Learning the Basics of Portrait Photography

The most common ‘thing’ to photograph are other people. The art of picture taking has evolved tremendously over the years. We’ve gone from snapping a photo and watching it cure overnight to taking ‘selfies’ that can be transferred to others instantly.

Portrait photography is a bit more specific than the average photograph. The purpose of portrait photography involves capturing the ‘essence’ of a person. The picture should say something about their personality or character.

You have three major factors to work through for basic portrait photography:

  • Camera Settings
  • Lighting
  • Relating to the Subject

Read on to learn how these three things work together to help you create the perfect portrait photograph!

Camera Settings

Portrait photography focuses on the person’s face. At most, you may include the shoulders and head, but the face is always the star.

You should use a wide aperture when taking a portrait photo. Doing so will remove any distraction from the picture, leaving the full focus on the person’s face. The wide aperture renders the background into a soft blur while focusing on the nearer object, or the face.

The other important aspect of your camera settings involves ISO (International Organization of Standardization). Make sure the ISO is as low as you can get it. Aim for ISO 100 or less if possible.

Higher ISO creates digital noise, which looks unappealing in a portrait photograph. The only exception to this rule is when you’re taking an environmental portrait photograph. In this case, you would need the ISO to be higher and take in the scenery.


Lighting can perfect or ruin a picture. Typically, portrait photography happens in a studio where the light can be adjusted based on your needs. However, not everyone has access to such a place.

I’ll give you a quick example of using lighting in a portrait photograph:

Let’s say the person is inside a house near a window. You should position them in front of the window where the sunlight is bright but not shining directly on them. A thin curtain can help to lessen the lighting if needed.

The person should be facing the camera with their side to the window. That way the sunlight will shin on the side of their face. To get the lighting to be even on both sides, you’ll need a mirror or a white, reflective surface to place outside the picture frame.

Now that you have decent lighting on both sides of the person’s face, you’ll be able to take a much nicer portrait photograph.

Relating to Your Subject

Unless you’re shooting with a professional model, you’re greatest task will be getting the person in the shot to be calm and relaxed. One of the biggest problems in a portrait photograph involves an uncomfortable facial expression.

To avoid this issue, you’ll need to take some time to get to know the person a little. (Unless you already know them, of course) Talk to them a bit as you take a few shots. Typically, the best shots will be taken at the end of your session when the person is most comfortable with you.

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