15 Ridiculously Useful Tips for Taking Stunning Portrait Photographs

Michael Sand
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Camera Settings for Portrait Photographs

Taking a great portrait photo is all about pleasing the viewer. The viewer sees the subject matter, the composition, and the story. With minimal experience, you can have all of these; and yet, not capture anything.

To capture emotion, passion, and the life in the portrait, stick with high-quality gear. It is, after all, your primary tool of capture. The difference is apparent in good quality gear.

Thinking about what and how you want to portray, you want to capture, helps you concentrate on the end result.

Learn how to use your camera to its maximum potential and learn the various features that will make your photography efforts more fruitful.

Tip 1: On Aperture

Shutter Speed, and ISO.

Using the right aperture, shutter speed, and ISO basically translate as getting the most out of the light you have. If you set the correct aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, you will get a great photo with the least amount of work to do in post processing.

So to give you a basic guideline, If you are in a position where you cannot change all three at the same time for whatever reason – low light, for example, but you need a fast shutter speed and low ISO for low noise, it is better to increase the aperture, which will also give you a shallower depth of field.

If you are in a position where all three can be changed at the same time – and you usually are – adjust them to get the result you like.

Adjusting aperture, shutter speed, and ISO is one of the most essential skills for a photographer to know, especially for beginners. It is better to know three out of three than two out of three.

Here you will find the relationship between the three main camera settings, showing how they change in relation to one another and how they affect your image.

Tip 2: On Shutter Speed

Shutter speed controls the amount of light reaching your camera sensor and is therefore an important tool if you want to capture images with lower shutter speeds.

A key principle in dark portrait photography is to use a longer shutter speed when you want to eliminate ambient light from the shot.

A couple of handy shutter speed rules are:

Use a faster shutter speed in low light conditions if you want to freeze motion.

Use a slower shutter speed at night when you want to show motion and ambient light.

Tip 3: On ISO

Film Speed or Digital Sensitivity.

Most photographers will tend to look at you cross-eyed if you hear them say “ISO,” as it’s usually spelled. What you’re talking about is your “film speed.” This is one of the key settings to understand when you’re shooting at night.

A camera’s ISO is how sensitive it is to light. The higher the number, the more sensitive. So ISO 400 is twice as sensitive to light as ISO 200, and ISO 800 is twice as sensitive to light as ISO 400.

Your camera’s ISO doubles with every jump of one number. The lower the ISO, the less sensitive it is to light. So the lightest setting of 100 is the least sensitive of them all.

There’s a trade-off: The lower you set your ISO, the less sensitive your camera is to light. But the higher your ISO, the more digitally noisy your photos will be.

For example, if you’re shooting at night or indoors, you need to raise your ISO to a higher setting to let the camera illuminate your scene. But that higher setting will also cause digital noise.

Tip 4: On Focus

When taking portraits throughout the day, there’s a lot of need to be able to switch the camera mode from auto to manual. Usually, the focus is on automatic, as it allows the camera to choose what it wants to focus on. But when you’re taking portraits of people, in most cases, you need to decide where to focus.

If you want to use the face as an interesting point of convergence, you’ll have to have the most interesting point in focus. It’s up to you to determine what that is but it’s not always the eyes.

Landscape and night photography call for different techniques.

Equipment Tips for Portrait Photographs

Many pictures have one thing in common and that is a person or persons sitting somewhere. While you might have found a good location, the person who is performing the main subject in the photograph isn't quite as important as the people in a group photograph. Facial expressions are the driving force behind a good photo. People can take up the most difficult subject matter to photograph, but if they don't have a good facial expression, then the shot is ruined.

Tip 5: On Lenses

When you are starting out, there is no denying the appeal of the seamless zoom lens.

To be able to pull out and get up close, then to step back and capture the sweep of surprise can be very captivating.

However, good results from a zoom lens tend to depend heavily upon the conditions in which it is used.

If the light is low, or the distance to your subject is great, you might have problems.

Fly by wire also brings with it a more instinctive shooting style, as you need to be more spontaneous with the way you move your camera.

If you are lucky, you will be able to hand-hold your camera at the same speed as your subject. However, you’d be really lucky, and it’s a matter of not just steadiness of hand, but of having a monopod or tripod to hand.

The nature of the lens makes it easier to capture those candid expressions which most other lenses struggle to bring out.

So the zoom lens is a great one to have in your kit bag, if only you can make it work for you.

Tip 6: On Tripods

Angles, Photoshop and Other Computer Stuff.

Tripods are very useful for getting your camera in the right place for a proper portrait photograph.

Having the camera set on a tripod will ensure that you don’t move the camera when you press the shutter, which will keep your subjects in sharp focus.

If you invest in a tripod, invest in a good one that is sturdy. I use a name-brand Bogen tripod. Check out the options at your local camera store. The tripod I use has the camera mount at the top, and the legs fold out underneath into a triangular shape. This is how the initial shot was framed when I used a tripod to take the photograph.

Then, when the shutter was pressed, the camera went down to this angle, framed by the tall trees on either side.

Because there was a good amount of sunlight on the subject, I only had to use fill flash and paint in a little shadow under the eyes during my image editing session.

My rule of thumb is that I use fill flash for anybody and anything above 3 feet.

This image has been retouched, but I have purposely left in a few flaws that communicate a more personal image.

Tip 7: On Remote Triggers

Here's one extra tip for your camera bag. Get a small remote trigger, that will also allow you to use the self-timer, which is its primary purpose.

