Portrait photography entails capturing the character of your subject in a photograph. It is a form of photography that almost every photographer does, even for those whose passion lies in landscape photography.
People just love to see photos that flatter them. However, not every photographer has the skill and technique needed to capture striking portraits. Whether you are looking to venture into shooting portraits as a side hustle or just want to brush up on your skills to shoot flattering pictures of people you love, these 12 portrait photography tips will take you closer to mastering the art.
#1. The Subject is Everything
When it comes to portrait photography, the subject is the most important aspect. As such, making the subject as comfortable with you as possible is crucial for a fruitful portrait photography session. Take your time to make a connection with your subject before the shoot.
Try coming up with ways in which you can make your shooting session fun. If the subject has not sat for many portraits, they might feel awkward or uncomfortable, and it’s your job to ensure they are at ease. You don’t necessarily have to crack jokes – just remember to smile and be transparent about the process. Explain to them what you're doing and why as you go along.
Even in cases where you’re shooting a person you are familiar with, people tend to get uncomfortable when in the spotlight, not to mention in front of a camera. It’s, therefore, wise to keep communicating with the person during the shoot.
#2. Get the Location Right
Your location of choice will have a significant influence on the results you achieve. For instance, shooting outdoors where there’s natural light will generate great results, but will pose multiple challenges. You’d need to plan based on the time of day, weather, along with the changing environment and lighting conditions as the day progresses.
As a rule of thumb, avoid shooting your portraits in direct sunlight because it can produce harsh shadows and will likely make your subject squint. Late afternoons and early mornings are ideal, as the daylight gets diffused, and you get a warm, lovely, natural glow.
Shooting indoors will give you much more control of the lighting conditions. However, you need to plan the lighting conditions properly to complement the backdrops, the light source, the mood of the shot, and the clothes of the model.
Keep in mind that getting the location right will help save you lots of time and energy with fixing your final shot in post-processing.
#3. Experiment with Eye Contact
The direction of your subject’s eyes has a dramatic impact on an image. Many portraits have the subject looking down the lens, which is something that could create a real sense of connection between the subject and the people viewing the image. However, there are more ideas to try.
For instance, have your subject focus their attention on something outside the field of view of your camera. This will help create a candid feeling and even generate a little intrigue and interest because the viewer will always be wondering what the subject was looking at. This is especially the case when the subject is showing some kind of emotion, say laughter or surprise.
Alternatively, you may have the subject look at someone or something within the frame. A woman looking at her child, a child looking at a ball, or a man looking at a big bowl of chicken are great examples. This generally creates a second point of interest in the portrait, as well as a relationship between it and your primary subject. It also helps the image tell a story.
#4. Take Candid Shots
Some posed shots are susceptible to looking somewhat “posed”. Some subjects just don’t look great in a posed environment or are not comfortable posing. This is especially the case when taking portrait shots of children where a posed shot will end up looking forced and unnatural.
A candid approach where the subject is comfortable and is perhaps engaging in their natural activities could work great for them. So, consider shooting your subject while with family, at work, or just doing something they love. This will allow them to be more at ease and you can end up getting really special shots with them acting naturally in the situation they are in. Consider even grabbing a longer zoom lens to step away from their immediate zone and go all paparazzi on them.
#5. Break the Rules of Composition, If needed
There are many rules when it comes to composition, which many portrait photographers have a love-hate relationship with. While they are certainly important to understand and employ, they are useful to know so that you can break them as needed to generate eye-catching results.
The rule of thirds is one of the most effective to break. While placing your subject right at the center of the image can sometimes result in a powerful image, the creative placement of your subject right at the edge of a shot could lead to very interesting images.
Another rule often used in portrait photography is giving your subject some room to look into. This can really work well, though some instances call for the rule to be broken.
#6. Get the Right Camera
Above everything, portrait photography is all about your technique and artistic expression, which inevitably requires a lot of practice to perfect. When you start understanding the minute details of portrait photography, you want to invest in the right camera and lens. These days, there’s no such thing as the best camera for portraits, since most cameras will capture great portraits. It’s all about understanding how to use them effectively depending on the environmental and lighting conditions.
Your best bet is to get a decent DSLR that would offer you control over portrait photography settings and deliver high resolution and sharp images in the RAW format, which you can work within post-processing. Be sure to experiment with your camera’s settings to understand your tools better and use them to get the best results.
#7. Play with the Lighting
You can introduce some randomness in your portraits with the way you light them. In fact, there are almost limitless possibilities when it comes to the lighting of your portraits. For instance, side lighting can be used to create mood, silhouetting, and backlighting your subject in such a way that it hides its features creatively. Techniques such as slow sync flashing could be used to create an impressive wow factor.
