How to Take Better Portraits

Nov 9 2009

Photography by Lisa Bettany

Whether you are snapping pictures of your cat, daughter or a glamorous super model the key feature in any portrait is the eyes.

1. Set your Aperture at f/2.0-5.0.
This will give your portrait a nice depth of field with the eyes in focus and falling off around the hair line. If you are shooting in natural light your f-stop will be dictated by how much light you have. Just watch that if you decrease your aperture to < f/2.0 that you are able to get both eyes in focus which is tricky if your subject isn’t straight on.

2. Focus on the middle of the pupil.
It’s very easy to catch focus on the brow or eyelashes. If you can’t grab focus on the eyes, you need more light. Need help trouble shooting light? I’ve got a post about that!

3. Ask your subject to tilt their head down.
This makes the eyes look bigger and is a more flattering angle than an up-the-nose angle. If you can see nose hair, you need to find a better angle. Subjects usually respond to a little direction like, “Tilt your chin down”. Then,  guide them into the most flattering position for their face.

4. Shoot from above.
Again this makes eyes look bigger and faces look thinner. If your subject is taller than you, find a curb or a step. Also, I suggest that you head to IKEA and grab a small step stool for $10. I keep one in the back of my truck, so I always have it on hand for shoots.

5. Light the face with soft, even light.
Harsh light is bad. Shadows are worse. Dappled light is the worst. So, give your subject some lovely soft, even light. They will look better and you won’t have to try to correct your light in post. If you are shooting outside, try to shoot either in the morning or in the late afternoon when the light is soft. If you have some cloud cover then you might be able to shoot anytime as long as there is enough light.

Behind the scenes: AJ shoot

One thing you should purchase is a collapsible reflector. I use a 22″ circular 5 -in-1 reflector. It’s reversible covers give you the option to reflect with silver, gold, white or block light with black. Brand isn’t really important just go to any photography store and buy the cheapest one. If you are financially challenged at the moment, go to your local craft store and buy two large foam core boards in white for about $2. These work great as reflectors.

If you have any tips or questions, head to the comments!

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27 Responses to “How to Take Better Portraits”

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by mostlylisa: How to take a better portrait. Say cheese!…

  2. Great site and helpful info! I’m just getting into portraits and I didn’t know about tilting the head down…I’ll have to try that.

    A few additional comments on aperture

    If you are using a full frame instead of a crop frame, you can achieve much better blur with a smaller aperture.

    Another thing to consider is if you are using zoom vs. prime lenses. If you shoot f/4 at 24mm vs f/4 at 105mm with the same zoom lens you will get much better blur at 105mm.

  3. Thanks Lisa, I’ve got a shoot on Wednesday for my work team day :& The day is at a hotel any suggestions on getting that extra hight when taking an Ikea step on a flight to Scotland isn’t an option :)

  4. what photoshop tweaks do you make post shooting? As noted by the more vibrant colors(between the bottom shot of you shooting & the final product in the top left matrix)?

  5. Very nice post, thanks for the tips, especially about the aperture setting!

  6. Don’t forget the importance of that telephoto lens either. While most simply see it as a way to bring far away things closer in what they don’t know is that you can also use them to compress your background.

    If I shoot you at 24mm and f/2.8 and then I back up about 6-8 feet and shoot you at 150-200mm and f/2.8 the difference will be *huge*. It’s all about blowing that background out of focus and while a wide open aperture is key to controlling depth of field you have to compress that background too.

    Just my $0.02.

  7. thanks for the tips, esp your lighting techniques! :)

  8. Sweet. No I have a reason to get a reflector.

  9. My heart is warmed to know that you drive a truck.


  10. Great tips Lisa. It was a very enjoyable read. I like the tip about tilting the head down. It is amazing the differences that small changes make!

  11. Hi ya Lisa! I always appreciate the tips you pass along. You’ve mentioned before how you’re self-taught to which I can relate. I was wondering how much control you take over the shot setting by shooting in manual mode or aperture? Is there any reason you prefer one setting verses the other for whatever reason (i.e. shutter speed, effect, white balance)?

  12. Great tips, some seem so obvious but obviously I’ve missed them, especially the shooting angle tip. I have so many of those Ikea step stools I should use them :)

  13. Using a flash mount so that the flash you’re using isn’t an inch above the lens helps immensely as well.

  14. Nice post & nice blog. I love both.

  15. Lisa…this is easily the best article i’ve read in quite sometime… am planning to try out portrait photography this weekend…it’ll be great if you can pass on your expert comments on the pics I would be sharing!

  16. Hi,
    Superb tips.I really enjoyed the post.Tip regarding aperture setting helped me a lot as it was new for me.Thank you for sharing..

  17. Thanks for the great tips. My question – Do you ALWAYS blind your model with reflectors or am I doing something wrong? It doesnt matter how much or little light I am reflecting, my models feel blinded whenever I get the light “right.”

  18. nice list of tips …
    thanks for sharing …

  19. […] Lisa, who is mostly fabulous, has a great article on taking better portraits . She should know. She’s been in front of the camera as much as behind […]

  20. Thanks Lisa for these short and to the point portrait tips. I will put into effect the shooting from above tip in my next shoot as my wife already has the exact same IKEA step stool that she uses in the kitchen!

    I’ll ask for a reflector for Christmas….and an assistant too I guess!

  21. Hey there Lisa, greetings and like to add what an excellent and informative site you have created. Your tips are great and educational. Will bookmark this site! Cheers from Perry

  22. hello

    how about copyright on pictures which are published on internet.

    When a person have a account and the picture is an animal there is no doubt

    the difference appears when the picture is a person and the understanding of law
    Common LAW — european law not english spoken countries

  23. […] lower than the recommened 5.6. When I did, I wasn’t happy with what I got. Recently I read on mostlylisa that for portraits you should use between F2.0 and F5.0.  Why could she take such awesome […]

  24. […] am most passionate about taking portraits. From candid street photos shots, to strobe light lit creatives, to magic hour back lit shots, the […]

  25. This is without a doubt the greatest article entitled How to Take Better Portraits by Lisa Bettany that I’ve ever read!!!one

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