Portrait photography is the art of capturing the inherent character of your subject within a photograph. While that quizzical definition covers the basics, portrait photography goes way beyond just clicking pictures of people.
Great portrait photography is a result of combining the proper technique with an artist’s expression:
- Method: Using the correct camera settings, compositions, angles, lighting, backdrops, and poses.
- Art: It’s about capturing a stunning and vibrant portrait that evokes feelings in the viewers and captivates their attention.
First practised by artists such as Picasso, portrait paintings have a great history of storytelling.
Taking great portrait photographs is the modern form of the same technique.
While it requires much less effort than painting, capturing the expressions and emotions that make up good portrait photography can take time to master.
Great portrait photography is as much about following the rules and guidelines as it is about breaking out of the mould.
We have put together an exhaustive list of best practices and techniques on how to take good portraits.
Prepare Your Portrait Subject for the Shoot
Even the best, most expensive camera equipment will produce poor results if your subject isn’t ready, comfortable, relaxed and feeling their best.
Being photographed is quite an unnatural and, therefore, stressful experience for the issue, so your job as a photographer is to make the experience simple, fun and stress-free.
Break the ice by making small talk. Even if you know the person well, they may still be feeling apprehensive.
Explain the kind of shot you want – or ask them what type of shot they’d like. Be open to suggestions from your subject. For children portrait photography, get down to their level and talk to them gently.
Tell them you’re going to have great fun. And encourage them to play and forget about the camera.
If possible, ask your subject to wear neutral colours – preferably dark colours – because this helps your subject’s face stand out better. Check your issue over for anything that might be distracting, such as fluff on clothes, uneven buttons and zips, collars, lapels, dresses riding up, shirt half tucked in, etc.
One of the best preparations you can make is to be prepared yourself. Have your camera and any additional equipment set up, and take a few test shots before expecting your subject’s full attention.
Learn How to Use Your Camera
Portraiture photography, first and foremost, is about your artistic expression and technique, which takes a lot of practice to perfect.
Once you start understanding the nuances of portrait photography, it’s time to invest in a good camera and lens.
There is no such thing as the best camera for portrayals, as most cameras nowadays can capture great portraits.
It’s a matter of understanding how to use them efficiently under different lighting and environmental conditions.
Get a decent DSLR camera that would give you control over portrait photography settings and deliver sharp, high-resolution images in the RAW format that you can work on in post-processing.
Check out a detailed guide in Photodoto for working with a DSLR camera for beginners. Experiment with camera settings to understand your tools and use them to capture the best results.
Choosing the Right Lens
As with all photography, the camera lens is the most vital tool in catching the right shot. Again, there is no such thing as the best lens for portrait photography.
It is up to you to decide which lens fits the scenario best. If you are going for a shot where the scenery or background is a crucial part of the picture, it’s better to use a wide-angle lens.
A medium telephoto lens like 85mm or 105mm will enable you to balance your model and the background.
If the photo is supposed to be tight, focusing on the subject only, then a 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto lens is an excellent choice. It enables you to zoom in and focus more on your topic.
You also reduce the amount of background and foreground distractions on display. If the photo is supposed to be tight, focusing on the subject only, then a 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto lens is an excellent choice. It enables you to zoom in and focus more on your topic. You also reduce the amount of background and foreground distractions on display.
Understand How Shutter Speed, Aperture, and Iso Work Together
No photograph will be out of your grasp if you understand the Exposure triangle or the interrelationship of three elements – shutter speed, aperture and ISO.
Understanding these concepts will open up new options in your photography and empower you to capture portrait pictures previously out of reach.
You must also look at the critical concept of Stops of Light and understand how aperture is measured in f-stops.
Stops are often divided into halves or even thirds for better control of an image’s exposure value.
While the numbers used in the examples above are pretty much industry standardized numbers, fractions of stops are often rounded up or down by manufacturers.
The numbers might not match exactly, but the concepts are the same no matter what type of camera you use.
Find an Interesting Subject
I have a friend who regularly goes out on the streets around Melbourne looking for interesting people to photograph.
