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How to take better portraits

We show you the techniques and equipment you'll need for the best portrait shots

Photography requires a combination of creative flair and technical skill, but when it comes to taking portraits, it also calls on your social skills. We’ve all been in a situation where someone has asked us to pose for a photo, and left us waiting while he or she grapples with the camera. The inevitable result is awkward-looking poses and weary half smiles.

It’s important to be fully attentive to your subject, so it’s worth knowing in advance what you want to shoot, and the best way to capture it quickly. Familiarity with the camera settings that work well for portraits will let you get on with capturing a natural smile before fatigue and boredom set in.

Over these two pages we’ve compiled 10 tips, tricks and common practices used by portrait photographers. All rules are there to be broken, but as with any art form, it’s worth getting to grips with the conventions so you can break them with confidence.


Unless you have a photo studio to hand, you’ll probably be shooting portraits in homes and gardens, parks or some other public place. This often makes for a more interesting portrait than the sterile environment of a studio, but there’s a big difference between an interesting backdrop that sets a mood and one that’s crowded with distractions.

If your home is anything like ours, you’ll find it hard to point the camera without getting an assortment of household clutter in the background. It’s easily overlooked when your attention is on your subject while shooting, but when you come to inspect the shots they can be really distracting. So start each portrait shoot with an evacuation of as much clutter as possible. That’s not so easy when you’re in public places, so you’ll need to find a location and shooting angle that removes unwanted distractions from the scene.


A camera’s zoom control isn’t just for making faraway things bigger in the frame. Zooming in also gives a flatter, more natural-looking geometry. Wide-angle photos look skewed towards the edges of the frame, and because you’ll need to get much closer to your subject, nearer parts of the subject – namely the nose – can look disproportionately large.

Shallow DOF This shot, taken at f/2 with a 50mm lens, keeps the features sharp while blurring the ears, hair and clothes. It uses a window as its main light source, while another window behind the subject serves as a rim light.

Stepping back and zooming in eliminates these problems, and it also makes the subject feel more relaxed because you’re not invading his or her space so much. It also narrows the depth of field, making the background more blurred and guiding the eye towards the subject. This effect won’t be particularly noticeable on a compact camera, but it’s more distinct on big-sensor cameras such as SLRs and CSCs.


A really narrow depth of field can boost the intimacy of a portrait, allowing you to focus on the features but throw the ears and hair out of focus, while the background dissolves into an abstract haze.

To achieve this, you’ll need to be fairly close to your subject, and use a big-sensor camera with a wide-aperture lens. Variously known as prime, fast or bright lenses, they typically have a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4. Lower aperture values mean that more light is let into the camera, which gives a shallower depth of field. Switch to aperture-priority mode to gain control of the aperture setting.

Most wide-aperture lenses don’t have a zoom function, so you’ll need one with a focal length that’s well suited to portrait photography. Fortunately, the perfect lens also happens to be cheap: there are 50mm, f/1.8 lenses available for Canon, Nikon and Sony SLRs, with prices ranging from £80 to £140. On a consumer SLR with an APS-C sensor, this gives an equivalent focal length of around 75mm, which is perfect for head-and-shoulders portraits. Nikon SLR owners need to be careful, though, as the cheaper 50mm f/1.8 lens’s autofocus won’t work on some Nikon SLRs. If so, go for the newer F/1.8G model, which costs around £200.

Nikon 50mm A prime lens is ideal for shooting portraits, as they’re typically fast and bright.

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