Intermediate Portraits are one of the most common photo ops out there. As a photographer, you'll likely be asked at one point or another by family or friends to take their photo. Some photographers are naturals at capturing people while others freeze when the person is in front of the camera. They're not sure how to pose them, how to find flattering light, or how to make the subject comfortable. After all, why should the subject be relaxed if your brow is sweating?
Take a deep breath, relax, and read these 5 tips for shooting great portraits before you agree to the challenge of a portrait shoot.
1. Picking the Right Lens
There are a few lens options you can reach for, and it may depend on your setting and the number of people in the shoot.
If it's a large group, such as a few generations of a family, your wide-angle lens (around 18mm) will help you capture a wider angle of view, allowing more people to fit in the shot.
A 50mm portrait lens will give you less diversity than a telephoto or zoom lens, but often give you sharper images and lower f-stop ranges. You will also need to move around more to fill your frame the way you want since you won't have zoom capability. It's up to you to determine if the low f-stop for a shallow depth of field is worth the trade-off. For many photographers, it is.
A telephoto (i.e. a 70-210mm) lens restricts your angle of view, but works for some angles. For example if your subject is down on a dock, you can be on a hillside shooting them from above with a telephoto to get close. You will also have to deal with f-stops that are a little higher. See the tip on Apertures for more information.
2. Setting Your Aperture/F-Stop
The basics on aperture settings are that: the lower the f-stop, the wider aperture, the shallower the depth of field. Alternatively, the higher the f-stop, the smaller the aperture, the deeper the depth of field. If you can remember this, you'll be set!
That said, when shooting portraits, you're better off setting a wide aperture (for example, f/2.8-f/5.6). Why? Because, portrait photographers want a shallow depth of field so that the background isn't competing with the subject, making for a "busy" photo. A shallow depth of field makes the subject, such as an adult, pet, or child, stand out in the image. Their eye and hair color will stand out, and the background essentially serves as a curtain backdrop.
Specialist portrait lenses tend to have even wider maximum apertures (from f/1.4 to f/2.8) in order to blur backgrounds further.
There may be some occasions when you want a deeper depth of field, especially if it's a large group of people and you don’t want the people in the back row fuzzed out. This is another tip where some of it will be up to your discretion based on your immediate situation.
3. Exposure Compensation
Sometimes you might want to brighten your subject's face slightly. Maybe you don't have enough light directed on their face to take a great photo, or maybe your subject has darker skin. To do this, use Exposure Compensation.
Landscape photographers use this trick to darken or lighten skies, and you can use it for portraits. Here's how it works: press the Exposure Compensation button (see your manual for your specific camera) and dial it up +1 stop of positive Exposure Compensation to lighten up people’s faces or -1 stop to darken it. I would start with 1/4 EV, and keep increasing or decreasing by 1/4 increments until the face looks just right.
4. Shutter speed settings
As a rule of thumb, when setting your camera's shutter speed, consider your lens’s focal length to avoid blurred results from camera shake. The shutter speed should be equal to or faster than the focal length, so make sure your shutter speed is faster than your focal length. For example, at 200mm you will want to shoot at 1/250 sec or faster.
5. Increase your ISO
In order to give your aperture and shutter speed choices a boost, you can always adjust your ISO. Also consider that kids, pets, and even adults tend to move around while being photographed. To combat these wiggly subjects, and to prevent motion blur appearing, you can bump up your shutter speed by bumping up your ISO.
In low light (indoors and outside), you may need to increase it to ISO400, 800, 1600 or even 3200. The offset will mean a little grain, but that's certainly better than a blurred image.
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