When he finds someone that he finds attractive, he approaches them, asks if they’d pose for him; he quickly finds a suitable background and then shoots off a handful of shots quickly (if they permit him, of course).
The result is that he has the most beautiful collection of photographs of people of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds.
While many of us spend most of our time photographing our loved ones – perhaps it’d be an exciting exercise to shoot attractive strangers once in a while?
Frame Your Subject
Framing is a technique where you draw attention to one element of an image by framing it with another image element.
Framing gives an image depth and draws the eye to the point of interest in the picture.
You could do it by placing your subject in a window or doorway, have them look through a small gap or even use their hands around their face. See more examples of framing in photography here.
Fill the Frame
One way to ensure that your subject captures the viewer’s attention is to fill the frame with their face.
It’s not something that you’d do in every shot that you take – but if your subject is the only feature in the picture – there’s nowhere else to look.
Experiment With Subject Expressions
In some portraits, it is the expression on the face of your subject that makes the image.
Get your issue to experiment with different moods and emotions in your photo. Play with extreme emotions. But also try more sombre or severe type shots.
Artistic portrait photography is all about finding emotions and expressions in portrait pictures. Getting your subject to emote is easier said than done.
Make sure that you avoid fake smiles and blank looks. A genuine sparkle in the eye, a faint smile, a confident expression – these are the recipes for creating portrait shots that will shine.
Work with your subject and give them time to get into the zone. Forcing or hurrying this process will not work.
Focus on the Subject
The subject is the most important aspect of portrait photography. Making the subject comfortable with you is an essential factor for a successful portrait photography session.
Take out time to connect with your client before the photoshoot and, if possible, meet up in person.
It is best to get to know each other and let the subject know more about your style of photography and what exactly you will be looking for in the shoot.
Discuss your ideas about the shoot with your issue and factor in her preferences and abilities in your plan.
Even if you are familiar with the person being photographed, people can get uncomfortable when they get in front of the camera. It is always a good idea to keep communicating with the model before and during the shoot.
Play With Backgrounds
The person in your portrait is the main point of interest. However, when you place them into different contexts with different backgrounds, you can dramatically alter the mood in a shot.
Sometimes you want your experience to be as minimalistic as possible. While other times a dramatic or colourful background can help your subject stand out.
The Background Matters
The focus in portraiture, as expected, is on the subject model. However, there are more intricacies than just that.
Sometimes, an interesting background can add a lot of drama to the photograph and help your subject stand out.
In most cases, though, blurring the portrait background correctly can add more emphasis to the subject.
So it is imperative to see how the experience will turn out and adjust the shutter speed and aperture accordingly.
Pick the Perfect Background for Your Subject
In portrait photography, the background is just as necessary as the subject. A busy or distracting background will take attention away from the person in your photo.
Usually, you’ll want a neutral, uncluttered background for portrait photography that won’t distract the viewer from your portrait subject.
However, you don’t have to choose a completely plain background. For instance, an attractive wall or fence could provide an excellent pop of colour or texture.
Another technique is to include an object in the environment to provide added interest or context.
For example, an artist in front of her easel, a fisherman in front of a boat or a musician in front of her guitar.
Change the Format Framing
Many photographers get stuck in a rut of only ever shooting either in ‘landscape’ (when the camera is held horizontally) or ‘portrait’ (when the camera is held vertically).
Look back through your images and see which one you use predominantly.
Just because a vertical framing is called ‘portrait’ mode doesn’t mean you always need to use it when shooting portraits.
Mix your frame up in each shoot that you do, and you’ll add variety to the type of shots you take.
Hold Your Camera on an Angle
Horizontal and Vertical framings are not the only options when it comes to shooting portraits. While getting your images straight can be important when shooting in these formats, holding your camera at a more diagonal angle can also inject a little fun into your pictures.
This type of framing can add a sense of fun and energy to your shots. Just don’t ‘slightly’ do it, or you’ll have people asking themselves if you might have mistakenly held your camera crooked.
