basic photography tips // tips for taking portraits

My advice when speaking with people who are getting into photography always to start shooting in Manual mode. It’s difficult to get the hang of it at first but because photographers are put in many different situations, they need to know their camera inside and out. They need to know how have complete control over their images, this can only be accomplished by setting your camera to Manual mode. The difficulty with this mode is the massive learning curve. I’ve done workshops with people and usually they can get comfortable with manual settings in about 6 hours. It takes so long because there are 3 different settings that you need to learn: Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed. You need to know how these three work together and what to do with each setting to produce consistent images in every situation. If you change one setting, you need to change them all. Digital Photography School has some great introductions to learning about these settings.

Like last week, my focus here is on the basics. Those of you who want to take better images but not necessarily be professional photographers. First of all, here is a ‘glossary of photography terms’ I will be using:

*Aperture – this is the number after the “f” on your lens. The smaller the number, the larger the aperture.
large aperture = small number (1.2, 1.8, 2.0 etc.) = shallower depth of field
small aperture = large number (3.5, 4.0, 5.0 etc) = deeper depth of field
*Depth of Field = amount of your image that is in focus, we talked about focus last week here.
shallow depth of field = more blurry
deeper depth of field = more of the overall image in focus

Here are my 3 suggestions for taking better images of people:
Portrait Mode
Most DSLR’s have a wheel on top with lots of icons on it. One of those icons is a little head. This icon is the symbol for “portrait mode” and if you’re not confident with changing the settings on your camera it’s a good mode to switch to as it will do most of the work for you. Portrait mode chooses a large aperture that will make the depth of field more shallow. The issue you can run into with this is the limitation of the lens you have. If the lens you have on your camera does not have the option of a large aperture (usually zoom lenses) you won’t be able to achieve a shallow depth of field. We’ll talk more about that below.

My camera doesn’t have a portrait mode but I took an image on Auto so you could see the difference in the images. The bottom left is Auto. The aperture the camera chose was 4.0, you can see how there is a deeper depth of field and also, like we talked about last week the focus is not on the eye. The image on the right is Aperture Priority mode, I set the aperture on 1.8 and the image turned out a little darker than I would prefer.

basic photography tips // tips for better portraits

Aperture Priority Mode
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous switch the wheel to ‘A’ which is Aperture Priority Mode. This mode puts you in control of the Aperture and tells the camera to choose all the other settings. This semi-auto mode is a great way to control depth of field and it will ensure your images are well exposed. For shallow depth of field and nice blurry backgrounds choose a large Aperture. Try taking a few shots at different apertures and see how it affects the background of your shots – this is the best way to learn how to get more creative control in your shots. With this option you will also need a lens that has the ability to have a large aperture.

The image below on the left is Aperture Priority mode set to 2.2 and on the right I took on Manual mode and set the aperture to 1.8. You can see the difference in the depth of field and also the brightness of the image. Because I was controlling all the settings I was able to take the image the exact way I wanted it to look without having to brighten in post-production.

basic photography tips // tips for better portraits

Try a different lens
Different lenses have different maximum apertures. Those with larger apertures are called ‘faster’ and one of the impacts of having a fast lens is that you can make your depth of field more shallow. Usually when I’m shooting portraits of one person, I set my aperture between 1.4 and 1.8. If I’m shooting two or three people I set it at 2.8 and a large group would be 4.0. If your lens has a maximum aperture of 3.5 your images will not have a very shallow depth of field and most of your image will be in focus unless you stand your subject far away from the backdrop. The lens you use is very important if you desire a shallow depth of field and most of the lenses that come in a kit with a camera are not very fast. A good option and the first lens I started out with is the 50mm f/1.8 lens (both Canon and Nikon have this lens). It’s very fast and it has a good focal length for portraits and it is one of the most affordable lenses they make.

Like we talked about last week, an awesome camera alone won’t make amazing pictures. Skill and equipment go hand in hand. It’s important to make the best of whatever equipment you have available and learn what small changes you can make to that will have the biggest impact. Remember to keep practicing, have fun and don’t be afraid to mess up! I hope these tips are helping, what are some other basic photography questions you have? Comment below ;)

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