Tips to Make your Portrait Photography Pop with Greatness

Whether you are shooting your first professional portraits, or are keen on getting some really great shots of friends and family, you will firstly need to ensure that your equipment is up to the job.

1. ISO Settings

ISO settings are often misunderstood — some photographers think that anything above ISO 100 setting, will create grainy and unpleasant effects. The important point to remember is that your portrait will be more pleasing to the eye, and easier to process later, when the ISO is set according to the lowest possibility in the given light. If you are outside you should be able to use 100 ISO setting, if you are using flash, or strobe lighting there should be no problem with 100 ISO setting.

If for any reason you feel forced to wind up the ISO to 200, 400, 600, don’t worry. That’s why it has the ability to be adjusted. The photo will work out fine, no grain and look great — so long as settings are all according to balance of light, or lack of it.

Experimenting with ISO for slightly hazy or grainy effects can be an eye opener about your own style. It doesn’t matter if Instagram users believe that “tack-sharp” is the only style in vogue. Photography is open to all types of thinking and experimentation.

Photo by Julian Howard on Unsplash

2. Aperture for Portraits

Setting the aperture correctly will ensure pin-point focus. This is a big part of getting a great shot for a portrait. In some cases you may need to set it at around F4.5 to ensure depth of field is good, make sure that the lighting allows for a clear focus point. If your lens can be set at F1.8 then this good enough when focusing on one person’s face with the intention of the plane of the face being the main part in the photo.

If you have more people in the photo, and some of them are standing behind each other, it helps to open the aperture to around F5.6 and compensate with a higher ISO setting, maybe around 200 or 400 ISO. On the other hand, think firstly about your shutter speed, maybe slowing it down to around 1/60 of a second will help to get more light into the camera, so that the sensor has time to record everything. This should really only be done when you have a tripod to ensure stability — that anti-lens-shake on modern lenses doesn’t always stop the slight blurring around the edges.

3. Shutter Speeds and Light

Setting shutter speed causes the camera to “open up” and either take in more light, therefore becoming more exposed to the light and image, or the opposite, by opening and shutting so rapidly that it will only capture the light that travels fast enough to get into the sensor area before the shutter locks down again.

A low shutter speed setting means that you are in danger of picking up blurred points in a photo when a person moves a finger or hand as you take the shot. So tell ’em to stand still, and use a tripod. This is because the low shutter speed, 1/60, opens the shutter for a longer time, causing the possibility of instability in the image.

Fast shutter speed means that a movement will be more forgiving and the camera will freeze the movement in space — like when you take a shot of a moving car and snap it so well, it looks like it’s stationary and the road is moving.

Many street photographers like to walk about with a basic shutter speed set at around 1/250, ISO 600, and aperture at F5.6– F8 (depending on the brightness of the day). This isn’t necessary for portraits, it’s a setting that allows for a quick reaction to a moving scene.

Portraits are more often set-up and the people are cooperative with the photographer — it’s just when they are over excited about the process, you have to calm them down. (kids, dogs and cats, and people who are hyper about everything in life). It is always good to compare different camera settings and consider why a particular set-up is more useful to street photographers and another set-up is better for portraits, or some other type of photography. This is how learning happenings, and you will be quicker off the mark to make snap decisions about what you need to adjust to get the shot you want.

Photo by Kal Visuals on Unsplash

If you are using speed light, then remember that your camera will most likely only allow you to set the shutter speed to a maximum of 1/250. This because of the synchronisation needed between camera and flash unit. Higher shutter speeds are too quick for the flash to throw the light onto the subject and then be caught by the sensor before the shutter closes again.

I like to use constant light for portraits, I have more control and don’t have to worry about the problem of syncing the camera and speed light. So, for this I have a 600 watt lighting unit with controls to adjust the power of wattage.

When using lighting, whether it’s flash units or constant light, remember to bring the light as close as is comfortable to the subject. The closer the light source, the softer the light will be when it hits the object. This also depends on how powerful your lighting is, most flash units and strobes should be placed closely to the subject.

Use a softbox. A white softbox cover will help to soften the harsh light.

4. Compositions in Portrait Photography

Some people like to let the sitter do as they please while the photographer follows their lead and comes up with interesting poses. Often this doesn’t work, and can lead to a pretty boring set of shots, or something that resembles a wanna be actor posing for the camera.

Talking with the sitter gives you an insight into their personality, asking questions that are designed to bring out answers that reflect their lifestyle, and their feelings about themselves. This helps in creating a good pose that will reflect the person’s character.

Despite cheerfulness being a good disposition for a portrait, a big wide smile is not a good idea. When the sitter gets into smiley-smile mode, they won’t stop, and it seems odd that a photographer should tell a person to stop smiling. It can create a bad vibe, or confusion as to why they shouldn’t smile.

Photo by Candice Picard on Unsplash

Smiling is nice. You don’t want nice photos, you, and they, want great, beautiful, special moment portraits that can be cherished for years to come.

Beauty shines through everything. Even when it’s bucketing down with rain, beauty doesn’t hide itself.

A smile hides everything else that is good about a person. A smiling face can quickly become repetitive and boring. Look for the dimples, and the glint in their eye, the small crow’s feet at the edge of the eye that appears when a person is speaking and mimicking different moods. That’s what you want in a good portrait.

Get your sitter to fold their arms, allow them to sit in a chair and slouch — slouching might look very natural and make a great shot.

An apple or an orange can suddenly change their mood and create a question. Don’t tell them why you gave it to them, just ask them to look at it, tell them to inspect it and explain to you what they think about it. It works as a distraction and allows them to be themselves.

Photo by Philip Martin on Unsplash

Your digital post-camera work will help to bring out some of the drama in your portraits, but always do your best to get the shot wanted during the session with the portrait sitter.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

The best place to get great ideas about how to pose a sitter is to browse through photographs taken by great photographers, and when you’ve done that go and take a good long look at John Singer Sargent, the painter, Otto Dix for something very different but brilliant ideas for posing people in a harsh, realistic way. Otto Dix, the painter, got his ideas about posing people from the great German photographer August Sander.

When you adjust light levels and contrast in Lightroom or Photoshop, you will find the a strong intention will help you to keep the work to a minimum. Photo editing software is amazing, and it can be a great robber of time for a photographer. Know what you want and use the software to support your aims, then work harder at getting those effects while you take your photos.

Sometimes, when you use software to adjust a colour or light in a photo, you will realise that it is something that should have been done while taking the photo. This is how you learn to be honest with yourself about your mistakes.

Having a strong intention, knowing the mood and tone that you want to achieve in a photo, will lead to less time with post processing and more fulfilment with your camera work.

Which artists and photographers you look at is your choice. Try and understand why they posed a person as they did, and why the public decided that the photo or painting is something special. This helps you become a critical-thinker with your own work. You can avoid cliches, and standard portrait poses by bringing in the power of creativity.

Finally, portrait photography is a skill. It is about trying to find the key essence, visually, to a person’s character. Street photography is very close to portrait work in that the photographer is always looking for a key element in a scene that expresses a strong idea about a situation.

Self Portrait — Sean P. Durham

Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store