Portrait Photography Guide

Portrait Photography Guide

Have difficulties taking portrait photography? Don’t know what techniques to use to show your model in the best light? Follow these 50 effective portrait photography tips that can help any beginner to take top-grade photos.

portrait photography

50 Portrait Photography Tips

Whatever type of portrait photography you want to do: lifestyle, conceptual, traditional or self-portraits, follow these simple tips and secrets to make your images better.

1. Invest in a Full-Frame DSLR

portraits photography cameras

Several years ago, portrait photographers claimed that mirrorless devices are the ideal bet, while, nowadays, DSLRs have occupied the main place in the arsenal of professional portrait shooters. My advice is to purchase a full-frame Canon 1Ds Mark III camera. It will fully satisfy your portrait photography needs, as it has a 10.1-megapixel CMOS sensor, wide ISO range, integrated cleaning system, weather-resistant design, dual memory card slots, etc.

2. Use the 50mm Lens

Lenses with smaller focal lengths distort the model’s face so it looks thinner (a nice benefit for selfies), while lenses over 50mm make any face more natural and wider. 50mm lenses, also known as nifty-fifty, suit portrait photography genre best of all. This focal length helps show a person as realistic as possible and produce sharp photos. 50mm lenses are rather affordable, light and simple to use.

3. Purchase an Off-Camera Flash

Even if you prefer working with natural lighting, there are many situations when you won’t do without artificial light sources. Built-in flashes aren’t recommended for professional photos. That’s the case when an off-camera flash comes to rescue.

4. Use Tools for Correct White Balance

portraits photography grey card

Many portrait photographers complain that they have to spend tiresome hours correcting the white balance and giving the skin a natural look. The thing is that the auto WB of a camera may be “confused” by surrounding objects such as clothes, various glares and color casts, so the skin tone will look distorted in a picture. Use the following tools to set correct white balance without further color correction.

5. Always Have Spare Batteries & Cards

They are quite affordable but can save you from many regrets and problems if your camera or other equipment suddenly stops working because of a dead battery. Same with spare cards. It is such a shame to end the photo session because you have no space for more pictures.

6. Have a Portable Camera Bag

portrait photo camera bag

When you have managed to collect the necessary gear (the one mentioned above) for portrait photography, you will face the problem of its accurate transportation and storing. A properly-designed bag with various compartments and the weather-protective covering is what you need. In fact, a “bag” is more like a collective concept, as there are many variants you can try – shoulder and rolling bags, messengers, holsters, sling bags and backpacks.

7. Shoot in Manual Mode

camera settings for portrait photography

The Auto Mode tempts many photographers, but I strongly recommend choosing manual settings. Only this way you can understand how different features influence the final results and how to get the most out of your camera.

8. Find Your Perfect Image Format

RAW occupies more space and is rather complex to convert. This format saves more data about a photo and is the best choice for deep portrait photo retouching.

JPEG is recommended if you photograph weddings or events and do basic image editing and color correction. It’s faster to take portraits in this image format.

9. Learn the “Shutter Speed vs. Focal Length” Rule

portraits photography shutter speed

Can’t understand whether you took a blurry portrait photo? The reason is an incorrect shutter speed. You won’t go wrong setting the shutter speed higher than your nominal focal length. For instance, if the focal length is 100mm, you need the shutter speed of at least 1/100 of a second or faster if you intend to photograph from hands. You can’t expect to get usable pictures if you work without a tripod and had a shutter speed lower than 1/60.

10. Adjust ISO to Weather Conditions

photography portraits iso settings

Higher ISO means brighter pictures. Personally, I choose the lowest ISO possible for the lighting conditions I work in. When raising the ISO value, you will see grain and noise appearing in portraits.

11. Use Shallow Depth of Field

photography portraits aperture

For portrait photography, a wider aperture works best of all. Set it in a range between f/1.2-f/5.6 to capture a shallow depth of field, which means a model will stand out against a blurry background. Mind that the small f-number and the degree of blurriness are interdependent.

12. Place the Focus on the Eyes

photography portraits focus

If you aren’t interested in creative portrait photography and need to take classical portraits, like a model facing a camera, you should choose the eyes as the main focal point. This approach ensures a more balanced composition and proper exposure.

13. Expose the Face

portraits photography exposure compensation

Doing digital portrait photography, you may have difficulties with the correct exposure. This happens because of skin tone tricking a camera or too many white items in the frame. The most vivid example is wedding photography with a bride in a white dress, which “deceives” the integrated light meter. Fortunately, you can handle this problem using a camera’s Exposure Compensation feature. Primarily, dial in up to +1 stop of positive Exposure Compensation to lighten up people’s faces.

14. Shoot During Golden Hour

portrait photo golden hour

Never photograph in direct midday natural light. Take care of organizing a photo session one hour before sunset or one hour after sunrise to get pleasant, soft light without long shadows in your images. Download a Golden Hour app (Android or iOS) that will become your personal assistant for portrait photography.

15. Use a Reflector

photography portraits reflector

It is really easy to control and bounce light if you have a reflector in your toolkit. It helps you brighten your photos in a quick and simple way. You can find many cheap options that are still very effective. A regular reflector is equally helpful in the studio and outdoor portrait shooting, as gives you a chance to lighten models and fill in deep shadows.

16. Learn Lighting Setups

portraits photography lighting

Lighting is one of the key components that influence the quality of a portrait you get. Shooting in the studio, you should know how to manipulate various lighting set-ups. The main lighting patterns are broad and short, split, butterfly, loop, and Rembrandt.

