5 Tips for Improving your Portrait Photo Skills

Over the past twenty years, the landscape of amateur photography has changed massively. At the turn of the millennium, the average camera used rolls of film, and involved days spent waiting for one’s holiday snaps to get developed. By the late 2000s, the digital camera had become a household essential; suddenly you could take hundreds of photos at a time, reviewing each one on a screen, deleting the duds, and making flattering edits.

Today, of course, most of us have ditched our pocket-sized digital cameras for smartphones.

But while the right Instagram filter and some judicious edits can create a photo fit for the grandest of picture frames, can the average person on the street ever really compete with a professional photographer?

If you’re an amateur harbouring dreams of becoming a photographer to the stars, these tips could be just the ticket…

Invest in a good camera

It might seem like an obvious thing to say, but if you’re serious about getting into portrait photography, make sure you own a camera worthy of your ambitions.

The two main types to consider are the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) and the mirrorless camera. The DSLR uses an internal mirror to reflect light entering the lens into a prism, and from there into your viewfinder. The mirrorless camera has no internal mirror; instead, light passes directly through the lens and onto an image sensor, displaying the image on the screen.

Because the DSLR contains a mirror and a prism, it is typically bulkier and heavier than a mirrorless camera. However, because the mirrorless typically doesn’t have a viewfinder, it can be more difficult to use in low light. Having said that, the mirrorless is usually better for filming video, and has a higher shutter speed.

It goes without saying that investing in an expensive camera means taking some time to get to grips with the equipment. That means trying out every button and switch, reading the manual cover to cover, and switching the mode from automatic to manual. If you use it every day you’ll get the hang of it in no time.

Get to grips with exposure

Exposure is a term referring to how light or dark a photographed image is; normally it is controlled by aperture (the size of the hole through which light enters your camera), ISO (the sensitivity of your camera to light) and shutter speed (the length of time light is entering your camera). Altering these settings in different combinations affects the exposure of your shot – in other words, it will make your image appear lighter or darker.

When you’re just starting out, it can be hard to get your head around these settings. The good news is that there’s a far simpler way to control exposure: the exposure compensation tool. This button is normally positioned on the back of your camera above the screen, and is identifiable by plus and minus symbols.

To use this tool, simply set up your camera as normal, then – when you’re about to take a shot – press on either the plus or the minus to increase or decrease the amount of light.

This is a particularly useful tool for portrait photography, as cameras will often under- or over-expose a scene if the person has particularly light or dark-coloured skin, or is surrounded by areas of extreme light or dark.

Turn on aperture priority mode

In most cameras, aperture priority mode is turned on by switching your dial around to A or Av. This setting allows you to choose your aperture size but, unlike full manual mode, it automatically picks an appropriate shutter speed.

When shooting a portrait this is useful because aperture controls depth of field – i.e. how clear/blurry parts of the image appear. If you are taking a close-up portrait, you may want to set a wide aperture. This creates a shallow depth of field, keeping the face in focus and blurring the background. The wider the aperture, the more blurred the background will become. Remember that when you’re using aperture priority mode, the shutter speed will take care of itself.

Prevent motion blur by increasing your ISO

Taking a photograph of someone’s face can be tricky, because they will naturally move around, blink and change their expression. Usually, you’ll be holding the camera in your hands, which can also cause shaking and blur. To avoid all this and ensure you get a sharp, clear shot, increase your shutter speed.

As explained previously, the ISO setting controls the sensitivity of your camera to light – but altering it also affects shutter speed. To do this easily, keep your camera in aperture priority mode, and increase your ISO setting.

You may find that as the ISO increases, the image becomes more "noisy" (i.e. grainy) because of the increased light sensitivity. However, this will generally be preferable to an entirely blurry image.

Play around!

A fun, open-minded attitude is always helpful when doing portrait photography, especially if you’re just starting out. Ultimately, there’s no substitute for trial and error when using a new camera. Just make sure that you try out different settings in an organised way, noting down what works and what doesn’t.

It can also be helpful to start by photographing people you’re friendly and comfortable with – relaxing in front of the camera can be tricky, so an atmosphere of camaraderie and experimentation is always helpful. After all, those candid laughter shots are always the keepers!

Framing Those Perfect Shots

If you’re on your way to mastering portrait photography, and you’d like to get your work framed and hanging on your wall, look no further than EzeFrame. We can supply a wide range of custom-made picture frames and picture mounts, crafted using your exact specifications and delivered straight to your door. We even offer multi-aperture picture frames – perfect for a collection of photos from a special occasion.

Find out more, and start planning your ideal picture frame, by visiting our picture frames and mount design page.

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