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Portrait Photography

Portrait Photography Tips

October 23, 2022 by

This is a complete guide for portrait photography tips and insights.

Portrait photography is my favorite style of photography. With that being said, here are some tips that I’ve used over the years to help me improve with my own portrait photography.

We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):

25 Portrait Photography Tips

Let’s dive into the best portrait photography tips.

1. Focus on Your Client

The best portraits pay meticulous attention to the client. Your portrait should portray the clients’ persona and story behind it.

All of your available resources should be used to achieve this effect.

As a photographer, you should try to make the clients feel comfortable opening up to you.

Even the most experienced models sometimes get nervous in front of the lens.

When your client is relaxed, their expression becomes more natural and poses are less stiff, which is a win-win both for you and your clients.

relaxed portrait photo
relaxed client

Attention to detail is absolutely crucial in this case. Make sure that all props used are right for the occasion, including the clothes your client is wearing.

You can also recommend them a color tone. Other details such as hair and jewelry should also be considered, in order to make your client look their best.

Bonus points if you manage to capture a sharp focus on their eyes– the windows to their soul.

2. Capture Emotions and Expressions

As noted before, people do get nervous during their photoshoot.

The best way to make them show more expression is through small talk and even jokes. This relieves the pressure on them.

Clients often accidentally create great poses and shapes for themselves while not realizing it.

This is where candid photography comes in.

These photographs are usually effective in making the client look as natural as possible.

Otherwise, you could help direct their poses and make them look great. After all, they paid you to take a nice picture of them!

3. Use Flattering Poses

Photographing another person can be one of the most challenging things a beginner photographer can do.

If the person is not positioned correctly, it can make the picture in question look unnatural and forced.

This is why you have to figure out how to pose the subject in your picture like a pro.
The biggest mistake you can make as a new photographer is failing to give the subject of your portrait guidance.

If you know what you want, then you need to relay this message to your subject. Being friendly but firm with your instructions can help you get your subject in the right position.

As time goes by, you will learn how to properly position a subject to get the candid snapshots you are after.

The poses you use in a portrait photograph determine your clients’ emotion and the overall feeling of the photo.

You could do the classic hands-straight-down-to-the-hips pose or the overused crossed hands pose, or you could think creatively.

Don’t get us wrong, we still love these poses! But experimenting with more daring movements could take you far as a photographer.

The angle of your client’s head could determine how others perceive the emotions shown in the photo. The eye-level is celebrated as the default angle in portrait photography.

portrait photo example
eye-level

For a more ‘dreamy’ look, you could ask your client to avert the lens and focus on something behind you.

If you want a more intimate portrait, directing them to look straight in the camera would do the photo wonders.

In fact, close-up photographers do this all the time to make photos look more intimate.

Portrait photography poses are best when they look natural, less stiff, and more “candid.”

Some people subconsciously pose and tilt their head a bit when they are more confident or are just unaware of being photographed.

Give them simple, straightforward instructions. Avoid giving overly complicated directions or being too demanding.

Remember to give the client positive reinforcement when they do flattering poses– this gives them a boost of confidence and makes the shooting experience a more positive one!

4. Find an Appropriate Background

If you want to make your photos look great, you have to think outside of the box. One of the most neglected parts of any photo is the background.

Some amateur photographers think that the background is a part of their pictures that no one will notice.

In reality, using the wrong background can make a picture extremely unappealing.

Ideally, you want to use a background that is free of clutter. You also need to make sure that the colors on the clothing being worn by the person in your photos do not clash with the background.

Simple background settings such as a fence or a wall could work well in providing decent texture and color, but we don’t recommend using it if you’re seeking to create a deeper and more meaningful portrait.

If your current background does not clearly explain your clients’ personality and/story, change it.

You should also check the photograph for any distractions. Your client should always be the center of attention.

If there are any distractions stealing the thunder away from your client, feel free to blur it. You could also use a lower aperture.

An appropriate background should be accessible, safe, and relatable to your client.

You could also add props to the background for extra information.

Let’s say your client is a basketball player, add some basketballs in the background! Try keeping props simple and don’t make them look out of place.

5. Understanding Lighting

Lighting is considered a make-or-break element in the world of photography.

If your picture is improperly lit, it can make it look grainy and pixelated.

Rather than making this rookie mistake, you need to choose the right lighting source for your snapshots.

If you are shooting indoors, then you need to invest in some freestanding lights.

When shooting outdoors, you need to consider shooting either early in the morning or at dusk.

There are many types of lighting that can be used in portrait photography. Different types and angles of lights give off different and distinct feels to a photograph.

