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Portrait Photography Quick Start Guide

This is a quick start guide to portrait photography. It’s designed to get you over the first few hurdles of portrait photography so you can move on the more challenging ones sooner. If you don't understand a term used just click the link to helpful articles about that subject. If you have any questions please don't hesitate to ask.

Portrait Basics

Use a long lens

Lenses with a focal length of 85mm or longer. Using wider lenses is ok in environmental portraits or when the subject’s entire body is seen but for any photo of just the face or upper body the lens compression from a longer lens is more flattering.

Use a wide aperture

The wider your aperture is the shallower your depth of field is. This will help create the ‘professional’ looking blurry backgrounds and help the viewer focus on your subject. Generally speaking, with portraits, just use your lens’ widest aperture.

More information about depth of field.

Focus on the eye

Since we are using a shallow depth of field we need to make sure the most important thing in the photo is in focus. In portraits the eyes are the most important part. If you can, set your camera to focus on a single point and either move the point to the subject’s eyes or focus on the eye and then recompose the shot.

Keep the shutter speed over 1/125

Setting your shutter speed faster than 1/125 will help you reduce the amount of motion blur caused by involuntary human movements. This keeps your photos sharp

Check your exposure

Keep an eye on your histogram to make sure it’s not stacked too far to the right (overexposed) or too far to the left (under exposed). To adjust your exposure just adjust either your shutter speed (keeping it faster than 1/125) or your ISO. Find out more about exposure settings here

Don’t know how to change that setting?

Here are a list of the major camera manufacturers pdf instruction manuals. This way you can do a simple word search to find the information you need.

CanonGo and enter your camera model into this site. Click on ‘Manuals’ and then download the user manual.

Nikon: Here you can search for Nikon camera's user manuals. Also click here to check out Nikon’s photography articles discussing the basics of photography.

Sony: All the Sony DSLR manuals

Extra Info


If you are looking more information about composition I have a post with information about this subject here.

Helpful critiques

KelbyOne has a free weekly photography show on YouTube called The Grid. Watch this episode where Scott Kelby, Matt Kloskowski the Vice President of Photography at ON1 Inc. and New York Portrait photographer Peter Hurley critique photos submitted by viewers. It's really handy to see what things professional photographers are looking for in photos and tips on how to improve. Watch it here, after the first 17 minutes of intro.

Another great critiques episode is this one with Photographer Joe McNally who has worked for TIME, Newsweek, Fortune, New York, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and Men's Journal. He speaks in depth about each photo and imparts a lot of wisdom.

Fstoppers run a show called Critique the community and they have an episode dedicated to portraits which is worth looking at.

Damian WallsComment