Photo Game Strong: Portrait Photography Secrets for Beginners to Master

close-up photo focused on the camera being held in hand

In the age of social media, being able to take and share pictures is simple, easy, and fun.

On social media, a good photo can take you to places you’ve never been and allow you to meet people you would never have met otherwise.

Photography is awesome.

But not all photos are created equal.

Some portrait photography out there is just mind-blowing.

Have you ever wondered what the secret to excellent portrait photography is?

Here's the thing:

It's not that hard.

I’ll guide you through the not-so-secret secrets of taking great portrait photography.

Pick Your Equipment

If you’re a beginner that wants to learn portrait photography, your first thought is probably:

What camera do I need?

After all, there are just so many cameras out there now.

It's hard to choose.

People may have their favorites for whatever reason. But really, that’s what’s best for them.

And I'm going to tell you a secret:

The best camera is always the one you have on you.

I’ll repeat it:

The best portrait photography camera you can have is the one that you happen to have on you.

Knowing that, let’s take a quick look at what kinds of cameras are available out there.

Compact cameras

photo of a compact camera with hard case

Image via Pixabay

If you're always on the go, a compact, or point-and-shoot cameras, are smaller cameras that are perfect. Compact cameras come in all price points, from budget to super-premium.

The bummer for some is:

These camera lenses are NOT interchangeable.

But most compact cameras have a lens that can vary in focal length, allowing you to take portraits as well as telephoto photography.

Smartphone

a person showing ,from his android phone, a photo of a man walking in a railroad

Image via Pixabay

The first camera phones weren’t great. The resolution was small. The quality was grainy.

And it was a pain in the butt to get them OFF the phone to share with friends.

But now:

Today’s smartphones have incredible cameras.

illustration of a camera being photographed using an android phone

Image via Giphy

In fact, for some phones, the built-in camera is a huge selling point.

Most smartphones include two cameras: one front-face and one rear-facing.

(And of course, when you’re not using it as a camera you can also use it as a phone.)

Which brings us to a problem:

The battle of the smartphone or compact camera

Since so many smartphones have great cameras, is investing in a standalone compact camera worth it?

It depends.

Smartphones do have cameras that rival even some of the more expensive compact cameras.

But remember:

Using that camera is going to eat up your battery pretty fast.

an illustration implying empty battery of a device

Image via Giphy

Plus, if you’re into taking photos from far away, your smartphone is going to struggle more than a compact camera would.

a car driving along the green fields

Image via Giphy

Though if you’re really into sharing pictures immediately, smartphones have compact standalone cameras beat. #SoConvenient

a woman taking selfie

Image via Giphy

But one of the most important things to remember is:

Smartphone cameras controls can be limited.

Camera controls, on the other hand, are pretty important when it comes to portrait photography. (We’ll explain why later.)

Here's the truth:

There’s nothing wrong with using what you already have. But if you’re looking at really improving your digital portrait photography skills, you may want to look beyond the smartphone or compact.

DSLR and mirrorless

a woman holding a camera

Image via Pixabay

If you want to upgrade your gear from your smartphone or compact camera, it’s time to look at DSLR and mirrorless cameras.

You've seen them:

Digital Single Reflex (DSLR) and mirrorless cameras are all the rage with serious photography hobbyists as well as professionals.

They're the digital big brother of the film single-reflex cameras of yesteryear. These cameras use a mirror and prism to reflect the light into your camera.

But as you may have guessed:

A mirrorless camera does not use mirrors. Instead, the image you capture comes directly into the camera and onto the image sensor.

Of course, this is where things get a bit trickier.

What’s the most significant advantage of DSLR and mirrorless cameras?

You’ll probably find that these cameras a quite a step up!

How so?

YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR LENSES.

No, seriously, this is a BIG DEAL.

While that fixed lens probably has a wide range of focal lengths, it’s still fixed. Meaning, you can’t change it or upgrade it.

You’re stuck.

With DSLR and mirrorless cameras, you can change your lens.

This opens up a whole universe of new creative possibilities.

an illustration showing a universe coming from the head of a girl

Image via Giphy

DSLR vs. mirrorless

So which should you choose? A DSLR or a mirrorless one?

Again, the answer is: it depends.

In this case, it depends on your needs and budget.

In general, DSLR and mirrorless cameras are competitively priced.

A DSLR camera will be bulkier than a mirrorless one. (After all, you need a bigger body to heft around the mirror and prism inside it.)

If size is an issue, mirrorless is your best bet.

But, if you want to use an optical viewfinder, go for a DSLR. Mirrorless cameras may have an electronic viewfinder.

It’s not the same.

If you like shooting video as well as taking photographs, you may want to go with the mirrorless. Mirrorless cameras have video quality and faster focus while shooting video.

