How to Shoot Great Portraits with Your Kit Lens

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I'm Rob, the editor of Light Stalking. I try to keep this ship on course.

Shooting portraits is always one of the most popular topics discussed on Light Stalking. Everyone wants to get that professional look, but many feel they are hamstrung by their gear. While a cheap lens can be a slightly limiting factor, it should be seen more as a challenge than a game changer because there are many techniques the photographer can use to get a cheaper lens to produce great portraits. Let’s take a look at a few.

In very general terms, with portraiture you’re going to be shooting with the intent of getting the focal point on the person’s face and more specifically the eyes. Other popular techniques in shooting portraits include limiting the depth of field in order to get that focus on the face at the same time as creating a nice (but not distracting) bokeh effect for the background. That’s by no means a suggestion for what you should do (shoot however you like), but simply an observation of the predominant way that photographers like to shoot portraits. For the purposes of this limited guide, we’ll assume you’d like to follow these general tactics with your own portraits.

Note: Sometimes, such as in travel portraits, you will want the background (or at least some of the surroundings) to be in focus so you can tell where you are. This guide does not cover a scenario like this and is aimed at people who want the main center of interest to be the person in the portrait and not the place.

Focus on Eyes (Nearest Eye if Necessary) – In portrait photography, conventional wisdom always says to place sharp focus on the eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul and all that! That means getting them in sharp focus. Now, if your subject is at an angle and you are shooting with a wide open aperture, then you may only be able to get one of the eyes in focus, so make that’s the nearest one to the camera. However, as you’re shooting with a kit lens and the aperture is probably not too wide, then this probably won’t be a problem (both eyes will probably be in focus at f/3.5 or f/5.6 depending on the circumstances).

Let’s Talk About Bokeh

The remainder of this article will focus on how to achieve the most pleasing bokeh effect with a kit lens for your portraits. This requires a combination of techniques as kit lenses are generally not as suitable as more expensive prime lenses or tele lenses at achieving this pleasing effect.

Open the Aperture – Kit lenses usually have a limited aperture range meaning you cannot open them up as much as more expensive lenses. You are going to want to use the widest aperture you can set your kit lens to (usually in the range of f/3.5 to f/5.6). This will help you achieve the bokeh effect with your background and keep the center of focus firmly on your subject.

Extend Kit Lens to Longest Tele – Most popular kit lenses are somewhere in the 18mm to 70mm range (Nikon’s 18-70mm or Canon’s 18-55mm for example) and you’re usually going to want to extend it out as far as it goes. This will eliminate the distortion you sometimes get shooting portraits at a wide angle as well as help you get that bokeh effect in your background (in combination with the other tactics listed here).

Get Close – Tightly cropped is usually how you will want to shoot your portraits so get as close as you can with your extended lens if that’s the effect that you want. Getting close to your subject while your lens is extended and the aperture is wide open will also help with the bokeh effect for the background.

drag by mangpages, on Flickr

Keep Background Far Away – If possible, try to make sure the background to your subject is at a reasonably far distance. This will allow your kit lens to really give you a good bokeh effect for your background and keep the center of interest on your subject’s face. It will also help eliminate distracting elements of the background.

Keep Background Plain – Again, if you want the main subject of your portrait photograph to be the person in it, then you are going to want to keep the background as plain as possible. While it’s not always possible, if you can remove those distracting elements, then you can keep the focus squarely on the person in your portrait.

In general, these techniques will help you render a reasonable portrait with a kit lens. Even with their limitations, they are perfectly capable of giving good results for portraits if you simply follow a few basic principles.