Portrait Photography: 10 Tips Every Photographer Should Know

This is a complete guide for portrait photography.

In this all-new guide you’ll learn about:

  • Portrait photography fundamentals
  • Origins of portrait photography
  • Portrait photography tips
  • Portrait planning
  • Portrait photography insights
  • Lots more

Have you recently picked up photography as a hobby and are searching for the ultimate portrait photography tutorial?

Well, today is your lucky day!

No matter your experience in portrait photography, this article will surely be helpful in ensuring your portraits come out perfect every time.


Making memories with the ones you love is something you are probably passionate about.

One of the best ways to freeze special moments in time is by taking crisp and vibrant photos.

Having the right equipment is crucial when trying to make your pictures more appealing.

Each year, billions of photos are taken by people all over the world.

Most people fail to realize how important factors like lighting, focus and background are when trying to take great pictures.

Are you looking for information on how to make your portrait photographs better? If so, check out the hacks below.


Section 1:

The Fundamentals

Let’s begin with a section on portrait photography fundamentals.

Specifically, I’m going to explore what portrait photography is, what defines a portrait, and how portrait photography originated.

I will also be touching on why we need portrait photography, and the best setting for portrait photography

Let’s dive in.

What is Portrait Photography?

Portrait photography is the art of photographing a person or a group of people, striving to capture their personalities and stories into a single picture.

These captured characteristics can be drawn out by using different lightings, backgrounds, and also posing.

Everyone’s personality is unique, so it’s up to the photographer to portray them using the said factors correctly.

Some portraits don’t involve specific portrait photography techniques to describe your personality. We commonly experience this when taking an ID picture for our drivers’ license, passport, and other identification cards.

Photo by Janko Ferlič

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.

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 tips
Image by @nate.joaquin

Why Do We Need Portrait Photography?

There are two primary needs for a portrait.

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.

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 and will encourage them to use that portrait so that others could see it.

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.

portrait photography tips lighting
Image by @nate.joaquin

What Settings Should I Use for Portrait Photography?

There are many options for portrait photography settings.

In fact, there are far too many for all to be discussed here. But here’s the rule of thumb:

Your clients are usually the one determining the settings, in accordance to their needs and interests.

For example, if your client wants his portrait to describe his love of fishing, it would be only appropriate to choose his favorite fishing spot as the setting.

If your client wants a more corporate touch, having some buildings visible would tie in well with the photograph. You can take it anywhere!

Different settings will produce different results. Make sure to pick the correct props and location that represent your client well.

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
Image by @nate.joaquin

Section 2:

Types of Portrait Photography

Before visuals for portrait photography ideas, we need to know the several types of them at least.

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.

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.

Image by Nate Joaquin

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.

candid portrait tip
Photo by Dellon Thomas

Section 3:

10 Portrait Photography Tips

We present you the ten portrait photography tips ranging from a portrait photography tutorial and ending it with intriguing portrait photography ideas.

Let’s start with the highlighted client.

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.

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.

Photo by Michael Dam

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!

Photo by Gabriel Silvério

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.

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 flatter 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).

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!

Image by @nate.joaquin

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 by Sam Burriss

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 comprehensive 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.

photographing people instagram
Image by @nate.joaquin

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.

Photo by Mika Baumeister

10. 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.

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!

Image by @nate.joaquin

Final Remarks

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!

Now I want to hear from you!

If you found any of these tips/techniques to be helpful, or you have a tip that works for you —

be sure to let me know by leaving a comment down below!

2 thoughts on “Portrait Photography: 10 Tips Every Photographer Should Know”

  1. Hey Nate – thank you for this post – really needed!

    Having a great portrait of yourself is the difference between having an okay business and a business that really thrives. It’s crazy how many businesses nowadays don’t have a great portrait of themselves! I keep telling my friends “if you really want to build a successful business start with a great portrait of yourself” – always works out great!


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