How to Shoot Sharp Portraits: A Step-By-Step Guide

Do you want to know how to shoot sharp portraits, consistently?

Capturing stunningly sharp portraits might seem hard. But there are actually a few simple tricks you can use to ensure your portraits are tack-sharp–every single time.

And in this article, I’m going to share these tricks with you. I’m going to give you a step-by-step process that guarantees you sharp portraits.

Are you ready to get super-sharp portrait shots?

black and white portrait
Getting crisp shots is simple if you just follow these steps.

Step 1: Hold Your Camera Correctly for Maximum Stability

How do you shoot sharp portraits?

It all starts with holding your camera the right way.

See, there are two main culprits of blurry portraits. The first is camera shake–the shake that’s caused when your camera moves slightly as you take the photo.

Intuitively, this should make sense. The more your camera moves during the photo, the blurrier the photo will be. Because your camera doesn’t take infinitely fast photos. Instead, it captures a moment in time–and if the camera moves during that moment, the shot will end up blurry.

black and white girl jumping
When capturing an image, accidental blur can easily arise. Holding your camera right is one simple way of minimizing this.

To counteract camera shake, you must stabilize your camera. Here’s how:

First, wrap your right hand around the right side of your camera, with your first finger resting lightly on the shutter button. You should grip the camera firmly without pressing too hard.

Second, put your left hand under the camera, cradling the lens.

Third, tuck in your elbows. If your elbows stick out, you’ll have less stability overall, so bring them in.

Fourth, bend your knees slightly. This will help stabilize your entire body.

How to shoot sharp portraits camera shake
Our mascot perfectly demonstrates good camera holding technique, if you follow these steps you’ll reduce the effects of camera shake.

And here’s your optional fifth step: Get down on your knees – or lean against something hard. You can easily keep your camera steady by using something that’s already stable in the area: the ground, a wall, a tree, a car, etc. That’s why getting down on your knees (or even your stomach) will increase your sharpness rate because the ground will help stabilize you. And stable objects will do the same.

Girl posing
If you get down low and try a different shooting angle you’ll have even more stability through being closer to the ground.

In fact, using a stable object is essential when the light is low. Which brings me to the next step for how to shoot sharp portraits:

Step 2: Shoot with Good Light for the Sharpest Portraits

As discussed above, one big culprit of blurry photos is camera shake. And a great way to deal with camera shake is to stabilize your camera.

But there’s another way to prevent camera shake:

Shoot in good light.

How to shoot sharp portraits
Good light is key to getting sharp portraits.

Let me explain.

When you press down on the shutter button to take a photo, the camera sensor is exposed to light. And the more light the camera sensor takes in, the brighter the final photo turns out.

This is why it’s hard to take photos at night–because there’s just not much light for the camera to expose the shot. However, if you want to take bright shots in low light, you use a long shutter speed. In other words, you leave the shutter open for a long time.

When your shutter is open for longer, the sensor is exposed to extra light, and produces a sharp photo. You can set the shutter speed on your camera, ranging from times such as 30 seconds to 1/6400th of a second and shorter.

So why not use long shutter speeds all the time, if you need bright shots?

How to shoot sharp portraits Shutter Speeds

The problem is that, when shutter speeds are longer, they allow for camera shake to become a big issue. Whenever the shutter is open, if the camera moves, that movement is recorded in the photo as blur. So you can’t use a long shutter speed unless your camera is very stable.

Now, you can stabilize your camera using a tripod, or by using other techniques (as described in Step 1). And this will help you get sharp portrait shots.

black and white portrait
If you shoot during good light you’ll have no need for long shutter speeds.

But the other way of dealing with long shutter speeds…

…is by not having to use them in the first place. Because you shoot during good light.

When I say “good light,” I’m talking about the golden hours (the two hours after sunrise, and the two hours before sunset), which are nice and bright, but also lovely and soft. I’m also talking about cloudy midday, which is bright and soft, as well. Either of these types of light will work well.

blurring effect
Using a flash is also a good lighting option if the natural light just isn’t enough.

In a pinch, you can also use a flash, which will give you some bright light to work with.

Here’s the bottom line:

Good bright light will give your camera more than enough light for you to avoid long shutter speeds and the corresponding camera shake.

And you’ll achieve beautifully sharp portrait photos.

And speaking of avoiding long shutter speeds:

Step 3: Use a Fast Shutter Speed to Prevent Motion Blur

Motion blur is the complement of camera shake.

Camera shake occurs when you use a longer shutter speed, and the camera moves.

How to shoot sharp portraits motion blur

Motion blur occurs when you use a longer shutter speed, and your subject moves.

If you’re taking a photo of a child, and the child jumps in the air, you’ll get motion blur–unless your shutter speed is fast enough.

Which is why you can avoid motion blur by using a fast shutter speed.

