An online book of Common Sense Photography, by Rhett Stuart

How to Take Better Portraits


Portraits are better with 85-135mm length lenses to get the best Perspective without facial distortions.

The reason wide angle lenses from 14mm to 50mm are not used is because they can distort people’s faces so the center bulges out, like their nose. A 50mm lenses can be used for full length or even waist up portraits. An 85mm lens is good for head and shoulders portraits. A 135mm is considered the ideal length for portraits with tight shots showing just the face, with a distance of about 10 feet. The 135mm is the ideal perspective because this is how our eye would normally view people. The face will look normal. Our brain changes the distortion for us and we don’t see it that much. The camera just takes the picture and we see it as it really is. 10 feet is a good distance for all lenses for portraits.

200mm and longer lens can create “barrel” effects. The face looks flat or looks like it goes in a little.

It is very helpful to know the person you are taking the portrait of. Try to capture their personality in the portrait, and their character. This can be subtle but very effective. Take time to get to know the person a little, and their interest. This might also give you some ideas for the portrait.

The most important thing for photographing people is to have the right personality for it, and the right lighting. Equipment isn’t as important. For example, our local portrait studio uses Fuji SLR digital cameras with a Tamron lens with the rubber focus ring falling half off. But they have several thousand dollars worth of lighting that goes off when the shutter is released on the handheld camera. The photographers are great with people!

My advice is to hang out at one of these portrait places for a little while and learn from the experts. They can take a crying kid and get them to laugh and smile within a few minutes!

Four basic things to remember for posing people are:

1) Most people look thinner and more attractive at a 45 degree angle with either their front or back to the camera.

2) Have women put their foremost toe pointed to the camera (this also throws their weight to their back foot).

3) Try and keep a woman’s elbows away from her side to look thinner.

4) Pay attention to the level of your camera for portraits. For full length portraits usually about 40 inches high is a more pleasing angle, at waist level. For bust length portraits, try a lower level if the person has a large head to make their head appear smaller.

Keep the flash about 5-6 inches above the lens to avoid red eye and also to produce pleasing shadows. The shadows will fall behind and below the people.

Digital cameras have a portrait setting to help skin tones look more pleasing. Adobe Photoshop® can also adjust photographs for skin tones to make them more pleasing.

A rule of western art that is used in photography is called the rule of thirds. Divide your picture into 3 equal parts across, and up and down. Where the lines intersect is an ideal place to have the focal point of photograph.

Try not to amputate people’s arms and legs at the elbows, knees, or wrists with the composition! Try and have the edge of the photograph half way between their waist and knees for example. It is more pleasing to the eye and won’t detract from the portrait. Also, avoid cutting off anybody at the shins. Either include their feet, or cut them off mid thigh, or just above the waist, or just below the shoulders.

I am still learning about portraits of children, but the best thing for me is to catch kids in a good mood. I have learned not to try when they are in a bad mood. Also, they learn to hate getting their picture taken so it is even harder next time to take their picture. I just go with the flow and if the child doesn’t cooperate then try it later. Having a small stuffed animal they can try and get, or hit, works sometimes. It also gets their attention when I put it on my head.

One of the most effective things to do to get children to cooperate is show them the picture on the screen on the back of the digital camera. Think about it, as an adult we visualize the entire portrait and why it will be a good one or a bad one, and how later we will have it to remember our kid at that age. Kids don’t have enough experience in life to do this. By showing them the picture on the back screen, they immediately see themselves pouting or turning away right before the picture is taken. They want the picture to be a good one and will more readily smile. Kids don’t understand “we want to get a good picture of you!”

Try to diffuse the light from flashes by either bouncing it off the ceiling, walls, or using a diffusing attachment. Gary Fong makes a good attachment for most flash units. They are better used in a small room since they reflect the light all over from the walls and ceiling. In a large open room or outside they don’t work as well since the unit relies on the walls and ceiling to reflect the light onto the subject.

Natural lighting is better then flash. Natural lighting is at its best right after dawn and about 1 hour before sunset. These are the golden hours of photography. It makes having an f/2.8 or an f/1.8 or even an f/1.2 lens worth while. Also, Bokeh is a very important thing to consider with portraits. Bokeh can make or break a good portrait photograph. Bokeh can make a great portrait with creamy blurred backgrounds.

Remember to use the “shade” white balance setting on the camera if your subjects are in the shade for proper skin tones. Otherwise they will have a bluish color.

A good aperture setting for portraits for a feminine look is f/2.8 or larger. The out of focus areas lend a “dreamy” look. For a more masculine look use f/4 or smaller size aperture down to about f/8 for a more substantial focused look.

Pay attention to the posture. For a thinner more graceful look have your subject hold her arms away from her, elbows more out, and her feet not together. Have one toe pointed out at an angle, which will shift her weight onto her back foot. Have your subject turn to a 45 degree angle to the camera.

For a more masculine or substantial look, have him hold the arms closer in and stand with his feet together.

Pay close attention to facial shine from perspiration or facial oil. Casually offer a tissue to get it wiped off. If you can’t or don’t want to do this, then fix it later in Photoshop®.

One memorial portrait photograph I saw was an old Polaroid picture an elderly woman showed me. She was very fond of this picture. Her husband had died and all she had were a few old photographs of him. He was riding in a boat with a huge smile, and wind was blowing his hair. She looked at it a long time, smiled and said “he really liked boating”.

Our memories are often tied to old photographs. They tie our lives to our past and help us remember the way things were, and how things have changed. Old photographs can revive us, make us appreciate the relationships we have now, and the ones we had in the past. Photography shouldn’t just be a sterile form of art. It should have personality and imagination, and help us appreciate the things that we should in life.