My Top 10 Tips for Portrait Photography

Portraits are all about people. Whether it's a studio shoot, fashion feature, family snapshot or street candid, you are photographing people. Although solid technique, inspiration & an understanding of lighting is hugely important, understanding people is the key to getting great portrait photos. Portrait tips are extremely common online & loads of other websites will tell you that using specific settings is a guarantee of success or they focus too much on gear and technique - frankly, they're wrong! Most other sites downplay the important of communicating with your model and focus instead on what photographers are comfortable with - gear, lights, settings. They have it arse-about-face, you don’t get better portraits by tweaking one button on your camera.

Here are MY top 10 tips for getting great portraits.

I do try to keep my tips short & succinct (honest) but some of them just warrant a bit more explanation. I'd rather spend more time to elaborate an important point than just give you a list of pointless, click-bait garbage :)


Talk to Your Model!

The number one, if-you-do-nothing-else-do-this rule is to understand the person (or people) you are shooting. Get to know them as best you can and build as much of a relationship as possible in the time you have. In a controlled, studio situation make time to sit down beforehand with them and don't even pick up a camera, just chat to them. Grab a coffee, talk about anything but the shoot. Once you've established the beginnings of relationship, move onto the shoot. Describe what you want to achieve, how you want to achieve it & invite them to help. It's especially important to restate any expectations of nudity, actual or implied, and to completely put the model at ease. Better to rectify any potential misunderstanding now than later. Never touch your model unless expressly given permission, even to tweak a pose.

If you lack confidence, join a group photoshoot and watch how more experienced photographers do it. Join in when you feel relaxed.

During the shoot, never forget that your model isn't a piece of gear. It can be easy to get caught up in the act of shooting but take breaks, pause occasionally to show your model the photos so far and invite them to make suggestions. Even if you have a professional, experienced model resist the temptation to just stand there and shoot while they pose. Trust me, if you are engaging & enthusiastic people pick up on it and your photos will be a LOT better!

For candid/unplanned portraits try spending time watching a location to understand how people move through it. You can fire off stealthy shots using a long lens but this is hugely unreliable and the results rarely work out. If you take the time to choose someone you want to photograph instead of snapping wildly, build the courage to speak to them. Say hello and ask to photograph them. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't but unless you're practicing ambush/paparazzi style photograph speaking to someone first will yield better portraits.

Finally, although for family & friends the relationship-building part isn't needed - if you don't have one you're doing it wrong - if you are "acting the photographer" can ruin your chances of a natural, fun image. By this I mean if you're the photographer of the family & are asked to take a photo, don't mess about with settings or blowing an informal snapshot out of proportion. Your best bet is to work fast, keep it short and sweet and use your relationship to get the most natural expressions from your friends.  

Planned It then Candid

This is especially important for studio or fashion shoots. Everyone involved needs to know what the goals are & you should get your key shots in the bag as soon as possible. As photographer a lot of the inspiration & ideas for the shoot are expected to come rom you so make sure you have a clear plan in mind. After that, go with the flow! Change your angles, lighting, poses, expressions… sometimes you catch nuance of expression or position that just makes your image pop! Keep shooting even when chatting, when a model stops posing it totally changes their look. You don't need to go full spray-and-pray, just practice to catch candid moments.

Although it's a shame her eyes are closed, you can tell the photographer has caught a genuine emotion here and it makes for a better image penfold -Flickr

Although it's a shame her eyes are closed, you can tell the photographer has caught a genuine emotion here and it makes for a better image

penfold -Flickr


"Say Cheese" Sucks

These days pretty much everyone is conditioned to smile whenever a camera is pointed at them. This is especially true for family portraits, just ask yourself how many times the "fake smile" look people adopt results in photos that look stiff & lifeless. If you want a smile, do something funny to get a genuine one. Keep your camera on-hand to get candid moments. Anything except “say cheese”.

