Struggling with soft or blurry portrait images? You’re not alone. Capturing crisp, clear, sharp portrait photography can be difficult – unless you take the right approach.
And that’s what I share in this article: My eight best tips, techniques, and secrets for tack-sharp portrait photos, including:
- The best shutter speed to prevent motion blur
- Where to focus for perfect results
- How to choose the best aperture for portraits
- Much more!
So give this article a read. Follow these guidelines. With a little practice, you’ll start to see some major improvements!
1. Use the right shutter speed to freeze motion
Soft portraits are often caused by two related issues:
If your scene features a moving subject (such as a person leaping high in the air), the movement may be too fast for your camera to capture, resulting in motion blur. And if your hands are shaking – even slightly! – when you take a photo, you may end up with blur due to camera shake.
Fortunately, these two issues have the same simple solution:
Use a fast shutter speed. The faster your shutter speed, the easier it is to freeze motion – whether it’s caused by a moving subject or an unsteady camera.
But how do you determine the best shutter speed for your situation? There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, and you may need to experiment with your shutter speed setting until you get a good result. However, here are a few tips to bear in mind.
Start with the reciprocal rule, which states that, to capture sharp images, you should set your shutter speed to the reciprocal of your focal length. So if you’re using a 50mm lens, you’ll want to set the shutter speed to at least 1/50s. And if you’re using a 200mm lens, you’ll want to set the shutter speed to at least 1/200s.
(Note: There’s nothing wrong with making your shutter speed faster than the reciprocal rule dictates. In fact, if the overall exposure can handle it, pushing your shutter speed to 1/250s and beyond is often a good idea.)
Now, the reciprocal rule will generally take care of camera shake, but it won’t handle motion blur. For that, you’ll need to increase your shutter speed further. So once you’ve determined the setting dictated by the reciprocal rule, check your scene from movement, then boost the shutter speed accordingly.
If your portrait subject is moving slowly – swishing their hair from side to side or moving their hands across their face – I’d recommend setting your shutter speed to around 1/200s, though the optimal setting will depend on your lens’s focal length and your distance from the subject, so experimentation is key.
If your subject is moving quickly – running, jumping, or dancing, for instance – I’d recommend setting your shutter speed to at least 1/500s (and maybe beyond, depending on the speed of your subject). If you’re not sure whether the portrait is sharp, be sure to review the results on your LCD, make the necessary adjustments, and only then proceed with your photoshoot.
2. Hold your camera correctly
While the reciprocal rule is great and can certainly stave off blur due to unavoidable camera shake, it only works if you’re using good handholding techniques. Poor technique will create extra motion blur, which will show up in your images, especially if you’re shooting at or just above the reciprocal-rule-recommended shutter speed.
So before you take a portrait photo, here’s what I recommend:
- Cup your left hand under the lens
- Firmly hold the camera grip using your right hand
- Keep your elbows tucked in tight
- Make sure the camera is pressed against your face rather than extended out toward the subject
Then, when you go to take a shot, press the shutter button gently (don’t hammer at it!).
Pro tip: If the light is low and you’re forced to shoot at a shutter speed below what I recommended above, then you can often get sharper results by leaning against a sturdy surface, like a tree or a wall.
3. Raise your ISO as required
When you increase the camera shutter speed, the image will get darker – unless you offset the exposure reduction by widening the aperture or boosting the ISO. While I tackle aperture settings later on in this article, I’d like to take a moment to discuss ISO settings, which can dramatically improve your portraits.
Now, understanding your camera’s ISO is simple:
The higher the ISO, the brighter the resulting photo (all else being equal).
So if you need a faster shutter speed (e.g., you’re photographing a moving subject), you can always increase your ISO. That way, your shot will turn out sharp and well-exposed.
Unfortunately, a high ISO does come with a major drawback: It creates image noise, which looks bad and reduces image quality. Modern cameras can often shoot at ISO 800, 1600, and even 3200 with minimal noise, but just bear in mind that a high ISO does have a cost. Only increase your ISO as needed!
4. Focus on the subject’s eyes
Pretty much every portrait you take should focus on the subject’s eyes.
The eyes are the windows to the soul; if you fail to capture sharp eyes, the entire image will be ruined. (On the other hand, if the eyes are crisp and the rest of the subject appears blurry, viewers will still see the image as sharp!)
If your camera offers some form of Eye AF, go ahead and test it out. It’ll automatically maintain focus on the eyes, and you’ll generally end up with a very high percentage of keepers. If your camera doesn’t offer Eye AF, I’d recommend setting your camera to focus using its center point, then using the focus-and-recompose technique to maintain sharp focus on the eyes.
Note: If your subject is turned slightly sideways, always focus on the eye that’s closest to the camera.
5. Pose your subjects along the same plane
Every image has a window of focus – a depth of field – that is sharp. If your subjects sit within the window of focus, they’ll be sharp; if your subjects stray outside the window of focus, they’ll turn blurry.
Of course, this won’t be an issue if you’re photographing a single subject. Focus on the eyes, and your subject is guaranteed to turn out sharp.
But when you’re capturing group shots, keeping every subject sharp can be tricky. If one subject is a few feet from the camera while another subject is far in the background, one (or both) will turn out blurry, which is far from ideal.
That’s why I recommend positioning everyone in a group photo at an equal distance from the camera. In other words, keep each and every subject in a straight line, like this:
Pro tip: If you’re forced to stagger your subjects, make sure you use a narrower aperture, and be sure to check focus on the nearest and farthest person (using your LCD) before moving on.
6. When in doubt, use a narrow(er) aperture
Choosing an aperture in portrait photography is tough. On the one hand, a wide aperture creates beautiful background bokeh and refined shallow depth of field effects. On the other hand, a wide aperture shrinks the plane of focus, which makes it far easier to miss focus on the eyes (and to miss focus when doing a group shot, too).
So what do you do? I’d recommend evaluating each scene. Ask yourself: Is there a large area that I need to keep sharp? Or can I risk narrowing the plane of focus for a more artistic look?
When you’re working with single subjects and your camera offers good autofocus capabilities, it’s generally safe to shoot with a wide aperture. However, if you’re struggling to nail focus and/or you’re working with several subjects, narrowing the aperture is the better choice.
7. Choose the right lens
Not all portrait lenses are equally sharp. So if you’re doing everything else right, it’s worth asking yourself: Might the issue be with my equipment?
Kit lenses tend to be on the softer side, whereas standard primes (such as 50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8 lenses) are often consistently sharp, and they don’t cost a whole lot, either. So if you’re just starting out with portrait photography, consider picking up one (or more) prime lenses.
Additionally, if you frequently shoot in low-light situations, I’d recommend picking a lens with image stabilization technology; that way, the lens will compensate for camera shake, and you can work at extremely slow shutter speeds with generally great results!
8. Clean your gear
While it’s rare that dirt, dust, and grime cause a noticeable reduction in image quality, it’s certainly not impossible.
So make sure you clean your lenses regularly and take steps to keep your camera sensor (relatively) spotless. If you’re afraid to clean your equipment, that’s okay, too; just take your equipment to a local camera shop and they’ll handle it for you!
Pro tip: If you’re ever shooting portraits in bad weather (e.g., snow, sleet, or rain), make sure you use a hood and regularly check the front of your lens. Precipitation can build up on your lens’s front element, and it can dramatically soften your images (even as you remain none the wiser)!
Sharp portrait photography tips: final words
Well, there you have it:
Eight simple techniques to make your portrait photos ultra-sharp. So the next time you’re out on a shoot, think about these steps – and capture some crisp photos!
What type of portraits do you plan to shoot? Which of these tips will you use first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!