According to Merriam-Webster, a portrait is “a pictorial representation of a person usually showing the face.” While that is technically accurate, any photographer in the field will tell you that portraits are much more than a picture of someone’s face.
Portrait photography is about human connections, about being able to capture someone’s story and share it thought a static image that says so much without using any words. It’s not just another piece of work to showcase on your photography website, but rather a frozen moment in time that generations to come will hold as a treasured memory.
These fifteen portrait photography tips will teach you everything you need to know to truly capture the essence of your subjects and take pictures that people feel inevitably drawn to:
Establish a connection
Focus on the eyes
Pose your subject
Capture real expressions
Pay attention to colors
Find the perfect location
Understand how light works
Pick the right lens
Master the use of aperture
Get the right shutter speed
Compose your shots
Play with perspective
Mind the background
Explore your creative side
01. Establish a connection
When you think about photographing people, one of the first things that come to mind is probably the term 'photogenic'. While this is commonly used to describe whether a person tends to look good (or not) in pictures, it does in fact have little to do with their appearance. The main factor in determining how happy your subject will be with their portraits is their level of comfort in front of the camera.
In order to become a professional photographer in this field, one of the most important skills to master is your people skills. You'll need to be able to understand your subject's fears and reserves in order to break down their barriers and build up their confidence. One of the best ways to do so is by getting to know them before you start photographing them. Sit down together for a few minutes and familiarize yourself with their interests. Find out potential topics to bring up throughout the photoshoot, or play their favorite music to help them relax.
02. Focus on the eyes
Eyes are the windows to the soul, and the most important element among all portrait photography tips. Unless your subject’s eyes are hidden from the camera, they need to be razor sharp. Otherwise, the image will suffer - no matter how on-point its lighting and composition are. This point is one of the most important photography tips for beginners, so much so that some brands (ahem, Sony) have started to incorporate ‘Eye AF’ into their cameras.
When using wide apertures, especially below f/2.8, keeping the eyes in focus becomes incredibly more important and complicated. Imagine finishing the photoshoot feeling as if you completely nailed it, only to get home and realize that in most images, the subject’s nose is sharp but the eyes are soft. Few things sound more terrifying than that, right? In order to avoid this, set your focus to the central AF point, half-press the shutter to focus on the eyes, and then move the camera to recompose your shot.
Another important thing to consider when it comes to your subject’s eyes is the direction in which they look. When staring at any static image featuring any sort of animal (yes, that includes humans), we inherently follow their eye-line. Because of this, you’ll need to avoid having your subject look away in an ambiguous direction, as if there is something the viewer is missing out of frame. As a rule of thumb, you should either have your subject look straight into the camera or follow the direction of their nose.
03. Pose your subject
In order to get good images, you’ll need to learn how to direct your subject. There are two primary things you’ll have to take into account when doing so: what you want your image to transmit and whether you’re capturing their best angle. While the first one will completely depend on your creative concepts, there are a few rules to follow to capture your subject in the most beautiful way possible.
You have probably heard more than once that “the camera adds ten pounds”. This is, in fact, true. The most common way to pose in front of a camera is simply standing in front of it, which is actually the way in which we look wider. It’s even more obvious when the portrait is taken from the shoulders up, as our face takes the whole width of the frame.
To remove those ten extra pounds, ask your subject to turn into the camera rather than staring at it, keeping their shoulders at slightly different heights. Not only will this make them look significantly smaller, but it also adds interest to the composition. As for the face, they should tilt their head forward just a little, and then push their jaw down and out.
In addition to making sure your subject looks beautiful, you should also pay attention to their hand placement. When our hands are placed awkwardly or in an unnatural manner, the viewer’s attention is immediately drawn to them. If your subject is struggling with not looking stiff, ask them to perform some actions instead. Have them play with their head, walk towards the camera, dance, or smile at someone who is not in the picture.
Above all, you should come up with a list of ideas ahead of time. Browse your favorite photography Instagram accounts and save some of their shots for inspiration. These might be incredibly helpful both before and during the photoshoot. You can even ask your subject to bring some visual examples of their own.
04. Capture real expressions
If you want people to connect with your portraits, you’ll need to capture shots that transmit real emotions. More often than not, we see portraiture expressions as a black or white choice: stern looks or big smiles. But in between those two polar opposites, there is an ocean of raw emotions waiting to be explored.
