Your digital camera has a bewildering array of features and while this is great in some respects, the choices can be confusing. Here we explain the tools that you need to know about when photographing portraits.
Exposure mode: Don’t think about using the Portrait program mode you’re more than a happy snapper if you’re reading this guide. Instead, select aperture-priority AE mode (A or Av), which lets you choose the aperture, while automatically setting the appropriate shutter speed.
For most types of portraiture, you’ll want to use a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus. To start off, use f/5.6, as this gives enough depth-of-field to keep the entire face (eyes, nose and ears) in focus.
By selecting aperture-priority, you’ll be using ambient light only. While flash has its uses, controlling daylight will give you more natural results and help you learn to manipulate available light.
ISO rating & the reciprocal rule: In terms of quality, the lower the ISO the better, so start by setting ISO 100 or 200. Handholding your camera allows you more freedom to move and shoot candids, but watch out for camera shake. The simplest way to do this is to use the reciprocal rule.
All this means is you shouldn’t let your shutter speed drop below the reciprocal of the lens you’re using. For example, if you’re using the lens at 100mm then ensure the shutter speed is above 1/100sec to reduce the risk of shake. If you’re using the lens at 200mm then make sure the shutter speed is above 1/200sec, etc. Increasing the ISO rating is an easy way to achieve a faster shutter speed to avoid shake. Try not to go above ISO 800 as otherwise you’ll notice increased noise in the image. In low light, whenever possible, we’d recommend you use a tripod. It allows you to use a lower ISO rating as shutter speeds aren’t such a concern.
White Balance: You should set the White Balance to match the lighting conditions you’re shooting in. If you’re working in mixed light and are a little unsure, then Auto (AWB) is the best compromise. Of course, if you’re shooting Raw, you can always change the White Balance when you open the image on your computer. Something to bear in mind is that setting the wrong WB preset can be used to purposely shift the colour balance. For instance, setting Cloudy in daylight adds warmth to the tones, while selecting Tungsten will result in a very cool, blue cast – so be creative.
Image quality: I would recommend you shoot Raw, as it allows you to play with settings, particularly White Balance, later. If your camera has a facility to shoot Raw + JPEG, use it with JPEG set to Small/Basic. Then when you’re reviewing images, you can go through the small JPEGs quickly, choose your favourites and work on the appropriate Raw files. If you’re confident in your ability, and don’t expect to need to make tweaks to the exposure or White Balance in post-production, opt for the best quality JPEG for optimum results and to save room on your memory card.
Autofocus: With the vast majority of portraits, it’s important that the subject’s eyes are in focus as, more often than not, they’re the focal point. Your camera most likely has multi-point AF, which allows you to choose between leaving all the AF points active or to select individual AF points. You could leave all the AF points active to ensure you don’t miss a great shot, but you run the risk of missing the eyes and focusing on the nose as it’s the nearest object to the camera. A better option is to select a single AF point and use this to focus on the eye. The central AF sensor is usually the most sensitive, so you can use this to lock the AF by placing the point over one of the subject’s eyes, then pressing the shutter button halfway down. Once the AF is locked, recompose and fire. It sounds tricky, but with practice it becomes second nature. Another option is to select the AF point that sits over the subject’s eye – this means you don’t have to recompose, allowing you to work quicker. If you intend to rattle off a sequence of shots with a very similar composition, this is the best option. If you do intend to lock focus, make sure your camera is set to single-shot AF as otherwise you won’t be able to lock on your subject’s eye.
Metering: Your camera’s multi-zone metering should be capable of exposing portraits perfectly in most situations. Take a test shot, check the screen and use the exposure compensation facility to add/subtract a little exposure if you feel the shot is too dark or light. Where your camera’s multi-zone meter may falter is if your subject has very light or dark skin tones, is wearing light or dark clothing, or is strongly backlit. In these situations, use exposure compensation or select the spot meter and use the AE-L (Autoexposure Lock) button to take a reading from a mid-tone in the scene, or from an 18% grey card that you place near the subject.