For any budding photographers out there who want a starting point for portraiture a a lot of convention says to do the following, it’s a starting point only, modify to suit your conditions and needs:

Basic Portrait Recipe – single sitter:


  • f/5.6 is a good place to start, (Less will soften the focus – so if you have f/2.8 and focus on the eye of someone facing the camera directly, the tip of the nose will be soft as will the back of the ears(See the image on Part 1)  – have more – say F/8.0 and your background will become as sharp as your subject).
  • Focus on the eye, either the corner or the iris – unless you choose another focus point for a reason
  • ISO less than 400 – digital grain looks crappy
  • Use aperture value setting on your camera – if you know what you want to acheive use manual and a light meter.
  • Dont silhouette your subject – unless you mean to.
  • If you’re using a flash try to bounce it off a surface, such as a neutral (white / grey) wall.
  • Window-light is awesome – play around with it. 
  • Match your white balance to your surroundings, if its sunny use the ‘sunny’ setting – if you know how to to take a custom reading do it!
  • If its noon and sunny you’ll be better off in the shade. you can use wite card or a sheet to reflect light onto your subjects face

Sitter – this is a bit more fluid:

  • Talk to them – all the time. Let them know what you want – rapport, tell them if you’re test shooting – they can relax.
  • Avoid interlocking fingers – and beware of peeping fingers if people are folding their arms or have their hands on their hips.
  • Dipped hips, shoulders or 3/4 shots (not flat on like a passport photo) are often more interesting.
  • look at a picture you like. Start with that – it doesn’t matter if its Richard AvedonIrving Penn or from a newspaper – look at the pose. What do you like about it? Is it suitable for your sitter?
  • When you research other peoples photos try and work out where the light is coming from.
  • do you want the whole body? The face? The head and shoulders? – and mix it up!
  • If you have a flash / umbrellas or a softbox look up lighting. Short Lighting, rembrandt, clamshell will do to start with! There are lots of online tutorials and videos.
  • You can use a little flash in daylight to soften hard shadows.

Remember – THIS IS A STARTING POINT! EXPERIMENT! Mix up your lighting, poses, over and underexposures, and trust that you will know when you like the results. If you look back in six months time at a portrait you liked and you don’t like it anymore WELL DONE! you’re learning and have developed.