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Fundamentals of Portrait Photography

Humans are photographers’ go-to subject by a long shot. Millions upon millions of photographs of people are taken every year, including countless selfies, pictures of children, and snapshots of families visiting iconic landmarks. To know more, check out

Photographing a person for a portrait differs from photographing a group of people. One of the goals of portrait photography is to portray an aspect of the subject’s “essence,” or unique character, personality, or life.

Camera settings, lighting, and rapport with your model constitute the holy trinity of portrait photography.

Portrait photography settings

Because a portrait focuses on the subject’s face (or head and shoulders in a broader view), traditional portrait photography settings eliminate any background clutter. This is photographic jargon for making the subject “pop” or stand out and attract attention, and it creates the same effect as getting up close and personal with someone’s face.

Using a wide (or as wide as possible) aperture (f/2.8 or f/4) is a common technique for taking a clean portrait. When using a wide aperture, the background will be rendered as a soft blur because the depth of field is shallow.

A large aperture is essential, but the ISO setting is the only one that matters. This should be set to as low of an ISO as possible (such as ISO 100), as increasing the ISO would cause digital noise, which looks terrible in portraits.

One subgenre of portrait photography, environmental portrait photography, requires slightly different lighting conditions. Photographers that do environmental portraiture aim to capture subjects in their “natural habitat,” typically the office where they spend most of their time. Since the depth of field should be visible, a narrower aperture should be used here.

Photographic portrait lighting

When taking portraits, you can get as intricate as possible with the lighting. The lighting may be regulated entirely in a studio, making it ideal for professional portraiture. Since you likely need access to a professional photography studio, we’ll focus on a home-based lighting setup.

Put the model in front of a window first. Bright yet indirect (not straight from the sun) light from the window is ideal. The best position for your model is with her side to the window. The side of their face closest to the window will be bathed with light. Then, place an object on the opposite side of your model so that the light from the window will reflect onto the opposite side of their face. A white cardboard or an aluminum sheet will work just as well.

With the leading light on one side of the model’s face and the ‘fill’ light from the reflector on the other, you now have a simple, pleasing lighting setup. Again, remember to go close enough to the subject so that the glass is not visible in the frame.

Engaging with the object of your study

The relationship between the photographer and the subject is always reflected in a portrait. The most challenging aspect of portrait photography is not adjusting the camera or lighting but rather making the subject easy enough to produce pleasing pictures. During photo shoots, a nervous or uneasy model will not look her best in the final product.

The most excellent way to get your model to loosen up in front of the camera is to start a conversation with them. Once you’ve taken a few photographs, they’ll feel more at ease, so give yourself plenty of time and save your finest images for last.

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