Introduction: How to Take Portraits With a Canon DSLR
As an avid amateur photographer, I'm often surprised at the number of people who own a DSLR camera but don't know how to effectively use it. This tutorial is designed for complete novices to photography who are interested in portraiture.
While this tutorial will be geared towards those that have a Canon DSLR, the concepts introduced here are applicable to other DSLRs or modern mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses.
By the end of this tutorial, you will be able to take photos with the shallow focus amateurs often desire. While becoming proficient with any art takes hours of practice and real-world experience, you should be able to get the basics down in under half an hour.
Step 1: Gather Your Materials
You will need the following equipment:
- A digital camera with the ability to change lenses. It is not important what model you have, so don't shy away if you have an older or lower-end model. I'll be demonstrating this tutorial with an older Canon 50D, and the directions will largely be the same across all of Canon's lineup.
- A "fast" lens. Chances are, if you are reading this tutorial you are still using a zoom lens that came with your camera. Likely, it simply will not do. I'll spare you the technical details, but a "fast" lens allows more light to hit the camera's sensor. This allows for two things: quick photos and a shallow depth of field.
How much light a lens can let in can be easily determined by looking at the f-stop number. The lower the number, the more light the lens can let in. As you can see in the image of the zoom lens, this is represented on the lens as f/3.5-5.6. Having a range of widest possible apertures is not uncommon with a zoom lens, as you are technically limited due to all the glass inside the lens. For this lens, that means at 18mm you will have a maximum aperture of f/3.5 and at 200mm you will have a maximum aperture of f/5.6. For the best photos, you will typically want to have a lens that is capable of an aperture of at least f/2.8.
Unfortunately, fast zoom lenses are quite expensive. Fortunately, you can easily pick up an inexpensive prime lens that will not only take in more light but will often times offer significantly better image quality. For this tutorial, I'll be using the Canon 50mm f/1.8, which can easily be found online for around $100. This lens is so popular that Canon has been producing variations of it for nearly 40 years!
- A bounce flash. This is not strictly necessary, but will make it a lot easier to prevent dark shadows that are often created by non-uniform light. There are a number of inexpensive third party flashes that can do a fantastic job, but I'll be using the Canon Speedlite 430 for this tutorial.
- Photo editing software. The beauty of a DSLR is that it's digital! You can and should touch up your photos for the best results.
Step 2: Switch to Aperture Priority Mode
This should be represented as "Av" on your camera. On a Canon, it can be changed by turning the silver dial on the top of the camera.
Step 3: Change the ISO
The ISO represents how sensitive the camera's image sensor is to light. You want to use the lowest ISO whenever possible to ensure you retain the most detail in an image. You should only need to increase the ISO when there is not enough light for the camera to be able to quickly capture an image. Since my images were shot indoors with artificial light, I found myself using ISO 400 most often.
To change the ISO on a Canon, you'll first need to turn it on. (duh!) Then, press the small joystick in the upper right hand corner next to the screen. This will bring up a submenu that will allow you to change the ISO. Toggle over to the ISO box in the upper right hand corner of the display using the joystick. From there, you can simply rotate the jog wheel below the joystick or the scroll wheel next to the shutter button to change the ISO. Let's start with ISO 100 and move up from there.
Step 4: Change the Picture Quality
While you are in this menu, you can change the picture quality if you haven't already. As before, navigate to the box in the bottom left hand corner using the joystick and rotate the jog or scroll wheel to select the L with a smooth curve next to it. This indicates a JPEG will be taken at the highest quality settings. If your camera has a RAW feature and you know how to process that, you may use that setting instead.
This might also be a good time for you break out the manual and dig into all the other features you can tweak in this menu, but for the purposes of this tutorial, it'll be fine if everything else is left at the defaults.
Step 5: Switch Lenses
If you haven't already, you'll want to break out a fast lens.
Changing lenses is easy. Simply depress the button beside the lens and twist up. Unscrew the lens cover off the lens you are switching to, align the white square or red dot with the camera, and twist down until you hear a faint click.
CAUTION: Be careful not to damage the lens optics or let dust into the camera body during this process. Complete the process quickly, while keeping the camera in a normal shooting position to prevent dust from falling on the mirror.
Step 6: Attach the Flash (optional)
If you have a flash, now would be the time to equip it. Equipping an external flash is as simple as sliding it onto the hot shoe on the top of the camera. Refer to the manual for details on its operation.
If your model has a built-in flash, don’t assume that this will produce similar results. In fact, you’d probably be better off simply turning it off.
CAUTION: Don't forgot to lock the flash onto the camera! This will be different across different models, refer to your manual for more direction.
Step 7: Adjust the Aperture
Adjusting the aperture on the fly is most easily done by twisting the scroll wheel next to the trigger-release button. The adjustments can be seen through the upper right hand corner on the smaller display on top the camera or right through the viewfinder. Since we are in aperture priority mode, you will notice that the camera will automatically determine the most appropriate shutter speed (the number on the left with the quotation mark).
The best aperture is something that you can learn through trial and error and will change depending on your shooting conditions. Start with the widest aperture (smallest number), examine the result, and work your way up until you get the best results. Typically, pushing a lens to its maximum aperture (smallest number) will cause more aberrations and haze in the corners. In ideal conditions, I’ve found that the lens I’m using produces the best results around f/2.2.
Step 8: Compose and Frame Your Subject
This step lends itself to the most experimentation. It’s art after all! The general rule is to not completely center the subject. Another “rule” that is often taught to beginners is the “rule of thirds”. This basically states that the focal point of an image (in this case, the eyes) should be one-third down from the top of the frame. Remember, you have a DSLR, so you can always crop images to get the desired effect. Don’t be afraid to try unique positions, unusual framing, or add props. Shooting well above or below the subject can often create a unique look. Another idea is to have the person look at an object off frame instead of staring at the lens. If you have an external bounce flash, you can also play with that and create unique lighting effects.
The one hard-and-fast rule that I would stick to is using the optical viewfinder instead of the display. Not only will this allow you to brace the camera against your body (pull your elbows in tightly), but you will be able to see what you are actually shooting.
Step 9: Edit Your Shots (optional)
Select your best shots, fire up your favourite editing software and make the tweaks you desire. Adobe’s Lightroom combined with Photoshop is a very popular option, but I’m a big fan of DxO Optics Pro. If you are an Adobe stalwart, it might be worthwhile to check out Athentech’s Perfectly Clear plugin. All of these tools come with helpful and informative user guides.
Step 10: Conclusion
And there you go! Now you know the basics of using your camera to its fullest potential.
The one thing I wish to leave you with is the notion that you should learn by experimentation. There was once a time when photography was a hobby out of reach for the average consumer, but the advent of the digital camera and inexpensive production methods means anyone can pick up a great camera at a low price. Best of all, there is no film to buy and process, so learning how to use the camera is basically free.