The most common lighting angles are from the front, sides, and the back (backlighting). Remember the three-point lighting setup:

three point lighting
3-point lighting

While some techniques are easy to execute, others could be more difficult to nail.

Front lighting is commonly used to hide imperfections since it doesn’t create any shadow on the face.

Although most people see it as flat or dull, it’s viable enough to be used if it benefits your client.

Side lighting is more tricky than front lighting because you need to place the light source in an angle that creates flattering shadows and depth.

It’s not extremely hard but should be taken carefully. Watch where the shadow falls and adjust accordingly.

Last but not least is backlighting. Unless you are comfortable with manual mode and are equipped with light modifiers, the job will be pretty hard.

Even so, all that hard work is worth it because backlit photos could come out greatly if done right.

The two common lighting modes are soft and hard.

Soft light produces a less defined/blurry shadow. On the other hand, harsh light produces a sharper distinct shadow.

Soft light makes your client look “softer” and more intimate, especially when they are well lit.

In contrast, harsh light gives your client a more dramatic mood.

The way you use it and how you adjust to it depends on yourself. Feel free to experiment with it!

To further explore lighting, we also recommend this video by The Slanted Lens:

6. Using Properties

Props aren’t just for background features. It could definitely work that way, but there are still many ways to use props in a way that adds more to your clients’ story.

A good prop should add more color, impact, and ambience to your photograph.

How do I select the correct props?

It really depends on the person you’re photographing.

There are many portraits of photographers holding their camera, singers holding their mic, a farmer sitting on a stack of hay, and many more.

Properties range from things your client can sit or pose on, to objects your client can interact with to make a photo look more candid (if that’s what you’re aiming for).

photo prop
using props

7. Get the Most Out of Your Equipment

Even the most expensive camera can be basically worthless if you don’t have the proper skills or lighting.

While that sounds extreme, it’s definitely true– having a great camera doesn’t mean you’ll automatically take great photos.

Everyone has their own budget, and surely nobody wants their investment going to waste.

We recommend using a decent DSLR camera and lens that fit your needs. Good cameras don’t have to be expensive, so be sure to do some research before getting one.

You can also use reflective surfaces such as the floor, buildings, and water bodies to improve your lighting.

This tip comes in handy when you need your clients’ face get better exposure, but you don’t have any light reflector. Be resourceful– it’ll take you far!

Always practice and experiment with your camera settings so that you could understand it better and produce better photos.

If you want, you can even use a phone.

While there are still a number of expensive cameras on the market, many novice photographers have found that using a cellphone is an expensive and effective way to take high-quality pictures.

If you are using your cellphone to take pictures, you need to take advantage of the mobile technology at your disposal.

Luckily, there are tons of different mobile apps designed to help amateur photographers make their creations more professional-looking.

If you want to find out more about digital makeup apps and the benefits they provide, be sure to read this article.

8. Knowing Your Color Palette

Color combinations can invoke a certain mood.

For example, Chinese porcelain vases are usually royal blue and ivory white in color because this combination creates an elegant effect.

Children’s toys are usually bright and neon in color because they evoke a sense of playfulness and innocence.

Warm colors such as green, orange, and yellow create a warmer picture that inspires comfort.

Darker colors such as black, dark blue, and grey emanate a more serious tone.

Keep in mind that you should adjust your color palette to the clients’ needs and story.

Consider their skin complexion, for example, and experiment with flattering colors that would fit them perfectly.

Don’t be afraid to be bold with your colors! You probably won’t think of a full-on pink tuxedo as a fashionable choice for day-to-day, but in a photo, they could help bring out a jazzier and groovier vibe.

Monochrome color palettes are usually great to express minimalism and cleanliness.

Feel free to ask your client on how they feel about your recommendations and ask for feedback too.

To further explore color theory, we also recommend this video by James Popsys:

9. Editing and Post-Production

There is no doubt that editing tools could turn your photo from zero to hero.

Of course, there are some ‘purist’ photographers who would argue against this under the name of authenticity.

Regardless of your stance, editing can help make a photo look more professional by removing imperfections, cropping to retain focus, and many others.

Imperfections are strongly associated with physical flaws such as blemishes and pimples.

The usual cropping is done to retain focus and should not be done on fingers, shoes, or hairs.

Be sure to not over-edit your client’s face as a portrait photography is supposed to show their story in its most authentic form.

Remember that editing and post-productions are there to enhance your shot, not fix them.

It would be best if you still captured the best image possible using your camera.

A good photographer shouldn’t have to rely too much on photoshop fixes to make a wonderful shot.

editing photo example
photo editing

10. Choose the Right Lens

The best type of lenses for portrait photography is either a 50mm or a 85mm lens. This is because they offer a wide aperture, which lets in more light, resulting in better quality images.

