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Tips on taking beautiful portraits for beginners using minimum equipment

Updated on October 3, 2013
Camera set up: Canon 450D | Tamron 90mm 2.8 | f/2.8 | ISO 200 | 1/30s + natural light & silver reflector on the left
Camera set up: Canon 450D | Tamron 90mm 2.8 | f/2.8 | ISO 200 | 1/30s + natural light & silver reflector on the left

Your dream came true – you bought yourself/got as a present a DSLR, you’ve been playing with it for a while now, but you struggle to get good results when taking portraits. In this article, I will share some tips on how to take nice portraits with sharp eyes which look full of life.

Natural light is your best friend

Beautiful portraits can be taken using a bunch of expensive equipment such as studio strobes, soft boxes, beauty dishes, or it can be taken using nothing but camera + ambient light (window light) + reflector (which is not even always necessary). Natural light allows you to take stunning portraits with minimum expense; you just need to learn to use light to your favour.

Female head shot with Canon 50mm 1.8 II Camera set up: Canon 450D | Canon 50mm 1.8 | f/2.2 | ISO 200 | 1/400s
Female head shot with Canon 50mm 1.8 II Camera set up: Canon 450D | Canon 50mm 1.8 | f/2.2 | ISO 200 | 1/400s

Reflector is your second best friend

Putting it simply, reflector it’s a piece of something (cardboard, fabric) in white, silver or golden colour that you can use to bounce light from a light source to your subject. A reflector can be easily made at home from while piece of thick paper or cardboard and if you need stronger effect you can place a creased kitchen foil over it turning it from white to silver in no time.

Outdoor portrait with Nifty Fifty. Camera set up: Canon 450D | Canon 50mm 1.8 | f/2.8 | ISO 100 | 1/3125s + natural light & silver reflector on the right
Outdoor portrait with Nifty Fifty. Camera set up: Canon 450D | Canon 50mm 1.8 | f/2.8 | ISO 100 | 1/3125s + natural light & silver reflector on the right

White reflector produces a soft light and is useful on a sunny day. Silver reflector has stronger reflective ability and is better to be used on a grey cloudy day, otherwise you might blind you subject with too large amount of light. Golden reflector is for adding warm light and works the same way as silver reflector.

There is an inexpensive 5 in 1 collapsible reflector, which I highly recommend you buying if you plan on taking lots of portraits. This way you will always have all the colours of reflector at hand wherever you go. It is light weighed and when it’s collapsed and placed in the pouch, it looks 1/4 of its real size.

Which lens is best for portraits?

First of all I should mention that different photographers prefer different lenses in order to achieve the effect they have in mind, so it could be a lens with anything between 50mm and 200mm.

When choosing a lens for portraits a few factors should be considered:

  1. If you plan on taking images indoors, think about space available to you. For example, I don’t have much space at home, so I take portraits with my Canon 50mm f/1.8 II (which is about 80mm on my Canon 450D), sometimes I use Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro (which is about 145mm on my Canon 450D) and in rare cases I use my kit lens Canon 18-55mm. With Nifty Fifty I can take head shots as well as half body portraits, while Tamron 90mm allows me for only head shots at home.
  2. For outdoors portraits you don’t need to worry that much about space. In this case you can go from 85mm all the way to 200mm to create nicely blurred backgrounds which will put your subject in the spot light.
  3. There is a good reason to go beyond 50mm for portraits and it’s compression. Compression helps to prevent facial distortion such as enlarged nose etc.
  4. F-stop abilities of a lens also play quite an important role. Portraits taken at f/1.8 – f/2.8 look very pleasant to an eye, making sure that only what matters is in focus.
  5. If you want to have those beautiful circles (bokeh effect) in the background of your portraits, then fast lens from the point #4 is a must have.

Female portrait with Canon 18-55mm (Kit lens) Camera set up: Canon 450D | Canon 18-55mm | at 55mm I f/5.6 | ISO 100 | 1/160s
Female portrait with Canon 18-55mm (Kit lens) Camera set up: Canon 450D | Canon 18-55mm | at 55mm I f/5.6 | ISO 100 | 1/160s

Catch light in the eyes makes portraits pop

For close up portraits it’s very important to get the light hit the eyes the way it can create nice catch light there, otherwise your portrait won’t look that pretty. Note that catch light is created not only by the main source light, but also by every bright subject positioned nearby your subject. For example if you place a silver reflector underneath the face of your subject it will not only bounce light on the face, but add another bit of catch light to the eyes.

