Simple Ways to Improve a Portrait

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff HarmonLeave a Comment

Jeff is joined by Connor to talk about some simple ways to improving a portrait.

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Portrait Instruction in Portrait Session Podcast

In today’s episode we are going to do a little mini mentor session for a listener and Facebook group member Suzy Parish.  Before we do that, the discussion Connor and I are going to have today is just a tiny example of the kind of discussion and learning that happens over in the Portrait Session podcast.

Connor, take just a moment and talk about this last season of Portrait Session.

Connor: Portrait Session talks about portrait photography.  Had a over one hundred episodes prior to a change in 2017 when the podcast was moved to seasons.  The first season was all about developing portrait photography into a business. Getting setup as a business and making money.  The second season we are interviewing some expert photographers in various portrait photography niches, the pros and cons of them.

You can find the Portrait Session podcast over at

Simple Ways to Improve Portraits

Now let’s talk about the simple steps we can see to help Suzy with her portrait.  I wanted to do this in this episode because I haven’t heard much in the way of this exact thing shared in a podcast.  I mean in personal mentoring, or at something like the Create Photography Retreat you might have someone help you with the setup to get a good portrait, but I wanted to cover it here on the podcast because this is something I wish I had it when I was getting into portraits.  

I totally remember being in exactly the same spot as Suzy.  Early on I was taking photos of my kids and trying my hand at landscapes.  As I learned more and made improvement it wasn’t long before I had friends and family asking me to take photos of their families.  I had no idea what I was doing and I got very average, maybe even below average portraits because I didn’t know some of the very basics.  Some simple things that can be done to make a massive difference.

I’m not saying Suzy’s photo is below average like mine were.  But she is clearly frustrated, here is what she wrote in her post:

Credit MP listener and Facebook group member Suzy Parish

“Please help! What am I doing wrong here. I had my first family shoot with our best friends and my pictures didn’t come out so well. Many of my pictures come out this way regularly and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I am so frustrated and disappointed. There’s a screenshot of my camera settings attached too…please look at the zoomed in image. TIA!”

I am excited to do this episode because I think it could help a lot of photographers and I am so glad you could join me at the round table for this one Connor so that you can provide the stuff I would miss.  I want to offer my input on what steps I would suggest Suzy could take and then you can fill in the stuff I miss. Ready to do a little free mentoring for Suzy here Connor?

The Photo Setup

The portrait itself will be in the show notes, so be sure to check that out at  Suzy was taking a portrait of a couple and she posted what she got along with asking for some help:

Let’s start off with the settings Suzy used.  Not because there is a perfect formula or some ideal settings that are going to work universally for every situation, but because there are a few things that might help a little.  There were lots of suggestions regarding the settings in the Facebook group, so we have to go through them.

I am also going to talk about the settings in a specific order here because it has helped me to think about this in this order.  I am going to talk through them in priority of how important I think it is to think about that setting. No matter what I am shooting I have found it helpful to me to think about the settings in this order.

  • Lens: Canon 24-70 f/2.8L
  • Camera: Canon 5DM3
  • Focal Length: 70mm
  • Aperture: f/2.8
  • Shutter Speed: 1/1,000
  • ISO: 320
  • Time of day: 4pm
Is the 24-70 Lens Good For Portraits?

Yes! We love the 24-70 lens for portraits.  The Canon 24-70 f/2.8L version one was made sharper in Canon 24-70 f/2.8L version two, and we don’t know which one Suzy was using in the photo.  Alternatively, if photographers don’t have a 24-70 f/2.8 lens yet, the Tamron 24-70 G2 is a phenomenal lens at a much lower cost. Maybe even better quality the the Canon version one of that same lens.

What Focal Length for Portraits?

Suzy shot at 70mm here, is that a good focal length for portraits?  It isn’t so much a question of 70mm being good or not, it can be fine for it, but this shot was a full body shot of a couple and so not sure you really needed to go to 70mm here.  The longer the focal length the narrower the depth of field is going to be, a potential concern here with the full frame Canon 5DM3. If it was shot at 50mm you probably get a little more depth of field and with the subject being a wide subject it would match the subject here.

It isn’t that you should avoid 70mm for portraits, it is a great focal length for head shots and other photos where you are filling the frame with a person.  When you have the full body in the shot you may want to go a little wider on the focal length.

What Aperture For Good Portraits?

Suzy shot at f/2.8 here.  This is really the go to for most people when they shoot portraits.  For this particular situation where they are close to the background and multiple people you are trying to keep in sharp focus, then f/2.8 is probably a bit top shallow on the depth of field.  Nothing in the background that you are trying to blur tremendously so playing it a little safer and using stopping down the aperture a bit more would probably help make sure that you have good sharpness for the faces in the portrait.

What Shutter Speed For Good Portraits?

