10 Genius Portrait Photography Tips

Are you struggling with getting great images in portrait photography? With a few simple tricks, you can take sharper pictures, speed up your workflow and much more. The following 10 tips will make you photos stand out among average photographers.

1. Focus at the eyes

Remember to always focus the eyes when taking a portrait photograph

Sharpness in the eyes is the most important element in portrait photography. Almost everyone looks into the subject’s eyes right away. This is the place where you give your first impression to the viewer and you certainly don’t want to ruin it. Therefore, the eyes should be tack sharp, unless you have a different artistic vision.

You’re probably saying, “This is easy! I can just select a single focusing point and lock the focus at the eyes.” Yes, this is true — but that’s only half the battle. The secret formula is to focus between the pupil and the white of the eyes. That’s where the most contrast exists and that is the place where your camera is going to nail the focus.

2. Use a higher f-stop (aperture)

Using a higher f stop (aperture) gives you more depth of field

There is no point to getting sharp eyes in the frame when everything else is blurry (unless you are doing this for artistic reasons). As easy as this may sound, my second tip to you is to use a high f-stop.

As a quick recap, a higher f-stop (aka aperture) gives you more depth of field in your photograph. In English, that means more areas of your picture is going to be in focus. On the other hand, if you use a low f-stop (such as f/2.8), focusing on the eyes might make the nose or face blurry.

So what is generally a good f-stop to use for portrait photography? Start with f/8 and go from there.

3. Shoot in manual mode

Shooting in manual mode on location is one of the best choice for photographers!

Don’t let the word “manual” scare you away. Also, don’t think you should use manual mode only in a controlled environment such as a photography studio. That’s certainly not the case.

You can use manual mode  in all situations, such as an on-location portraits, newborn photography, wedding photography and more. There is no limit!

The benefit of shooting in manual mode is that your result is always consistent. But what specific settings are best? Well, each situation differs, so it depends. I always have my shutter speed set at 1/125 second at ISO 200. This gives me more room to go up or down with my shutter speed and ISO.

I then have an aperture in mind. Do I want a shallow depth of field so the background is blurry? Or do I want more things in focus? I recommend starting with f/4, ISO 125 and 1/125. If the picture is too dark, slow down the shutter speed or increase the ISO (or do both). If the picture is too bright, use a faster shutter speed or decrease the ISO (or do both).

After you get used to doing, this you should be able to get the correct exposure within three test shots.

4. Shoot below the subject’s eye level

Shoot just a little below eye level to achieve best result!

This is one of the golden rules in portrait photography, and I wish somebody told me this when I started. To make your subject more flattering in the picture, shoot right below his or her eye level. But don’t go so low so that your subject has to look down to see the camera.

5. Use off-camera flash

Learn off camera flash to take picture like this even in low light situation

If you want to take above-average photographs, you need to know how to create light instead of relying the sun all the time.

One common reason for using flash is to shoot in a low-light situation. But the main reason of using off-camera flash is to add drama, contrast and even hide areas in the frame. To keep it simple, once you know how to trigger your flash off camera, set the power to 1/16. Your camera settings should match one ones described in number 3 above. Take a test shot and adjust the flash power accordingly to get your subject the right exposure you desire.

6. Use softboxes

Softbox is great for producing soft even light on your subject

If you add flash, the next thing to add is a flash modifier such as a softbox. A bare flash casts too much harsh light to your subject. The light it produces creates obvious falloff between bright and dark areas and the light does not spread evenly.

If this is hard to understand, think of yourself standing under the bright sun at noon. You see obvious shadows underneath your nose, your eyebrow and your chin. Now imagine you are standing under an overcast sky. You still see shadows underneath your nose and eyebrow, but they’re less obvious. The light seems to wrap around you and there’s mild falloff between bright and dark areas. This is what a softbox does.

7. Be careful when recomposing

When recomposing, do not tilt your camera. Only slide it otherwise you will change the plane of focus.

When recomposing, especially after you lock your focus, be careful not to step towards or away from your subject. This is going to change the range and will affect the sharpness of your picture. Always re-focus if you are unsure and do not tilt your camera to ensure accurate focus.

8. Don’t cut off limbs

Don't cut off your subjects limbs

One simple thing to make a big difference in portrait photography is not to cut off your subject’s limbs. The human eyes has a tendency to search for missing pieces and you don’t want to create distraction to the viewer.

9. Use negative space

One of the best portrait composition is to use negative space

When it comes to portrait photography, one of the most common compositions is the use of negative space. This technique defines and emphasizes the subject of a photo. It also draws the viewer’s attention and gives a breathing room for the eyes to take a rest.

10. Pose your subjects confidently

Last but not least, as the photographer you need to know how to pose your subject. That is the same even if you are just starting out and don’t know how to pose subjects. Do some research before your photo session and have a few poses in mind. The Craftsy class The Essential Guide to Posing is a great starting place for beginners.

In the worst case scenario, if you have used up all your ideas, be confident and keep going! Go with the flow and let your subject pose naturally. Sometimes you may even surprise yourself.

There is certainly more to know about portrait photography, but these tips will benefit you the most in the shortest amount of time. Be sure to apply those techniques, and share your photos on Craftsy so we can see how they’re helping your images.

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