How to Use Manual Mode for Professional Portraits

As explained in a previous article on our website, being able to make manual adjustments as a professional photographer on your camera is very important for professional portraits. Having the capability of making those adjustments properly, gives you a whole new level of creative control over the professional portraits that you take. In this article I will talk a little bit about the three primary elements that need adjusting when operating your camera in manual mode. The three elements that affect your photographs the most are: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

We already have a couple of articles on our website that explain each setting. If you would like to learn more about what each setting does, then please take a moment to read through these articles. The ability to adjust these elements properly can make the difference in your professional portraits.

Because we already have articles on what shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are and how they are adjusted, we won’t be spending much time going into those details. Instead, this article will focus on a technique that I have learned over the years and how I make adjustments when in the field shooting professional portraits. Please note that this is my personal method for making adjustments and I am in no way implying that this is a standard of some kind or an official method for making adjustments while shooting professional portraits. It is simply a method that I have learned through trial and error and like. You can make adjustments in any order and based on your own preferences.


Professional Portraits Scenario

When I am hired to take professional portraits for a professional family photography session or something like that, typically the photo shoot is always outdoors at some kind of a park. For this article we will use a typical family photography session as my example for explaining how I determine what adjustments need to be made, when, and why for the very best professional portraits. For this example, we will say that the family that has hired us for the family photography session consists of five people. This family consists of two adults and three children.

First, we may start out with a group photo of the entire family all in one shot. For this first photo in these professional portraits, I may choose to sit mom and dad on the ground side by side and then pile the kids behind them or around them and behind them. For the purpose of this pose let’s just assume that the people are staggered. We have children in the back, parents in the front.

Once the pose is set, I go to my shooting position and I look at my camera. I get ready to make the necessary adjustments to the camera so that I can get a properly exposed photograph. The way that I approach my settings with professional portraits, is by making adjustments in a very specific order one by one. I always make my adjustments in the same order as shown in the list below in my professional portraits. Then once I have made my adjustments, if there is something still off about the photo, I will go through each one again in the same order and make further adjustments until the image is right. My professional portraits always tend to have a very consistent look. Over time, after lots of experience making these adjustments over and over, it becomes second nature. Often times, I can guess where the adjustments should be and typically only have to make a minor adjustment once. Here is the order that I make my adjustments in:

  1. Adjust the Aperture
  2. Adjust the Shutter Speed
  3. Adjust the ISO

Adjusting for the Best Professional Portraits

Initially, I will make sure the ISO is at 200, which is the lowest I usually go with ISO. Then I make a decision as to where I would like for my aperture to be. In this scenario for these professional portraits, I know that I have five people in the photo. I also know that the children are positioned behind the parents creating a larger depth of field. My typical lens will allow me to adjust the aperture down to 2.8f. For this scenario if I take a photo, there is a good chance that at 2.8f, the parents will likely be in focus and the children will be blurry slightly. Based on experience with professional portraits, I know that I should jump up somewhere around 4.0f to 4.5f. This allows for the depth of field that we have in this photograph and should make sure that the entire family is perfectly in focus. I’ll keep taking practice photos until I see that each family member is in focus. If while I am taking my practice photos, the image is too bright to see, I will increase my shutter speed until the image is exposed properly. Then I may go back to the aperture and make further adjustments making sure everyone is in focus. Our goal is to have perfectly exposed professional portraits.

After the aperture is adjust properly and I am happy with the way everyone looks in the photo, I will then focus on shutter speed. In these professional portraits, I know that my subjects are going to be very still. There shouldn’t be too much movement. Because of this, I can choose to make adjustments to my shutter speed based on lighting and not movement. I still can’t go too low on the shutter speed because I could get blur from not holding the camera still enough. I often experience some blur if I try to go below a shutter speed of 200 with professional portraits.  I typically try to stay above 200 if I can. Depending on how bright it is, I’ll make an adjustment to the shutter speed, take a practice photo then increase or decrease shutter speed until it is good.