Suzy went with 1/1,000 of a second in her shot, is that a good choice here?  It is definitely fast enough that you take out the possibility for motion blur or camera shake negatively impacting sharpness.  A general rule of thumb is to not take the shutter speed any slower than the focal length. In this shot the focal length is 70mm, so don’t go any slower than 1/70 on the shutter speed.  It is only a rule of thumb, a starting point and something you need to test out with your shooting technique to see if the gear you have and the technique you use that works well.

That said, 1/1,000 of a second is probably a little too fast.  1/250 is about the fastest you really need to go for portraits usually.  That speed might even be faster than you max sync speed so you need to know for your camera what that setting is if you are going to add lighting using flash.

In this case the shutter is certainly fast enough to make sure any kind of sharpness issues are not coming because the shutter it too slow, the real issue causing a lack of sharpness most of the time.

What ISO For Good Portraits?

Suzy shot at ISO 320 here.  Not a problem at all on the Canon 5DM3.  Can go quite a bit higher with the ISO before you take the dynamic range down or have noise become a problem that is making image quality go down.

Suzy probably had to go here because she had the shutter speed up to 1/1,000 of a second.  Probably would have made a little more sense to bring the ISO down to 100 and slow the shutter a little just to get the very best image quality possible, but still not a setting that likely made the sharpness be a little less than she wanted.

Focus Technique and Settings

Suzy didn’t say exactly what she was concerned about with the photo, but she shared a crop of just the faces, which made me and a lot of others in the Facebook group think she was concerned about the sharpness of the faces.  She said in the comments on the post that she is using a focus and recompose technique.

Let’s talk about the depth of field.  Connor, she shot at 70mm, so I want you to take a guess at the distance between her and this couple in the photo.  I was going to guess about 15 feet. If I use the depth of field calculator in the Photo Pills app, putting in the information that matters for that calculation:

  • 5DM3 camera (full frame sensor)
  • 70mm focal length
  • Aperture of 2.8
  • 15 feet from camera to focus point

The depth of field Suzy had here was probably 2 feet.  From the focus point, 1 foot in front of the focus point and 1 foot behind the focus point should be in focus.  In this case the depth of field is kind of centered around the focal point. It isn’t always the case, but here it is and so to me it seems like having that much space for depth of field this is also not the reason the faces seem like they aren’t completely sharp.

Suzy didn’t say if she shoots using the center focus point, only that she was doing focus and recompose.  Let’s assume that is what she is doing, using the center focus point to get focus on the eye and then recomposing.  With a full foot of depth of field there really shouldn’t be too much of a problem with doing focus and recompose. We aren’t talking about a 3 to 6” depth of field where focus and recompose is going to cause a huge problem with sharpness.

You want to get the eyes to be the sharpest thing in a portrait, so you point the focus point on the eye.  The closest eye to the camera. If there is more than one person then you pick the eye closest to you. In this case the people are both looking at each other and both are in the same focal plane, so you could pick the closest eye of either person.

You also want to consider things that could cause an issue the focus to get thrown off a little.  In this photo the woman has hair very close to her eye and so picking the eye of the man may have been a little bit better choice.  Still, not likely the cause for any sharpness problems in this situation with the depth of field being so large.

What Caused the Sharpness Issue?

Since the settings and depth of field don’t seem to be something that really could make it responsible for a lack of sharpness.  Guessing there is a problem with the focus alignment for that camera and that lens. Especially because Suzy mentioned this has been a problem with all of her photos.

That is what autofocus micro adjustment (AFMA) is all about, and you can find help with that over at Photo Taco where I walk through all of the details on how to do it.  I will put links on the show notes or you can just go to and search for AFMA.

Maybe that is what ended up making the sharpness soft here.  Maybe Suzy needs to fine tune the autofocus system so that she can do focus and recompose in order to get the eyes sharp. It looks like the focus may be front focusing a little where the depth of field isn’t working around the focus point as you expect and the center of it in this case is in front of where you had it when you took the shot.

Give Yourself the Best Chance at Sharpness

Here are a few things you can do to give yourself the best chance at getting sharp focus.  By the way, we are saying the best chance because there is still the possibility that the focus system is going to get it wrong.  It isn’t 100%. Auto focus does miss, so here is how to give yourself the best possible chance to have it work and have images sharp where you want them to be:

  • Move the focus point.  Focus and recompose can work well if you have a large enough depth of field.  Even better is to not focus and recompose. Give yourself the very best chance at nailing the focus by moving the focus point that is being used by the camera from the center to as close as you can to that closest eye so that you don’t have to recompose would be better in most cases.

