Portrait photography is one of the oldest and most popular forms of photography. Early studio portrait photographers such as Yousuf Karsh developed the style with lifelike black and white images of famous people like Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and the British Royal Family. Then photographers started to leave the studio and travel the world to take stunning portraits using only natural light.

Steve McCurry’s travel portraits are among the most famous in the world. His image known as Afghan Girl first appeared on the cover of National Geographic and is now one of the most recognisable portraits ever taken.

Today there are thousands of non-professional photographers who are using the techniques of studio and travel portraiture to create stunning portraits of their loved ones.

Andrea Anderson – www.instagram.com/mama_and_little

Must-know portrait photography camera settings, gear and techniques

1. Use the right lens

You can take beautiful portraits with any camera, phone or lens, but professional portrait photographers typically rely on prime lenses with longer focal lengths such as 85mm. Longer focal lengths tend to be more flattering for portraits. Prime lenses also typically have a larger aperture, allowing you to blur out the background of your image and put greater emphasis on your subject’s face. If you’re shooting with your phone, try switching to portrait mode, which will mimic the qualities of a prime lens by blurring out the background while making sure your subject is beautifully in focus.

2. Focus on your subject’s eye

A simple tip for taking professional looking portraits is to make sure your subject’s eyes are in focus. As in real life, a person’s eyes are the first thing we notice when we look at a portrait, so it’s important that they’re sharp. If you’re shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can do this by moving your focus point over your subject’s eye. With a phone, you can tap to focus on their eye. Note that it can be difficult to focus on someone’s eye if you’re using a lens with a very wide aperture (e.g. f/1.2 or f/1.8). In this case, adjust your aperture to something like f/2.8 or even f4, which will bring more of the face into focus.

Tip: Some modern cameras and phones have an eye-detection function, so be sure to turn this on if you have the option.

3. Shoot in aperture priority mode

Your camera likely has a shooting mode called “aperture priority” or “aperture value”, which will be displayed as “AV” or simply “A”. This mode is perfect for taking portraits because it allows you to manually set your camera’s aperture while allowing your camera to automatically adjust shutter speed and ISO. This will help speed up your portrait shoots and let you focus more on composing your frames, rather than worrying about your camera settings.

Tip: If you’re shooting with your phone, download a photo app like Manual Camera DSLR to control your phone camera’s aperture.

4. Use a low ISO number

Your ISO setting controls how sensitive your camera is to light. High ISO settings can introduce noise and grain to your images, so it’s best to use a low ISO number such as 100 or 400. This will help you take clean and crisp portraits.

5. Use a light or shoot by a window

Good lighting is an essential ingredient in portrait photography. Use a flash or photography light (ideally with a softbox to diffuse and soften the light) if you have one. Or position your subject near a window and use natural light for beautifully natural photos. Remember to play with the angle of the light, either by changing the position of your light or by moving your subject. Side light can give a more dramatic look to your subjects and increase the sense of depth, while lighting your subject head-on will give a more even look across their whole face.

Examples of scenarios where you’ll want to use these portrait photography techniques

Portraits of friends and family at home – whether indoors or in the garden

If you’re shooting portraits inside your house then be sure to use your lens’s widest possible aperture, such as f/2.8 or f/1.8. This will let as much light as possible into your camera, which means you can use a low ISO number of around 400. Try to maintain a shutter speed of at least 1/250 sec to capture sharp images.

Outdoor environmental portraits during your travels and adventures

Holiday portraits are always fun! The key to taking beautiful environmental portraits is to try to include a sense of place. To do this, use an aperture of around f/8 or higher. This will make sure that the background of your photo is in focus as well as your subject’s face. You may also want to use a wider lens, such as 50mm or 35mm, or simply stand further back from your subject so that you can include more of your surroundings in the photo. You should have plenty of light during the day to use low ISO numbers like 400, but if you do need to increase your ISO, try not to go any higher than 800, as anything higher will make your images noisy.

Group portraits of your loved ones at family events and celebrations.

Family events and parties with friends are the perfect times to take group portraits. Get everyone together and position them so that they’re standing in a straight line at more or less the same distance from your camera. Use a wider lens such as 24mm or 35mm so that you can fit everybody in, or flip your phone into horizontal/landscape mode. Select an aperture of around f/5.6 if you’re inside or f/8 if you’re outside and have plenty of light. These narrow apertures will help make sure everyone is in focus. If you’re shooting indoors, at a park or wedding for example, consider using a flash or moving everyone near a light or window. If it’s too dark, try to get everyone outside where you’ll have plenty of space and light.

Creative tips for shooting portrait photography

Pose your subjects

Encourage your subject to try different poses and facial expressions. Perhaps they’ll feel more comfortable sitting rather than standing. Have fun by encouraging your kids to pull silly faces. Or ask your partner to strike their best superhero pose. Suggest they move an arm, leg or shoulder a certain way, whether it be toward or away from you. Demonstrate the different poses you’d like them to try, and remember to offer plenty of encouragement, especially if your subject is shy!

Find the perfect location

A strong backdrop can really elevate your portraits. Look for colourful walls in your house to photograph your children against. Or head out into the garden for nature-inspired portraits of your partner. Also be sure to consider where your subject will feel most comfortable, whether it be in their own space or at the beach. And don’t be afraid to try multiple locations in one shot. Keep moving until you find something that works.

Provide props

Give your subjects props to play with while you photograph them. This could be your child’s favourite toy or your partner’s new guitar. It could even be something simple like a pencil, teacup, or book. Not only will they feel more comfortable and natural in front of the camera, but your images will be more dynamic as a result.

Colour coordinate

Pre-plan your group portrait shots and get your family members or friends to agree on a colour scheme. Family portraits look more cohesive and dynamic when everyone’s wearing a shade of the same colour. Think of your location before deciding on a colour scheme. For example, if you’re planning to shoot at the forest, bright colours like yellow and red will work better than green.

Introduce “catch light”

To really make your portraits “pop”, try reflecting a light onto your subject’s face so that it is visible in their eyes. This is known as “catch light” and will make your portraits feel more vibrant and alive. To achieve this look, simply make sure your subject is facing directly towards a light source. This could be a lamp in your house or the sun if you’re outside. If it’s too bright, try placing your subject by a window inside your house so that they can look out towards the sun. For next-level catch light, invest in a special circle portrait light. These are designed to add a unique circular catch light look to your portraits – the roundness of the light will naturally complement the shape of your subject’s iris.

Spin your camera round for self portraits

Set up your camera or phone on a tripod to shoot stunning self-portraits. Use your phone/camera’s self-timer mode to give yourself time to strike a pose. You might even be able to sync your phone to your camera, so that you can frame and take your shots while in position.

Whether photographing your parents or your children, you’ll find portrait photography extremely rewarding. After all, who doesn’t want a flattering photo of themselves? And the best part of all, the more fun you have with your subjects, the more natural your portraits will be!

Explore our blog for more photography tips and creative inspiration!