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Learner's Tips For Shooting Great Portraits

by Chris Gampat on 02/04/2010

Alex in Central Park With Polaroid Look

So you want to take portraits? Great! There are a couple of basic tips and reminders that you should always check before you press that shutter button. Now that you’ve learned some of the terminology you can put it to good use. To aid with the process, here are a couple of basic tips for shooting portraits in the studio or anywhere else.

Get the Right Lens

Shooting portraits with a DSLR requires first and foremost, the correct lenses. The reason why your lenses are so important are for premium sharpness, detail, depth of field, etc. Here are the most popular and affordable portrait lenses for different systems:

Canon- 50mm F1.4 for a cropped sensor camera (7D, 50D, T1i) and the 85mm F1.8 for Full frame (5D Mk II). An alternative can be the 50mm F1.8.

Nikon- 50mm F1.4 for cropped sensor camera (D300s, D90) and 85mm F1.4 for Full Frame (D700)

Sony/Minolta- 50mm F1.4 for cropped sensor (A230) and 85mm F1.4 for Full Frame (A850)

Pentax- 50mm F1.4 For all their cameras.

Olympus/Panasonic Four Thirds- 50mm F2 For all their digital cameras

Olympus/Panasonic Micro Four Thirds- Panasonic Leica 45mm F2.8 For all their cameras

Stop the Lens Down

What this means is closing the aperture/F stop. If you’re using flashes, you should use your camera TTL or E-TTL settings to get this right. Usually, some lenses are closed down to F4 or beyond to get full sharpness of the facial features but balance that with a blurry background (bokeh.) You should be able to see all this through the viewfinder or LCD.

If you’re shooting at a slow shutter speed, then use a tripod for best results. If you’re not, then hold steady or try to raise your flash output so you can raise your shutter speed. This can be done via your flash (for later and more advanced ones like Canon’s 430 EX II) or through your camera.

Get the Right Light

The Gary Fong Lightsphere is Freakin' Awesome
Great portraits need to be lit correctly. For that you need to be able to take careful notice of how the light is around you. If the sun is behind your subject, then you’re going to need to set your camera settings correctly so that they don’t come out looking too dark. Or you could just use a flash.

Generally, having your subject look into the sun can cause them to squint and that doesn’t make for great photos. Flash is probably your best bet unless you have studio strobes available.

To not overpower your subject with too much lighting, I recommend the Gary Fong Lightsphere. I used it to take the picture above.

Focusing Strategies

Alex and Serenity
Always make sure the eyes are perfectly and sharply in focus. Try to balance this with perhaps a blurred background if you can.

That’s really the most effective way of shooting portraits. The eyes always tell us quite a bit. Be sure to prep your model’s mentality as well for the type of photo you’re looking to shoot.

Make It Fun

Shannon Making a Funny Face

Fun portraits are not only fun to shoot but also make for photos that are stared at much longer. To make it fun, try doing something non-traditional in your shot. Perhaps make funny faces, dress up differently, etc.

Be creative and random.

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