Use These Portrait Photography Techniques To Take Your Portraits To The Next Level
“Nothing is more rewarding than creating a stunning image for someone who otherwise believed they were not photogenic.” – Lindsay Adler
Portrait photography is an art all its own. So many disparate elements need to come together for a successful portrait: the light, the timing, and your subject need to behave and work together – and you as a photographer need to capture it all in time!
Even if you have a spectacular creative vision for the shoot and all the right equipment, it still won’t matter if your subject isn’t having a good day or the weather turns sour. Being prepared for the unexpected and planning ahead can help save your shoot.
Getting those natural, effortless-looking portraits we all envy takes time and patience. You may have to learn repeatedly about what works and what doesn’t. A lot of the finesse great portrait photographers seem to have is just good ol’ people skills.
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Below are 15 of the best tips to help you come to a shoot prepared and confident you can capture those amazing portraits – even if you’re still getting the hang of it.
#1: Prep & Plan Beforehand
Once the shooting day finally comes, you want to be well-prepared beforehand.
If any prior setup is needed, you’ll want to get their early and have everything in place before your subject arrives – so they can easily start the shoot without as little awkward waiting time as possible. If you’ll be shooting in a studio or interior setting, get acquainted with the space and figure out what you’ll need to set up for your shoot, if anything.
Think about the end results and the types of portraits you want. Is natural lighting possible? Or will you need to use artificial light? Will a backdrop be needed?
If you’re going to be shooting outside with natural light, consider how the time of day and direction in which you shoot will affect your subject. Most likely, you’ll want to avoid shooting at midday as this is when harsh sunlight will be the strongest. However, if the weather will be overcast, then the afternoon may be the best opportunity for good softer light.
Regardless of where you’re photographing the portraits, it’s helpful to create a solid plan you can use to make the actual day of shooting run more smoothly.
If you’re shooting on a sunny or partly cloudy day, your subject should ideally be facing the sun or at an oblique angle to the sun to define their features. Looking beyond your subject, what does the background of your portrait look like? Check your composition as you change perspectives and make sure there aren’t any elements that compete with your subject or distract attention.
Shooting indoors allows you greater control over the lighting and background elements in your portraits, but also requires more know-how when dealing with equipment. While it’s possible to fix many unwanted errors in post-processing, it’s far better to start with great photos that need as little retouching as possible.
Planning beforehand and knowing how to work with these elements will make the difference between so-so and stunning portraits.
#2: Connect With Your Subject
The key ingredient for a really good portrait isn’t great lighting or photo gear, it’s an engaging subject.
Not all subjects are easy to work with, as you probably know from experience. Sometimes having your portraits taken is an intimidating process and people completely freeze up in front of a camera. Or rowdy kids would rather run around than sit still in a studio. Whatever your challenging situation, here are a few tips to keep things from descending into frustration.
The best portraits happen when your subject is at ease and enjoying the process. If you as a photographer make a sincere effort to connect with them and make them feel comfortable, this helps to create the conditions for success.
Doing a little research on your subject prior to their session will work wonders when they show up for the shoot. One photographer even mentions finding out their favorite music and playing that in the studio during their shoot!
If your subject has had other portraits taken, study these and ask yourself how you can improve upon what others have captured. If at all possible, meet up with them in person before the shoot to talk about what they want (if they’re unable to do so, a phone call in advance is a good idea). Asking questions in advance about what they like, what their favorite color is, or another portrait that they really like can help tremendously in creating an image they’ll love.
Further on I’ll talk about the brilliance of props and taking great portraits of kids. But before that, I want to mention something that all of your subjects need.
Whether it’s friends, family, kids, adults, local business owners or the Pope… all of your clients deserve your respect. If you have a grand idea for a shot but your subject just doesn’t like it – move on to something else. If you’re easy to work with and get along with, you’re more likely to get repeat business and have great photos to boot.
#3: Keep Things Simple
You may be tempted to pull out all the stops with elaborate backgrounds or props in your portraits, but as tempting as it sounds to include these things, it’s better to keep things simple and uncluttered to really let your subject shine.
