17 Portrait Photography Tips Everyone Should Master

17 Portrait Photography Tips Everyone Should Master

Portraiture is one of the most popular types of photography and one of the reasons many people first pick up a camera. Portraits focus on capturing the look and personality of the subject. They can be formal and posed or have a more candid feel. Portraits can be of individuals, groups of people, or even pets.

Portraiture may seem simple and straightforward but it can actually be quite difficult. Taking good portraits requires a good understanding of light and knowledge of how to pose your subjects and get the kind of expressions you want. It is a skill that comes with time and practice. Here are some photography tips to get you started:

1) Choose the right lens

A variety of focal lengths work well for portraits and which you choose depends largely on the look you are going for. 35mm lenses are good for environmental portraiture when you are wanting to include some of the scenery. 50mm and 85mm lenses are good mid-range options and a lens like a 135mm prime or 70-200mm zoom is great for getting up with having to be close. Zoom and prime lenses can both work for portraits but they each have their advantages and disadvantages. Zoom lenses give you a lot of flexibility in framing your shot while primes are known for being incredibly sharp and producing beautiful bokeh. If your subjects are often moving erratically (like kids or pets!) you may want to use a zoom lens. If your subjects are more static, prime lenses may be a great choice for you. You can also visit our full guide for the best portrait lens to get the most out of your shots.

2) Focus on the eyes

Close up portrait of smiling senior man

The sharp focus on the eyes in this portrait draws you right in.

Good portraits don’t necessarily need to have the entire subject in focus. Many photographers love the way a thin focal plane and blurred background draw the viewer right in. Regardless of how much of your subject you want to have in focus, the most important thing to get sharp is typically the eyes. When selecting your focus point, be sure to center it on the eyes.

3) Be aware of your light

portrait

Shooting at golden hour with the sun behind the subject created this soft, warm light.

Light may be the single most important thing to understand when taking photos. If your light isn’t good, your photo won’t be either. For outdoor shots, the light is warmest and softest just after sunrise and just before sunset. Many beginners find this “golden hour” light to be the easiest to work with. If you need to shoot during mid day, try putting your subject in the shade or facing away from the sun. Find more detailed tips on lighting and exposure with our aperture shutter speed iso chart and guide.

4) Choose the right aperture

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The wide aperture used in this photo blurred the background and made the subject pop!

Wide apertures will blur the background and make your subject pop, making apertures of f/2.8 and wider a popular choice for portrait photographers. Be aware that the wider you go, the less of your subject will be in focus. Narrower apertures may be used to show more detail in the background such as f/7.1.

5) Be careful with cropping

For natural feeling portraits be sure to crop in places that feel natural and don’t cut off limbs right at the end. For example, instead of cropping at the wrist and cutting off your subject’s hand, crop higher up on the arm. Also be sure to leave some space above your subject’s head.

6) Get on their level

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Taking this photo at the dog’s eye level made for a much more intimate portrait.

When shooting small subjects like kids and pets, get down so that you are at eye level with them. Your photos will feel more natural and you’ll have a more flattering angle on the subject.

7) Look for sources of light

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Shooting indoors next to a window created this nice light on the subject’s face.

Always keep in mind what your sources of light are. Natural light from the sun is usually the easiest light for beginners to work with. If shooting indoors, try placing your subject near windows to catch that natural light. You can also take a peek at our guide for the best low light cameras for shooting!

8) Use flash when necessary

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Fill flash was used in this image to help balance the exposure.

Flash can be a tricky skill to learn but it will give you a lot more control in difficult lighting situations. Fill flash, pointed directly at the subject, can help in bright, mid-day light. When shooting indoors, try bouncing the light off a wall or the ceiling or learn to use off camera flash.

9) Consider using a reflector

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These photographers are using a reflector to bounce light onto the subject’s face.

While flash is certainly one light modification option, it’s not the only one. Reflectors are large, shiny disks that can be used to bounce ambient light onto your subject. They are especially useful when shooting outdoors in bright light to help brighten shadows on a subject’s face and balance the exposure.

10) Shoot in RAW

Most cameras have the ability to record photos as JPEG or RAW files. JPEGs are nice and small but RAW files capture more data, giving you a lot more options for making tweaks in post-processing. Shooting in RAW will give you a lot more flexibility for adjusting things like highlights, shadows, and white balance. For example, a RAW file will allow you to dramatically increase the exposure of an underexposed photo so that you still have a useable image.

