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Portrait photography tips

Whether you're a seasoned portrait photographer or just starting out, you should benefit from these tips...


Portrait photography tips

Here are 30 of my top portrait photography tips. This list is in no particular order.

1. Location, location, location

The first portrait photography tip is location. When searching for the perfect location for a portrait shoot, consider selecting a setting that aligns with your subject's personality or desired theme.

The location you choose can significantly impact the overall mood, visual aesthetics, and storytelling potential of your photographs. For instance, I once photographed an artist in a serene meadow at golden hour.

The soft, warm light created a dreamy atmosphere that perfectly captured the look I was going for. On another occasion, I captured a series of portraits for a content creator in a vibrant and bustling urban setting.

We explored a colorful neighborhood adorned with vibrant street art, which perfectly complemented his bold content creation style. Here's one of the images from that shoot:

2. Use natural light for soft effects

My second tip is to use natural light for soft effects. As a portrait photographer who mostly uses natural light, harnessing the power of natural light is a key aspect of my craft.

Now, utilizing natural light can create a soft and flattering effect that enhances the beauty of your subject while adding a natural and organic feel to your photos.

One example of using natural light to create a soft and flattering effect is during a sunrise or sunset session. The golden hour, which occurs shortly after sunrise or before sunset, offers a warm and diffused light that wraps around the subject, casting a soft and gentle glow.

This type of lighting can create a romantic and ethereal ambiance, adding a touch of magic to the portraits:

3. Experiment with angles

The third tip is to experiment with angles.

As a portrait photographer, I try to constantly seek out different angles and perspectives to add variety and interest to my images. One example of experimenting with angles and perspectives is capturing a portrait from a low angle.

By positioning yourself below the subject's eye level and shooting upwards, you can create a sense of empowerment and dominance. This technique works particularly well for portraying strong, confident individuals or showcasing their unique style.

Conversely, shooting from a high angle can create a sense of vulnerability or innocence, depending on the context. This technique is effective for capturing portraits of children, showcasing their innocence, and capturing their world from a perspective that emphasizes their small stature.

Another approach is experimenting with different compositional techniques, such as framing the subject within elements of the environment. This could involve shooting through objects like windows, foliage, or architectural structures to create a sense of depth and context.

By incorporating these elements into the frame, the viewer's attention is drawn to the subject while also providing visual interest and a narrative element to the photograph.

4. Pay attention to the background

The fourth tip is to pay attention to the background. As a portrait photographer, paying careful attention to the background is essential to ensure it complements your subject.

Remember, a well-managed background allows the subject to take center stage, creating a harmonious and visually pleasing composition.

One technique I employ is selecting a background with a clean and uncluttered backdrop. By choosing a simple and minimalistic setting, the focus remains squarely on the subject, emphasizing their presence and allowing their features and expressions to shine.

How to achieve this: This can be achieved by positioning the subject against a solid-colored wall, utilizing negative space, or finding open areas free from visual distractions.

Another consideration is the use of shallow depth of field. By shooting with a wide aperture (low f-stop), you can create a shallow depth of field, resulting in a blurred background. This technique helps to isolate the subject and separate them from any potential distractions in the background.

The soft and dreamy bokeh effect produced by the out-of-focus background adds an aesthetic appeal and draws the viewer's attention to the subject.

5. Give guidance and clear instructions

The fifth tip is to give guidance and clear instructions.

As a portrait photographer, directing subjects and guiding them through poses is crucial to creating compelling and natural-looking portraits. By providing clear instructions and guidance, you can help your subjects feel at ease, bring out their best features, and capture authentic expressions.

If the subject is uneasy, it'll come across in the photo.

Build rapport

To begin with, you'll want to establish a comfortable rapport with your subjects, build trust, and create a relaxed atmosphere. This allows them to feel more at ease in front of the camera and open up, resulting in more genuine and expressive photographs.

Guide, don't demand

Next, give clear instructions on posing while allowing room for individuality and spontaneity. Start with general guidance on body positioning, such as suggesting a slight turn of the shoulders or adjusting the angle of the head. By providing specific instructions, you can help your subjects understand the desired look and create a foundation for them to work with.