If you must use artificial light, keep it to a few lights as possible. Most professionals agree that fewer elements present in your composition allows you to keep your composition simple and gives you subject the attention they deserve. Everything else is secondary and should support the desired effect you want to achieve with your portrait.
With this advice comes an old photographer’s saying: the best camera is the one you have. Even if you don’t have the latest and greatest DSLR you can still capture absolutely stunning portraits if you know how to use it.
If you know your camera well then you can utilize its capabilities and benefits in order to bring out the best in your subject and setting.
Even camera phones, when combined with good knowledge of light and composition, can produce some excellent portraiture. Whether you’re an amateur or an expert, using mirrorless, DSLR, or film cameras allow you the most control and flexibility over the creative process, plus they allow the best resolution if you’re planning on creating prints from your images.
If you’re still learning your way around photography, then take some practice shots in varying conditions, and take notes of what works well and what doesn’t. You don’t have to always shoot in manual mode. In fact, for portraits in particular shooting in Aperture priority mode allows you to quickly focus on your subject while still controlling your depth of field.
The more portraits you shoot, the more you’ll find your own style and preferred methods for taking beautiful portraits.
#4: Change Up Your Perspective
Perspective greatly influences the overall effect of most photographs, and portraits are no different.
Many portraits are taken at eye level with the subject. While this practice can create stunning portraits in many cases, completely changing the angle in which you’re shooting can take your portraiture from okay to excellent.
Try shooting from above your subject, or get as close to the ground as you can and shoot upwards. Even moving slightly out of direct alignment with your model can greatly influence the end result you capture. Combine different angles with your subjects slight changes in expression, and you have a multitude of different portraits to choose from.
Consider how your lighting will change as you change angles, and adjust your angles accordingly. If you’re photographing children, then getting down on your knees is one of your best options for authentic portraits. Moving around and getting the same shot from multiple angles gives you the most material to work with when you finally go to post-process your photos.
Creating interest in your photos by shooting from different angles can give your portraits that WOW factor every photographer wants.
#5: Let Your Camera Do Some Of The Work
Our next tip for knock-your-socks-off portraits? Let your camera do some of the work.
This may sound contradictory to the previous tip to learn your camera’s settings inside and out, but they actually work together well. By giving over just the right amount of control to your camera, this allows you to capture stunning portraits by giving you creative freedom without sacrificing speed and precision.
Aperture priority (or AV) mode is a great choice that allows you to get the right exposure for your portraits while giving you control over the depth of field.
For those of you shooting indoors in a more controlled studio setting, manual mode may be the best choice. But it’s a whole different ballgame to be outside, battling changing weather and lighting conditions. In this case, changing to a setting that lets your camera’s built-in metering system handle the exposure can help you focus more on your subject instead of your equipment.
#6: Increase Your ISO
No one wants portraits blurred by camera shake or smiles missed because of poor timing and slow shutter speed.
One of the ways in which you can avoid these problems is to use a slightly higher ISO setting. If you’re using a moderately new digital camera, you can afford to use a higher ISO without getting the grainy texture most photographers dread.
Most DSLR cameras nowadays are much less prone to creating noise at higher ISO levels than you think. Using an ISO level of 400 to start in low light situations should be fine, and you may want to try increasing it to 1600 or even 3200 to get your desired effect.
People tend to move around quite a bit as they’re being photographed. Some people’s expressions are constantly changing or they happen to blink a lot in photos. By using a fast shutter speed, you avoid missing those perfect fleeting moments when someone has a genuine smile or captivating expression. By combining this with a higher ISO, you can still capture the right amount of light in your photos instead of losing details in a dark background.
If you’re still worried about noise, try out some test shots in similar lighting with the higher ISO settings you plan on using. Fortunately, we now also have a number of great software programs that can remove digital noise surprisingly well.
At the very least, you’ll be happier with a little grain than you would with a failed blurry portrait.
#7: Get Candid Shots
Some people were born to model while most are best photographed candidly.
For most people, posed photos just look… posed. To avoid the awkward ‘posed’ look, get your subjects engaged with something that distracts them from the fact that they’re being photographed.
You can do this by photographing them doing something they love. Or you can ask them interesting questions and get them talking about their passions and hobbies. The more they enjoy what they’re doing, the more likely this will put them at ease. Then all you’ll need to do is point and click.
