11. Use a longer focal length…
Conventional portrait knowledge will tell you to use a lens with a longer focal length, at least 85mm, perhaps even 100mm and beyond. Some photographers swear by their 70mm-200mm lens, zoomed to 200mm for portraits. What’s great about a longer focal length for portraits is that the perspective compresses the image, which is especially flattering for people. Whether you’re photographing a headshot or a group of people, everyone looks better with a longer focal length. Longer lenses will also make it easier to blur the background, which is especially helpful if you’re shooting with a kit lens that can’t open to as wide of an aperture as a more expensive lens. Even if you have to shoot at f/5.6, when you’re zoomed to 200mm, you’ll still blur the background while keeping your subject in focus. Just remember that if you use a longer focal length, you won’t be able to include as much of the surroundings unless you back up quite a bit, which might then create an image without intimacy or detail in the subject. When you use a longer focal length, be comfortable showcasing the people rather than the surroundings.
12. …Or use a short focal length
On the other hand, you can use a shorter focal length, like 50mm or 35mm or even 24mm, to include much more of your surroundings. This is especially useful for photographing someone in their home, perhaps their office or workspace. Be careful to make sure that the subject stays in the middle of the frame, and don’t get too close to the subject; otherwise, you run the risk of distorting their body or features due to the perspective of the wider lens. Use a wider lens for a more journalistic look and feel to your portraits.
13. Use a wide open aperture…
Using a wide open aperture like f/2.8, f/2, or f/1.2 not only lets in a ton of light, but the wide apertures give you a shallow depth of field. The shallow depth of field creates great separation between your subject and whatever is in the foreground and background. A wide open aperture also creates great bokeh and, if you’re really wide open, can give your photo an almost dream-like quality. An environmental portrait with a shallow depth of field is what so many families and brides are looking for these days. Everyone seems to want a golden hour portrait in a field of wheat with a shallow depth of field, right? Just be careful: you can miss your focus the wider you set your aperture. You have to pay close attention to steadying your camera and nailing your focus point when you shoot at a wide aperture.
14. …Or use a narrower aperture
If you’re a little tired of the look described in #13, if you shoot in a studio, if you miss your focus when wide open, or if you simply want more of your subject in focus, then choose an aperture like f/4, f/5.6, or f/8. You won’t get that buttery bokeh mentioned above, but you will get a sharper image. You’ll also have a little more leeway when it comes to nailing your focus. A narrower aperture can be a little more forgiving. So if you’re tired of portraits where the eyes are in focus but the ears are fuzzy, then narrow your aperture. You might surprise yourself when you realize how much you like a portrait that’s not shot totally wide open.
15. Use a big light source
A big light source will give you softer light and more gradual fall-off from light to shadow. The bigger the light source, the more flattering the light tends to be for portraits. Novice photographers tend to want to back the light source away from their subjects, thinking that the space will allow the light to somehow spread and become softer and better–this is not the case! Get your subject close to a big light source and you won’t be disappointed.