Photography tips: How to shoot great portraits

Want to take a photo like this? Steve Davey shows you how to shoot an engaging portrait

7 mins
Shooting a portrait should be like holding a conversation. The more you engage with your subject, the more a viewer will engage with your pictures.

At India’s Pushkar Mela, I saw a group of Rajasthani men sitting around a campfire. I simply walked over and said hello – being on the same level as people, looking them in the eye, and smiling is the best way to engage.

Approaching with a smile doesn’t mean you have to have people smiling in your pictures, though. People often mirror you; if you suddenly look intense or serious, they may copy your expression.

This picture was taken quite close to the subject, so it was important not to let the camera become intrusive. I adjusted my camera settings in advance, then took some pictures, stopped to compliment him on his moustache and then shot a few more. He played up to the camera, to lots of banter from his friends. I was only with them briefly, but we parted friends.

1. Use a shallow depth of field

A relatively wide aperture creates a shallow depth of fi eld, rendering the background pleasantly out of focus. If shooting up close with a wide-angle lens, an aperture of f4 should keep your subject’s face in focus; with a telephoto lens, use an aperture of f5.6.

2. Keep up the engagement

Don’t hide behind your camera. Shoot a few pictures, drop the camera away to interact again, and then shoot some more. This helps to maintain eye contact and stop the subject feeling uncomfortable.

3. Move the focus point

Focus is critical. Use the Single Focus Point mode, and move the point onto the eye closest to the camera. Combined with a Continuous Focus mode (AI Servo on a Canon), this will keep the focus spot on, even if you or your subject moves.

4. Think about background

Compose your portrait in front of a background that says something about your subject: the people they’re with, their environment. Make space for the background by placing the subject to one side of the frame, not in the centre.

5. Ask permission

Always seek permission from a person before taking their picture. However, don’t leave it at that – continue to interact, don’t just hide
behind your camera.

Think your portraits are up to standard? Enter Wanderlust's Photo of the Year competition - you could win £3,000 or a photography trip to Ghana or Senegal...

Want more expert tips? Join Wanderlust in Marrakech this November for a photography workshop weekend with Editor in Chief Lyn Hughes and professional photographer Paul Harris.

Main image: Indian woman in sari costume (Shutterstock)

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