If you're shooting a stranger, ask them NOT to smile - I love doing this because it's so contrary to what we typically do it catches people unawares and you get a much more interesting look.

Experienced models tend to avoid this and will change pose & expression as a matter of course with each shutter click but don’t rely on it – remember to ask them to get what you need but also stay relaxed.

Bear this tip in mind and you can get portraits that are "(s)miles better than smiles"!

Urgh, sorry… 

Know Yo Pose

For studio shoots especially you need to understand the basics of posing. It’s a huge topic, bigger than a tip-guide and there are hundreds of books & articles online. I can recommend this book for beginners and it can be a good resource for photographers and models who are just starting out. But the important tip here is to know the basics, do you research before you start and this is especially true when working with inexperienced models who rely more on the photographer. Don’t assume your model will miraculously adopt the pose you want. 

Although I like the expression, lighting and mood of this portrait I think it's ruined by "THE CLAW"... her hand looks like it's growing out of the wall!

Although I like the expression, lighting and mood of this portrait I think it's ruined by "THE CLAW"... her hand looks like it's growing out of the wall!

I always make notes & take my “Big Book O’ Poses” on a shoot, then sit and point out specific ones. Just make sure you do your research too!

Some quick & easy checks you can run through include -

  • Have you chopped off any hands/feet/fingers?
  • Avoid limbs leaving then re-entering the frame
  • Are hands/feet attached to arms? Or coming out of nowhere...
  • Limbs look better angled rather than straight - but not extreme angles!
  • If the pose means we can't see their eyes, make sure the model is doing something else to attract our attention

Try To Tell A Story

A good portrait is more than a simple picture of a person. You can have a technically excellent passport image but it’s still a boring portrait. The challenge in shooting compelling portraits is that you need to tell a story. The “tell a story” tip may sound trite but it’s true. It needs to convey something about the person but unlike other genres it can be harder to achieve – this is why good portraits are always eye-catching and bland ones are so forgettable. 

She looks exhausted, filthy but sort-of happy - and it makes the viewer want to know more. Sadly I'm not entirely sure where this image is from - I think it might be the Israeli Army but I can't find a source to link back to!

She looks exhausted, filthy but sort-of happy - and it makes the viewer want to know more.

Sadly I'm not entirely sure where this image is from - I think it might be the Israeli Army but I can't find a source to link back to!

Conversely you don’t need to have some kind of sweeping epic storyline – just keep in mind that making a portrait say something more than “this is a person” will yield stronger results. You don't need to oversaturate the frame with details, or over-the-top expressions. Just include enough to hook your viewer and their imagination will do the rest.

Finally, telling a good story does not mean photographing an old person then turning the picture into contrasty black & white to accentuate their wrinkles. Old people have better stories to tell than “I am old, look at my old face”.

I bet this guy has some stories to tell... like how he got that metal rod going through his head ;) Rodrigo Butta - Flickr 

I bet this guy has some stories to tell... like how he got that metal rod going through his head ;)

Rodrigo Butta - Flickr 

In The Frame

Posing is how your model positions themselves in the scene - framing is how you position the camera to capture the scene. Both need to be considered carefully as they hugely impact the way your portrait is presented.

And it's another topic that could be a blog post in it's own right! 

Normally we try to avoid central compositions, for instance placing our points of interests on thirds, but this isn't a hard & fast rule in portraiture. Headshots are perfectly fine centred in the frame for example.

The classic headshot, cropped just below the shoulders to make sure the head is "anchored" in the frame.  Teymur Madjderey - Flickr

The classic headshot, cropped just below the shoulders to make sure the head is "anchored" in the frame. 

Teymur Madjderey - Flickr

When you're photographing a model in the environment then generally it is better to fall back onto more tried-and-tested compositions but always remember that the model is where people want to look. Keep your model prominent and the central focus point of the photo and limit distractions. 

