sculpts faces for flattering results
Dark and moody photographs have strong shadows and shadows are of course created by light. Well, to be exact, in portrait photography by facial features interrupting the flow of light and casting shadow.
Rembrandt lighting is a great portrait lighting pattern for creating moody, shadowy photos.
Light and airy photos are upbeat in atmosphere and have minimal shadows. This look is created with flat lighting.
Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know
5. Camera settings for portraits
I’d love to tell you exactly what camera settings you need to dial in for great portraits every time. That would make it so easy! But it’s more complicated than that, because there are so many factors that dictate your camera settings for each photo you take.
Regardless of what you want to achieve, the amount of available light is the number one factor in determining your camera settings for accurate exposure. So it doesn’t help that light changes constantly.
Even if you use flash to light your subject, the distance between the flash and the subject will change during a shoot. As soon as your subject moves closer to or further away from the flash, you’ll have to adjust your exposure settings.
The sunny 16 rule
For natural light portrait photography, a really quick and easy way of getting used to using manual mode is the Sunny 16 Rule.
Briefly, the Sunny 16 Rule is for photographing with natural light on sunny days and your camera settings are:
Aperture – f16
Shutter speed – 1/100
ISO – 100
Further reading: How to use the sunny 16 rule for quick exposure settings outdoors
The rule is a great starting point, but if you want to control background blur, or your subject is moving, you’ll have to change your camera settings. Essential portrait photography camera settings to know are:
- Shutter speed
Let’s take a closer look…
What aperture is best for portraits?
In portrait photography we use background blur (aka shallow depth of field) to separate the subject from the background. How blurry you like your background to be is entirely up to you. Some photographers like to blur eyerything in the background to a creamy mix of colors with no detail. Others prefer much less blur.
Aperture is one way of achieving this, specifically a wide open aperture of at most f5.6 to f1.4 is used. Just be aware that at the very wide end of the spectrum of more than f2 it can be difficult to ensure that your subject is sharp, because at these extremes the depth of field is very shallow. So, a very small area will be in focus.
In addition to that, the closer you are to your subject the shallower the depth of field will be.
Further reading: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition
I enjoy incorporating movement in my images, so I like it when the wind blows long hair. To freeze this movement I use a shutter speed of at least 1/250th.
What’s the best shutter speed for portrait photography?
While a blurry background is great for portrait photos, there’s no point if your subject isn’t sharp.
The problem with humans, especially little humans, is that we don’t stay still for very long. So it can be challenging at first to achieve sharp portraits.
When you use a shutter speed that’s too slow, movement is recorded as a blur. There are two types of movement that affect sharpness:
- Camera shake
- Subject movement
Portrait photography techniques to prevent camera shake
Even if your subject is not moving, if your shutter speed is too slow camera shake can make your image blurry. Some photographers are really good at holding a camera steady at low shutter speeds, such as below 1/60th. I’m not one of those people. The weight of my camera and lens makes it difficult for me to hold steady at even 1/80th.
Plus, 1/100th might be fine if you’re shooting at a focal length of 50mm, but it’s definitely too slow for 200mm.
The rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should be 1.5 times the focal length. In my case, I go for at least double. So, if I’m using a focal length of 200mm, I use a shutter speed of 1/400 to avoid camera shake.
Further reading: Sharp photos are not just about sharp focus
These photos were taken at shutter speeds between 1/500 and 1/1600 to freeze movement.
Portrait photography techniques to freeze movement
If your shutter speed is too slow for your subject’s movement, you’ll record movement as a blur. How fast your subject is moving will dictate how fast your shutter speed needs to be to freeze movement in portrait photography. For example:
- When photographing small children I always set my shutter speed to over 1/250th. For active kids I’d recommend at least 1/400th.
- I photograph dancers often and to ensure that I freeze movement when they leap, I use at least 1/1000th.
Further reading: Focus tips to capture moving objects in photography
Focus settings for portrait photography
In portrait photography, the most important part of the image is the person, or people, you’re photographing, so of course they need to be sharp. But there’s more to it than that.
Where to focus for sharp photos
As I mentioned at the start, we’re automatically drawn to eyes in photos – human or animal. When you greet somebody you look them in the eye and it’s the same with photos. Except in photos it’s even more specific than that, because the eye closest to camera must be sharp. So this is where your focus needs to be.
3 steps to getting sharp portraits:
- The eye is a very small area, so single point autofocus is the ideal focus area mode to use in portrait photography. I use it all the time and position the focus point on my subject’s eye that’s closest to camera.
- The next essential focus setting for sharp portraits is back button focus. If you haven’t started using back button focus, and you photograph moving subjects, this could be the answer to all your out of focus problems. It’s a game changer!
- Lastly, set your focus mode to continuous so that your camera continuously adjusts focus as either you or your subject moves.
With these focus settings, you have the best chance possible for sharp portraits.
How do I improve my portrait photography techniques?
The best way to improve your portrait photography is to get out there and photograph people. Of course it helps to read photography tutorials and watch YouTube videos, but without actually putting into practice what you learn, the knowledge won’t stick.
If everyone around you has had enough of being practiced on, photograph your pets, or your neighbours pets. Worst case scenario – practice on a teddy bear! Been there, done that. The bear didn’t mind.
For more portrait photography techniques, check out…
Further reading: 7 portrait photography tips for better people pics
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By Jane Allan
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