However, you also want to encourage your subjects to bring their own personality and style into the poses.

Before the photoshoot, I always like to tell my subjects that I'll be providing some recommendations on posing, but if they're in a position that's uncomfortable or they think another pose is more natural, they should tell me. By allowing their natural behavior to shine through, you can capture candid and authentic moments that reflect their true essence.

Positive feedback and reinforcement

During the shoot, I continuously provide feedback and positive reinforcement. This helps to boost my subjects' confidence and allows them to feel more comfortable in front of the camera.

Offering praise for their efforts and highlighting the aspects that are working well encourages them to stay engaged and cooperative throughout the session.

6. Use a wide aperture

The sixth tip is to use a wide aperture. Using a wide aperture, indicated by a low f-stop value, is a powerful technique to create a shallow depth of field.

As mentioned, isolating the subject from the background will add emphasis, and make them the prominent focal point of the image. This approach adds a sense of depth and visual interest and directs the viewer's attention precisely where you want it to be.

In my portrait photography, I often opt for wide apertures such as f/1.8 or f/2.8 to achieve this shallow depth of field effect. By using a wide aperture, I can achieve a narrow plane of focus, resulting in a beautifully blurred background while keeping the subject sharp and in focus.

For example, I once photographed a model in a busy urban environment. By using a wide aperture, I was able to separate the subject from the busy surroundings:

7. Consider the rule of thirds

The seventh tip is to consider the rule of thirds, one of my favorite composition techniques. Considering the rule of thirds is a valuable technique in portrait photography that helps create a balanced and visually appealing composition.

How it works: By dividing the frame into a 3x3 grid, you can strategically position your subject and key elements to enhance the overall visual impact of your image.

8. Establish a connection with subject

The eighth tip is to establish a connection with your subject.

Establishing a connection with your subject is essential in portrait photography. This creates a comfortable and relaxed environment that allows the subject's true personality to shine through.

Here's the bottom line, when subjects feel at ease, they become more natural, expressive, and willing to open up, resulting in photographs that truly capture their essence. This begins with open communication, actively listening to their ideas, expectations, and concerns.

By understanding their vision and collaborating with them, I show that their input is valued and respected. During a shoot, take the time to engage in genuine conversations with your subjects.

Ask about their interests and passions, or simply chat about everyday topics. This not only helps to establish a personal connection but also acts as a distraction from the camera, making them feel more comfortable and less self-conscious.

Also, it's important to remember that everyone is unique, and their comfort levels may vary.

Some subjects may be more extroverted and readily engage in conversation, while others may be more introverted and require a slower and more gentle approach. As a photographer, you should try to adapt to each subject's personality.

9. Capture candid

The ninth tip is to try and capture candid moments.

While easier said than done, capturing candid moments is a powerful approach in portrait photography as it allows for the genuine emotions and expressions of the subject to shine through. These unposed and unscripted moments often result in some of the most authentic and captivating portraits.

During a photoshoot, remain observant and attentive, ready to capture those spontaneous moments that reflect the subject's genuine personality and emotions.

This could be a fleeting smile, a thoughtful gaze, or a burst of laughter. These candid moments have a natural and unguarded quality that resonates with viewers and adds depth to the portrait.

For example, I once photographed a man who had never had professional pictures taken, so he was a bit uneasy and nervous. While I provided some direction and posed shots, some of the most memorable images came from those candid, in-between moments:

10. Incorporate props

The tenth tip is to incorporate props if applicable.

Incorporating props into portrait photography is a fantastic way to add depth, visual interest, and storytelling elements to the photographs.

How it works: Props can enhance the overall composition, highlight the subject's personality or interests, and contribute to the image's narrative.

In my portrait photography, I often collaborate with subjects to select props that hold personal meaning to them or reflect their unique characteristics, especially in an environmental portrait or lifestyle portrait session. By doing so, the props become extensions of their identity and help create a more meaningful and memorable photograph.

