Face Up To Better Portraits

These four simple gear upgrades could help you shoot better people pictures in 2020

Want to shoot better people pictures in 2020? Well then it’s definitely worth investing in gear that will help you do it. That’s not to say that the right kit will instantly make you a better photographer – it won’t – it just makes it easier to succeed, because quality gear gives you more options. 

Below we’ve listed four simple pieces of kit that will help you shoot better people pictures, so check them out and see what you can achieve.

Picking a fast short telephoto lens can give a striking lift to portraits. © Matty Graham

Pick up a portrait lens

If you’re serious about taking better portraits, then it’s best to invest in a lens that caters specifically for the subject. Yes, a great portrait can be shot on any lens, but certain models just make it easier to get looks that work. Most of the time you’ll want a lens that allows a distortion-free view of the subject while filling the frame with their face, and one with a large maximum aperture, so you can blur out the subject’s background.

Most of the time this is going to mean using a ‘fast short telephoto’ prime lens or a zoom that allows those setting as well as others. If you’re a full-frame shooter, ‘short telephoto’ means anything from about 85mm to 135mm. In terms of the lens’s maximum aperture, anything from f/2.8 or below is good, but f/1.8 or f/1.4 lenses are a great place to be allowing much more subject separation. Focal lengths above 135mm can still work well – for example the long end of a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens can look great, though beyond that you may need to stand too far from the subject to fit them in. 

If you’re using a camera with a smaller sensor than full frame – like an APS-C or Four Thirds model – you can look for models with shorter focal lengths as those cameras’ sensor crop factors will give a longer view than the model suggests. So a 50mm or 45mm lens will work well, so long as it has that big maximum aperture. Olympus’s 45mm f/1.2 is a great example of that.

Fast, short telephoto lenses are a great fit for portraits, including those that give an equivalent 85-135mm view when a camera’s crop factor is applied. And fast zooms like a 70-200mm can be a great asset, too.

Make sure you have an ND filter

Most of the time, people think of Neutral Density filters being for landscape work. But their light-stopping power is just as useful for portraits. Why? Well, in scenic shots you might want to cut out light to get a longer exposure, but with portraits it’s all about cutting out light to use wider apertures. 

So, imagine you’re shooting in bright light at a wide aperture like f/1.4, and the camera’s lowest ISO setting. In that case you might find you’re overexposing, because the camera doesn’t have a shutter speed fast enough to cope. Add on an ND filter to cut our some of the light, and you’ll soon be shooting as normal.

Most of the time a two or three stop neutral density filter will be fine, typically allowing you to shoot at f/1.4 where you’d normally need to shoot at f/2.8 or f/4. Just find the correct filter size of your lens – it’s usually written on the bottom of the lens barrel – and away you go.

Neutral Density filters can be vital for working at wide apertures in bright light.

Get a camera with Eye AF functions

If you want to take advantage of very wide apertures in your portraits, focusing can be tricky. Shooting a meter away with an aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4 you only get a few millimetres of acceptable sharpness. That makes focusing tricky, because after the camera has locked on, any movement from the photographer or the subject will throw it off. 

But not if you use an eye-tracking AF mode. These modes will allow you not only to keep the subject’s eye in focus – which is the point at which you’d normally want the sharpness to be in a portrait – but also to pick the closest eye, and keep it in focus even if the subject, or you move around. 

To get this feature, look to the latest generation of mirrorless cameras, including – but not limited to – the Sony A7R IV, Sony A6500, Nikon Z 50, Z 6 or Z 7, Fujifilm X-Pro 3 or X-T3, Canon EOS R or RP, and the Olympus E-M1 Mark II, E-M5 Mark III or O-MD E-M10 Mark III.

Add light with a simple flash or LED

Good lighting can genuinely be the difference between a good and a bad portrait. A lot of the time you can find this from natural light, if you position your subject properly, but sometimes you need to add some light yourself.

You’ve got two options for adding light – either to use a flashgun or an LED. LEDs can be more simple for beginners because using them is just the same as using natural light – what you see through your viewfinder is what you’ll get in the image. LEDs and other continuous lights can also be good if your subject is sensitive to bursts of flash. 

There are portrait advantages to both flash and LED lighting. © Kingsley Singleton

The advantage of flash is in power. You can achieve a lot more with one or two small flashes than with the same number of LEDs, because their output is comparatively higher, and that means the ability to work with smaller apertures and lower ISO settings – more freedom in your settings, basically. More power also means you’ll be able to position flashes further from the subject, so lighting with off-camera sources is easier. Flash can also give sharper results than LEDs, because, in the right circumstances, the duration of the flash works like a really fast.

Adding light, whether it’s from an LED or other continuous source, or from a flash can give your portraits a lift.