Looking to get started in portrait photography? While portraiture – with all its lingo, its gear, and its camera settings – can seem complex, it isn’t as tough as you might think. With a little practice, a willingness to work hard, and a few key pieces of information, you’ll be capturing stunning portraits in no time at all.
And while I can’t force you to practice, I can offer you a handful of essential portrait photography tips for beginners that’ll instantly improve your images. Let’s dive right in!
1. Get yourself a 50mm lens
The 50mm lens – sometimes known as the “nifty fifty” – is inexpensive, versatile, and a great pick for portrait photography beginners. No, it’s not the absolute best lens for portrait sessions, but it’ll perform well, and it won’t vanish your bank account along the way.
Plus, once you’ve gotten the hang of a 50mm lens, you’ll have a better sense of the other lenses you should invest in – yet even as you expand your bag of gear, you’ll never regret having a nice 50mm prime in your bag.
You might be wondering: Can’t I just use the lens that came with my beginner camera? What’s wrong with that model?
While such “kit” lenses aren’t necessarily bad, they don’t allow you to open the aperture very far, which limits your ability to create beautiful background blur. You’ve probably admired portraits with a creamy, blurred background, like this:
Do you see how the subject just pops off the page? That’s thanks to an ultra-wide aperture (between f/1.2 and f/2.8). And while you’ll get a sufficiently wide aperture on a 50mm prime lens, you generally won’t find it on your kit lens. (It can probably only go down to f/3.5, and if you zoom the lens to its longest focal length, the widest aperture will likely change to f/5, which is even worse!)
So go ahead and check out some 50mm lenses. I’d recommend purchasing a 50mm f/1.4 option, but if you’re really unsure about what you want and whether you’re a fan of the 50mm field of view, try the 50mm f/1.8. It’s one of the least expensive lenses you’ll ever find, and it’ll still give you a lot of bang for your buck. Trust me! (In fact, if I could only choose one lens to have in my camera bag for the rest of my life, it would be a 50mm model.)
2. Focus on the eyes
In portrait photography, it’s essential that you nail focus on the subject’s eyes. If the eyes are sharp, then the whole image tends to look great – but if the eyes are blurry, then the shot is often ruined.
I’d recommend setting your camera to its AF-S mode (sometimes known as One-Shot AF). Then switch the AF area mode until you can select a single AF point. Adjust the AF point until it hovers over the eyes, and press down the shutter button halfway to lock focus.
Note: If one eye is closer to the camera than the other, make sure you focus on that one. It’s more important that the nearer eye looks sharp!
By the way, many mirrorless cameras do offer eye-tracking AF, which is designed to lock focus on the eyes even as your subject moves around the frame. Its effectiveness varies from model to model, however, so I’d recommend checking your camera manual to see whether you have access to such a mode – and if you do, try it out in a low-pressure situation. If you like the setting, then use it; if it doesn’t work great, then rely on the method of focusing I shared above.
If you’re shooting up close with an ultra-wide aperture, you’ll need to be extra cautious. The wide aperture will create a narrow plane of focus, which can easily cause the eyes to turn out blurry (even if they look sharp in the viewfinder). Here, it’s important to take plenty of shots as insurance, and when you’re just starting out, I’d recommend checking the preview on the back of your camera and zooming in to ensure you’ve nailed focus.
One more quick tip: If possible, try to position your subject so they have some catchlights (or sparkle) in their eyes. After all, the eyes are the window to the soul! The more they stand out, the better.
3. Experiment with different distances and orientations
As a portrait photography beginner, it’s easy to get stuck in the habit of doing things the same way. For instance, you might always shoot from a distance to ensure the subject’s entire body appears in the portrait, you might always shoot in a vertical or horizontal orientation, or you might always try to fill the frame with the subject’s face. While none of these approaches are wrong, it’s good to vary your images over time, so I encourage you to experiment with different options, even when you’re just getting started.
If you always like to shoot up close, try stepping back a bit to include the surroundings. If you always like to shoot vertically, turn your camera and take some horizontal photos. And if you always like to shoot from a distance, get ultra-close and see what you can capture. It’s this experimental mentality that can make a huge difference!
Whatever you do, just avoid getting into a rut. Regularly review your images, and if you notice consistent similarities, make an effort to change things up!
4. Try to create a “true” portrait
You can stick anyone in front of a nice backdrop, sit them on a stool, tell them to smile, and call it a portrait. But if you want to really impress viewers (and clients) with your portrait photography skills, it’s important to use your talents to truly show who your subject is and what they’re about. I love portraits that tell a true story about my subject because it’s how I can capture something worth keeping.
So before setting up your gear and hitting that shutter button, get to know your subject. Discover their favorite hobbies, observe their behaviors, and learn what they’re like. Then use that knowledge to create an authentic portrait – one that gives viewers a look at who the subject actually is.
How do you create a portrait that reveals truth? You can do it with props, expressions, or posing! For instance, if your subject is passionate about playing a musical instrument, you might simply include the instrument in the photo with them. And if your subject is sunny and optimistic all the time, you can highlight their smile in your compositions.
Remember that your job is to create a portrait that will be treasured by everyone who knows your subject. But it’s also your job to create a portrait that can be appreciated by those who don’t know your subject. The best portraits help the viewer understand a little bit about the subject, even if they’ve never met.
5. Think about the lighting
If you want to capture a beautiful portrait, then you need good light on your subject’s face; this is essential.
In fact, I look for good lighting before I look for a good background! If the background is bad, you can always adjust your angle or use a wide aperture for better results – but if the lighting is bad, then you’re sunk.
Heavily overcast lighting is probably the easiest for beginners to handle, though shade can also look nice. Have your subject face toward the light source, which will help create catchlights in the eyes and prevent unpleasant shadows. (If you’re not sure of the main light source’s location, just rotate your subject until the light looks perfect.)
If the sun is bright and the light is harsh, it’s often best to simply wait until later in the day, but you can try moving your subject into a shaded area. Just make sure to avoid including dappled light or a half-shadow on your subject’s face, and watch out for squinting (which can occur if your subject ends up looking toward bright sunlight).
Finally, make sure you expose for the face, even if it causes your background to look too light or too dark. In portrait photography, the subject is most important!
6. Don’t worry about the rules
Portrait photography comes with many rules: the rule of thirds, the rule of space, the rule of odds, and so on.
And it’s true: The rules are very helpful, especially for beginners. I encourage you to learn them, practice them, and use them.
Just be creative and have some fun without worrying too much about rules. Your composition doesn’t always need to be divided up into thirds, and your subject doesn’t always need to be looking in the direction of empty space. You can enjoy breaking the rules; in fact, rule-breaking can create uniquely beautiful photos!
And don’t worry about what other photographers are doing. Don’t feel the need to copy popular editing styles, poses, focal lengths, or props. There’s nothing wrong with trying out effects that you enjoy, but don’t let them restrict you; in other words, when you create a portrait of someone, it’s okay to shoot as you feel you should without following the trend of the day. Make sure each image represents who you want to be as a photographer!
Beginner portrait photography: final words
Well, there you have it:
Six handy tips to get you started capturing beautiful portraits.
Hopefully, you now feel ready to head out with your camera and capture some amazing results.
Now over to you:
What types of portraits do you plan to take? Which of these tips will you use first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!