For example, during a portrait session with a bartender, I incorporated their mixers as a prop.

The instrument served not only as a visual element but also as a representation of their passion and talent. It added depth to the composition, creating a connection between the subject and their art form:

11. Experiment with different focal lengths

The eleventh tip is to experiment with different focal lengths.

By varying the focal length of the lens, you can creatively manipulate the visual elements, composition, and overall mood of the photograph. Here are a few examples of how you can use different focal lengths to achieve specific effects:

Wide-angle lenses

When using a wide-angle lens for portraits, such as my 35mm lens, you can capture a broader scene, incorporating more of the environment and creating a sense of context.

This is particularly effective when you want to showcase the subject in relation to their surroundings or when you want to convey a sense of grandeur:

Standard lenses

Standard focal lengths such as 50mm are versatile and closely mimic the perspective of the human eye. They are often favored for their natural look and ability to capture subjects without significant distortion. This is what I usually shoot with:

These lenses are ideal for environmental portraits, where the subject is the primary focus, but their surroundings are still relevant. They balance including context and keeping the attention on the subject.

Telephoto lenses

Telephoto lenses, such as 85mm, are known for compressing perspective, isolating subjects from the background, and creating a pleasing shallow depth of field.

They are great for capturing close-ups, portraits with beautiful bokeh, or when the photographer wants to create a sense of intimacy.

12. Pay attention to the details

The twelfth tip is to pay attention to the details. Have you ever heard the phrase "the devil is in the details?"

Attention to detail is crucial in portrait photography, as it contributes to creating a polished and visually appealing final image. By carefully considering elements such as hair, clothing, and accessories, photographers can enhance the overall aesthetic and ensure that the subject looks their best.

Hair

For example, before the shoot, I discuss hairstyle options with the subject to ensure they feel comfortable and confident. Throughout the session, I periodically check and adjust their hair as needed to maintain a neat and flattering look (always asking beforehand).

Clothing

For clothing, I guide the subject on appropriate clothing choices based on the desired theme or mood. I encourage them to select outfits that flatter their body shape, complement their skin tone, and align with the overall vision of the shoot.

Accessories

For accessories, I believe it's important to balance accessorizing and overwhelming the subject. I encourage subjects to select accessories that are meaningful to them or reflect their personal style while also considering how they complement the overall composition.

13. Try different lighting techniques

The thirteenth tip is to try out different lighting techniques, as this is a great way to vary the depth, drama, and uniqueness of your portraits.

Experimenting with different lighting techniques is a fantastic way to add depth, drama, and uniqueness to your portrait photography. By exploring various lighting setups and methods, such as backlighting or using a reflector, you can create captivating and visually striking images.

Here are a couple of examples of how I have utilized different lighting techniques to achieve distinct effects:

Backlighting

Backlighting involves positioning the main light source behind the subject, creating a halo or rim of light around it.

This technique can give a portrait a sense of depth, separation from the background, and a beautiful glow. It can create a dreamy, ethereal ambiance and enhance the subject's silhouette.

Here's a backlit portrait I took:

Reflectors

Reflectors are an invaluable tool in portrait photography as they help manipulate and control light.

Using a reflector, you can bounce light back onto the subject, filling in shadows and creating a more even and flattering illumination. Reflectors, such as silver, gold, white, and diffusers, come in various colors, allowing for versatile lighting effects.

For example, during a portrait shoot in a shaded outdoor location, I used a silver reflector to redirect sunlight onto the subject's face. This added a beautiful, natural highlight and minimized shadows, resulting in a more balanced and evenly lit portrait.

Here's a portrait using a reflector I took:

Off-Camera Flash

Incorporating off-camera flash gives photographers complete control over the direction, intensity, and quality of light.

By using external flashes or strobes, you can create dramatic and dynamic lighting setups. This technique is particularly effective in low-light conditions or when additional lighting control is required.

The controlled lighting added a sense of mystery and intensity to the portrait, emphasizing the subject's features and creating a visually impactful image.