Lovely lighting, pose and expression but the photo is marred by the huge green blob of front bokeh that distracts the viewer and hurts the overall image LBY - Flickr

Lovely lighting, pose and expression but the photo is marred by the huge green blob of front bokeh that distracts the viewer and hurts the overall image

LBY - Flickr

Backgrounds & foregrounds are something you need to be super-careful with. On the street, pay careful attention to what is behind your model so they don't have streetlights sprouting from the head, or cars going in one ear and out the other. Make sure your background compliments the model and not the other way around.

Here I think the background draws too much attention from the model. For an edgy, raw fashion shoot with a brash/bold model, the in-your-face background would work. However her pose and expression is at odds with that mood Igor Gorshkov - Flickr

Here I think the background draws too much attention from the model. For an edgy, raw fashion shoot with a brash/bold model, the in-your-face background would work. However her pose and expression is at odds with that mood

Igor Gorshkov - Flickr

This is a wonderful advert for a cherry blossom tree that also features a girl. Sachie Nagasawa - 500px

This is a wonderful advert for a cherry blossom tree that also features a girl.

Sachie Nagasawa - 500px

Some rapid-fire framing tips -

  • Check your background - is anything growing out of the top/sides of your model?
  • Are the highlights behind your model adding or removing from the image? Do they distract from the model?
  • Shoot portrait & landscape - mix it up
  • Shoot at different angles, tilt your camera, vary your height
  • For headshots, get in close. Fill the frame, leaving a small border, but with slightly more above the head
  • If a model is not looking at camera, leave space in the frame in the direction they are looking
Here Kim has plenty of space on the left to match the direction she's looking

Here Kim has plenty of space on the left to match the direction she's looking

Gianluca has captured a candid moment here and used the background to frame the couple. The colour provides a great contrast with her hair too - with "normal" hair colour this may not have worked so well. Gianluca Romeo - Flickr

Gianluca has captured a candid moment here and used the background to frame the couple. The colour provides a great contrast with her hair too - with "normal" hair colour this may not have worked so well.

Gianluca Romeo - Flickr

Lenses

Your choice of lens & aperture has a huge impact on the end result and covering all possible options is far too much to do justice in a tips guide. This tip is to again do your research on how lenses & aperture impacts your portraits - experiment to see what effects are possible. There is no hard and fast rule, only what works for YOUR story.

In this case, the background isn't adding anything to the story and is distracting - here a shallow DOF would have helped Igor Gorshkov - Flickr

In this case, the background isn't adding anything to the story and is distracting - here a shallow DOF would have helped

Igor Gorshkov - Flickr

The standard advice is you simply must shoot with a wide aperture to blur the background. This might be true if you’re photographing someone in a jungle & don’t want the trees to be distracting but shoot someone on the street like this and you lose all context about the scene. It all depends on what story you’re trying to tell but you need to choose the depth of field, not blindly follow a generic instruction. A better rule of thumb is to ensure your images are sharp, especially the eyes, so shoot with a shutter speed that eliminates motion blur. That’s not to say you can’t shoot blurred portraits but it needs to look deliberate & part of the aesthetic, not a mistake.

Here the background adds context - clear enough to set the scene but without being distracting Evgeniy Pilipenko - 500px

Here the background adds context - clear enough to set the scene but without being distracting

Evgeniy Pilipenko - 500px

It's crucial you use a depth of field that means you get the eyes sharp - if you fail at this, it looks like a mistake and can hurt the overall portrait. Viewers go straight for the eyes. On a related note, it's always worth spending a little more time sharpening eyes in Photoshop - enough to make them pop a little but without going full-Barbie.

Viewed large, the eyes are out of focus. In this example I don't think it's killed the portrait but it's still a shame!

Laurent Lavi Lazzersky - Flickr

Focal length is important too. As a general rule, wide-angle lenses exaggerate features, making things like noses & ears disproportionately sized compared to normal. Longer lenses are generally better at giving true-to-life features because they flatten perspective. Both have their uses but generally speaking you will want to use anything from 85mm upwards.

