Shooting a photo of someone is easy, but creating compelling portrait photography can be quite challenging.
Here are 21 portrait photography tips I’ve learned in my years of shooting portraits professionally. You may not be able to employ all of these every time, but keep them in mind next time you want to shoot a portrait for someone.
1. Get To Know Your Subject
It’s impossible to get good photos of a person if you don’t take at least a few minutes before a shoot to talk to them. It’s even better if you have an opportunity in the days leading up to the shoot to find out things about them.
There are some things you should know about them before you start shooting.
You want to know why they are having their portrait taken. It may be for fun, to have a headshot for work, to show off their new haircut, or some fitness goal they’ve achieved. Whatever it is, that gives you some insight into what to focus on during the shoot and how to pose them.
Sometimes it may be that you asked them to pose for you. In that case, think about why you wanted them to pose for you. Are you practicing your skills, looking for a portfolio shot, or something else?
You also want to know if they have any features they are proud of or self-conscious about. This one can be a little difficult to bring up, but having this information.
2. Prepare The Portrait Subject
Unless you’re photographing a model, your subject probably has no clue what to do when you’re taking their photo. It’s your job as a photographer to get them ready.
Here are some of the things I talk about with them before we start taking photos.
Posing. Well get more into posing below, but whatever I have planned as far as posing, I go over with my subject before we take any photos. This takes away a lot of apprehensions and lets them relax because they know what is planned.
It also gives them an opportunity to tell you if they aren’t comfortable with any posing ideas. If you spring poses on them during the shoot, they may feel like they can’t interrupt you even if they don’t like the pose.
How you work. By this, I mean sharing with them your style of shooting. Things like how you plan to interact with them, whether they can see shots on your camera or on a screen as you are shooting, and what you hope to accomplish in the shoot.
3. Choose A Location That Matches The Shot You Want
Location selection is very important for portrait photography.
4. Simplify Your Image
Simplifying your image usually will make it more compelling and powerful.
What I mean by “simplifying it” is that the subject should be the most obvious part of the image without other distractions or clutter drawing attention away from it.
You can do this by the way you set up or compose the shot and/or by shooting with a wide aperture to blur the background. Blurring the background will help to minimize or even eliminate any distracting elements that you are unable to remove or avoid.
5. Choose The Right Background
The background is often overlooked but it is a critical part of composing your image.
There are two things to consider when choosing a background…how it looks visually in the image and whether it conveys any meaning to the image.
Visually, you want a background that is not distracting (see #4 above) or is part of the visual interest of the portrait. For example, in an environmental portrait, the background may not be out of focus but careful consideration must be taken to use the background in a visually appealing way when composing the image.
You also need to be aware of any meaning or mood the background can add to an image.
For example, a single color backdrop is not going to distract from the subject, but the color choice may give the photo additional meaning whether you intend to do so or not. For example, a red background can make the image more serious or even ominous looking.
Even if you are blurring the background with a wide aperture, the color of it or any bright spots in the background will be an important feature of your image.
6. The Eyes Have It
The eyes are the most important part of composing a portrait image.
You almost always want the eyes in focus so that the viewer’s attention is drawn into them and not any other parts of the image.
In addition, consider where your subject is looking in the image. Are they looking at the camera or in a different direction?
If they are not looking at the camera, then you should have a reason that they are not. Having your subject look in different directions can convey different feelings or moods in the image.
7. Avoid Color Casts When Possible
Even though white balance can be easily fixed in post-production (as long as you are shooting in the RAW file format), color casts in your image can be much more difficult to fix.
A good example of this is shooting under a tree during the day. The shade is great to get you out of the direct sunlight, but the green leaves can reflect a lot of green light onto your subject’s face. Since this isn’t really a white balance issue, it can be difficult to remove the green off the face without having a weird effect on other parts of the image.
One of the ways you can combat this is with a flash. The light from the flash will have a color temperature of about 5000K-5500K so it will blend in better with the daylight. You can also add color gels to the flash to match it even better, especially in non-daylight situations.
You can also use a reflector that is reflecting light coming directly from the sun. This can be a little more difficult, depending on how large the tree is.
In general, just be aware of strange color casts coming from nearby reflections or lights and make sure to control for that while shooting and not wait until post-production.
8. Find Soft Light
Soft light usually works better for portraits. If you are more experienced, you can try hard light for a different look, but if you’re just getting started stick to soft, diffused light.
Here’s a few ways you can ensure your subject it lit with soft light.