Female portrait outside. Camera set up: Canon 450 | Canon 50mm 1.8 | f/1.8 | ISO 100 | 1/400s + natural light & silver reflector on the right
Female portrait outside. Camera set up: Canon 450 | Canon 50mm 1.8 | f/1.8 | ISO 100 | 1/400s + natural light & silver reflector on the right

How to position subject

For indoors portraits, place your subject close to a window, better if it’s a large one.

On a sunny day make sure the window is cowered with a thin (white) net curtain to soften the light, or move your subject a bit further from the window. Apart from some exceptions, portraits look much better with soft light, for that reason better to avoid harsh sunlight.

As opposite, on a dull grey day net curtain is not necessary and your subject should be as near as possible to the window to get maximum light you can.

Make sure that your subject is facing or at least half-facing the window. If you feel that the opposite side of the face looks too dark, this is where a reflector comes to help. Place a reflector on the opposite side of your light source close to your subject (but out of the frame) and you will see how the darker side of your subject will immediately brighten up. You can ask your subject to hold the reflector, use somebody’s help doing it, or purchase a special reflector holder.

Sometimes it’s better to sit your subject on a chair. Firstly, it will help your subject to relax. Secondly, it can help your subject to pose. Thirdly, the back side of the chair can be used as a prop, just ask your subject to lean on it.

Portrait indoors with Nifty Fifty.  Camera set up: Canon 450 | Canon 50mm 1.8 | f/2.8 | ISO 100 | 1/100s
Portrait indoors with Nifty Fifty. Camera set up: Canon 450 | Canon 50mm 1.8 | f/2.8 | ISO 100 | 1/100s

Focus on the eyes is crucial

Mostly in portraits focus should be positioned on the eyes. There are cases when not the face is the star of the shot, so you obviously put the focus elsewhere. Otherwise you must focus on the eyes (not somewhere on the face, but precisely on the eyes), because if you shoot at wide aperture such as f/1.8 – f/2.8 and you don’t focus on the eyes they will be out of focus and it will ruin your portrait. Another reason is that the better eyes are focused, the more detail you can pull out in the post process to make them sparkly.

Self portrait indoors. Camera set up: Canon 450D | Canon 18-55 at 32mm | f4.5 | 1/20s | ISO 100 + natural light from a large window
Self portrait indoors. Camera set up: Canon 450D | Canon 18-55 at 32mm | f4.5 | 1/20s | ISO 100 + natural light from a large window

Compose your shots

Composition is what makes or breaks a photo, not only portrait. Avoid placing your subject dead middle in the frame, unless it’s a very tight frame on the face. Also try different angles, from above, below etc.

Make your subject try different positions: from one side, from another, half turn, looking up, looking down, looking at the camera, looking in the distance. Let your creativity open up and take a lot of shots. I usually need a warm up of about 10 frames, after that my vision become clear what works better for my subject.

Use props

Some props such as sunglasses, a scarf, a hat, a flower, a music instrument, a soft toy etc. can add interestingness to a portrait. Think of what prop would suit the mood of the shot and character of your subject and use accordingly.

I was planning to write just a small article with a few tips and look how I got carried away! I just feel that all those details I gave you are important and might be of a use for your next portrait photo session.

Please let me know if this information was helpful for you, it’s always good to hear a feedback from my readers.

Happy shooting everyone!

Portrait of a couple with Nifty Fifty. Camera set up: Canon 450 | Canon 50mm 1.8 | f/1.8 | ISO 100 | 1/400s + natural light & silver reflector on the right
Portrait of a couple with Nifty Fifty. Camera set up: Canon 450 | Canon 50mm 1.8 | f/1.8 | ISO 100 | 1/400s + natural light & silver reflector on the right
Portrait of a woman using Nifty Fifty. Camera set up: Canon 450D | Canon 50mm 1.8 | f/2.8 | ISO 400 | 1/80s
Portrait of a woman using Nifty Fifty. Camera set up: Canon 450D | Canon 50mm 1.8 | f/2.8 | ISO 400 | 1/80s
Close up female portrait. Camera set up: Canon 450D | Tamron 90mm 2.8 | f/2.8 | ISO 400 | 1/100s
Close up female portrait. Camera set up: Canon 450D | Tamron 90mm 2.8 | f/2.8 | ISO 400 | 1/100s

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    • Sean Fliehman profile image

      Sean Fliehman 2 years ago

      I read through this again. This is such a great article. I want to be a better photographer and open my own studio.

    • Sean Fliehman profile image

      Sean Fliehman 2 years ago

      Wow very useful, I will be utilizing this.

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