Photography Basics: How to Take Awesome Portraits

photography basicsThere’s a difference between taking pictures and taking awesome pictures that few people understand. The true professionals know the difference, and with a little help, you can too.

Your first steps should be to fully understand ISO, aperture, white balance, and shutter speed. Understanding the basics is a must.

But it’s ok if you’re not there yet, even the best photographers started somewhere.

In fact, learning to walk before you can run, as they say, will actually save you frequent mishaps on the way to becoming a photographer.

There’s nothing more frustrating than blurry pictures, right? It’s nearly always due to a lack of understanding of the basic concepts of photography.

Today, we’re discussing portraits and their role in turning amateurs into seasoned shutterbugs.

Shooting portraits is the art of photographing people in various environments and circumstances. You might shoot friend’s weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, Christmas parties and plenty of other situations that warrant remembering.

It’s a great way to master the photography basics while also helping other people along the way. With enough practice, your portraits might get so good that people are willing to pay for your talents. Who knows, your new hobby could even develop into a career someday.

Portrait Photography Basics #1: Setting Up Your Camera

We’re assuming your first camera is a DSLR, and if it isn’t, here’s a list of quality cameras for your shopping pleasure. Anything less functional than a DSLR lacks important features, and anything more advanced is too overwhelming for a beginner.

That said, the first step to taking great portraits is understanding your camera setup. The process itself is simple, but may seem complex to beginners. Don’t worry, though, just follow these steps for an easy setup:

  • Locate your camera’s battery and SD card slots. Insert the battery first, and then your SD card. See, we told you this was simple.
  • Set the timezone on your camera. If you forget to set the time or change time zone, organizing your photos will get messy.
  • Format your SD card within the camera’s settings menu. This allows your DSLR to “read” your memory card.
  • Set your max image size based on your desired image quality, and set the file type to RAW. Remember, these are portraits, so don’t skimp on quality.
  • Change your metering settings from “multi” to “centering.” The centering option adjusts your exposure based on your portrait subject.
  • Set the white balance to auto. DSLRs can accurately compensate color temperature themselves.
  • Make sure image stabilization is set to “off” if you’re using a tripod. We recommend this to all beginners. Turn it on if you’re shooting freehand.
  • Set your ISO to auto. Your DSLR also accurately determines light availability.
  • Ensure your focus is set to standard. Continuous mode is only needed for moving objects.
  • Finally, set your color space to AdobeRGB to allow for accurate photo editing.

These settings will put you on the path to taking quality portraits. However, variables like lighting, clothing color, and more sometimes call into play advanced settings.

Portrait Photography Basics #2: Getting Technical

When environmental factors influence picture quality, seasoned photographers get creative. This means adjusting camera settings beyond their tried and true portrait defaults. Learning these technical tricks is important to complimenting your photography basics. Let’s dive into the technical stuff.


Wedding portraits often turn out over or under exposed. It’s a result of lighting variances in different settings (churches, farms, etc.). To compensate for this, photographers tweak their metering settings to adjust their exposures.

Specifically, settings with areas of high or low light trick the camera into a bad exposure.

Brides dressed all in white or people with exceptionally fair skin tones are notorious for causing under exposures. Your camera perceives too much “light” and darkens the photo.

Turn up your exposure compensation settings +1 to compensate for this and lighten people’s faces, or -1 to darken photo elements. Your bridal photos will brighten up in no time.


Metering settings dictate aperture, but aperture is also independently adjustable. In other words, metering determines the correct aperture setting, but you’re able to customize your own aperture as well.

The aperture of your lens is measured by the hole size that your diaphragm is allowing. Smaller holes mean less light and less focus on background objects.

Set a wide aperture (around f/2.5-f5.8) to better capture your subject’s depth of field. All objects behind your subject will have a blurred effect, making your portrait stand out.

The effect is so drastic that professional portrait photographers often use special lenses with maximum apertures of up to f/1.4.

You’ll probably want to further experiment with aperture for portrait taking after gaining some additional familiarity with the photography basics. Adjusting for the blur effect can have really cool results.


Flashes are always an interesting topic among photography professionals. Some decry artificial light, while others admit its use in certain situations.

News portrait photographers should consider flash a tool among their photography basics. Simply put, experimenting with artificial light is helpful for learning the intricacies of your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture settings.

When metering settings won’t do the trick, flashes can provide the extra light needed to brighten a dark room. Amateurs will likely find a flash useful in low light situations where extreme ISO is causing too much distortion.

Portrait Photography Basics #3: Beyond The Camera

Fine tuned camera settings are only as good as the photographer behind the lens. Cultivating creative ideas with your camera is paramount to developing strong photography skills.

Never assume that “portrait” signifies boring headshot photography. Wedding photos, family photos, graduation pictures, and even professional snapshots all benefit from unconventional thinking.

Make Friends

Subjects uncomfortable with having their pictures taken lead to sub-par photos. Even the best photographer can’t turn a scowl into a smile with only a camera.

However, excellent photographers understand this and circumvent the issue by becoming friendly with their clients.

Always attempt to put your subject at ease. Talk to them, buy them a coffee, layout your plan, and remind them that taking pictures is fun, not stressful.

This prepares them for our next photography basics tip which is…

Break The Comfort Zone

Pictures taken outside of your subject’s comfort zone often have the “it factor” that isn’t captured when subjects try to act photogenic. Break people outside of their situations’ traditional portrait mold.

Are you shooting a wedding? Have the bride and groom pair off with their wedding parties and shoot something everyone will remember fondly.

How about shooting professional headshots? Have your subject pose in any other way than a front facing smile.

Mixing up traditional poses helps capture emotion instead of just monotony. Have fun with your clients.

Follow The Eyes

Eye contact is very powerful in everyday life. It dictates a range of emotions and heavily influences the person you’re conversing with.

It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that a subject’s eyes are important in determining the tone of a photograph.

All of the photography basics dictate portraits should have the subject looking into the camera. This stems from the need to create a connection between the subject and whoever is looking at their portrait.

However, sometimes the photography basics aren’t entirely foolproof.

Have your subject look off camera and focus on an object of your choosing. This helps create intrigue when someone looks at the portrait.

Having your subject focus on something within the frame is another good technique. For portraits, this means focusing on an object meaningful to the subject. This approach allows a story to evolve from an otherwise one-dimensional photograph.

Angles Are Your Friend

While generally an active subject makes or breaks a photo, sometimes an active photographer has the most influence of all.

Consider shooting your subject from different angles. Shooting from above, below, or to the side are great ways to change the dynamic of a traditional portrait. Keep the subject forward facing and capture their expressions from different viewpoints.

This tactic also works wonders when both yourself and your subject are moving together.

Break the rule of thirds and place your subject on the edge of your frame. Move around them to shoot different versions of their profile.

Keep the ideas varied and your feet moving to take portraits that break from traditional conventions.

For all of its technicality, photography is half creative thinking. Always maintain a balance between unconventional and traditional thought. Remember, the photography basics are only guidelines.

Every aspiring photographer needs to understand the basics before moving forward with their hobby or career. This includes taking high-quality portraits.

Start small with your camera set-up, progress into the technical side of portrait taking, and finally, finish by manipulating the photo shoot itself. Follow our guide and your portraits should start looking great in no time.

Remember to check back to our blog for more photography related material. Our goal is to help aspiring photographers go from the amateur to professional level as quickly as possible.

We promise to share our passion for photography by educating our readers with informative, high-quality content.

Since we’re new, we’d also like to extend an invitation to our readers to pitch content ideas. Have a topic you’d like to learn about? Let us know so we can become as helpful as possible.

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