Nothing feels as magnetic as genuine emotions frozen in time within a still image, which is why candid shots are one of the biggest photography trends of 2019. When working with clients, you’ll often see how frequently they choose blurry or improperly exposed images over those technically perfect shots. This is because they are simply looking for real representations of themselves.
The slightest changes in your subject’s facial expression can completely change the mood of the image. Because of this, you should try to capture a wide range of emotions from which you can choose during the post processing stage.
05. Pay attention to colors
The list of potential characteristics a good portrait can have is nearly endless, but there is one that should always be present: it’s all about the subject. Regardless of the type of image, format, location, lighting, and even your photography style, nothing should draw attention away from them.
One of the most common mistakes when it comes to elements who distract the viewer is the use of bright and colorful clothing. Despite its potential to easily become a major diversion, clothing is usually overseen as subjects are given the freedom to dress as they please.
In order to ensure you are able to capture outstanding portraits, you should compose your imagery with complementing colors. By using colors that work with the background or your subject’s skin tone, you’ll be able to make the subject stand out and draw all attention to their expression.
Among all portrait photography tips, this is probably the one you’ll have to explain the most often, as your clients will likely have a lot to say about how they dress for the images they’re paying for. It’s part of your job to have them understand just how much of a difference this can make in the final result.
06. Find the perfect location
It’s very common to see portrait photographers who shoot most of their gigs in a set location. After all, the more you work under certain conditions, the better you’ll get at it. But no matter how beautiful or convenient that place is, using it for all your clients is far from ideal.
For once, doing so will result in a very monothematic and overall boring photography portfolio. But more importantly, each subject you photograph is a unique individual and should be treated as such. Plan the photoshoot around their hobbies or favorite places, and incorporate elements they can relate to.
For example, go to the beach to photograph a surfer or take your camera into the library to capture an avid reader in their natural habitat. Not only will this allow you to create images that are more meaningful, it will also help your subjects feel at ease and be more open in front of the camera.
07. Understand how light works
More than a portrait photography tip, this is simply a skill anyone who wants to take good pictures should learn. By the time the shooting day comes around, you should have a solid plan for the lighting you’re going to use. If possible, scout the location beforehand to see how the available light will affect the compositions you have in mind.
When shooting outdoors, you’ll want to refrain from scheduling your gig to midday when the sunlight and shadows are too harsh. Aim instead for the photography golden hour, shooting early in the morning or late in the afternoon. This period of time will allow your subject to face the sun and minimize unappealing shadows, without squinting their eyes because of its brightness.
Although it might seem odd at first, you should be using an off-camera flash even when photographing outdoors on a sunny day. Having a light source coming from a different angle than your camera’s will add a lot of depth to the image, as well as allow you to use smaller apertures and increase the depth of field. If you don’t have access to any off-camera artificial lighting sources, you can always try to use a window.
You should pay close attention to your camera histogram and see how you should modify the lighting in order to balance the image’s exposure. In addition to neutral-density filters or dedicated flashes, a reflector is a valuable camera accessory which you can use to bounce light back onto the subject and fill unwanted shadows.
08. Pick the right lens
The biggest challenges of photography is capturing a three-dimensional scene within a two-dimensional format without any distortion. One of the most important tools in doing so is choosing the right camera lens for each situation. You might have heard that 85mm lens are commonly referred to as “portrait lenses”, however this doesn’t mean they’re the correct choice for every portrait you’ll ever capture.
While they are a great tool for environmental and ¾ shots, portrait lenses can prove quite troublesome on close-up portraits. The closer your camera is to the subject, the more pronounced their features will appear. And with an 85mm you’ll actually need to stand not far from their face in order to get a close-up.
On the other hand, longer focal lenses force you to step farther away from the subject. The longer the focal length, the more compressed the image will look. In portrait photography, this compression makes your subject’s features slightly less pronounced and their face look thinner. Because of this, many portrait photographers actually choose to work primarily with telephoto lens rather than traditional portrait lens.
In situations where you cannot avoid using wide-angle lenses, such as events or family portraits, make sure to keep the edges of the frame empty, as any elements placed there will appear enlarged and distorted.
09. Master the use of aperture
Since portraits are usually taken in a controlled environment where movement is rarely an issue, the most commonly used camera settings in portrait photography are manual and aperture priority mode. This allows photographers to focus on, well, getting the right focus while letting the camera to do all the extra work.
