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3 easy tips for better portrait photography

The original version of this article, Tech Tips: Basic Portrait Photography, was published at the Pro Photo Supply News Desk.

We all know the number one reason people take pictures is to show the world their food. But, second to that, people want to take pictures of other people: friends, family, loved ones, celebrities, ghostly apparitions, you name it. So here are 3 super easy portrait photography tips to help you get the most out of your next portrait session... or selfie.

Canon 5DS R with Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 lens Canon 5DS R with Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 lens. Photo: Daven Mathies.

Use a telephoto lens

There are all kinds of reasons to shoot portraits with a variety of different lenses, but for the basic, single-subject, standard portrait, shooting with a telephoto lens will help you out. Even if all you own is a basic kit lens (or a point and shoot camera), zoom to the telephoto end of its range and then frame your subject. A wide-angle lens will often distort a person’s face in unsettling ways, whereas a telephoto lens creates a much more flattering effect. You can also achieve a shallower depth of field with a telephoto lens, even on slower kit lenses that don’t have particularly wide apertures, helping to separate your subject from the background. Again, there are reasons to shoot portraits with other lenses, and I am personally always in favor of experimentation, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Smartphone user tip: You're stuck with your phone camera's wide-angle lens, but if you keep your subject near the center of the frame and don't get too close, it will minimize distortion.

Shoot in Aperture Priority

It may be tempting to simply rotate your mode dial to the “Portrait” scene mode, but try to resist the urge. Instead, shoot in Aperture Priority (usually denoted by an “A” on the mode dial, or “Av” on Canon cameras). This way, you can control your depth of field by manually selecting the aperture, but the exposure remains automatic—the camera will adjust the shutter speed to compensate for whatever aperture you select. Controlling depth of field is important in portraits: you may want to blur the background as much as possible to make your subject stand out (large aperture) or keep the background sharper in order to show the significance of the location in the portrait (small aperture).

Smartphone user tip: You probably don't have control over aperture, but many phones will still let you use "autoexposure lock," by tapping an area of the frame. This way you can make sure to expose for your subject's face regardless of how bright or dark other objects in the frame may be. You won't have any real control over depth of field, but oh well, that's what the Instagram tilt-shift effect is for.

Use Single Point Autofocus

One thing that can absolutely kill a good portrait is letting the camera figure out where to focus. In “auto area” autofocus, which is often the default focusing mode on DSLR and Mirrorless cameras, all of the focus points are active and the camera tries to determine where you want to focus. Generally, the camera will choose to focus on the closest object in the frame. This may be okay for general photography, but portraiture requires more control. If you switch to single point AF, you can place the focus point right where it needs to be—usually on your subject’s eye. This is especially critical if you are shooting with a very shallow depth of field, where auto-area AF may focus on your subject’s nose or mouth, and result in the eyes being soft.

Smartphone user tip: You probably don't even have to worry about this! For anything more than a couple of feet away from the lens, smartphone cameras will have such a deep depth of field that everything will look in focus. To be safe, just tap your subject's face, but you don't have to worry about the eyes being soft. 

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