The bokeh that these lenses produce is also amazing.

85mm portrait
portrait with 85mm lens (look at that bokeh!)

Your subject will be separated from the background beautifully ensuring that your subject will be the main focus in the portrait

11. Understand the Exposure Triangle

Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO make up the exposure triangle.

Each element works together to control the amount of light that enters your camera.

EXPOSURE TRIANGLE
exposure triangle

Aperture is the size of the opening in your lens. A large aperture (low f-stop number) will result in a shallow depth of field, which means that your subject will be in focus while your background is blurred. This creates a more dramatic and eye-catching portrait.

On the other hand, a small aperture (high f-stop number) will result in a larger depth of field, which means that your subject and the background will be sharp. This can help you create more natural looking portraits where both the subject and their surroundings are in focus.

aperture photography chart
aperture f-stop chart

Shutter speed is the amount of time your camera shutter is open. A fast shutter speed (1/500 of a second or faster) will freeze your subject in place, which can be great for action shots or capturing expressions and emotions.

shutter speed fast
fast shutter speed “freezing the frame”

A slower shutter speed (1/60 of a second or slower) will result in motion blur, which can be used to create a sense of movement or drama in your portraits.

ISO is the sensitivity of your camera sensor. A low ISO (100-400) will result in sharper images with less noise, while a high ISO (800-1600) will result in more noise but can be helpful in low light situations.

Knowing the exposure triangle and how to control the exposure in your portrait will ensure maximum control of the final result of your image.

For example if you want a bright and airy portrait then you may want to purposely make the portrait brighter. If you wanted more of a moody portrait then you may purposely underexpose your portrait.

12. Try Different Angles

One of the best ways to add interest to your portraits is to try different angles. Instead of just shooting your subject from eye level, try getting above them or below them.

Shooting from a low angle can make your subject look more powerful and important, while shooting from a high angle can make them look more vulnerable.

low angle portrait
low angle portrait example

You can also try different angles within the same pose to add variety.

For example, if your subject is standing, try shooting from the front, the side, and the back.

Aside from different angles, you can also try to change your distance from the subject to create unique portraits that showcase different moods and emotions.

For example, if you are shooting in a large open space, move closer or further away from your subject to see how it affects the overall feel of your portrait.

This leads us into our next tip.

13. Move Around

Don’t be afraid to move around during your shoot. This will help you find new angles and perspectives that you may not have thought of before.

If your subject is posed and not moving, you can walk around them to find the best angle. If they are moving, follow them with your camera to capture different angles of their movement.

Zoom in and out with your lens to get different compositions as well. A tighter shot will focus more on your subject while a wider shot will show more of the surroundings and environment.

14. Take Multiple Photos

When you are shooting portraits, take multiple photos of the same pose. This will give you more options to choose from when you are editing and ensure that you capture a great photo.

multiple photos
take multiple photos

It’s also a good idea to take multiple photos if your subject is moving or if you are shooting in low light. This will help you avoid blurry or noisy photos.

15. Be Prepared with Equipment

Before you start shooting, it’s important to be prepared. This means having all of your gear ready to go and knowing how to use it.

Make sure your camera is fully charged and that you have extra batteries or a charger with you. If you are using a flash, make sure it is charged and that you know how to use it.

It’s also important to know your camera settings and how to change them quickly. This way you can adjust on the fly if you need to.

16. Location Scout Before the Session

Finally, take some time to scout out the location before you start shooting. This will help you find the best angles and compositions.

Before my portrait sessions, I always go to the spot or have been there before so I know what the surrounding area looks like.

location scouting tips
location scout

Not only will location scouting allow you to find good spots to take photos at, but it will ease your nerves because you can visualize yourself photographing there before the actual session begins.

17. Try Out Gels and Filters

If you aren’t already using gels or filters to enhance your portraits, start experimenting with them now. They can add a lot of different moods and emotions to your photos.

You don’t need expensive or fancy gels or filters. You can find inexpensive options like on Amazon and they will still do the job.

Some of my favorite gels to use are blue and orange. Blue gels can add a cold or moody feel to your portraits, while orange gels can add warmth.

photography gels
photography gels

Experiment with different colors to see what looks best with your subject and location. You may be surprised at how just a simple gel can change the overall feel of your portrait.

18. Bring a Reflector

Reflectors are one of the most underrated pieces of equipment for portrait photographers. They are relatively inexpensive and can make a huge difference in your photos.

