Five tips for stunning portrait photos

Capturing great portrait photos, especially on the street, can be challenging. There are many variables, from ensuring the lighting is right, to getting up close, to being quick enough with your camera.
Canon EF 85mm f1.4L IS USM by Canon Explorer CONNY JANSSEN

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It is possible to capture decent portraits with any kind of camera, though many photographers prefer to use a DSLR so they have more control and can express their creative flair. Whatever camera you have, we hope these five tips will help you shoot better photos of people – whether they be friends, family or characters you meet on the street.

1. Use exposure compensation for portraits

Exposure compensation may sound complex, but it’s simply a way of making what’s in your photo lighter or darker. It’s particularly useful for capturing light skin tones and making sure your subjects don’t look washed out, or for capturing darker skin tones which you want to look natural. Nearly all DSLR cameras, most compact cameras and many smartphones have an exposure compensation setting. Check your manual to find yours. Dial up +1 click of positive exposure compensation to lighten up people’s faces or click down -1 stop to darken them.

2. Get up close

It sounds simple, but getting up close to your subject can be the biggest challenge – especially if they are a stranger or someone who tends to move around a lot. However, by physically moving your camera closer you can transform a portrait with the intensity of someone’s expression, the lines on their face or the glint in their eye.

Use a standard or wide-angle prime lens instead of a zoom lens – doing so will force you to get closer and your subjects should find a smaller lens less intimidating. Ask friends or family to pose for you close to the lens. If you want to capture portraits of strangers, ask their permission – often they are flattered to be asked, plus it gives you some time to set up your frame. Until you feel comfortable with the technique, use the automatic focus mode on your camera, as well as a fast shutter speed, that way you can concentrate on your distance to your subjects.

3. Shoot candid shots

To capture natural looking, candid portraits, take a couple of shots before and after your subject is ready and posing for the camera. People will feel more at ease and you’re much more likely to capture their natural smile or a child’s mischievous look by clicking the shutter when they’re not expecting you to. If your camera has a burst or continuous shooting mode, try it out. You could also use a zoom lens and shoot from further away so your portraits look less forced and more natural.

4. Tell a person’s story by shooting them in context

A portrait of someone in their usual environment tells more of a story than a simple headshot can. For example, you could use a wide-angle lens to shoot a chef at work in their kitchen or capture a farmer in a field full of cows. Or why not photograph a musician friend with a blurred guitar shop interior as their backdrop? Think about what you want in the background of your photo and why. The aim is to capture an image which is visually strong, to add a layer of meaning and to encourage your viewers to want to find out more.

5. Experiment and defy conventions

Besides adjusting your camera settings, there are some simple ways to add interest and create impact in your portrait shots. For example, you could ask your subject to look away from your camera at something in the distance or at something within the frame instead of looking at you. Or why not try shooting them from above using a step ladder – or bend down and shoot them from waist height? Break the rules of composition by having your subject completely fill the centre of your frame. Or try backlighting, shadows and slow shutter speeds to add mood to your portraits. The aim is to experiment, learn and get results you are happy with and to capture images you’ll want to share.


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