Go With a Wide Angle
Shooting with a wide-angle lens attached to your camera can help create memorable shots when you’re doing portrait photography.
At extensive focal lengths, you can make some excellent distortion.
It might not be the type of shot you take of your wife or girlfriend (unless she’s in a playful mood), but using these focal lengths will enlarge parts of the face or body on the edge of the frame more than what is in the centre.
It can also give a wide open and dramatic impact when your subject is in an impressive setting.
Take Unfocused Shots
As photographers, we have ‘sharp focus’ drummed into us as an ultimate objective to achieve in our work – but sometimes, lack of focus can create shots with real emotion, mood and interest.
There are two main strategies for taking unfocused images that work:
- Focus upon one element of the image and leave your main subject blurred. To do this, use a large aperture that will create a narrow depth of field and focus upon something in front of or behind your subject.
- Leave the entire image out of focus. To do this again, choose a wide aperture but focus well in front or behind anything that is in your photo (you’ll need to switch to manual focussing to achieve this).
These kinds of shots can be incredibly dreamy and mysterious.
Portraits can be so static – but what if you added some movement into them? This can be achieved in a few ways:
- by making your subject move
- by keeping your subject still but having an element in the scene around them move
- by moving your camera (or its lens to achieve a zoom burst)
The key with the above three methods is to use a slow enough shutter speed to capture the movement. The alternative is to have your subject obviously move fast and use a shutter speed so quickly that it ‘freezes’ their activity.
Find the Right Location
The location you choose for the portrait shoot will be a significant influence on the final results. Shooting outdoors in natural light gives the best results but poses many challenges.
You would need to plan according to the weather, time of the day, and changing lighting and environmental conditions as the day progresses.
Avoid shooting in direct sunlight as it produces harsh shadows and can make your subject squint.
Choose mornings or late afternoons when the sunlight gets diffused, and you get a lovely, warm, natural glow.
You can exercise much more control if you are shooting indoors. You need to plan your portrait lighting arrangements properly to complement the shoot’s mood, model’s clothes, and backdrops. Getting the location right can save you a lot of trouble with fixing images in post-processing.
Getting the Pose Right
Figuring out the proper portrait photography poses for your subject that portrays them in the most flattering way is always a new journey.
Getting your subject to pose in a way that complements them while keeping in mind the lighting, camera angle, and background is always an exciting puzzle.
Try out various combinations of poses and tips to find the best options for your shoot. After seeing the correct posture for your subject, you can always make subtle changes to make every shot perfect.
Tip: Keep a gallery of creative portrait photography shots on your mobile phone. Keep adding benchmark photos to this gallery.
It would help you big time figuring out various options that can work in the shoot right there and then. Showing a visual example to the client would also help communicate better to them.
Take Candid Shots
Getting subjects to pose can sometimes give less than optimal results. Some people are just not comfortable posing. This discomfort is particularly apparent in child portrait photography, where posed portraiture images can come off as forced and unnatural.
Getting your subjects comfortable and shooting them doing their usual, natural activities can yield fantastic portrait shots.
Tip: Using a longer zoom lens to step out of the immediate proximity of your subjects can make them lose the shyness or stiffness of being photographed.
Design a Color Palette for Your Images
You have to consciously design your portrait shots’ visual look and feel, and for this, defining a colour palette helps.
Using complementing colours when it comes to clothing, backgrounds, props, and even post-processing can add to the overall impact of the portrait shots. Keep in mind your subject’s skin complexion when choosing a colour palette.
Colour palettes would also depend on the type of portrait photography you are undertaking.
Family portrait photography images look great in warm hues and greens, whereas business portrait shots look impressive in dark blues and greys.
If you are going to use a smoke bomb in your photography, make sure it is part of your colour palettes, as most of your shots will be covered in the smoke.
If you have ever taken a physics lecture about light, you would have learned that light is directional.
Lighting is critical to a photographer and forms the golden rule of lighting in photography.
Directional lighting is the reason why standing in front of a light source will make the subject dark and hardly visible.