14. Experiment with black and white

The fourteenth tip is to experiment with black and white. Experimenting with black and white photography in portrait sessions can be a powerful way to evoke a timeless and dramatic feel in your images.

How it works: By removing the distraction of color, black and white photography allows the viewer to focus on your subject's expressions, emotions, and the interplay of light and shadow.

It's also great for emphasizing texture and contrast in your image. Here's a black and white portrait I took:

15. Use leading lines

The fifteenth tip is to play around with leading lines.

Utilizing leading lines is an effective compositional technique that helps guide the viewer's eyes toward the subject in a portrait. By strategically incorporating lines, whether they are natural or man-made, you can create a visual pathway that directs attention and adds visual interest to the image.

16. Experiment with reflections and mirrors

The sixteenth tip is to experiment with reflections and mirrors.

Playing with reflections and mirrors is a creative technique that can add a unique and artistic touch to your portraits. By incorporating reflective surfaces, you can introduce visual complexity, symmetry, and even create intriguing visual illusions within your portraits.

Here's a portrait I took using a mirror for reflection.

17. Pay attention to the eyes

The seventeenth tip is to pay attention to the eyes.

They are the windows to the soul, after all. The eyes can convey emotions, tell stories, and establish a strong connection between the subject and the viewer. To capture captivating and impactful portraits, it is crucial to ensure that the eyes are sharp and expressive.

Since we are talking about the eyes, a primary rule of thumb would be to always take the shot at a proper height.

While taking photos at various levels is possible, we recommend trying to shoot from eye level for beginners because the height does affect your subject’s “vibe” or personality.

Taking photos from a high angle (above the eyes) makes the subject seem vulnerable or afraid. Likewise, taking it from a lower angle may seem to cause the subject to appear more powerful and dominant.

Also, to perfectly nail your shots, you need to make sure that the camera is focused on the eyes. The best way to make sure that your focus is on-point is to zoom in to the eyes and make sure.

Many photos would seem focused on the eyes, but in reality, the camera may be focused on their cheekbones or eyebrows!

18. Different editing techniques

The eighteenth tip is to experiment with different editing techniques in post-production.

Experimenting with different editing techniques is a powerful way to enhance the mood and overall feel of your portraits I love editing because it will allow you to fine-tune colors, tones, and other visual elements.

This will allow you to create a cohesive and impactful final result that aligns with your creative vision. The edits I usually make to my image include color grading by adjusting the hues, saturation, and contrast to evoke a certain emotion I want to portray.

After that, I'll make selective adjustments to enhance better the focus of the main focal point, such as saturation and contrast adjustments on the subject's face.

Finally, I'll add texture and detail enhancements by sharpening certain details of the subject's features, such as their hair and eyes, to make them stand out more. If you are unsure of the terms I just used, be sure to read my article on 50+ Lightroom Editing Terms You Need to Know.

19. Encourage subjects to express themselves

The nineteenth tip is to encourage your subjects to express themselves.

Encouraging your portrait subjects to express themselves naturally and authentically is key to capturing genuine portraits that reflect their personality and essence. When individuals feel comfortable and free to be themselves in front of the camera, authentic emotions and expressions shine through.

How to do it, the best way to do this is through techniques I've mentioned earlier.

Techniques such as establishing a rapport with your subject, providing guidance and not strictly posing, and by active listening and collaboration.

Who not to do:

  • Don't skip having a conversation with your subject.
  • Don't command them into poses or positions.
  • Don't ignore their ideas.

Doing any of these will make for a very unpleasant experience for your subject and will show itself in the photos you take.

20. Stabilization

The twentieth tip is regarding the stabilization of your camera. Stabilizing your camera is crucial in portrait photography to ensure sharp and well-composed images.

How to stabilize:

Whether through the use of a tripod or careful body posture, stability helps minimize camera shake and allows you to capture portraits with precision and clarity. Use a tripod if possible and have proper body posture when holding my camera.

21. Group portrait composition

The twenty-first tip has to do with group portraits. For group portraits, paying attention to composition is essential.