(You’ll also help prevent camera shake, which is counteracted by a fast shutter speed.)

shot of girl jumping
When shooting moving subjects, having a fast shutter speed is essential.
How to shoot sharp portraits shutter guids

The particular speed depends on your subject. But if your subject is moving very quickly, such as a person dancing, you may need a shutter speed of 1/1000s or more. If your subject is moving more slowly, such as a person walking, 1/500s might be enough.

To choose a fast shutter speed, you can use the Shutter Priority or Manual setting on your camera. Dial in a shutter speed that fits your subject’s movement, and watch as you capture some stunningly sharp portraits.

Now, if you have good light, you’ll be able to use a fast shutter speed–because the conditions will be bright enough to allow for it.

But another way you can use a fast shutter speed is to change a few other settings on your camera. In particular, the aperture and the ISO:

Step 4: Use a Wide Aperture and a High ISO to Allow for a Fast Shutter Speed

If you have great light, you have your pick of good shutter speeds. And you can capture sharp portraits.

wide aperture blur
If you’re in a shooting situation where the light isn’t as good as it could be, cranking up the ISO and widening the aperture can be useful.

But what if the light isn’t bright? What then?

You can increase the shutter speed–but you have to change other settings on your camera to do so.

How to shoot sharp portraits aperture

The aperture is a hole in your lens. The wider the aperture, the more light you take in. So if you want to take in lots of light, you simply have to widen the aperture.

And then you’ll take in enough light to use a fast shutter speed.

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To widen the aperture, you use the Aperture Priority or Manual setting on your camera. Apertures are displayed as f-numbers, like this: f/1.8, f/4, f/8, etc. To widen the aperture dial in an aperture with a low number (e.g., f/1.8). The lower the f-number, the wider the aperture.

And the faster the corresponding shutter speed!

Using a wide aperture will also blur the background, creating a shallow depth of field effect that looks great in portraits, like this:

black and white portrait of young girl
Make sure you know your camera settings and are comfortable using them before you go out and shoot.

Now, your camera also has a setting called ISO, which you can change in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual mode.

The ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to light. It’s written in round numbers, like this: ISO 100, ISO 200, ISO 320, ISO 640, etc.

The higher the ISO, the less light you need to create a bright photo. If your ISO is 100, for example, then you need a lot more light to capture a decently bright shot compared to ISO 6400.

What this means is that you can crank up the ISO, and then you’ll be able to use a correspondingly fast shutter speed.

Unfortunately, high ISOs come with a tradeoff:

The higher your ISO, the more noise (also known as grain) you introduce into your shot. And noise looks pretty bad; it’s small specks of incorrect colors that can easily ruin a portrait shot.

So you have to be careful. Use the highest ISO you can afford, in order to set a fast shutter speed. But don’t use an ISO that’s too high–otherwise, you’ll end up with lots of unwanted grain.

Step 5: Get a High-Quality Lens for the Best Image Quality

I’ve talked a lot about the different steps you can take to get sharp images during a shoot.

But sometimes, shots being blurry have nothing to do with your shooting style. Sometimes, shots are blurry because your lens is low quality.

Which is why, if you’re following all the steps listed above, and you’re still getting blurry shots, it’s time to take a look at your equipment.

Portrait of girl by door
Investing in a high-quality lens is the final component. If your lens is low-quality, you’re much more likely to have issues with blur and sharpness.

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If you’re using an extremely cheap lens, it may have image-quality problems. Because when it comes to lenses, you get what you pay for.

In general, zoom lenses tend to produce blurrier shots than prime lenses, especially if you compare lenses at equivalent price points.

(Note: A zoom lens offers multiple focal lengths, such as 18-55mm, whereas a prime lens offers a single focal length, such as 50mm.)

Prime lenses afford less flexibility–but the increased optical quality is definitely worth it. And you can grab some great portrait photography primes for pretty cheap, such as the Canon or Nikon 50mm f/1.8.

How to Shoot Sharp Portraits: Conclusion

You should now have a good sense of how to shoot sharp portraits–so that you can capture beautiful images, consistently.

concluding image
If you apply the techniques we’ve discussed, you’ll get sharp portraits consistently.

Just remember to follow the steps given above:

  • Step 1: Hold your camera correctly
  • Step 2: Shoot with good light
  • Step 3: Use a fast shutter speed
  • Step 4: Use a wide aperture and a higher ISO
  • Step 5: Get a high-quality lens
How to shoot sharp portraits

If you can follow these directions, you’re basically guaranteed to capture sharp portrait photos!

About the Author

jaymes dempsey author

Jaymes Dempsey

Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel. You can connect with Jaymes on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

1 thought on “How to Shoot Sharp Portraits: A Step-By-Step Guide”

  1. Dr. Richard M Bash

    Great instruction and I copied the referenced discussions as well. I MUST admit I am impressed with your instruction.

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