1) Where to Focus?
It has been said that “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” In a portrait then, it’s essential that your focus is on the subject’s eyes. This will ensure that they are the sharpest part of the face, and therefore what will attract the viewer’s attention.
If your camera has a face detection mode, this is a nice shortcut to achieve this level of sharpness. Otherwise, you can move your active focus point right over one of your subject’s eyes, preferably the one closest to you. This will keep both sharp, even with a shallow depth of field.
2) What Shutter Speed?
People move, and a reasonably fast shutter speed is necessary to prevent any subject motion. Blurry portraits are typically the result of an exposure time that is too slow. The solution is to use a minimum shutter speed of 1/125.
Not only will this freeze any movement on their part, but yours as well. At 1/125 you will largely prevent camera shake that can lead to soft photos, especially when viewed up close or are enlarged to 8×10 or bigger.
3) What Kind of Aperture?
Generally, portraits are best captured with a wide aperture like f/2.8. With a wide aperture like this, you enjoy two benefits. First, the large opening in the lens allows a great deal of light into the camera. This will help to create a crisp, bright exposure.
In addition, f/2.8 will create a shallow depth of field, which works to render the background out of focus. This is ideal for bringing attention to the subject rather than the area behind them.
4) What to Do About the Background?
When shooting portraits, the quality of your background is an essential consideration. The space behind your subject should be free of distractions. You don’t necessarily need to invest in expensive studio supplies to take professional quality portraits.
In fact, a trip to the fabric store can be a great place to find materials to make your own background. When making your selection, be sure to keep it simple. A mottled black or grey will be very versatile for any number of subjects and is therefore the best place to start.
5) What’s the Best Lens?
There’s nothing that makes a subject more uncomfortable than a telephoto lens inches from their face. For head and shoulder portraits, a lens in the 85mm range is the ideal focal length. This allows you to be positioned a few feet from the subject and still fill the frame.
With your subject at ease, you can ask them a question, let their expressions come out naturally, and capture the moment in a relaxed manner. As Oscar Wilde said, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” The same is true with a photographic portrait. Connect with your subject through the lens and watch the magic unfold.