This will ensure everyone is properly framed and visible within the frame. Proper composition allows you to create harmonious and well-balanced group portraits that showcase individual connections while highlighting each person's presence.

How to do it:

  • You'll want to arrange the subjects strategically.
  • Consider the size and shape of the group and arrange them accordingly.
  • In larger groups, it's important to ensure that everyone is visible and properly framed.

22. Capture a variety of shots

The twenty-second tip is to capture a variety of shots.

Capturing various shots in portrait photography will allow you to showcase different perspectives, details, and dimensions of your subject. By incorporating full-body shots, close-ups, and mid-distance shots, you can create a well-rounded portrait collection that tells a more comprehensive story and adds visual interest.

Personally, I like to think of a portrait session as many different scenes.

So, at certain locations, I'll have the subject be in a certain pose and ensure I get a close-up, mid-distance shot, and a full-body shot of each pose.

This ensures I have a variety of different looks for that specific scene. Capturing different looks will offer a comprehensive visual experience for both your subject and the viewers of your work.

23. Patience

The twenty-third tip is patience. I've learned that being patient and allowing moments to unfold naturally is a fundamental aspect of portrait photography.

By embracing patience, you create an environment where genuine interactions and emotions can surface, resulting in captivating and authentic portraits. Being patient and ensuring you capture all the images within your allotted time comes with practice.

Don't do this:

  • Don't go into a session and make your subject feel rushed.

This will make your subject feel uneasy, affecting their attitude, expressions, pose, and overall image of you as a photographer.

24. Learn manual mode

The twenty-fourth tip on this list is to learn the manual mode on your camera. This is a must if you want to improve any style of photography, and not just portrait photography.

Manual mode gives you complete control over your camera settings. This means you can fine-tune these settings to get the exact exposure and mood you want.

This is especially important in portrait photography, as even small changes in exposure or white balance can make a big difference in the final image.

Here's a quick rundown on manual mode:

  • ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture control exposure.
  • ISO is how sensitive your camera sensor is to light
  • Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open (which affects how much light hits the sensor)
  • Aperture is how wide open the lens is (affecting how much of the scene is in focus).

When you learn manual mode, you can experiment with different combinations of these three settings to get different results.

For example:

  • A higher ISO will make the image brighter and introduce more noise ( graininess).
  • A slower shutter speed will darker the image and allow you to capture movement.
  • A wider aperture will make the image sharper and decrease the depth of field ( how much of the scene is in focus).

Instead of just clicking a button to take a portrait, you can create the desired images.

25. Know the difference between hard and soft light

Lighting is one of the most important aspects of portrait photography. It's important to know the difference between hard and soft light.

  • Hard light is direct sunlight or any light that casts harsh shadows.
  • Soft light is diffused light, like that found on an overcast day, casting subtle, soft shadows.

While both hard and soft light have their place in portrait photography, I prefer to use soft light whenever possible.

This is because soft light is more flattering and will help to minimize imperfections on your subject's skin.

If you're shooting in direct sunlight, then try to position your subject so that the sun is behind them, or use a reflector to bounce some of the light back onto their face. You can also use a diffuser to soften the light if you shoot with a flash.

Direct light is often used for Vogue-type magazine cover photoshoots where you see a model striking a pose.

If you're taking portrait photos for a client, opt for soft light. If you're outside, take photos of them in a shady area under a tree or behind a wall, and make sure the day and time of your photoshoot is planned.

This leads me to my next tip.

26. Plan time and weather conditions in advance

When shooting portraits outdoors, it's important to plan ahead and consider the time of day and weather conditions.

You don't want to shoot in direct sunlight, which will create harsh shadows on your subject's face. Instead, try to shoot in the early morning or evening when the light is softer.

If it's a cloudy day, that's even better, as the overcast skies will act as a giant diffuser and soften the light.

Of course, you can't always control the weather, but it's important to know how the light will affect your photos. Knowing this and starting to plan in advance improved the overall results of my portrait photography dramatically.