Cloudy days work best for outdoor portraits. Clouds diffuse the sun and turn that very harsh light source into a giant soft box.
If you are shooting in the middle of the day, then look for an area of open shade. Places like under a large tree, in the shade of a building, or even using a large white sheet or something similar will work great.
If you are indoors then you can use a window (as long as the sun isn’t shining directly into the window) or employ the white sheet tactic again to diffuse any lights in the room.
9. Pay Attention To Light Direction
Light coming from one direction creates shadows on the opposite side. This means that if you have a strong light coming from one direction, then you may need to do something to brighten the shadow side of your subject.
You can accomplish this with a reflector or flash. However you do it, the important thing is to simply be aware that directional light can create shadows and either use those shadows on purpose or minimize them.
10. Use Catchlights Whenever Possible
As I mentioned above, the eyes are important in a portrait image.
If you want them to stand out and look great, then try to create catch lights in the eyes. This can be done with any light source such as a flash, window, or outside with sunlight.
11. Use Flash Whenever Possible
I use off-camera flash whenever it is possible given the location.
Even for daytime portraits outside, the addition of flash can help add some directional light and definition to the image and create catch lights in the eyes.
Don’t ignore flash because you want to be a “natural light photographer.” Having more control and the skill to add flash when you want to can only make your work better.
12. Learn Some Basic Poses To Start With
Posing is an art form within photography and it can be overwhelming to try to become skilled at posing.
Instead of trying to be an expert right away, just learn a few basics of posing and start using those basics with everyone you shoot.
Then as you get comfortable with a few simple poses, you can start adding more to your repertoire until you have a lot to choose from and get better at identifying which poses work best with different styles of images and different body types.
13. Chin Out and Down
This posing technique is one that I use with every single person I work with.
Tell them to stick their chin out and then tilt their head down. This simple move may seem awkward but it works wonders at defining the jawline and can minimize or get rid of double chins.
14. Interact For Reactions and Emotion
During the shoot, don’t be afraid to have a conversation with your subject and try to get some reactions from them.
A good natural laugh is often far better than any posed smile. Usually, the best shots happen just as the laughing starts to fade and they are composing themselves. Right between full laughter and total composure is usually a beautiful natural smile.
15. Take Planned Candid Shots
I like to place people in the places and sometimes poses I want and then let them move around and even interact and talk with each other while I shoot.
This works especially well with children. I make sure they stay within the area I want them (usually in front of the flash) but other than that, I’ll let them have fun and play a little bit. I call these planned candid shots and they can work great as an addition to more carefully posed shots.
16. Shoot In Manual Mode
Don’t listen to the online “gurus” telling you to use one of the auto modes like aperture priority. They only make things more difficult.
Learn to use manual mode for portraits so that when you bring them to your computer to edit, later on, each group of images will be consistent with each other. This will save you hours of editing time and let you focus on the more creative aspects of shooting portraits.
17. Choose The Right Focal Length For The Shot
Many inexperienced photographers go right for the focal lengths that are popular for portraits. These are usually in the 70-100mm range.
While these focal lengths work really well for portraits, if you only use them then you’re missing out on some interesting shots.
If you are shooting in an interesting location, try a wide-angle shot to create an environmental portrait or show off a great sunset.
18. Choose Camera Height Carefully
Camera height can affect the look and feel of the image.
A lower camera angle makes the subject look strong and powerful while a higher camera angle can have the opposite effect.
When shooting children, try to get down on their level. Chances are, the majority of photos their parents have of them were taken from adult eye level, so photographing them at their eye level will be much more compelling.
19. Expose For The Subject’s Face
When choosing your camera settings, be sure the subject’s face is exposed.
This can be tricky when shooting outdoors because settings that will expose their face may cause the bright sky to be completely overexposed. That’s ok…the face is the important part.
20. Use Single Point or Eye Autofocus
Use focus settings that allow you to target the eyes as precisely as possible.
For years, this meant using single-point autofocus so that I could place that single point directly over the eyes. However, many modern mirrorless cameras have “eye autofocus” that will find the subject’s eyes and automatically focus on them. It’s a great feature and if your camera has it, spend some time getting comfortable with it.
21. Avoid Motion Blur
Most of the time you’ll be shooting portraits handheld. So even if your subject isn’t moving a lot, just the instability of your hands can cause motion blur if your shutter speed isn’t fast enough.
A simple rule to ensure your shutter speed is fast enough it to use 1/focal length. So if you’re shooting at 50mm then make sure your shutter speed is at 1/50 sec. or faster.