How to capture sharp portraits

by David Em
Last updated:

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Whether you’re shooting in automatic or manual mode, getting sharp images is vital. Here’s your guide to capturing sharp portraits and avoid blurry images.

Selective focus on a person wearing a leather jacket and looking to the side.

The importance of a clear photo

A sharp focus is important, whether you’re shooting landscapes, family photos, portraits, or headshots. To get the highest quality photo, aim to nail your focus.

Taking a clear image is also very important for client satisfaction. Your clients will immediately notice if the pictures are blurry.

To build a great reputation and have raving clients, sharp images are vital.

Related: How to fix grainy photos

How to capture sharp portraits

To get perfectly focused images, you need to minimize camera shake and maximize the ability to capture details. Here are helpful tips to ensure you nail your focus every time.

Related: 11 tips to take the perfect profile picture

1. Avoid slow shutter speeds

Blurry image of a taxi on the road.
Photo by Unsplash

We’ll start off with shutter speed. A blurry image is a result when your subject moved too fast for the shutter speed or if you have shaky hands.

When the shutter speed is too slow, the photo will be blurry.

Although a blurry image can be done on purpose for artistic reasons to show movement, we’ll talk about how to combat it for the times it’s not done intentionally.

In portrait photography, your subject will be moving if you are capturing a walking shot or anything of them in action. It’s best to use a shutter speed fast enough to freeze their movement.

Typically, anything under 1/80 will cause motion blur, so try to stay above 1/100 for walking shots. The faster your subject is moving the faster your shutter speed needs to be.

Another reason you don’t want to go slower than 1/80 is that it can cause camera shake. Instead of your subject moving, this is where your camera shakes due to your hands or your movements.

If you want to use slow shutter speeds, be sure to use a tripod.

2. Understand aperture

Man in black tank top with text overlay.
Photo by Unsplash

Aperture determines the depth of field, which is the distance that is in focus. It’s the distance between the closest and furthest subjects in your image, or the foreground and background.

You have to be most careful when using a shallow depth of field because that is when there is a smaller distance the will be in sharp focus.

When using a shallow depth of field, autofocus may not be as accurate, so you would want to try to use manual focus.

A large aperture results in a shallow depth of field and is great for shooting portraits at night as well.

Next, we’ll learn exactly how to use manual focus for a sharp portrait.

3. Use manual focus, carefully

Person taking a photo with a camera.
Photo by Unsplash

Manual focus can be hard to use in portrait photography. You may have wondered where you should focus? This is a huge topic in portrait photography.

When using manual focus, you can go down a couple of routes to find the perfect focal point. You can look through the viewfinder or live view on the camera screen.

Some cameras allow you to magnify while looking through the viewfinder, instead of having to switch to live view.

If that is the case for you, magnify to your subject’s eyes and nail your focus there. If you don’t have this option, turn your lens ring until your subject’s eyes are in focus.

Some cameras will give you a beep, highlight in red, or flash when your subject is in focus.

If your camera doesn’t allow you to magnify in the viewfinder, this is where you can use live view to zoom in and out to find the perfect focus.

4. Single-point autofocus

Person standing with grid overlay.
Move the large box to set the autofocus to a specific area.

There are times when autofocus is a better option than manual focus. This includes portraits where there is movement.

Using autofocus will help you focus more on composition rather than nailing your focus, manually.

Most cameras allow you to select whether a specific point, small area or large area is automatically focused.

For portrait photography, the eyes are our main focus so a specific point is a great setting to leave on. This is a single-point autofocus.

Remember, point the circle in the viewfinder or live view at your subject’s eye, lightly tap your shutter, it’ll lock in focus, and click.

5. Use a low ISO

Camera displaying ISO 200.
Photo by Unsplash

The lowest ISO, which is also called your base ISO, will give you the highest quality image.

As you increase your ISO, you’ll notice more digital noise and grain. This causes the image to look blurry and the best way to combat this is to use a lower ISO.

Now, if you’re shooting at night, this can be difficult. It’s OK to raise your ISO when you need to.

6. Clean your lens

Group of camera lenses.
Photo by Unsplash

Dust and dirt can impact whether or not your photo is in focus.

If you haven’t cleaned your lens before, it’s common to notice your photos become more out of focus with time.

The best way to clean the exterior of your lens is to use a wet microfiber cloth. This will remove a good amount of dirt and dust.

7. Use continuous shooting

Person snowboarding.
Continuous shooting mode is the best way to capture movement. Photo by Unsplash.

Continuous shooting aka burst mode is one of the best ways to capture sharp portraits, especially if your subject is moving.

With the modern technology of cameras, you can shoot between three to five photos per second. The number of photos per second depends on the camera you have.

Burst mode is a great way to capture in-focus portraits whether your subject is moving or standing still.


Understanding the functions of shutter speed, aperture, and the two focus modes will allow you to better navigate your camera and shoot crisp images.

More resources:

Featured photo by Unsplash.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

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About Portraits Refined

Portraits Refined (PR) is a media company that publishes the latest expert-backed portrait photography tips, in-depth camera gear reviews, and helpful advice to grow your photography business.