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Learning the ins and outs of portrait photography is extremely useful, especially for those of you looking to create memorable images of your family and friends. Perhaps you would like to start a business specializing in portrait photography? In this post, you will learn a handful of effective tips to help you improve your portrait photography quickly. As with anything, practice makes perfect… so get out there and put these tips to good use.

Vietnam veteran portrait in black and white
Black and white portrait of a Vietnam Veteran smoking a cigarette in the sunlight. This image was originally shot RAW in full color, then converted to grayscale in Adobe Photoshop.

 

Test Various Lenses

Every lens has strengths and weaknesses, and some are better suited for portraits than others. There are lenses that are considered excellent for portrait photography, including those in or around the 80mm range. If you use an APS-C or crop sensor DSLR, a 50mm lens will give you a focal length close to 80mm. Make the best of the gear you have, and don’t let not having a certain lens prevent you from getting out there and experimenting. Before getting a new lens, you can always rent one to make sure it suits your needs.
 

Be Mindful of the Background

When shooting portraits, you want to pay special attention to the background. Generally, the subject of your portrait is the focal point in the image, and you want to make sure the background is complementary and visually separate from your subject. A good way to achieve this is to use a relatively wide aperture. Doing so will ensure that your subject is the main focus, and that the background is completely blurry. Even with an out-of-focus background, you want to be mindful of bright colors and anything else that could potentially distract the viewer.
 

Experiment with Different Types of Lighting

There are many kinds of lighting, each with unique qualities. From soft to hard and natural to studio, lighting is one of the key elements to learn in photography. It is a good idea to experiment capturing portraits in a wide array of lighting conditions, as it will make you a more versatile shooter, and teach you how to capture quality images no matter what kind of lighting is at your disposal.
 

Adjust Your Perspective

A big part of photography is adjusting your perspective to capture the most visually-appealing images you possibly can. Portraits are no exception. Take a variety of images from different vantage points, and don’t be afraid to experiment shooting from unusual or atypical angles. You will learn what works best through practice. It’s a good idea to take a wide variety of shots, including close-ups, mid-range and even some from far away.
 

Get to Know Your Subject

The best portraits are ones in which your subject appears natural and unposed. In order for you to capture these kinds of images, it may be beneficial to engage with your subject and get to know him/her (if you don’t already). Even if you know the person you are photographing, some small talk can do wonders to get him/her feeling comfortable in front of the camera. Keep the conversation going throughout the photo shoot, and even insert some humor to get them smiling and laughing.
 

Capture Candid Shots

Sometimes, the best portraits are those captured when your subject doesn’t even realize they are being photographed. During your photo session, pay attention and look for these “candid moments,” in which the subject is oblivious to the fact that you are taking their photo. One of the reasons street photography is so powerful is because the human subjects in the images are unaware they are being photographed, which makes for completely authentic images. When you take portraits, look for those moments when your subject is not paying attention. You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.
 

Use Center-Weighted Metering Mode

In my recent post about camera metering modes, I wrote that center-weighted mode is generally a good choice for portrait photography. Of course this depends on the particular lighting conditions and where your subject is in the frame. As with every post on my blog, this is meant as a rough guide to help you figure things out for yourself. Feel free to play around with different metering modes, and use whichever one yields the best results for you.
 

Have Fun

Photography is meant to be enjoyable, regardless of whether you are shooting portraits, landscapes, products or something else. Enjoy the whole process, and don’t place too much emphasis on the results in the beginning. Your image-making will improve over time, and you will become more comfortable taking portraits with practice. Be patient and don’t expect to know everything right away.
 

Conclusion

Hopefully, the above-mentioned tips will put you on the fast track to creating intriguing portraits. For more information and tips, find a few good photography blogs, and do a Google search (you can use Bing if you insist:)). If you have a tip that I missed or a question, feel free to leave a comment below.
 
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