How To: A Beginner's Guide to Shooting Better Portraits

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Everyone can point a camera at their subject, press the shutter button, and take the shot. But we all know that doesn't mean they're taking good photos, no matter how expensive that gear is they're proudly strutting around with. 

Capturing good photographs is a process; it takes time, technique, and creativity. Shooting portraits is even tougher. Not only do you have several things to consider while shooting--a good light, the right lens, the perfect focus, a nice background, to name a few--but you've also got a subject to please (and we all know how many of us get nitpicky when it comes to photos of ourselves). But that's what practice is for, and familiarizing yourself with the techniques and practices that experienced portrait photographers stand by.

If you're a beginner photographer who needs help taking better portraits, here are ten tips you should start with and keep in mind.

Open Your Aperture

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The most beautiful portraits are the ones where the subjects stand out, and one of the best ways to do that is to use a wide aperture. 

Setting your camera to your lens' widest aperture, ideally from F1.4 to F4, will give you a shallower depth of field, which blurs your subject's background for a creamy look and makes your subject more prominent in the shot. Though do remember that some lenses produce less sharp images at its largest aperture; if you notice this with your lens, simply step down a stop or two. 

As a beginner photographer, setting up your exposure manually won't come naturally to you. At least, not yet. So start with shooting in Aperture Priority so that you can easily change your aperture and let your digital camera figure out the rest. 

Focus on the Eyes

Portraits are all about humanity and emotion, so make sure your subject's eyes are crisp, focused, and well illuminated. It seems like a minor detail that can actually make or break your photo. Nothing can ruin a portrait more, especially a close-up one, than eyes that are unfocused or deep in shadow. 

Many of the best digital cameras these days, including some compacts, have Eye and Face Detection, which should make keeping the focus on the eyes so much easier. If yours doesn't, try using manual focus. Be sure to illuminate your subject's eyes. One way to do so is by using a reflector or a diffused flash.

Look for Even Lighting

You know what else ruins a portrait? Uneven lighting. Harsh light, like midday light hitting your subject directly, casts deep shadows and blown out highlights. It also forces your subject to squint. It's completely unflattering. For this reason, you're better off shooting on a cloudy day, in the early morning, or later in the day when the lighting is diffused and more even.

Of course, that isn't always possible. If you absolutely need to shoot at midday, shoot in the shade or indoors where the lighting is soft and even. If that's not possible, make sure you're carrying a diffuser to diffuse that harsh light or a reflector to soften those shadows.
 
Utilize Natural Light

Train yourself to immediately find the most beautiful natural light at your shooting location when it's indoors and use that to your full advantage. It could be coming from a large window, a sunroof, an open door, or a well-lit hallway. A diffused natural light is most flattering and will help make for more pleasing portraits.

Experiment with different angles and positions: side lighting could yield stunning contrasts, backlighting with a reflector will help make your subject pop, and front lighting can produce nice, even illuminations. Pay attention to the time of the day as that changes the color of your natural light.  And do some research and prep work before your shoot, if possible.

Use the Right Lens

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Leave that wide-angle lens at home, unless you're planning on stepping back and including much of your setting in the frame. Closer shots with wide-angles can distort your subjects and make them look like caricatures. 

Opt for a telephoto lens instead: 85mm and 135mm primes are most ideal as they're typically very sharp and have wider apertures, although you can still capture great shots with a good 24-70mm standard zoom and you can use a 50mm, which produces less distortion, if done properly.

For Sony E-mount users, the Sony 85mm F1.4 G Master has our vote for capturing gorgeous portraits.

Bounce or Diffuse Light

Don't be intimidated by accessories. They're designed to help you capture better photos, and most of them are easy to use. It only takes a little bit of practice to master them. Reflectors and diffusers, particularly, are cheap, collapsible, and easy to carry, and they can help a great deal in capturing gorgeous portraits.

A diffuser effectively diffuses or softens light, and is very useful when you're working with harsh lighting conditions. A reflector, on the other hand, bounces light so it's useful to fill in shadows for a more even lighting on your subject. Invest.

Experiment with Angles

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Get creative. Just because most portraits you come across only have that one angle, at eye level, doesn't mean you should follow suit. Some of the best portrait photographers will tell you that thinking outside the box when it comes to angles will yield the more compelling shots. 

Shoot from above, shoot from below, go really low, or find a high perch and go high. Get even more creative by adding elements in your foreground, which adds depth and can make for great storytelling compositions.

Mind Your Background

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When taking portraits, it's very easy to only pay attention to your subject and forget about your background. Then when you finally get a chance to take a proper look at your shots, you find out too late that elements in the background have completely ruined an otherwise perfect image.

Train yourself to pay close attention to your background as well, especially when you have a lot of it in your frame and more especially when you're shooting in a location when there's a lot going on--people walking around, for example. Additionally, pay attention to elements in your background that you might be able to use to your advantage.

Shoot in RAW

Start shooting RAW, so that if all else fails you'll be able to salvage your shots in post. A RAW file just means it's raw data, uncompressed and unprocessed, which means it's got a whole lot more data in it than a JPEG file. That, in turn, means that a RAW file is just easier to edit in post, whether you're changing the white balance or removing highlights and fixing shadows.

Just make sure that your SD card has a large storage capacity, as RAW files are much larger than JPEG files.

Don't Shy Away from Post

Every professional photographer does some amount of post-processing work. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Post-processing work is a digital dark room taken to a whole new level. It isn't cheating, as long as you're also honing your photography skills.

Post-processing allows you to fix blown-out highlights, fill-in shadows, sharpen details, fix skin tones, adjust your white balance, and even remove some skin imperfections.