How to take better portrait photos with your smartphone (ft. Oppo Find X6 Pro)
Note: This feature was first published on 27 June 2023.
Taking good portrait photos on a trip doesn’t require complicated accessories or a powerful full-frame camera. Chances are, the camera you carry is the best camera to use, and that’s usually the smartphone’s camera.
Oppo showed us how better portrait photo-taking is possible when you shoot entirely handheld, without excessive equipment like tripods or gimbals, all via your phone of choice. Our phone of choice for the tour around Bali, Indonesia, was the Oppo Find X6 Pro, but that’s beside the point.
Nearly anyone can be good at portrait photography, and we’ve condensed the gist of it into easy-to-follow tips and tricks we picked up, below.
What is a portrait photo?
A portrait shot, or portraiture, is not limited to photography of a person. Portrait photos feature the personality or identity of the subject — it can be an individual, a group, an inanimate object, and more. You manipulate light, backgrounds, composition, and/or poses to bring out the subject.
Portrait shots can be informal (lifestyle), artistic, or traditional (corporate). An example of traditional portraiture is a passport photograph. However, that’s hardly a great example of what portrait photography can do, as demonstrated in the tips and tricks below.
Note: All shots were taken handheld, and not post-processed beyond making theirfile sizes web-friendly. Photos are taken by HWZ Editorial.
1) Use your zoom range to play with “space”
You might have heard how “2x optical zoom” or “3x optical zoom” are recommended focal lengths for portrait shots. Those focal lengths are sometimes even marketed as “portrait cameras” on smartphones.
That can be true because it’s based on our understanding of focal length. In conventional shooting, 35mm to 50mm focal lengths mimic the perspective of the human eye, so shooting at those focal lengths feels like a natural fit for portrait shooting. It makes the viewers feel like they’re looking at the subject in person.
However, proper framing is key to a good portrait photo, and can even let you to explore beyond convention. You can use the entire zoom range (even ultra-wide-angle) for portraiture if your smartphone can keep up with your shooting needs. Space is key to proper framing.
The subject must be the shot's focus to have a portrait shot. Yes, it sounds silly — until you realise, there’s a natural tendency to cramp too many distractions into a photo.
There are several ways to “force” the human eye to focus on the subject. Choosing a neutral background, using built-in aperture control to create bokeh (background blur), or even using different angles to create tension (where you “force” leading lines around the subject to converge onto them) are all ways to “play” with space. Your subject can even help to frame your shot too.
As a result, it’s possible to create portraits even with zoomed focal lengths or ultra-wide-angle lenses. Getting the shot looking right relies on framing practice and the mastery of your shooting device.
2) Shoot at an ideal eye level
Some photo-taking websites or tutorials tell you to “focus on the subject’s eyes”. That is also somewhat true because it’s also human nature to look for the subject’s eyes when viewing photos of people. So how do you control human nature to convey the tone of your photo?
Shooting at the correct eye level plays a big part in what you want to show. For example, shooting at the subject’s eye level prioritises the subject’s expressions and catches the viewer’s attention.
Once you master that, you can move on to two other “eye level” techniques. Shooting from below eye level evokes a sense of slimness and power in your subject. Shooting from above their eye level makes your subject appear smaller and gentler. Shooting at eye level is a bread-and-butter skillset for most Instagram-friendly influencers, but that also shows how critical it can be for anybody with a functioning phone and a ready face.
It’s not necessary to force your subject to look at your camera if there’s a specific expression you want them to convey. Remember, it’s about getting the ideal eye level best suited for your interpretation.
3) Under-exposing on the side of caution
This tip is contributed by Adele Chan, a portrait photographer and Editor-in-Chief for Nylon Singapore.
The fickle nature of portrait photography means getting the right expression or mood at the perfect time — but mishandling lighting can ruin that.
When editing photos after shooting, it’s easier to bring up exposure and compensate for darker shots, than to try and salvage an overexposed shot. That’s because image data is largely controlled by lightning. If you have parts (or worse, the subject) overexposed, it’s extremely difficult to recover the details lost in the light.
With that understanding, underexposure is the safer choice of the two when you are unsure about how the photo will turn out on a different display. Most smartphones allow you to tweak EV (exposure value) with a single tap, with sliding gestures on the preview screen to control exposure during a shoot. Going down half an EV step might help you generate better-looking shots after a bit of editing.