Some people freeze up with a photographer right in their personal space. In this case, it’s a good idea to bring a longer zoom lens so you can get out of their immediate comfort zone and help them feel less inhibited.
This tends to work particularly well with children, who are the most candid when they stop feeling like they’re being watched. It’s also far easier to photograph children playing than it is to pose them for portraits anyway.
#8: Frame Your Subject
By using another element in the image to direct your attention to your subject, you can highlight your subject while creating a stunning composition. Like a frame around a painting, framing your subject makes them the centerpiece in your photo.
You can do this in many different ways. For example, you could place them in a window or a doorway. This works especially well when they are angled toward soft, natural light. If shooting outside, you can use trees or buildings in your background composition to frame around your subject. You can even frame their eyes by having them use their hands around their face.
If you don’t have a studio setup, one of the best ways to capture your subject is to use natural light coming through a window. This kind of subtle lighting works really well for flattering portraits.
#9: Bring a Prop
“I carry a stool with me to every shoot… ALWAYS. It has saved me a million times over. When people sit, they will 9 times out of 10 loose the nervous rigidity they have when they’re standing. The situation automatically steps away from the formal air of photographer/photographee and instantly feels more casual.” – Natalie Norton
On the one hand, props can be a very useful elements to give your subjects something to do with their hands and distract them to get those coveted candid shots. On the other hand, props (like poses) can make photos seem unnatural or staged. They key is to choose props with purpose.
One of the simplest props you can bring is a simple stool, like photographer Natalie Norton mentions in a piece for Digital Photography School.
Props need to look like they have a natural place in the portrait, but this can be difficult to pull off. It’s helpful to think of photography as telling a story: how does your prop fit in with the cast of characters? How will your subject interact with it?
If it seems like a stretch to include a certain prop in your portrait and have it look natural, then it’s probably best to not use that prop at all. If you’re looking to create interest around them, you can have your subject wear interesting clothing that helps to frame them in the portrait.
The viewer will also likely know that a prop is just that, a prop. So how can you be different with your props? Instead of placing them where they might naturally go, such as a soccer ball at the feet, perhaps your subject could balance it on their head? It may as well be interesting if it’s going to be used as a prop.
#10: Try Black and White
Sometimes, even with the best intentions, you still can’t get a pleasing white balance in your portrait photos during the shoot.
If this is the case, converting to black and white can imbue otherwise lackluster portraits with a sense of classic refinement. Eliminating all the distractions that color can present in a photo helps to draw the eye directly to your subject.
Even if you’re perfectly happy with light and color, it may still be useful to experiment with black and white for your portraits in post-processing. In particular, if you want portraits from a particular shoot to look timeless, removing the color can add a depth and drama that will stand the test of time.
Newer camera models, such as the Sony a7 series of mirrorless cameras, allows photographers to shoot in black and white in real time, in a sense. While the B&W effect is applied to the JPEG images shot in this mode, the RAW files are not affected – which allows you to convert back into the original should you change your mind later on.
#11: Shoot in RAW
Did we mention the merits of shooting in RAW file format yet?
What does it mean to shoot in RAW? Raw (which, as it turns out, doesn’t stand for anything) files are often described as being the digital equivalent to photographic negatives.
These are the original files that your camera produces without any compression compromising the original data of the file (unlike JPEG files, in which the original file is compressed and results in the loss of image data).
For online use, such as social media, using JPEGs isn’t an issue at all. In fact, the smaller file size offers a huge advantage if you want to work quickly and don’t want to process a larger file size.
The advantages of shooting in RAW file format relate to the intended use of the files afterward. If you plan on creating prints from the photos, or you want to send digital files that someone else can use for prints, then RAW files are the best choice if you want to keep as much valuable image data (detail, essentially) as possible.
Adjustments can be made to RAW files just like other files, though not all image editors support this format. Check out our handy article on the best free image editors to see which can also handle RAW image processing.
#12: Choose The Right Lens
Another choice you have to make prior to composing your portraits is which type of lens to use.