    NOTE: You may not want to do this is if the scene is really dark.  Low light causes the autofocus to have more trouble getting it right and the center focus point is nearly always the best and most accurate focus point you have on your camera.
  • Stop down the aperture.  We all love the photos where the eyes, nose, and face are tack sharp and the rest of the photo is beautifully blurred.  It is one of the things that differentiates a “professional” photo from a snapshot. However, you give yourself a much better chance at getting sharp focus if you can stop down that aperture.  Shooting at f/3.5 or f/5.6 gives you a larger depth of field that could really help with a full frame camera.
  • Back button focus.  If you are going to do focus and recompose making sure you don’t change the focus when you recompose is really helpful.  Back button focus is assigning a button on the back of the camera to do the focus and changing the shutter button so that pressing it half way no longer engages the autofocus.  Super helpful for making sure the camera doesn’t change that focus when you don’t want it to. Have a listen to the Photo Taco Back Button Focus podcast episode to learn more.
  • Single shot focus mode.  Make sure your focus mode is the kind where you establish focus once, no matter how long the focus button is pressed.  On Canon this is called Single Shot. You don’t want to use AI-Focus or AI-Servo. On Nikon you want AF-S rather than AF-C.  On Sony it is also called AF-S. In the other modes the camera will constantly search and adjust focus as long as the focus button in being pressed.  Better to lock your focus in and keep things as tight as possible while you focus and recompose.
  • Avoid pixel peeping.  Suzy wasn’t happy with her image here, she felt that the faces were not as sharp as they should be, and if you zoom in really tight you can see that she that technically she is probably right.  However, the image is absolutely sharp enough for a client to be happy with the results. Sharp enough to be printed at whatever the size the client would like. She shouldn’t be ashamed at all of delivering an image with this kind of sharpness.  Sure, it looks like some things could be done to make a tiny improvement in the sharpness of the photo because the gear is probably capable of getting better results.
  • Facebook destroys photos.  The other thing to keep in mind here is that you absolutely must not ever judge the sharpness of a photo by an image on Facebook.  It doesn’t matter how you export the photo from Lightroom, or how you may sharpen things in Photoshop, Facebook is ALWAYS going to compress the photo when you upload it and they are ALWAYS going to destroy it.  Period. Every time. Only look for sharpness on your computer with the original image.
  • Autofocus micro adjustment (AFMA).  If it seems that all of your photos lack sharpness and you are sure that you are putting the focus point exactly where it needs to be, you could very well be facing an issue where the focus system used when shooting through the viewfinder is not properly calibrated to the lens.  Many cameras have the ability to make micro adjustments to do this kind of calibration. Check out the Photo Taco podcast episodes AFMA Explained! and AFMA Revisited to find out more.
Other Suggestions for Good Portraits

Here a few others suggestions that would improve this photo, though we admit that much of these suggestions is subject to personal style, they are far more subjective.  They won’t have anything to do with the sharpness in the photo.

  • Headspace.  This photo has a lot of headspace here.  Space from the head up. If I was post processing this shot I would want to crop it.  Take out most of the head space. Looks like at least ⅓ of the photo here. Unless there is something important in the photo above the heads of the people, just get rid of that space above their heads.  Nothing wrong with having space above the head in the photo if there is a reason to have it there, artistic expression where it adds to the photo, but the majority of the time it doesn’t.
  • Watch for distractions.  There is a garden in the photo that is fairly detailed.  There are windows directly behind their heads that are kind of sticking out of their heads and they are darker than the rest of the photo that really distracts.
  • Try different perspectives.  If you got a little bit lower perspective in this photo you could use the windows to frame them and make the background draw attention to the people.  Look to leverage the surroundings to frame and draw attention to the portrait model(s). With this shot moving the couple a little to the right where you have the horizontal siding that is in the background could be really nice and not distract.
  • Posing.  The woman is posed really well in this photo.  The facial expressions are great and it is capturing a really great moment.  The guy in the photo is just a little too stiff, particularly the one hand that is not doing anything.  It is just laying there and it isn’t flattering to him. Have that free hand do something. For guys you can try having them put that free hand in their back pocket.
  • Blur the background.  Can be done using aperture and the distance from the camera to the subjects, being careful to have enough depth of field to keep the models sharp, but another thing that can really help is to have the models step a little further away from the background.  The could have helped with this shot in particular to have the couple take a couple of steps away from the house.
  • Lighting.  Adding artificial lighting to portraits improves them so much.  It is amazing what it can add to a photo when you can figure out how to use flash.  Seriously takes your portrait work to the next level. You could also do some work in post processing here without adding light while you shoot by adding some warmth (yellow) to the photo and a little bit of a vignette (making the edges darker than the middle of the photo).  You can do the vignette in Lightroom really easily, using the radial filter you can control where it is being applied.


Jeff: Cable Matters USB C to DisplayPort Adapter ($20)

Connor: DSLRKIT Lens Focus Calibration Tool Alignment Ruler Folding Card(Pack of 2) ($5) A really inexpensive way to do that AFMA to calibrate the autofocus to the lens with your DSLR camera.


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