How to take a good portrait

Text and Photos by Victoria St. Michael 

So you just got a brand new, fancy DSLR camera over the holidays and you can’t wait to get started taking tons of Instagram-worthy photos. What next?

I actually wrote this as a reflection for a University assignment last semester but I thought it might be helpful if I shared this info with you all! Whether you’re a journalist (like myself) or not, anyone who wants to know their way around a camera should know how to take a decent portrait.

To succeed in the age of digital journalism, journalists must be equipped with a variety of multimedia skills, including photography. One of the most common types of photos a journalist will take throughout their careers is the portrait shot. Taking a good portrait is a staple skill for any photographer. For a journalist, it can be a great way to complement a story because most stories we tell revolve around people. Putting a face to your story adds a human element that will draw in your audience and keep them engaged.

Types of portraits:
Environmental portrait:
You can do this one of two ways. First, you can have the subject interacting with their environment. This is good for stories that involve someone doing something, like a baker or a musician. I would recommend a wider depth of field for this kind of shot. Alternatively, you can pull them out of their environment, with a shallower depth of field. For example, the baker standing in front of the bakery with the sign in the background.

Headshot/Profile shot: 
For this type of portrait, it’s good to have a plain background so your subject will stand out. To get the shallow depth of field you’ll need for this photo you can either stand close to your subject, open up your aperture or use a telephoto lens. Avoid using a wide angle lens for your portrait, because it can distort facial features.

Recommended camera settings:
Shutter Speed: At least 1/60 (use 1/125 for moving subjects to avoid blurriness)
Aperture: F5.6 or lower (try to get the aperture as open as possible)
ISO: 400 (turn it up if you’re in a dark area, but using a high ISO can result in grain/noise in your photo)

I would recommend using an external flash if you need to use flash at all. The direct flash on your camera can sometimes overexpose the subject’s face and underexpose the background.
Bounce flash: This is the best way to simulate natural light in your photo if you are indoors. Using the bounce card (one usually comes with the external flash) tilt the flash so the light will hit the ceiling half-way between you and the subject. This will make the light seem like it is coming down from an angle, like sunlight would.

This is one of the most important parts of getting a good photo. Using these little tricks can add a dimension of style and professionalism to your photo.
Rule of Thirds: As you line up your photo, imagine a grid dividing it into nine even sections. Many cameras have a setting that lets you see this grid on your camera. The subject, or the focal point of the photo, should be on one of the four intersecting points where the lines cross. Likewise, the “horizon” of your photo should line up with one of the two horizontal lines.

ROT's Grid with Circles

Next, you want to figure out what kind of cropping you want for your photo. There are various types: Head and shoulder, head and torso, full body and above-the-knee are the most common. Remember: Never crop at someone’s joints (for example, right at the knee) – go for the middle of their limbs. Try cropping here instead: the shin, thigh, torso, or middle of the arm.

Other things you can do to enhance your photo are as follows: using leading lines (natural lines in the environment that lead to your subject), diagonal lines or other patterns, texture, shapes and colours.

Triangles are the most eye-pleasing shape to use in photography. If you are taking a portrait with multiple people, for example, placing the tallest in the middle and the shortest on the outside makes a triangular pattern. If you are taking a photo of one person, having them rest their elbow on a surface and support their chin with their hand can also make a triangle.

Remember to leave looking space. For example, if the subject is looking to the right, there should be more empty space on the right side of them than the left. This way, it looks like they’re looking “into the photo.” Leaving a bit of head space above their head also helps balance the photo, but don’t go overboard (keep in mind the Rule of Thirds).

A well-exposed photo, combined with one or more of the above-mentioned elements of composition, makes for a professional and artistic portrait that will go well with almost any story.

Good luck!