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Taking a portrait photograph could easily be described as an art within an art, given that the skill required to produce stunning portraits exceeds many other types of photography. You not only need to know how to set the portrait photograph up visually, but you also need sufficient expertise in order to know which equipment to use, and how to set it all up.
Using the Correct Equipment
It is fair to say that if you ask 100 photographers what equipment they use for portraits you are not going to get 100 exact same answers. There may be agreement on some specific items but when you consider that you may need as many as 10 individual pieces of equipment, there is bound to be some debate.
There are lots of scenarios when you would be advised to use a tripod, and although with many of them it is still optional, for portrait photography it is essential. There are lots of reasons for this, but the primary one is the practical benefit of being able to come from behind the camera to talk to the subject about matters such as their pose, or to get them to move slightly.
It also helps you build a relationship with the subject which is bound to make them relax and thus look more natural in the photographs you take of them.
#2 Remote Trigger
This basic piece of equipment, for all intents and purposes, is just a switch. However, the huge advantage it gives you in relation to portrait photography is it ensures that there is absolutely no camera shake when the image is captured. It also enables you to move even further away from your tripod-mounted camera and closer to your subject which further enhances the rapport you can build with them.
More often than not the whole point of a portrait is to make the subject look as good as possible, so if you want to flatter their appearance it is best to use a short telephoto lens. One of the benefits of this is it foreshortens the perspective, and thus creates a blurred background while keeping the subject in perfect focus.
Settings for Portrait Photography
#1 Low ISO
Portraits are all about the quality of the image, so you’ll want the ISO setting to be between 100 and 400, in order to minimize noise as much as possible.
#2 Use Manual Mode
If your camera has automatic settings, and even a ‘portrait’ setting, do not use them. Switch the camera to manual and set it up using your knowledge of light conditions, and how well you know your camera. Your personal intuition will trump the camera’s auto settings every time. Besides, if the images on auto settings are not to your, or more importantly, your subject’s liking, how will you know how to correct them if you didn’t set your camera up yourself?
Again, you want to focus manually, and use a single point of focus. Normally you should focus on the subject’s eyes, but if they are sitting or standing at an angle, always focus on the eye which is closest to you.
#4 Shutter Speed
This is one which will often be determined by the subject you are photographing, and how likely they are to sit still. As the tripod is preventing the camera from shaking, the only chance of any movement is going to be from the subject, and if they happen to be a child or children, this is highly likely.
So, for children, and fidgety adults, use a quicker shutter speed like 1/125th sec and adjust up or down accordingly. For adults (or children) who can sit still, then you may be able to lower the shutter speed to as low as 1/8th sec.
Working with Your Subject
When it comes to portrait photography you should realize this is a very personal, and in many cases, a close-up shot of the subject, so you want to ensure that it makes them look at their very best. You want to build up a rapport with them so that they trust you completely.
There may be a point where you want them to pose in a particular manner or look at the camera in a certain way, so they need to have confidence in your instructions.
Bear in mind, not every shot has to be a set pose, so don’t be afraid to snap some shots candidly as the subject is talking to you or taking a break.
Some of the best portrait photographs are taken when the subject was not aware that they were being photographed and where they look more natural.
Experiment with light, shadows, backgrounds, and even use some props to give the portrait more appeal.
Brad is a seasoned photographer whose journey began in 2006 with a 3.1-megapixel digital camera. Over the years, he has specialized in various photography genres—from weddings and portraiture to product and studio photography. Based on the Sunshine Coast of QLD, Brad combines his love for education and photography, sharing his expertise on DSLRAD.com, a platform committed to capturing life’s treasured moments and empowering photography enthusiasts.