4) Don’t be shy; use your camera features
Most, if not all, smartphones offer tools to help you frame your shots better. It can be a level indicator, a 3×3 grid made for the rule of thirds, or the fancy spiral overlay for the spiral rule in photography.
While it’s not necessary to use them if you already know your way around your phone’s cameras, trying out these indicators can help you frame your subsequent tries in different ways, giving you more than one interpretation of your artistic creativity.
5) A cheat code for group portraits
Group portraits are portrait shots with multiple subjects. It sounds obvious until you realise that it means paying attention to multiple subjects, exponentially increasing the difficulty of getting a “good” group photo.
If you don’t have time to compose your shot, remember the following: as much as possible, try and have all the subjects equally well-lit (and you do that by catching them at the right time, under ideal lighting conditions and angles). Also, try to frame your shot using the subject’s environment (which goes back to the first tip, framing).
Ultra-wide-angle cameras on phones make quick work of group portraits with easy access to good framing and framing your subjects well. However, ultra-wide-angle also reduces focus towards the sides of the photo, thanks to its inherent fish-eye distortion. So, it’s not always necessary to use ultra-wide-angle for group-fies.
Another group shot cheat code goes back to the rule of thirds: a trio of subjects provides just enough variety without being too distracting. It doesn’t have to be all people once you understand how to make “things” appear in threes to make them feel more intentional.
6) Ultra-wide-angle portraits
Ultra-wide-angle shots are generally not recommended for portrait shooting because it makes the subject look wider sideways. Most people don’t want that.
But, that can be overcome easily once you understand how ultra-wide-angle smartphone cameras work.
In landscape orientation, the ultra-wide-angle fish-eye distortion widens subjects. Tilt your camera into a portrait orientation, however, and it has the ability to make your subject look taller or longer.
You can combine this with other techniques, like shooting below eye level, to create a powerful-looking subject in your final result. Of course, the basic photography rules (like having good lighting and framing correctly) still apply.
7) Using light and shadow to “paint” your portrait
The basis of nearly all types of photography and the art of photo-taking primarily relies on light. Light is the paintbrush that gives you the details. The absence of light is similar to the concept of negative space. This is more evident in portrait photography since you want the subject to be correctly lit for the best effect.
There are many ways to manipulate different sources of light on your subject. 2x to 3x optical zoom is a good example of giving your subject enough distance from the camera for the light to work.
Alternatively, you can look for ways to use light and dramatise your subject. As a rule of thumb, high noon (the sun directly overhead) with no cloud cover can be overly harsh lighting for portrait photography. Consider using indoors or darker areas to manipulate that fiery ball in the sky to create an ideal shooting scenario.
Conversely, low-light situations are also tricky since it requires steady hands and a really good camera sensor to paint your photo, so find the light source (or bring one) to ensure that your subject is lit well.
8) Lighting up your subject well
To ensure that your subject is well-lit for portrait photography, ensure that most of their face (at least half, depending on your desired artistic style) is lit. You can place the light source behind you, or angle 45-60 degrees towards your subject.
This is subverted when you want to create a sense of mystery in your subject. Called “short lighting”, that’s when the subject’s well-lit area is less than the unlit area, using shadows to tell your story.
When in doubt, let there be light — on your subject.
About the Oppo Find X6 Pro
Honestly, you don’t need the Oppo Find X6 Pro to take good portrait photos. Still, these samples above show that having a premium flagship handset with a similar camera system helps immensely.
Specific to the Oppo Find X6 Pro is Oppo’s choice to prioritise the most commonly used focal lengths among its users. With the recommendations made by Oppo’s Photography Insights Team, that means prioritising focal lengths like 0.5x (ultra-wide), 3x optical, and 6x hybrid zoom instead of 10x zoom.
Further to Oppo’s imaging philosophy is to ensure these focal lengths do not make the user feel like they have to compromise their image quality if they are forced away from a specific rear camera. Instead of having one “primary” camera, all three rear cameras (main, ultra-wide, and periscope telephoto) are 50MP and OIS, on top of pixel-binning. Simply put, the three rear cameras are ready to capture more light and are less likely to be out of focus right out of the box. Having a Hasselblad partnership is just the cherry on top of Oppo’s meticulous imaging attention.
The only flaw? Besides its slight oversaturation in certain red or blue hues, the Oppo Find X6 Pro is unfortunately not officially available in Singapore. Still, the photo tour with the phone in Bali gave us a great opportunity to share our thoughts about better portrait photography for any phone user.
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