A reflector is simply a piece of white or silver material that you can use to bounce light back onto your subject. This will fill in shadows and make your subject look more polished.

what is a reflector
reflector

If you don’t have a reflector, consider investing in one. You can use it for all sorts of photography from portraits to landscapes. It will give you more control over the light and help you get better photos overall.

19. Sharp and Focused Eyes

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. In portraiture, the eyes are everything.

No matter what else is going on in the photo, if the eyes are sharp and in focus, the photo will be successful. If the eyes are blurry or not in focus, the photo will be a bust.

This is why it’s so important to make sure your eyes are sharp and in focus when you are taking portraits.

headshot photo focus on the eyes
focus on the eyes

There are a few different ways to do this. First, you can use a wide aperture such as f/2.8 or f/4. This will help ensure that the eyes are in focus while the background is blurry.

Another way to keep the eyes sharp is to use autofocus and place the focus point on the eyes. This is especially helpful when your subject is moving or if you are shooting in low light.

Finally, you can manually focus your camera. This is more difficult to do but it will give you the most control over the focus.

If you want to make sure the eyes are always sharp, use a combination of all three methods.

20. Create Depth with Layers

One of the best ways to add interest and depth to your portraits is to use layers.

This is especially true if photographing a full body portrait. This simply means adding something in the foreground, middle ground, and background of your photo.

portrait layers
layers in a portrait

For example, you could have your subject standing in front of a window with the curtains blowing in the wind. Then you could have a plant or table in the middle ground and then a wall or backdrop behind it all.

Layering your photos like this will create interest and make them more dynamic. It’s also great for creating depth, since some elements will be closer to the camera than others.

21. Use Negative Space

Negative space is the empty space around your subject.

It’s often overlooked but it can be used to create interesting and balanced compositions.

Another way to use negative space is with full body or environmental portraits. In this case, you can fill the frame with your subject but leave some empty space around them.

This negative space can be used to give your subject some breathing room or add a sense of movement and flow to the photo.

black and white negative space
negative space

Overall, negative space can be used in many different ways to create interesting and dynamic compositions in your portraits.

Whether you’re using it to create depth, movement, or leading lines, it is a powerful tool that shouldn’t be overlooked.

22. Communication with the Client Before Photoshoot

It is important to take the time to get to know your client before the photo session even starts.

This can be done by asking them questions about themselves, their interests, and what they are looking for in the photos.

Once you have a rapport with the client, it will be much easier to communicate with them during the photo session. This communication is important in order to get the best photos possible.

23. Communication with the Client During Photoshoot

Communication during the photoshoot is just as important as before the photoshoot.

There is nothing more awkward than a photo session where the photographer is not saying anything to the client and just snapping away.

Not only does this make the client feel awkward, but it can affect the final result of the image.

It can affect their overall body posture and facial expressions because they will not be relaxed due to a lack of positive feedback.

Some things you may want to communicate with your client during the photo session include:

  • Directing them into poses that flatter their body type
  • Telling them when they have a good expression
  • Letting them know when you are about to take the photo
  • Asking them to move their hair out of their face
  • etc.

The more you communicate with your client, the better the photos will be. So don’t be afraid to talk to them during the photo session!

24. Get Good Sleep the Night Before

This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s important nonetheless. If you’re tired, your photos will reflect that.

You won’t be able to think as clearly and you likely won’t have the energy to interact with your clients as much as you need to.

So make sure you get a good night’s sleep before your photo session!

25. Break the Rules and Experiment!

Keep in mind that these portrait photography tips are not mandatory.

After fully understanding the reason a rule exists, you are then free to break them.

break the rules
rules are meant to be broken once you understand them

Some rules don’t apply in certain situations. You are the Picasso in making the photo go!

Experimenting with an art form such as photography is not a simple feat, though it’s worth doing.

Maybe you have some unorthodox portrait photography ideas that require a specific editing style, or perhaps you want to try the advanced portrait photography techniques.

Don’t be discouraged when the results don’t turn out exactly the way you visualized them.

Your journey will be full of trials and errors.

Some combinations may work, some may not. But that’s the fun part about photography!

Types of Portrait Photography

1. Formal Studio Portraits

The number of portraits you can make in a formal studio is limitless, even if your budget isn’t.

Studios allow photographers to control every single variable involved in a portrait. Conditions are very controlled and kept consistent.

Think of it like a bowl of soup. You can add anything you want, as long as you can use them to strike a satisfying balance.

Unfortunately maintaining a formal studio isn’t cheap. You will need extra resources and will most probably have to put many eggs in the same basket.

Luckily, you can rent studios as an alternative! Some studios may also include for-rent lighting gadgets, props, and others.

white background headshot photo
in-studio

2. Environmental Portraits

Naturally, these portraits are done outside the studio.