Once the shutter speed is adjusted properly, honestly, there will probably be no need to make any adjustments to the ISO depending on the time of day. Our aperture adjustments and shutter speed adjustments would be all that was necessary and maintain the lower ISO around 200 for these professional portraits. Let’s take a look at this same scenario for professional portraits under slightly different circumstances. Let’s assume that the sun is in the process of going down and it is getting a little darker outside. Perhaps it is dark enough that we may consider using a flash for these professional portraits, but for whatever reason it isn’t available to us and we need to get the shot. Here is the process for how I would get creative with these professional portraits.

First, once again, we know that our aperture has to be around a 4.0f to make sure everyone is in focus. That means that we cannot prioritize lighting control with aperture, we must prioritize depth of field control. Our professional portraits are going to sacrifice being darker for the sake of making sure everyone is in focus. Luckily, we know that our subjects are being still! This means that we can choose to prioritize lighting control with our shutter speed instead of motion blur. We know our aperture is at 4.0f, and we go all the way down to 200 on the shutter speed. We take the practice shot and notice that the image is still darker than we would like. I don’t want to go below 200 on the shutter speed because I know based on my own capabilities with professional portraits, once I go below 200 I may introduce camera shake and blur the photo. If I had a tripod, I could use that but for this scenario, we also do not have a tripod. Shutter speed is 200, aperture is 4.0f and we still aren’t happy with the exposure, the image is too dark. This leaves us with making adjustments to the ISO. From here, I bump the iso up from 200 all the way to 800 and take a practice shot. If the image is still too dark, I’ll keep going incrementally until it is exposed properly. If it was too bright, then I will bump down to 600 and check it out. Then to 400 if it is still too bright. At some point, with experience we will know when it is simply too dark to take the photo and there is no sense in trying to go too high on the ISO. We should have planned better and chosen an earlier shoot time for these professional portraits hahaha.

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Things Aren’t Always Ideal for Your Professional Portraits Sessions

Let’s assume for a moment that we are at a wedding and we see an opportunity to take a fantastic photo, but we just came from a well-lit area into a dim area. Our flash isn’t ready, we don’t have a tripod with us because we are moving around too much but this shot is a moment that we just simply don’t want to miss! For this professional portraits scenario, let’s assume there is only two people in the photo, the bride and groom. I would adjust my shutter speed down to 200, bump my aperture to 2.8f, and then set my ISO to around 1000-1600 initially. I would position myself in a way that the depth of field between the two subjects would be reduced as much as possible. I would take the photo quickly, and if it was still too dark, I would already have an idea for how much more ISO would be needed. I would either bump it up to 3200 or if I needed to as high as 25,000 to make sure I get that special moment. In this scenario, I had already exhausted my options with my shutter speed, and my aperture was also at its lowest setting. I had a choice to make here. I could further adjust the ISO knowing that my image quality would be degraded or I could lower my shutter speed even lower knowing that I might introduce image blur. For this example, I’d rather have a lower image quality rather than image blur. Image blur would produce more of a negative impact on the final photo than the noise created from the high ISO. In the end, we still want the highest quality professional portraits that we can get.

For scenarios like the one I just discussed, there are a couple of other things that you can do to help make sure that you end up with the best odds of having a usable image for our professional portraits. When you have to make decisions like this where you sacrifice quality over coming home with nothing at all, then you want to make sure that you have the best quality that you can possibly have. One of the ways to do this is to make sure that you are always capturing photographs in the largest image size your camera is capable of setting. This will help in reducing the amount of noise produced in the photograph taken under these conditions.

The second thing you can do is always make sure you are shooting in RAW mode with professional portraits. RAW mode allows you to make larger adjustments to your resulting photograph. For example, let’s say that you took this same exact photo twice. The first photo was in RAW format and the second photo was in JPEG format. Once you get home there are several things you can do post process to make the image quality better. One of those adjustments is making a digital exposure adjustment, meaning that we can make the image brighter. For this scenario, let’s say that we got home and we needed to increase the exposure making the image brighter. For our adjustment, let’s use a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being a minor increase to exposure and 10 being a major increase to exposure. When making adjustments to a JPEG image, we may only be capable of achieving a level 3 exposure increase. Out of a scale of 1 to 10, a 3 is pretty low. On the other hand, the RAW image would potentially allow us to make a level 7 exposure increase and still maintain good image integrity. Shooting in RAW is literally the only way to go! To learn more about the importance of shooting in RAW with professional portraits, check out this article we wrote on the subject.

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