5 Portrait Photography Tips For Beginners

Portrait photography can be tricky for beginners.

You have an actual person in front of you who might not be cool with sitting there while you figure out your camera. Then you need to pose them, worry about the light, and get everything in focus.

It can be nerve-wracking.

Take a deep breath. Practice and you’ll get the hang of it. Start by keeping these tips in mind.

1. Focus On The Subject

A portrait should be all about the person or people in the image. Even if you’re shooting an outdoor portrait with a huge landscape in the background…you want to bring attention to the person in the image.

After all, if you wanted attention on the landscape, then you wouldn’t have a person in the frame!

There are a few ways you can do this…

Literally FOCUS on the subject. First and foremost, you need to make sure the the person you are photographing is in focus.

Make sure that the subject is brighter than the parts of the photo that doesn’t matter as much. You can do this by moving them around, adding flash, or even brightening them up using photo editing software.

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2. Simplify The Composition

This goes along with the first one…

Simplify your image.

That means eliminating elements in the image that distract from what’s important.

Distracting elements can be other people, objects, bright spots, or just about anything that gets a viewer’s attention. If it is eye catching or interesting (and it’s not supposed to be part of the image) then it’s a distraction.

Be especially aware of smaller repeating things in the foreground of an image. Something like a bush with small leaves or branches. I call these “high frequency” objects. These types of objects have a lot of edges and contrast, so they tend to grab a viewer’s attention, especially if they are in the foreground. Closer to the camera will grab attention more.

This is a common mistake (and one I made often) when you are trying to add depth to an image by placing something in the foreground. It’s a good idea, you just need to make sure the foreground object isn’t the focus. You can do this by literally taking it out of focus by creating some distance between the foreground and the subject. Blurring these objects effectively eliminates the edges.

There are a few ways you can eliminate distractions.

Move. Change angles or move your subject until there isn’t anything else in the frame to distract.

Blur. Set your lens at its widest aperture (lowest f/ number) and you can shrink the depth of the photo that is in focus. By then focusing only on your subject, you can blur everything else.

NOTE: Of course some lenses can do this more than others. If you are looking for an inexpensive way to acheive this look, try a 50mm f/1.8 lens. They are very often among the least expensive lenses in any lineup but still give great image quality.

Remove. With just a little bit of training, you can easily use software such as Photoshop to remove distracing elements from your frame.

Portrait of a model

3. Focus On The Eyes

In almost every portrait, you should ensure focus is on the eyes. If you can’t get both eyes in focus than be sure to focus on the one that is closer to the camera.

When we talk to people, we have a natural tendencey to look them in the eyes. So we are used to someone’s eyes being in focus when we look at them.

4. Posing Is Good, Emotion Is Better

Posing the subject is important. As the photographer, it’s your job to look and them and get them in the right position to look their best. There are a lot of great resources out there to learn posing.

But for truly exceptional photos, you want to capture the emotion of the person.

It can be a staged emotion for the photo, but you want a reaction of some kind rather than a blank stare.

Talk to the person you’re photographing. Interact with them. Ask them about thier life. If you know them already then you probably know what subjects will get a reaction from them.

5. Learn Basic Photo Editing

One skill that really separates good photos from great photos is post-processigng.

Even experienced professionals don’t know everything there is to know about photo editing so rather than avoid it because you’re overwhelmed, just start small.

You can start by just experimenting with whatever photo editing software comes with your computer or phone operating system. Then you can upgrade to something like Adobe Lightroom when you are ready to really dive in.

If you want to see how to accomplish some professional color grading, check out the Lightroom Presets here on Photography Goals. But don’t just use them and call it good…check out what the presets are changing so that you can learn from them.

I think deconstructing presets like that are a great way to learn new editing techniques and ideas.

Pete LaGregor

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a photographer in New Jersey and specializes in portraits and commercial photography, but loves shooting landscapes and video for fun. You can check out his work on his website.
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