In some cases, environmental portraits are also done in studios.

Environmental portraits are commonly used by people looking to highlight their adventurous side or a glorious hiking view.

It’s also used to show someone’s birthplace, workplace, and others.

If you are a photographer who loves travelling and working at unique locations, then this would be your perfect opportunity.

Although there are a few things you should check while scouting such as safety, accessibility, quality of light, possible distractions, etc.

Keep in mind that the environment should suit your client, and not yourself.

Make sure that your crew and client are equipped with sufficient safety precautions if you decide to shoot in a jungle or other potentially dangerous areas.

Whatever your choice might be, always make sure that your client’s needs are met. Let the background help explain your clients’ story.

environmental portrait example
environmental portrait

3. Candid Portraits

This type of portrait relies a lot on having a “natural” feel, where the person in the photo looks unposed and raw.

Some people love candid portraits of themselves; not everyone has modelling experience!

I recommend looking up some common female poses and male poses.

Standing in front of a lens may be an awkward experience for many, and candid photographs allow people to be captured while not having to pose.

Usually, clients are unaware when their candids are being taken.

There are many tricks you can place under your sleeve. For example, use a small camera to make the session feel less intimidating.

Another simple method is to have friendly conversations with your client in order to relax them before a shoot.

Be sure to check out our full guide on types of portrait photography.

candid portrait example

What Defines a Portrait?

It’s commonly thought that only the head and the shoulders can be shown in a portrait photo. A portrait can also capture a person from head to toe!

Portraits are meant to highlight a person’s character by using different visual aspects, though you could still technically call the picture in the driver’s license a portrait.

We strive to put more artistic depth and meaningfulness.

Beginner photographers should learn and make use of some portrait photography techniques if they are interested in producing a more flattering and meaningful photograph.

What Makes a Good Portrait Photo?

Professional portrait photography tells a story.

Is your client represented enough through your portrait?

Does it describe your clients‘ personality and story? If your photo can answer these questions with a confident yes, then it’s probably good to go.

Using the correct techniques, lighting, settings, poses, and props will improve the quality of your portraits.

Keeping these factors in mind is key when you are photographing. This article will discuss these tips in more detail.

black and white portrait pose

Can Portraits be Full Body?

Yes, full-body portraits do exist.

Professional portrait photographers doing full-body shots are rarely short of orders – but more work is needed for this photo type.

Full-body portraits require extra work in terms of posing, having to have additional lenses, and when considering lighting.

Posing becomes more complicated because the entire body needs to be thought of, like the placement of arms and legs.

To avoid bodies looking disproportionate in photos, don’t use wide-angle lenses.

We recommend using 24-70mm or 24-85mm lenses. Here is a list of the best lenses for full body portraits.

full body portrait
full-body portrait

What Settings Should I Use for Portrait Photography?

The ISO should be as low as possible, The aperture should be around f/1.4 or a low f-stop such as this, and your shutter speed should be fast enough to not have a blurry image.

We have guides on all of these topics so be sure to click on the blue link on each word if you want to explore those topics more in-depth!

Why Do We Need Portrait Photography?

There are two primary needs for a portrait.

1. Give Proper Impression (Professional)

Mainly they are used to give a proper first impression on paper (could be a future boss, or a potential client), or for identification purposes.

2. Want To Look Good (Personal)

The second reason is both personal and universal – people want and like to see themselves look good.

A quality portrait brings a sense of pride to the client (or yourself) and will encourage them to use that portrait so that others could see it.

How did Portrait Photography Originate?

Portrait photography’s birth is credited to Louis Daguerre and Robert Cornelius.

Portrait photographs were initially invented because people paid an exorbitant amount of money to get their faces painted by artists, so different methods of capturing people’s faces became a subject of interest.

People were unsure of this modern technique at first, but their interest eventually grew after famous figures began getting their portraits done, including Abraham Lincoln.

During this time portrait photographs were made to eternalize memories of passed loved ones, usually after a battle or an illness.

They were also used to record criminals by Allan Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency.

Portrait photography spread like wildfire when cameras became accessible, and the rest is history.

portrait photography example

I hope you enjoyed this portrait photography guide.

Portrait photography is needed and used by many people, regardless of their age.

With a clear goal in mind, portrait photographers should use these ten tips to achieve a better understanding of the topic.

Starting with getting the most of your equipment, proper posing, and the usage of different situations to your advantage.

But only reading these tips without practice won’t do much.

We highly encourage you to take your camera and start taking portraits of family members that live with you.

Keep practicing, and soon you will be a master in this art form!

Additional Resources