One of the most popular portrait photography tips is to shoot with an aperture two to four stops wider than your camera’s narrowest. This stop, usually around f/8-f/16, is considered the sharpest and it gives a wide enough depth of field to keep your subject’s entire face within focus while blurring the background.
However, in recent years outdoor photographers have popularized the use of wider apertures to keep most of the image out of focus and make the subject the sole point of attention. Recommended stops for these types of shots fall slightly above the camera’s widest apertures, generally at f/2.8 or f/5.6.
10. Get the right shutter speed
Aperture may be the true star of portrait photography, but in order to have full control over the exposure triangle and the overall look and feel of your image, you’ll need to pay attention to the shutter speed as well.
More often than not, you’ll need to ensure you have the right speed to avoid any camera shake and image blur. As a rule of thumb, you should set your shutter speed to be two times the focal length of the lens you’re using. For example, if you’re shooting with a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should not be lower than 1/125. Of course, this is not mandatory if you’re using a tripod or a lens that has built-in image stabilization (signaled as IS on the body).
Keep in mind that just because portraits are generally static, this doesn’t mean they should always be. Take time to play with different speeds and capture your subject in motion. This can add a lot of value to your work, and even build the first steps for you to go from photography to videography.
11. Compose your shots
Far too often, photographers tend to place their subject in the center of the frame, photograph them above the waist or shoulders, and call it a day. This might work in some shots, depending on their purpose and other technical elements such as lighting and aperture, but in most cases it will only produce average images that are easy to forget.
The purpose of composing your shot is to ensure the viewer’s attention moves across the image the way you intended it to, guiding their sight to the most important detail of the portrait. In order to do so, you should be familiar with the most common photography composition rules and how you can use them to achieve the desired effect.
Learn where you should place the eyes for them to feel as if they’re following the viewer’s movement. For example, you can fill the frame with the subject’s face so there is no getting away from their gaze, or use natural framing elements to make your subject part of the scene without drawing attention elsewhere. Simply have fun with the scene and explore the endless opportunities laid out in front of you.
12. Play with perspective
The end-goal for any portrait is to connect with the audience and convey certain emotions. Much like in the real, three-dimensional world, the best way to do so is to look straight into each other's eyes.
No matter who you’re photographing, you should shoot from their eye level. This might mean you need to kneel or even lay down on the floor when capturing newborn or pet photography, or maybe stand on some steps if your subjects is taller than you are.
Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and in some cases you might find yourself shooting from above or below the subject’s eye level in order to strengthen the portrait’s feeling of vulnerability or power.
13. Mind the background
If you dedicate some time to look at the work of others in the field, you’ll probably notice that portraits are usually captured on very bland backgrounds. It’s common to see plain walls or screens behind the subject, or for it to be completely out of focus if it had the potential to be remotely interesting.
But before you start coming up with ideas to disrupt the field with complex backgrounds, remember the most important portrait photography tip: it’s all about the subject. Posing your subject in front of a jaw-dropping sunset might seem like a genius idea on paper, but in reality the two elements end up clashing for attention and the final result is simply not good.
Always keep your subjects as the main point of attention of your portraits, and save the amazing background ideas for your beautiful landscape photos.
14. Go monochrome
Such is the power of black and white portraits, that one of the most popular photography quotes about monochrome images is actually about this field. Canadian photojournalist Ted Grant once said: “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”
One can find examples of black and white photography in any genre, but there is something unique about monochromatic portraits. By eliminating any color distractions, we find that the features of the subject truly stand out, and viewers find themselves discovering the small texture details of their face.
When shooting monochrome portraits, it’s recommended to capture the image in color in order to retain as much details of the scene as possible, and convert it to black and white afterwards using a photo editing software of your choice.
15. Explore your creative side
Portraiture is considered one of the most accessible photography careers, but in order to make a name for yourself in the industry you’ll first need to find a way to make your photos stand out. Test your limits and try to constantly come up with new concepts and techniques. It is only by pushing yourself that you’ll be able to take your work to the next level.
Don’t limit your shooting time to paid gigs. Take time to experiment with creative self portrait ideas. Blur the lines between genres and master all these portrait photography tips just to do completely the opposite afterwards.
Ready to put this knowledge into practice? Create a photography website and share the results with the world!