11) Learn manual mode

When you’re first getting started it probably seems easier to just set the camera in an automatic mode and get to work. Don’t do this. When you shoot in automatic mode your camera makes assumptions based on what it thinks you want to be properly exposed. This may mean that your background is correctly exposed for while your subject is way too dark, for example. Shooting in manual mode is easy to learn and will give you far more control over the exposure of your final image. You are smarter than your camera!

12) Get authentic facial expressions

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This model’s natural style does not feel overdone.

Few things kill the mood of a portrait quite like stiff, fake facial expressions. Connecting with your subject on a personal level will help them feel more at ease in front of the camera. Don’t just stick them in front of the camera and start shooting. Get to know them ahead of time and chat with them while you shoot. Also be aware of things like how you want them to smile. Are you wanting a big, cheesy grin or something more subtle? Connect with them and then direct them into the feel you want.

13) Direct your model

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The way this model is looking at something off camera makes for a dynamic, interesting photo.

Photos of subjects stiffly standing and staring straight at the camera feel forced and awkward. Get your subject to relax and then give them things to do. Have them walk toward you, smile at someone off the edge of the frame, or play with their hair. If you’re new to portrait photography, it can help to come up with ideas ahead of time. Check out your favorite photographers’ work on Instagram or Pinterest and maybe even save some of their photos to your phone for inspiration. This can also be helpful if you find yourself drawing a blank in the middle of a shoot—which happens to everyone!

14) Go for flattering angles

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Turning this subject slightly so that he’s at an angle to the camera allows for a more flattering look.

While you can take certainly take portraits from straight on, it is often not the most flattering angle, especially for full body shots. Things like turning at a 45 degree angle or having your model pop one hip can make a big difference in how they look. Also, keep in mind that anything that is closer to the front of the frame will look larger than anything pushed to the back. For example, if your subject is self-conscious of the size of their hips, having them push their booty back will make that area look slimmer.

15) Play with the style

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This informal portrait captures this family interacting in what feels like a normal way.

Not all portraits need to be formal and posed. Don’t be afraid to let your subjects play. Let kids be kids and snap away as they romp around in a field. Shoot portraits of your couples interacting with each other—not just you. Often these are the images that feel the most natural and leave a lasting impact. If you’re shooting groups of people, try asking them questions to get them talking and interacting with each other. You can ask them about funny memories or what they are looking forward to in their future. It often to helps to tell your subjects that while this may feel awkward, it will look awesome in photos.

16) Use props

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This model’s furry hood adds interest to the image and gives her something to do with her hands.

Props can add interest and give your model something to do with their hands. Have them play with a scarf, adjust a hat, or snuggle up in a blanket. This will give your photos a more dynamic feel while also helping your model get over any awkwardness about not knowing what to do.

17) Keep subjects comfortable

Few things ruin a shoot faster than a cold, hungry model. Make sure your subjects are comfortable. Bring snacks and drinks to the shoto and take breaks. Posing can be exhausting and people need time to recharge.

Of course before you can use any of these tips you have to have a camera. Choosing the best camera will largely depend on how you plan to use it. DSLRs are the workhorses of the photography world but they aren’t the only options. Mirrorless camera systems are smaller and lighter than their DSLR counterparts and very capable little cameras. If you are having a hard time deciding which camera is the best for your portrait photography, renting a camera is a great way to “try before you buy”.

Choose the right aperture CC Image courtesy of David Santaolalla
Look for sources of light CC Image courtesy of Wendelin Jacober
Consider using a reflector CC Image courtesy of Dwayne Bent
Get authentic facial expressions CC Image courtesy of Ryan A Humphries
Direct your model CC Image courtesy of haylee –
Play with the style CC Image courtesy of bniice
Use props CC Image courtesy of Mycatkins

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Vivian Liu specializes in family and pet photography. She also spent 2 years as a photographer for Rebuilding Together Peninsula, which rehabilitates homes and community facilities for low-income homeowners and neighborhoods. Her passion is making photography accessible to everyone with straightforward recommendations and approachable tutorials.

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