Mastering the Manual Mode

Most cameras will allow you to shoot in manual or automatic mode.

Yes, even some compact and smartphone cameras as well.

Shooting in manual mode will encourage you to learn the elements of the exposure triangle.

The what??

a woman startled after seeing something on her phone

Image via Giphy

Elements of the exposure triangle

Wait, so what is the exposure triangle?

The exposure triangle has three parts:
Aperture
shutter speed
ISO 

Learning these elements and how they work together will change the way your portraits turn out.

Embrace manual mode

Here is the first step to taking better portraits:

Turn off the automatic mode.

I’m not going to lie:

It can be overwhelming, especially if you are a beginner and have never shot in manual mode.

But trust me:

Learning how all these elements work together is a total game changer.

Aperture

In photography terms, an aperture is a hole that allows light to come into the camera. If you think of your camera like an eye, the aperture functions like the pupil.

You can control the size of the aperture on your camera, either using a dial or through a menu.

An f-number denotes the aperture size, also called an f-stop.

The higher the f-stop, the smaller the aperture

Depth of field

Aperture is also vital in helping determine the depth of field of your photograph.

The depth of field (DoF) is the amount of your photograph where the image is in focus.

Note this:

For portrait photography, you are almost always aiming for a shallow depth of field. This is known as bokeh.

Take a look at this photo.

Instagram post by Omar De Jesus showing a man wearing a hooded jacket and holding up a camera to take a picture in the middle of the rain

Image via Instagram

The shallow depth of field helps the subject pop out the colorful background.

Shutter speed

The shutter speed is how fast the shutter opens and closes.

Let's think of your eye again:

The shutter speed is how fast you blink.

Like aperture, this helps to control how much light comes into the camera.

Fast shutter speeds are great for freezing fast motion.

Instagram post by Tca Williams showing a man who seems like floating in the air

Image via Instagram

Slow shutter speeds are also great for creating unique, low-light portraits.

Instagram post by Chittra illustrating the slow shutter speeds through a portrait of a man

Image via Instagram

ISO

The ISO setting is the “film speed” or how sensitive your film, or digital sensor, is.

Common ISO settings:
ISO 100 (low ISO)
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400 (high ISO)

In general, you are always going to want to shoot with the lowest ISO setting you can.

But wait:

Isn’t capturing more light good for photos?

Well, yes and no.

Higher ISO settings will let you take photographs in lower light. Unfortunately, there’s a trade-off.

Higher ISO photographs will tend to be more grainy.

Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

You may want that noise and grain to capture a particular mood or look to your portrait.

Instagram post by Akaise showing a portrait of a man holding a camera

Image via Instagram

Understanding the exposure triangle

All three of these elements work together to control how much light hits the sensor on your camera.

When you have your camera set on automatic, your camera’s software automatically sets each of the elements to take a photo.

But when you put it on manual mode, you need to do this yourself. And that can be tricky.

Think about this:

Let’s use a window during winter as an example of how exposure works.

The aperture is how wide you open the window.

The shutter speed is how quickly you open the window.

The ISO is how quickly you realize “Wow, that’s some cold weather out there!” after you open the window.

You get the picture.

Experimenting with the exposure triangle

The best way to learn how to use the exposure triangle is to go out and do it. Read your camera manual and experiment with different settings.

Do this:

Try setting your camera on a tripod and taking the same shot at different f-stops, shutter speeds, and ISOs.

Seeing the same photo with the different settings will help illustrate what each parameter does on your camera.

Exposure calculators

Another thing you can do is download an exposure calculator.

Exposure calculators can tell you whether or not your settings will give you an under or overexposed photograph.

Here are a few favorite exposure calculator apps for Android, iOS, and web.

  • Exposure Calculator (iOS)
  • Exposure Calculator (Android)
  • Photo Light Calculator (web)
  • Exposure Calculator

While still not a perfect solution, this can help you get comfortable with the idea of shooting in manual mode.

Using priority modes

If you're not quite ready to go full manual mode, try using the priority mode on your camera. Priority mode is a sort of semi-automatic shooting mode on your camera.

And here's the great thing:

With priority mode shooting, you set one of your elements (aperture, shutter speed, ISO).

From there, your camera chooses the other two elements to take your shot. This is a handy way to start getting familiar with each of these elements.

Best of both worlds.

Lenses for DSLR and mirrorless cameras

If you're using a DSLR or mirrorless camera, we need to talk about lenses.

When it comes to lenses, the truth is:

Choosing the right lens can be as daunting as choosing the right camera.

And when you consider that some lenses can cost well into the upper hundreds or even thousands of dollars, it’s not a decision you want to make lightly.

A kit lens is a lens that comes shipped with your camera. And while more experienced photographers may scoff at kit lenses, they're a great place to start as a beginner.

