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Taking Portraits Using Your Digital SLR

4 of 8 in Series: The Essentials of Photographing People Using Your Digital SLR

With your digital SLR, you can provide your family and friends with treasured portraits of themselves and their loved ones. You can take formal portraits for a passport or professional uses as well as a variety of casual and artistic portraits.

When taking portraits, you'll want to to create a rapport with the subject to put him at ease, get him to strike a pleasing pose, and compose the image creatively.

Use props to add interest and draw viewers in. The reds here create a visual triangle.
Use props to add interest and draw viewers in. The reds here create a visual triangle.

A photo looking up at a person imbues them with authority; a shot from above diminishes their power.

Camera settings for portraits

Shoot a portrait in Aperture Priority mode and use a large aperture (a small f/stop number) so that your subject is the star of the show and isn’t overwhelmed by the background. An 85mm focal length gives you a portrait photo that has a pleasing, undistorted rendition of the person you’re photographing. If you’re doing head-and-shoulders only, your range should be 80mm to 100mm. You want a narrow range that won’t distort your subject’s features.

Never use a focal length that’s the 35mm equivalent of less than 50mm to take a portrait. The very close distance would make the feature closest to the camera — the person’s nose — look larger than it actually is.

An ISO setting of 100 gives you a noise-free image and, in good lighting conditions, a shutter speed of about 1/125 of a second. If your camera or lens has image stabilization, enable it; otherwise, your slightest movement produces a blurry photo. Don’t forget that you can use a tripod as well.

Position the auto-focus point over the eye closest to the camera. If the eyes are in focus, the entire picture appears to be in focus.

Portraits and lighting issues

Getting the lighting right so that people look natural in portraits can be challenging. You want a soft, diffuse light such as light through a window or outdoors on an overcast day. Overhead lights are fine, but incidental lights can cast shadows and create uneven lighting effects. Ideally, you want multiple light sources, such as several flash units including a diffused flash.

To prevent a portrait with shadowed eyes, use a white sheet or T-shirt to bounce light into your subject’s face.

Types of portraits

Different types of portraits require essentially the same camera settings, but slightly different approaches and techniques:

  • Formal portrait: Find a solid-colored background. You can use a wall, just make sure your subject is a few feet in front of it so that the portrait doesn’t look like a mug shot.

    Classic portrait poses include the slightly tilted head and the three-quarters shot with raised chi
    Classic portrait poses include the slightly tilted head and the three-quarters shot with raised chin.

    After you take the picture, review it to make sure that the image is properly exposed and your subject looks relaxed. You’ll probably have to take several pictures before the subject relaxes and you get some good images.

  • Candid portrait: The key to getting great candid portraits is to always carry your camera so that folks get used to seeing it around your neck and let their guard down around you and go about their business.

    Walk into a room, focus your camera, and say, “Hi” for an often charming candid portrait.
    Credit: Purestock
    Walk into a room, focus your camera, and say, “Hi” for an often charming candid portrait.
  • Outdoor portrait: Schedule your photo shoot for early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the sun provides a golden color and casts soft shadows. Overcast conditions are perfect. Make sure that the background doesn’t compete with your subject — no brilliant flowers or distracting power lines.

  • Self-portrait: A chair or other prop can be a valuable stand-in, helping your position the tripod or other stable surface you’ll put the camera on and helping get the focus, which you have to do manually, right. Delay the shutter opening to give yourself time to get in the picture, and arrange yourself for the shot.

    Self-portrait of a photographer.
    Self-portrait of a photographer.
  • Portrait of a mature person: An aperture range between f/3.5 and f/7.1 gives you the option to create a soft, dreamy focus or to highlight every detail. If you’re going for a softer look and want to eliminate some lines and wrinkles, invest in a soft-focus filter.

    To minimize the appearance of sagging neck skin, ask your subject to raise his chin.

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