The lens you choose will have a big impact on your portraits and how they look and feel. A great way to give your portraits a desired visual impact is to choose a wide-angle lens. You can shoot from below your subject to make them seem larger than life.
Shooting with a wide-angle lens can offer you the creative freedom to play with changing the perspective and size of objects and people in your frame. Just be careful not to get too close, as a wide-angle lens can show some distortion if used too close to your subject.
When using a standard telephoto lens such as an 85mm or 105mm, you can achieve a very flattering blurred background effect while drawing attention to your subject as the star. Though even if your background is blurry, you should always pay attention to it to avoid unflattering or jarring elements that may distract from the overall photo.
Using a 70-200mm telephoto lens with f/2.8 allows you to literally zoom in on your subject to put them at center-stage. This can also be a useful lens to use if you’re photographing someone who’s more reserved about having their portrait taken – it allows you to shoot from a distance and gives them a little breathing room.
#13: Try Using A Reflector
If lighting conditions are less than ideal, a great (and surprisingly cheap) way to give your portraits a professional look is to use a simple reflector.
You can use a reflector to bounce soft window light back onto your subject to give them a pleasing glow, or you can use them outdoors to bounce light back to fill in unwanted shadows. Reflectors come in many different sizes and colors, depending on the effect you want.
Gold reflectors can give someone a natural glow outdoors, but generally look unnatural in an indoor setting. Silver reflectors bounce back the most light and are slightly cooler than white reflectors. White reflectors can also double as light diffusers to help you soften direct sunlight, and generally produce the most natural look when shooting indoor or outdoor portraits.
If you’re strapped for cash, even a sheet of white cork board or painted cardboard can work as a reflector to create professional looking portraits!
#14: Use Flash Sparingly
The general consensus is to avoid using flash in your portraits, and for good reason.
Using a flash is one way to wash out your subjects and cast harsh shadows that don’t make for very flattering portraits. But sometimes, in specific situations, using flash can really help.
For instance, it may seem counter-intuitive to use flash when the sun is out, but that’s precisely when you should use it! Bright sunlight can cause headaches for most photographers – washed-out bright areas and harsh shadows across your subjects.
Using ‘fill flash’ will help illuminate your subjects and give you a much more balanced exposure: the flash will light up your subject while your camera exposes the background.
Another great tool for any portrait photographers toolbox is a flash gun (also called a speedlight or speedlite). This type of flash is generally much more powerful than the flash built into your camera, which allows you to light up a large group of people, or use a smaller aperture so you can capture more depth of field in your shots. You can even angle it to bounce off the ceilings or walls to produce a more muted effect.
Most flashguns are detachable and can be fired via a cable or wirelessly. Many cameras these days let you trigger a compatible flashgun remotely with your camera’s built in flash.
One final word on using flash in portraits: only use it if you absolutely must. For close-up portraits, natural light works the best. If you need extra light for a portrait, try using a softbox or a diffuser instead of a direct flash, to avoid washing out your portraits with harsh light.
#15: Watch The Eyes
Our last tip for stunning portraits is a powerful practice that many photographers overlook: following your subject’s eyes.
The eyes are the windows to the soul. In portrait photography, your subject’s eyes are most often the first thing people see, as we are hardwired to study eyes and facial expression. If your subject’s eyes are hidden or too dark, this often ruins an otherwise excellent portrait.
Most great portraits place the emphasis on the eyes. This means they are sharp and in focus, with a good amount of light reflecting off of them, and often looking directly into the camera. Though, it’s not always necessary to have your subject looking directly into the camera – looking off-screen can create interest and draw your imagination into what isn’t being shown by the camera.
If you’re using a manual focus and can manually place your autofocus on a certain point, try placing it on the eyes of your subject and watch your portraits come to life.
Capturing excellent portraits is like finding diamonds in the rough. Even very experienced photographers have to work hard at their craft to capture portraits that look effortless.
With lots of practice and a little patience, taking portraits will become easier (a little easier). Getting to know your subject and putting in a little effort to make them at ease will go a long way towards capturing those natural, effortless-looking expressions that make great portraits.
Throw in some good camera control and lighting practices, a well thought-out composition, and a meaningful prop or frame – and you have a great recipe for a stunning portrait.