Planning allowed me to be proactive to the elements instead of reactive.

27. Use a fast shutter speed

Unless you're capturing a creative portrait, you want to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action and avoid any blur. I typically like to shoot at 1/250th of a second or faster.

This will ensure that your photos are sharp and in focus. Using a faster shutter speed will also help reduce camera shake, especially if you're handholding your camera.

Of course, there are times when you may want to intentionally use a slower shutter speed to create a blur effect. But for the most part, you'll want to use a fast shutter speed when shooting portraits.

28. Take multiple images at one angle

The 28th portrait photography tip is to take multiple images from one angle.

The reason for this is that people tend to blink or move around when you're taking their photo. By taking multiple images at one angle, you'll increase your chances of getting at least one sharp photo with the subject's eyes open and not blinking.

Here's how I do it: I typically take around 3-5 images of the same pose before moving on. This way, I know that I have at least one good photo that I'm happy with.

Here's a funny story:

I started doing this after one session where I took (what I thought at the time) was the best portrait I had yet taken. When I got home and put it in my photo editing software, I realized it was slightly blurry. If I had taken multiple photos at this same angle, I could have had extra copies to play around with as a backup.

Don't go overboard:

You don't have to go crazy and take 8-10 images per angle, but just a few. If you're using a continuous shooting mode, you don't even have to worry about taking multiple shots—the camera will do it for you!

29. Learn the basics of color theory

The 29th portrait photography tip is to learn the basics of color theory.

If you want to take your portrait photography to the next level, then it's important to learn the basics of color theory.

Color theory is the study of colors and how they interact with each other. It's a complex topic, but there are some basic principles that you can apply to your photography.

Learning about color theory will help you to understand how colors can impact the overall look and feel of your photos.

For example, did you know that using warm colors (like yellow, orange, and red) can make your subjects look more vibrant and alive? And using cool colors (like blue and purple) can create a more calming effect.

You can also use color to create a specific mood in your photos. For example, if you're trying to capture a feeling of happiness, then you would want to use colors that are associated with happiness, like yellow and green.

If you're trying to capture a feeling of sadness, then you would want to use colors that are associated with sadness, like blue and purple.

Of course, you don't have to use colors to create a specific mood - you can also use them to add visual interest to your photos. For example, if your portrait has a lot of white space, you can add a pop of color by wearing brightly colored clothing or accessories.

Or, if you have a portrait with a lot of dark shadows, you can add a bit of lightness by using pale colors.

There are endless possibilities when it comes to using color in your portraits. So experiment and see what works best for you! From there, you can develop your own personal style an

30. Practice regularly

The final portrait photography tip is to practice regularly.

Practicing regularly, experimenting with different techniques, and embracing your creativity are vital steps to developing your unique approach to portrait photography.

Here's the bottom line, by dedicating time to honing your skills and exploring new possibilities, you can refine your style, discover your strengths, and cultivate a signature look that sets your portraits apart.

I have found that consistent practice and experimentation have been instrumental in shaping my creative vision.

Here's the kicker, there have been times in my photography journey when I was photographing a lot, and I would notice certain patterns around me. This experience would allow me to enter a scene and instantly know the "good" spots to place my subject.

There is only so much you can learn by reading and watching videos, and there will come a time when you will need to go out and practice what you learned.

Embrace this process of learning:

Continuously studying and learning from the work of other photographers is a valuable practice that can inspire and elevate your own portrait photography.

By immersing yourself in the works of others, you can gain new perspectives, techniques, and ideas that help refine your style and expand your creative horizons. I have found immense inspiration and growth through studying the works of fellow photographers.

With the advent of social media, it's never been easier. An easy way to do this is to create a dedicated photography account and follow only the photographers who inspire you.

By following only them, you will be able to see their work every day, and you will pick up on the way they use colors, composition, posing, etc., which will be easier to incorporate into your work.

You may feel nervous initially, but by pushing the boundaries and being willing to make mistakes along the way, you will see artistic growth.

Now, go out there and start practicing! Good luck, and have fun!

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