You can also use this remote trigger for a lot of other things, like packing the camera up after you've shot a bunch. When I'm using a tripod, I often use the remote trigger to take photos, and then when I'm done, I'll attach the remote trigger to the camera, set it to the self-timer, then run up to the group, waiting for the shot.

Once the photo is taken, the camera is on the tripod and I'm in the shot, my hands are free to run back and get into my own position.

Creative Ways to Take Stunning Portraits

The key to taking beautiful portraits lies in lighting, composition and angle.

Lighting

The amount of light provided by your flash unit should be just enough to illuminate the face without making it too dull.

If the lighting is too bright, it may wash out the face and you may end up with a picture that has unflattering shadows.

Your goal is to create soft, even light that will illuminate the entire face.

When you’re taking portraits outdoors, the golden rule is to make sure the light source is always coming from the side, so the shadows are not cast directly onto the face which often leads to visible shadows.

Your goal is to create soft, even light that will illuminate the entire face.

As you can see in the photo above, since the light is coming from the top, the shadows are cast onto the face which makes for an unnatural look.

In the photo on the right, the light source is coming from the left which makes for a perfect portrait picture. The light is soft, even, and creates a nice glow.

The type of light also plays a huge role in defining the mood of your portrait pictures, for example, broad and diffused light can give your portraits a warm and soft feel which is perfectly suitable for family portraits.

Tip 8: Get a New Perspective

It’s one that works well with portraits of friends and family, as well as individual shots of kids. As we’ve already said, you are unlikely to get your subject to follow your instructions closely, so to get the shot you want, you need to take a different angle. Try from a slightly higher angle than your subject (if you are shooting someone who is sitting), or getting down low for a child.

Use some unconventional props to achieve this shot. Try lying on the floor for a child’s portrait or get your subject to lie on the floor or even on their back. Use your legs and head to prop up your camera for a great perspective. This also works for group shots, either getting kids to take a seat on each other’s knees or lying on the floor to get down to their level.

Tip 9: The Eyes

Some portrait photographers go to great lengths to avoid accentuating the eyes in their shots.

Other photographers will analyze all the details of a face, including eyes, and then compose in such a way as to get a natural focus on the eyes, since that’s where the viewer’s attention is drawn.

Ultimately, if you focus on someone’s eyes in a portrait, you want those eyes to be as perfect as possible. You can’t do that if you don’t give your subject enough time to put on their makeup.

Some photographers will use a very soft light of their choosing to cast pleasing shadows on the face. Shadows around the eye area will make a person look more “awake” and will create natural highlights around the eyes.

Other photographers prefer to use an in-your-face lighting technique called “Split Lighting.” Split lighting involves lighting the subject with a strong light source coming from the side, with the intent that the light source will create a shadow on half of the face and a bright highlight on the other. In the case of the eyes, this technique creates eyes that are surrounded by darkness, since the eyes are the center of attention.

Tip 10: Try Different Lighting

Try to shoot from a low angle, looking upwards. This will remove the shadows around the eyes and nose.

Tip 11: Shoot Candidly

Shoot candidly. People often forget that they're in front of the camera, forget to pose and let their true personality shine through.

You want the photos to look as if they were taken by your friend. You should also be shooting your subjects in family and non-intimate moments. Avoid shooting in posed photography situations as they are a "waste of time."

For example, you shouldn't shoot your subject while they are walking down the aisle, during a job interview or while they are sitting in a posh waiting area. Instead, follow them around and shoot candid photos. Look for subtle, interesting moments when they are unguarded to capture more natural, emotional portraits.

"Candid moments don't happen just after we snap a group pose. They happen in between those group shots. You have to seize them."

Tip 12: Use Props

Props can be anything. What you need is your imagination and you can come up with really interesting items to use as props in your portrait pictures.

Some popular props include discarded shoes, empty books, jackets, neckties, scarves, hats, sunglasses, glass bottles, vases, dusty old mugs, unusual bottles, unique shells, interesting rocks or stones, a guitar, a smartphone, an umbrella, gloves, a feather duster, and many others.

A few more tips to make use of props interesting in posing are:

Sit on props if possible.

Toss a prop behind you and then lie down with your face towards the camera.

Try balancing props on a concrete block or on a chair. It will make for an interesting shot.

Consider varying the color of the prop you use.

Tip 13: Create a Series

The series photograph captures your remarkable moment.

For example, an eye contact of an attractive stranger in the crowd, the smile of a good friend in your camera or a funny on-the-go moment.

How would you feel if all these moments were lost forever when you click the shutter button once?

If the memory is too precious to just be buried under piles of your photographs, it is a good idea to capture them in a series.

Keep in mind, however, that when you do a series of pictures, you have to make sure your hand movements are consistent for each picture you take.

That will make it easier for you to pick out your favorites at the end.

Tip 14: Use a Wide Angle

A wide angle lens (or short focal length lens) allows you to get a lot more in the frame. This will include more of the background, which makes the subject(s) stand out more.

This technique works best on smaller groups of people or when you are shooting in an intimate setting.

If you were in a large group or in an open area, you’d want to stick to the 50mm lens.

Tip 15: Use a Different Angle

A common mistake people make is taking photos from the same spot for all their photos. It’s easy to take a photo of your subject from a standing position in front of them. But it is the one area that makes sense for taking photos from.

Why not stand on something or get a different angle? If you are shooting friends or close family, then this is a great way to take photos you’ve never taken before. You can even get up high and shoot down on them to make the people look tiny.

The only problem is that you’ll have to get a bit creative with how you shoot your photo to make it look good.