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Tech Tips for Basic Portrait Photography

Written by Daven Mathies

We all know the number one reason people take pictures is to share images of what they are eating. But, second to that, one reason photography is as mainstream as it is, is because people want to take pictures of their friends and family. So, whether you are shooting simply for your own memories or creating portraits for someone else, here are some tips to help you rise above the snapshot.

Use a telephoto lens

There are all kinds of reasons to shoot portraits with a variety of different lenses, but for the basic, single-subject, standard portrait, shooting with a telephoto lens will help you out. Even if all you own is a basic kit lens (or a point and shoot camera), zoom to the telephoto end of its range and then frame your subject. A wide-angle lens will often distort a person's face in unsettling ways, whereas a telephoto lens creates a much more flattering effect. You can also achieve a shallower depth of field with a telephoto lens, even on slower kit lenses that don't have particularly wide apertures, helping to separate your subject from the background. Again, there are reasons to shoot portraits with other lenses, and I am personally always in favor of experimentation, but that's a conversation for another time.

Shoot in Aperture Priority

It may be tempting to simply rotate your mode dial to the "Portrait" scene mode, but try to resist the urge. Instead, shoot in Aperture Priority (usually denoted by an "A" on the mode dial or "Av" for Aperture Value on Canon cameras). This way, you can control your depth of field by manually selecting the aperture, but the exposure remains automated—the camera will adjust the shutter speed to compensate for whatever aperture you select. Controlling depth of field is important in portraits: you may want to blur the background as much as possible to make your subject stand out (large aperture) or keep the background sharper in order to show the significance of the location in the portrait (small aperture).

Use Single Point Autofocus

One thing that can absolutely kill a good portrait is letting the camera figure out where to focus. In "auto area" autofocus, which is often the default focusing mode, all of your camera's focus points are active and the camera tries to determine where you want to focus. Generally, the camera will choose to focus on the closest object in the frame. This may be okay for general photography, but portraiture requires more control. If you switch to single point AF, you can place the focus point right where it needs to be—usually on your subject's eye. This is especially critical if you are shooting with a very shallow depth of field, where auto-area AF may focus on your subject's nose or mouth, and result in the eyes being soft.

Have a tip of your own? Feel free to add it in the comments! 

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