Similarly, having a light source to the side will make half the subject light up and half in shadows.
For a fully lit picture, it is also easier to stand facing a light source.
The creative use of the sun as a light source in outdoor portrait photography can produce stunning results.
A good photographer should be able to use the available lighting to his advantage.
However, you will not always be shooting in the sun. If you are using a portrait photography studio, you should also be comfortable with artificial sources.
More specifically, think about investing in a flashgun. It is quick and portable.
Many people are hesitant in using flash, but it can be helpful in the dark scene or add drama to portrayals.
Flash can also be used with the sun to balance out exposure and unevenness of natural lighting to create the perfect portrait photography lighting setup.
Another tip on best aperture for portraits – You may also use a camera with a low gap to get the most details in a picture taken in a less lit area.
A valuable tool for lighting is the use of Reflectors for turning hard shadows into softer ones. Reflectors are cheap to buy, and if you are an amateur on a budget, they might be a good starting point.
Pose Your Portrait Subject Like a Pro
Now that your subject is ready, comfortable and relaxed, you need to keep them that way throughout the shoot.
Work quickly but confidently and calmly, giving them clear instructions as you shoot. It’s unlikely they’ll know how to pose for you, so you’ll need to give them constant guidance.
Don’t overwhelm them with complicated requests. Just get them to make minor, simple adjustments, for example, “Raise your chin a little,” “Straighten your back,” or “Now look at me.”
Let’s explore some different posing techniques that you could try. Have your subject sit down.
This keeps them still, and they’ll feel more relaxed and comfortable. Have the subject lean slightly towards the camera for a more engaging pose (or shoot barely from above to get the same effect).
Have their body and shoulders turned slightly away from the camera for a natural feel? Or, for a more aggressive image, have their shoulders square on to the camera.
For something a little different, shoot from an unusual perspective, such as very low or very high.
Waists can look slimmer if the subject turns his or her waist away from the camera. Introducing props is a great way to add something special to the shoot.
These could include hats, party glasses, balloons, a pen, a flower or a musical instrument.
If nothing else, it will help break the ice and lighten the mood – even if you don’t end up using the props in all your shots.
Ensure Your Subject Is Well Lit
Generally speaking, natural daylight is the most attractive light source for portrait photography – especially if you don’t have dedicated studio lighting.
A slightly overcast day provides a lovely soft light that will be flattering on your subject.
Direct sunlight isn’t usually desirable because it creates solid and hard shadows on the subject’s face. In such conditions, it’s best to find some light shade to position your subject.
Alternatively, embrace the opportunity and shoot (carefully) into the sun, with your subject’s back to the sun.
This is called backlighting and can result in a golden glow around your subject.
Keep in mind that shooting into the sun does require you to provide some “fill” light to illuminate the shadows on your subject’s face.
Fill light can be reflected sunlight, bounced back onto the subject’s face using a reflector or even a simple sheet of white card.
Alternatively, you could use your camera’s inbuilt flash or an external flash. You can use natural daylight indoors too.
For best results, put your subject near a window and face slightly towards the light.
You’ll get shadows on the parts of your subject which aren’t lit by the light from the window.
This can add depth and a sense of drama to the image. If the shadows are too dark, try bouncing some of the window light back onto these shadowy areas using a reflector.
Use a Flattering Focal Length
Focal length has a significant impact on your images because it introduces a predictable amount of image distortion, which can make or break your portrait photography.
Find out what focal lengths your lens offers by examining the lens barrel. The focal lengths are displayed in millimetres, e.g. 18mm, 55mm, etc. If you’re using a fixed or prime lens, there will only be one focal length.
To select a focal length on a zoom lens, rotate the zoom ring on the lens barrel. If your camera doesn’t have a zoom ring, use the zoom +/- buttons on the camera body.
How do you know which focal length to use? There’s no right and wrong here, but the following information will help you decide which is best for you.
A 50mm focal length will give you the most accurate representation of your subject because it does not distort their face.