After practice...

Once you understand the basics of the exposure triangle with your kit lens, you can get a better feel for what lens you need and why.

Zoom or prime lens

Lenses come as either zoom or prime lenses. Zoom lenses have a variety of focal lengths while prime lenses have a fixed focal length.

What’s focal length?


Focal length determines how much of the scene the camera will capture.


Smaller focal lengths capture a wider field of view at less magnification.


Larger focal lengths capture a narrower field of view at more magnification.


Focal length is measured in millimeters (mm)


Nikon USA

Zoom lenses are versatile. Their variety of focal lengths allows you to between different framing styles for different distances.

Prime lenses are fixed. The advantage of prime lenses is that they often have faster apertures than zoom lenses.

Focal lengths of portraits tend to range from 30mm to 85mm, depending on how many people you will be capturing in your picture.

Composition

In the arts, the word “composition” can have a lot of different meanings.

For music, it’s the arrangement of the notes in the musical piece.

In the literary arts, it’s all about the arrangement of the words to convey a story.

And, in photography:

The composition is about taking all the visual elements and arranging them in a way that helps you tell your story.

Telling a story

As the saying goes: “Pictures are worth a thousand words.”

An excellent portrait can say volumes without the subject having to say a single thing.

Here's the thing:

When you are taking a portrait, it’s a good idea to think to yourself: “What kind of story am I trying to tell with my photo?”

Frequently, with photography, the stories you will tell are not easily put into words. And that’s perfectly okay!

Better, even.

Think about what kind of feelings you want to evoke in your audience. (And it’s okay if that audience is just you.)

Do you want to take your viewer to a place far from home?

Instagram post by Imemmarae showing a photo of a woman with salt flats on the background

Image via Instagram

Maybe you want to take them back home.

Instagram post by Key Reflections featuring a small girl looking at the baby held by a woman

Image via Instagram

Are you looking to capture a beautiful, intimate moment between family members?

Instagram post by Lucalauraandme featuring a pregnant woman resting on the couch

Image via Instagram

Or a moment from afar?

Instagram post of Sevib05 featuring a small girl walking towards a tree

Image via Instagram

Rule of thirds

One of the most common rules of composition is the rule of thirds.

In this case, you divide your image up into three sections horizontally and vertically.

The human eye naturally gravitates towards the intersection points on this grid.

For example, the children in this photo are in the horizontal middle and vertical bottom grids.

a boy carrying a girl in his back with a beautiful tall tree on their background

Image via Pexels

The woman in this photo is on the vertical thirds on this photo.

portrait of a woman in yellow long sleeves shirt

Image via Pexels

This man is set in the middle third vertically, and his body takes up the two bottom thirds horizontally.

a man wearing a cowboy hat

Image via Pexels

Depth of field

Playing with depth of field can help your portrait subject pop against the background.

In many instances, you will want a more shallow depth of field when shooting portrait photography.

Here's why:

Shallow depth of field naturally brings your subject to the forefront and makes anything in the background blurry.

Instagram post by Franz Zander showing a woman with blurry backdrop of trees

Image via Instagram

See?

This guy breaks it down for you:

Playing with light

At its most fundamental, photography is all about capturing light.

But at its most creative, photography is about playing with light.

And to play with it, you need to get a better understanding of what light does to a photo.

Lighting can help set the mood for a portrait.

Natural light

Natural light is always great when you can get it.

First off: it’s free!

Secondly: It makes your portraits look AWESOME.

But beware:

Shooting on a bright sunny day isn’t a good idea.

It may seem a bit counterintuitive, but bright sun IS NOT what you want.

You want a beautiful, partly cloudy day because clouds are natural diffusers.

Lots of natural light can help give a photo a fun, carefree vibe.

Instagram post by Matthew Shaw showing a couple and their little girl blowing a dandelion

Image via Instagram

Meanwhile, low light portraits can set a darker, edgier tone that tells an entirely different story.

screenshot from Instagram post by Juho showing a low light photo of a woman with red hair

Image via Instagram

screenshot from the Instagram post by Bharat Duvvada showing a silhouette of a man holding a bottle and a dog

Image via Instagram

A note about golden hour

Have you heard about the “golden hour”?

Golden hour is the time of day when the sun is low in the sky. It casts a gorgeous, diffused light across the world.

And here's the best part:

It’s perfect for just about all kinds of photography.

With portraits, it can help you capture moments with beautiful, soft lighting with no harsh shadowing.

screenshot of from Instagram showing a portrait of a beautiful woman posted by jimeephotosandvids

Image via Instagram

The downside of the golden hour is...

It’s short, especially in the wintertime.

Portrait lighting

If you’re beginning to explore portrait photography, you don’t need to go to hardcore into lighting setups.