A wide-angle lens has been used to serious accentuate features here to produce a very powerful effect. Gianluca Romeo - Flickr

A wide-angle lens has been used to serious accentuate features here to produce a very powerful effect.

Gianluca Romeo - Flickr

Lighting

Whether you are using studio strobes, reflectors or 100% natural light, knowing how to light your model is another skill you have to master. Personally, I found it one of the most fun, rewarding skills to practice!

There are countless guides & resources online to learn about lighting theory, technique and tools - believe me, the variety of lights & modifiers you can buy is astonishing - but I found that the best approach to get started was a couple of flashes, some remote triggers and practice, practice, practice. Start simple, get the flash off the camera and light from an angle instead.

One of my earliest attempts at off-camera lighting, I also used gels to change the colour.

One of my earliest attempts at off-camera lighting, I also used gels to change the colour.

Lighting can be a powerful tool to tell your story but it always, always needs to be balanced against the human interest. Bokeh balls might be pretty but they can't tell a story by themselves! 

You can see how the light coming in from the left is not only soft, complementing her features, but also creates appealing shadow on the opposing side of her face. Steve Tulk - 500px

You can see how the light coming in from the left is not only soft, complementing her features, but also creates appealing shadow on the opposing side of her face.

Steve Tulk - 500px

Here the model has been lit from above and below - you can see that from the catchlight in her eyes - and this causes a butterfly-like shape under the nose. Useful for lighting the whole face while still adding depth. Steve Tulk - 500px

Here the model has been lit from above and below - you can see that from the catchlight in her eyes - and this causes a butterfly-like shape under the nose. Useful for lighting the whole face while still adding depth.

Steve Tulk - 500px

There is no trick with lighting - how effectively you can use it in portraits really comes down to your experience & what you are trying to achieve. If I was to give one single tip for lighting portraits it would be how I started - find a portrait you like and study it. Learn how the photographer setup the lighting and try to reproduce it yourself.

Just try to avoid using on-camera flash unless you're competing with bright sunlight and need it for some fill-lighting!

Backlighting, such as this example caused by a small nuclear explosion, can produce great results but you need to be careful it doesn't overpower the image. JiKang Lee - Flickr

Backlighting, such as this example caused by a small nuclear explosion, can produce great results but you need to be careful it doesn't overpower the image.

JiKang Lee - Flickr

Get Help

Photography is often a solo activity and it can feel a bit strange looking for help - take my word for it though, any planned shoot definitely benefits from extra sets of hands! Even if we ignore the benefits of a make-up artist, just having a friend or assistant who can help set flash powers, move stands, pick up said stands when they fall on the floor, aim reflectors... the list is endless!

Even in family shoots, having someone to distract the child/puppy for long enough to take a photo can be a lifesaver.

You could also enlist a friend to act crazy in the street to photograph candid, bewildered responses of passers-by but that might be asking a bit too much...

Get In The Frame

And finally... as you've seen above there are a huge number of things to get your head around when it comes to portrait photography. It can be daunting to know where to start.

For my final tip? Get a basic set of gear, including a couple of cheap flashes, find some inspiration and setup the scene. Then get in it. 

That's right - selfies are absolutely the best, cheapest practice you can possibly have. You can shoot tethered to see a live view of yourself then practice endlessly until you have the experience and confidence to move to the next step.

I know, a lot of people hate being in front of the camera but think of it this way. Everyone sees the same you whether it's a photograph or you are standing in front of them - same person, you look just like your photo. Weird that. Anyway, these people don't really think its a big deal seeing you in a photo because it's you - they are used to seeing YOU.

The only person who gives a shit about a photo is you.

So get over yourself, get in front of the camera, get some practice then go take some cracking portraits!

 

All images used either author-own or under CC licence, linked to authors (where I could find them!)

 

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