Shooting Portrait Photography on Your Nikon D3500

By Julie Adair King

Your Nikon D3500 will take a mean still portrait if you handle your camera correctly. By still portrait, this means that your subject isn’t moving. Assuming you do have a subject willing to pose, the classic portrait photography approach is to keep the subject sharply focused while throwing the background into soft focus using your Nikon camera. This artistic choice emphasizes the subject and helps diminish the impact of any distracting background objects.

portrait photography Nikon D3500
A blurry background draws more attention to your portrait subject.

The following steps show you how to achieve great portrait photography with your Nikon D3500:

  1. Set the Mode dial to A (aperture-priority autoexposure) and select a low f-stop value.

    A low f-stop setting opens the aperture, which not only allows more light to enter the camera but also shortens depth of field, or the distance over which focus appears acceptably sharp. So dialing in a low f-stop value is the first step in softening your portrait background.

    For a group portrait in which people aren’t all at the same distance from the Nikon D3500, you typically need a higher f-stop than for a single portrait. At a very low f-stop, depth of field may not be large enough to keep people in the back row of the group as sharply focused as those in the front row. Take test shots and inspect the results at different f-stops to find the right setting.

  2. To adjust f-stop in A mode, rotate the Command dial.

    As soon as you set the f-stop, the Nikon D3500 selects the shutter speed for you, but you need to make sure the selected speed isn’t so slow that movement of the subject or camera will blur the image.

  3. Check the lens focal length on your Nikon camera.
    A focal length of 85–120mm is ideal for a classic head-and-shoulders portrait. Avoid using a short focal length (wide-angle lens) for portraits. It can cause features to appear distorted — sort of like how people look when you view them through a security peephole in a door. On the flip side, a very long focal length can flatten and widen a face.
  4. To further soften the background: Increase focal length, get closer to your subject, and put more distance between subject and background.
    Zooming to a longer focal length reduces depth of field, as does moving closer to your subject. And the greater the distance between the subject and background, the more the background blurs.
  5. Check composition on your Nikon camera.
    Two quick pointers on this topic:
    • Consider the background. Scan the entire frame, looking for distracting background objects. If necessary and possible, reposition the subject against a more flattering backdrop.
    • Frame the subject loosely to allow for later cropping to a variety of frame sizes. Your camera produces images that have an aspect ratio of 3:2. That means your portrait perfectly fits a 4-x-6-inch print but requires cropping to print at other proportions, such as 5 x 7 or 8 x 10 inches.
  6. For indoor portraits, shoot flash-free if possible.
    Shooting by available light rather than flash produces softer illumination and avoids the problem of red-eye. During daytime hours, posing your subject near a large window can produce results similar to what you see below.
    Courtesy of Many Holmes
    For soft, even lighting, forego flash and instead expose your subject using daylight coming through a nearby window.

    In A exposure mode, simply keeping the built-in flash unit closed disables the flash.

  7. For outdoor portraits during daylight, try using flash.
    A flash can add a beneficial pop of light to subjects’ faces. A flash is especially important when the background is brighter than the subject; when the subject is wearing a hat; or when the sun is directly overhead, creating harsh shadows under the eyes, nose, and chin.
    Nikon D3500 outdoor portrait
    To properly illuminate the face in outdoor portraits, try adding flash.

    In A exposure mode, raise the built-in Nikon flash by pressing the Flash button (back of the camera, just left of the viewfinder). For daytime portraits, set the Flash mode to Fill Flash. (That’s the regular, basic Flash mode.) For nighttime images, try red-eye reduction or slow-sync flash; again, see the flash tips at the end of these steps to use either mode most effectively.

    The fastest shutter speed you can use with the built-in flash is 1/200 second, so in bright light, you may need to stop down the aperture to avoid overexposing the photo, as you see in the bottom image. Doing so, of course, brings the background into sharper focus, so if that creates an issue, move the subject into a shaded area instead.

  8. Press and hold the shutter button halfway to initiate exposure metering and autofocusing.
    Or, if you’re focusing manually, set focus by rotating the focusing ring on the lens.
  9. Press the shutter button the rest of the way.

When flash is unavoidable, try these tricks for better results:

  • Indoors, turn on as many room lights as possible. With more ambient light, you reduce the flash power that’s needed to expose the picture. Adding light also causes the pupils to constrict, further reducing the chances of red-eye. As an added benefit, the smaller pupil allows more of the subject’s iris to be visible in the portrait, so you see more eye color.
  • Pay attention to white balance if your subject is lit by both flash and ambient light. If you set the White Balance setting to Auto, enabling flash tells the camera to warm colors to compensate for the cool light of a flash. If your subject is also lit by other light sources, such as sunlight, the result may be colors that are slightly warmer (more golden) or cooler (more blue) than neutral. A warming effect typically looks nice in portraits, giving the skin a subtle glow.
  • Try using a Flash mode that enables red-eye reduction or slow-sync flash. If you choose the first option, the Nikon D3500 emits a preliminary light from the AF-assist lamp, which constricts pupils to lessen the chances of red-eye. Warn your subjects to expect that preliminary light and to keep smiling until after the real flash fires.

Slow-sync flash uses a slower-than-normal shutter speed, which produces softer lighting and brighter backgrounds than normal flash.

Using a slow shutter speed increases the risk of blur due to camera shake, so use a tripod. Remind your subjects to stay still, too, because they’ll appear blurry if they move during the exposure.

  • Remember that you can adjust flash power through Flash Compensation. To do so, hold down the Flash button and the Exposure Compensation button while rotating the Command dial. You also can change the setting via the Information display control strip (press the i button to access the control strip).
  • For professional results, use an external flash with a rotating flash head. Aim the flash head upward so that the flash light bounces off the ceiling and falls softly down onto the subject. External flashes can be pricey, but the results make the purchase worthwhile if you shoot lots of portraits. Compare the two portraits below for an illustration. In the first example, using the built-in flash resulted in strong shadowing behind the subject and harsh, concentrated light. To produce the better result on the right, Nikon Speedlight external flash was used to bounce the light off the ceiling. The subject was also moved a few feet farther in front of the background to create more background blur.
    Nikon D3500 portait bounce flash
    To eliminate harsh lighting and strong shadows (left), use bounce flash and move the subject farther from the background (right).

Make sure that the surface you use to bounce the light is white; otherwise, the flash light will pick up the color of the surface and influence the color of your subject.

  • Invest in a flash diffuser to further soften the light. A diffuser is simply a piece of translucent plastic or fabric that you place over the flash to soften and spread the light — much like how sheer curtains diffuse window light. Diffusers come in lots of different designs, including models that fit over the built-in flash.