That being said:

It’s still a good idea to understand the different ways you can light a portrait subject.

As a beginner, you don’t need to get technical but always consider where the light is coming from when you are taking your photo.

Portrait Photography: The Human Element

There are so many little variables you can use to tweak your photo to look the way you want it.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the technical part of photography.

But never forget the most essential element of your portrait:

The person (or group) you're capturing.

Portrait photography, at its core, is capturing the essence of your subject for that millisecond in time.

Your subject

When it comes to portrait photography, remember that your subject is always the most critical part of your photo.

Everything about the photo should revolve around the story or feeling that you want to convey about your subject.

Maybe they're a professional.

a man smiling and holding a laptop in his left hand

Image via Pexels

Or mysterious.

a silhouette of a man wearing eyeglasses

Image via Pexels

Maybe you want to capture a moment of pure joy.

Woman carrying a backpack jumps in delight

Image via Pexels

Or a less than ideal moment in their life.

a person sitting in the corner of a street

Image via Pexels

Taking portraits of children

Childhood goes by in a blink. It’s no wonder that parents and loved ones want to capture these moments to hold onto forever.

And this is key:

When you take portraits of kids, try to make sure they are comfortable with your presence.

Many children are natural hams when it comes to taking pictures and will love to say “CHEESE” for you.

three girls smiling

Image via Pexels

Catching kids in the act of playing or studying is a great way to showcase that moment in time.

Boy playing with fall leaves

Image via Pexels

a girl practicing to take a photo using a camera

Image via Pexels

Taking photos of pets

While we’re talking about portraits, let’s also talk about pet portraits.

(Pets are people, too!)

Pet portrait photography presents a whole lot of challenges that people photography does not.

a woman taking a selfie with her dog using her phone

Image via Pexels

(After all, your human subjects are far less likely to lick the camera!)

Like children, pets can be somewhat unpredictable. Pets don’t ways look where you want them to.

But the truth is:

That’s part of the beauty of taking pet portraits.

Candids

While posed portraits have their place, never underestimate the value of candid pictures.

Candid portraits are great because you can capture moments as they unfold naturally.

This is particularly helpful for taking photos of anyone who is shy or otherwise self-conscious.

Here's when they're especially useful:

When taking photos of, you guessed it, children and pets.

Honing Your Technique

Taking good portraits is not just about understanding how to take photos and your equipment.

It's also about this:

Applying what you know and getting feedback.

Here are a few suggestions on how to hone your portrait photography techniques.

Practice, practice, practice

All the advice about taking great portraits in the world will be lost on you if you do not do one thing:

PRACTICE.

Take as many photos as you can, whenever you can.

The great thing about digital photography is that you can do this without worrying about film and development costs. (Yes, that used to be a thing!)

Join a photography community.

Photographers from all over the world contribute to photography communities, sharing their photos, experience, and knowledge.

Joining a photography community is a great, and often free, way to learn from others.

Here are a few photography and photo-sharing communities to check out:

  • Instagram
  • Flickr
  • 500px

Be sure to share your work.

If you’re shy about it, you can start sharing it on closed communities on social media and then branch out into more publicly-accessible communities.

Keep learning

Beyond just sharing photos, it’s important to learn from photographers themselves. Many professional photographers run blogs or video channels dedicated to sharing their craft.

Try these beginner-friendly photography websites that can help you learn more about portrait photography and photography in general:

  • PetaPixel
  • Digital Photography Review
  • Practical Photography
  • Digital Photography School

And be sure to check out photographer video channels for some great tips and tricks:

  • Eric Kim Photography
  • Digital Rev TV
  • B&H Photo Video
  • Fstoppers
  • Adorama

Studying styles

One good way to help up your portrait photography game is to study portraits.

And it's simple:

Just look at other people’s photos.

Scroll through various collections of portraits. Take note of what you liked and didn’t like about the picture.

For example, if you liked the way the photo was composed, think about what you liked about it. If you liked the lighting on the shot, think about what sort of mood did the lighting evoke.

And where was the light coming from?

Look at the EXIF

Photography websites often have the image’s EXIF data available.

This is really helpful because:

EXIF data can give you all sorts of information about a photo. It will tell you what camera took the photo, what the f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO was.

The EXIF data may also give you information on where and when the picture was taken and what program post-processed it.

Post-Processing

Portrait photography is a uniquely rewarding craft.

Whether you interact one on one with your subjects or capture them from afar, you're capturing a singular moment in an individual’s life and telling their story.

That’s pretty cool when you think about it.

So, go out there. Take in the world, take photos, and share your portraits with everyone.

a boy looking through a camera to take a picture

Image via Pixabay

It turns out that the secret to taking incredible portraits is you.

Do you have experience shooting portraits? What is your favorite subject? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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