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Photography tips: how to take the perfect portrait

Published 17 May 2016

From choosing the right lens to creating depth of field, photographer John Nassari has been showing Friends of the RA show to take great photo portraits. Here are his top five tips.

  • Photography beginner? Refer to our handy glossary below.

    Use the right lens

    A portrait lens is called a portrait lens for a reason. Usually for a DSLR it is an 85mm lens. Whatever camera you are using, whether it is a micro four-thirds or a smart phone, don’t use a wide angle lens as you will distort the subject’s face. Zoom in if the lens has that function and move away from the subject.

    Work with daylight

    Unless you are an experienced photographer and can use flash and lights, use daylight as your light source. Use a window and keep your ISO low, around 400 ISO, so the image doesn’t get too grainy. Remember, use the window as a slide light. If you place the subject fully in front of it, they will be in shadow.

    Use a shallow depth of field

    Keep your aperture around f4. Don’t shut your aperture down too much. This way your lens can let in more light and will create a lovely shallow focus, separating the subject from the background (making the background out of focus).

    Always focus on the eyes

    A stunning portrait is always about the eyes and making them sharp is essential. Take your time. Use manual focus if you need to accurately adjust. If you focus on an ear or nose by mistake it could turn a great photo into a average one.

    Don’t shoot from below the subject

    If you take a lower eye line than the subject you could end up looking into their neck. Try to take the same eye line, or slightly higher, as being above will offer a better angle for the jawline and is much more flattering.

  • Glossary

    A digital single-lens reflex camera; combines the optics and the mechanisms of a single-lens reflex camera with a digital imaging sensor, as opposed to photographic film.

    Micro four-thirds
    To facilitate smaller body designs in cameras and camcorders, the “micro four-thirds” system was devised by Olympus and Panasonic. Other features include autofocus and the ability to switch between lenses on a given camera.

    This measures a camera’s sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO, as Nassari advises, the less sensitive the camera is to light, which prevents photos from becoming grainy.

    Aperture refers to rate at which light passes through the opening of a lens’s diaphragm. It is measured in f/stops; the lower f/stops give more exposure because they represent the larger apertures, while the higher f/stops give less exposure because they represent smaller apertures.

    John Nassari is an award-winning international photographer whose work has previously appeared in the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery. As part of Friends Week 2016, John Nassari lead a portrait photography workshop at the RA.