Sometimes, adding an interesting background is a great way to introduce a lot of drama to the image and help your subject stand out much better. In many cases, blurring the background correctly will help to add more emphasis to the subject. As such, it’s imperative that you figure out how the background will turn out and then adjust the aperture and shutter accordingly.
While many portrait photographers are hesitant when it comes to using a flash, often preferring to use natural light in a typical photoshoot, it can come in handy when shooting in a dark scene or if you want to add drama to your portraits. Flash can also be used with the sun to help with balancing out the unevenness of natural light to help create the perfect setup for your portrait photography. You can also use a low aperture to get the most details in the picture taken in a less lit area.
Using reflectors can also help to turn hard shadows into softer ones. They are cheap to buy, and if you’re a beginner, reflectors are a great starting point to portrait photography.
When it comes to shooting portraits, you need to consciously design the visual look and feel of the shot, which typically entails defining a color palette. Use colors that complement the background, clothing, and props that can add to the overall impact in post-processing. Consider the skin complexion of the subjects when choosing a color palette.
Keep in mind that the color palettes you go for will also depend on the kind of portrait photography you’re undertaking. For instance, family portraits will look great in greens and warm hues, while business portrait shoots will look awesome in greys and dark blues, while others will do better in black and white.
#9. Choose the Right Lens
Just as with all forms of photography, the camera lens is the most crucial tool if you want to get the right shot. While there’s no such thing as the best lens for portrait photography, it’s all up to you to choose the lens that fits your scenario best. If the background or scenery is an important part of the picture, then it’s wise to use a wide-angle lens.
You can balance your model and the background using a medium telephoto lens like 85mm or 105mm. if the portrait is supposed to be tight such that it focuses on the subject only, then a f/2.8 70-200mm telephoto lens is a great choice. It lets you zoom in and even focus more on your subject. You could decrease the amount of foreground and background distraction on display.
For portraits that only focus on the subject, an f/2.8 70-200mm telephoto lens is a great choice. It lets you zoom in and even focus more on your subject. You can also manage the level of foreground and background displayed on the image.
#10. Avoid Using Slow Shutter Speeds
In portrait photography, there are many easy ways to have more shots to work with. However, using slow shutter speeds is generally one of the methods you should avoid when shooting a portrait. It’s actually much easier to just let your camera take control.
Aperture Priority is usually the ideal shooting mode because it allows the photographer much control over the aperture and the depth of field of the shot. However, the danger lies in the fact that the camera usually chooses the shutter speed in its Aperture Priority mode, which can be easy to forget about. When the lighting levels drop or if you choose to use a small aperture, ensure that you adjust your shutter speed in your camera settings. In case it’s too low, the image won’t be sharp.
You can also use the Auto ISO option, which ensures that you have fast enough shutter speed to shoot handheld. Just make sure that the shutter speed is no slower than the respective focal length.
#11. Experiment with Angles
Many portrait shots are usually taken with the camera placed at the eye level of the subject. Eye-level shots usually produce excellent shots especially when the subject’s eyes are the focus of the photograph. Nonetheless, choosing an unconventional angle could help make the portraits you take to stand out.
You can create interesting angles by shooting the subject from high up, and then looking down at your subject. You can also shoot from a shallow position, ideally getting as close as possible to the ground and then looking up at your subject. Such angles could potentially add a lot of impact and variety to your shots.
You can also make the subject appear thicker, slimmer, wider, or shorter based on the angle at which you’re shooting them. You can move around the scene to figure out what specific angles capture the image best. You can also tilt the camera to add a dramatic effect to the picture.
While taking portrait photos is undoubtedly essential by itself, beginners often neglect the importance of proper retouching and editing. What they forget is the fact that the “professional” feel in great images is due to appropriate editing techniques.
There are some simple techniques that can significantly improve the quality of your shots. Many purists might view editing as negative, but editing programs like Photoshop are great tools to enhance your images.
As a tip, photographing portraits in the RAW format offers much better flexibility during the post-processing stage. Plus, most photo editing software available today has a wide variety of presets you can use depending on your specific needs. You can then tweak the resulting image to get the best result. You can then export the image to your desired quality.
There is no perfect way to shoot the perfect portrait – it always depends on the specific situation. As such, you won’t find any formulas or robotic process. Photographing portraits is a creative process that usually merges technique and art to create striking visuals that capture human expressions and emotions.
Hopefully, you liked the 12 tips for portrait photography shared above, and that they inspired you to master the art of taking striking portraits. Feel free to share your thoughts and add something we might have missed in the comment section below.