The photo above was shot with a 50mm prime lens. If you hit with a focal length below 50mm, you’ll start to see some undesirable distortion of the facial features.
For example, the size of your subject’s forehead, nose and nearest cheek will be exaggerated while other features like ears, chin and hair appear to reduce in size, as shown below.
While this can produce amusing results, it’s not usually desirable. In addition, you’ll need to get closer to your subject to fill the frame. This may be too close for comfort for you and your subject!
A focal length of over 50mm can make your portrait subject’s facial features start to appear flattened. In moderation, this is quite flattering – but at extremes, it can make the person’s face look very wide or fat.
80mm is a popular focal length for portraits, although some photographers prefer 100mm or longer.
Also, the longer the focal length, the further away from your subject you’ll have to be to fit them into the frame.
This can be beneficial when shooting candidly for more natural, relaxed results or feeling your issue will benefit from having some space.
However, it could be a problem if you don’t have enough room to get far enough away from your subject – for example, when shooting indoors.
Blur the Background Using Aperture Priority Mode
A sure-fire way to raise your portrait photography game is to shoot with a shallow depth of field.
This allows you to have your subject in sharp focus while the background appears blurred or out of focus, helping your portrait subject stand out.
You can control the depth of field on your camera by adjusting the lens aperture. The aperture is the opening inside your lens, which allows the light to travel through from the front of the lens to the camera’s sensor. Your lens will have a minimum and maximum aperture range.
Aperture is measured in f/stops. The bigger the lens aperture, the smaller the f/number will be.
The more significant the gap (, the smaller the f/number), the more blurred your background will be.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to choose the largest aperture (smallest aperture number) that your lens offers. F/4 is a go-to aperture for portraits as it should provide enough depth of field to have all of your subjects in focus.
To change the aperture on your camera, ensure you set the shooting mode to Aperture Priority or AV Mode.
Then use the thumbwheel, dial, buttons or menu settings to increase or decrease the aperture value. On my Canon 5D MK ii, the aperture value is changed using the main dial just behind the shutter button.
You can experiment with smaller and larger aperture sizes, but the golden rule is to make sure your subject’s eyes are in focus at the very least, and ideally, the tip of the nose too.
If the background doesn’t look blurred enough, try moving the subject further away from experience. The further the scene is from the issue, the more blurred it will appear.
Expose for the Subject’s Face
Exposure refers to how bright or dark your image is. In portrait photography, the essential part of the scene is the subject’s face. So, make sure that the face is correctly exposed – not too dark (under-exposed) and not too bright (overexposed).
For portrait photography, it’s better to have a background that’s too dark or too bright than to have a face that is under or overlit.
Depending on which model you’re shooting in, you can easily adjust the exposure compensation (EV) setting on your camera. This enables you to increase or decrease the exposure to suit.
Alternatively, set your camera’s metering mode to Spot metering or Center-weighted metering.
This tells the camera to ignore overly light or dark regions around the edge of the scene, which might trick it into under or overexposing the shot.
Focus on the Eyes
Portrait photos look best if the eyes are in sharp focus. This improves the sense of eye contact between the subject and viewer, creating a powerful and engaging image. So, when shooting portraits, especially with a shallow depth of field, make sure you set your focus point carefully.
Your camera most likely has several Autofocus / AF points, which are visible in the viewfinder.
Select the central AF point using the AF option in your camera, then position the main focus point directly over one of the subject’s eyes. Now half-press the camera’s shutter button to lock focus.
If necessary, move the camera to recompose your shot for the best composition, then press the shutter button down to take the picture.
If recomposing, ensure you don’t change the distance between the camera and the subject; otherwise, the eye will no longer be in focus.
Many cameras offer to magnify the scene in the viewfinder, which is invaluable for checking focus before shooting. To make your subject’s eyes “pop”, try the following trick that all the best professional portrait photographers use. Simply ensure your light source is reflecting in your subject’s eyes.
These reflections are called “catchlights”, and they’re highly effective at turning a boring portrait into something special. For maximum effect, have only one catchlight per eye and aim to have them nearer the top of the eye.