17. Learn When to Use Hard and Soft Light

Soft light is a frequent choice of shooters, who work with women as this type of light makes portraits very appealing, hiding skin defect and wrinkles. It is also known as diffused light, which perfectly characterizes the results you can expect.

Hard light is more dramatic and results in clearer contrast. It can ideally complement men or couple portraits if you want to make them atmospheric.

18. Experiment with Shadows

portrait photo shadows

Many photographers do all possible to eliminate shadows in portraits. However, they can appear helpful if you like experimenting and aren’t afraid of unusual portrait photographs. Just observe how shadows “behave” and have some practice using them in your work.

19. Use Color Gels

portrait photography tips color gels
portrait photography tips color gels
 

Color-effect gels are available in different colors, so you can choose something suitable in accordance with the idea you want to reveal in your portraits. You can go further and combine several gels to add a “wow” effect”.

20. Use the Rule of Thirds

portrait photo rule of thirds

If your composition is rather busy and you don’t know how to bring major elements into focus, I recommend using the Rule of Thirds. It presupposes visual dividing of a picture into 9 equal squares, as if there are 2 horizontal and 2 vertical lines intersecting. So, the most important object should be placed either across these lines or on their crossings. Some cameras offer such a feature in the form of a grid on the LCD screen. It really helps to balance a portrait photo.

21. Use Leading Lines

portrait photo leading lines

Leading lines are those straight, both vertical and horizontal, lines in the frame that help draw attention to the main object. These can be roads, trees, light poles, etc. Always be on the lookout for lines and use them to your advantage.

22. Use Frame within a Frame

portrait photography tips framing

This is one of the most interesting portrait photography techniques that was initially invented by painters and later adopted by shooters. It means you need to use a frame (an arch, a window, an entranceway, a hole, a tree branch) within the overall frame to bring your model into the center of the composition. Just check whether the frame has sharp lines and shape. The viewers can’t but look at the part of a photo where you have directed them.

23. Fill the Frame

portrait photography tips filling the frame

Taking close-up portraits means filling almost all the frame with your model’s face. Thus his/her eyes, lips, cheeks, other elements and facial features will be perfectly seen. Such portraits photography samples look more voluminous and detailed.

24. Use Negative Space

photography portraits negative space

In short, negative space is the area around the main subject in a picture, who is, respectively, the “positive space”. Though it may sound controversial in relation to the previous tip, such a technique also helps focus on the model, surrounding it with a beautiful location, which is a kind of “breathing room” meant to give your eyes some rest. Besides, it is a wonderful way to keep your background uncluttered.

25. Alter Perspective

photography portraitsperspective

Looking at one and the same thing from different angles can be very helpful. This method is also applicable to portrait photography. What’s the point of taking numerous images of a person facing a camera if you can squat, lay on the floor or ground, climb a ladder to take a photo from another perspective? I highly recommend moving around a model and photographing from different angles. Don’t be afraid to look strange or silly if you really want to get non-standard shots.

26. Switch Between Orientations

photography portraits orientations

Look through your portrait gallery. What image do you have more – taken in horizontal (“landscape) or in vertical (“portrait”) orientation? The thing is that many photographers stick to one variant only, so you need to understand whether you are one of them. This may seem insignificant, but you must be good at shooting using both methods. Beginners think that since vertical framing is referred to as “portrait”, it is a set standard for this genre. It is not the truth, so alternate the orientations.

photography portraits orientations
 

27. Connect with Your Subject

The key to a successful portrait photo is to establish a connection with the model and make him/her feel comfortable. Before the shoot, try to find out some facts about the models, their preferences or hobbies to start a conversation that will be interesting to them. Also, it is a great idea to learn about model’s favorite songs to turn them on during the photo session and create a relaxing atmosphere.

28. Collect Posing References

portrait photography poses

Prior to the photo session, search for interesting portrait photography poses on social media, for instance, on Tumblr, Instagram or Pinterest. Save the ones you like on your smartphone so that they can be at hand in case you run out of creative posing ideas.

29. Use Props

portrait photography props

Many famous photographers incorporate props into their portraits to contribute to a certain atmosphere in a shot, to add context to the composition, achieve a humorous effect, make a model more comfortable. etc. Models will be more focused on a specific object rather than on the fact that they are being photographed. Remember that props should be used in moderation in order not to overload the scene.

30. Use Gestures to Direct

To simplify the portrait photography process, don’t say anything like “your left, my right” to direct models. It is better to demonstrate the necessary direction with the palm of your hand rather than use words. Talk it over with the model prior to the photo session.

31. Avoid Awkward Hands

portrait photography hands

The shot of a newbie portrait photographer may be distinguished by the position of the model’s hand, which doesn’t correspond to the shown emotion. Whenever you pose models, don’t forget to check at the way their hands look since it may ruin the whole composition.

32. Try Action Poses

portrait photography action

In case you feel like adding dynamics to your portraits, ask the models to move around. They may walk, jump, shake their hair or throw clothes everywhere to get more expressive pictures. Dynamic poses are perfect for group or fashion portrait photography, as they make the shots lively and realistic.

33. Experiment with Subject’s Expressions

portrait photography expressions

Portraits photography included a range of emotions, not only standard happiness or thoughtfulness. Ask the models to improvise and try to express different emotions. Whenever I see that I have already taken some successful shots, I give my models the full freedom of expressing their feelings for the following 20 pictures. They will demonstrate anger, frustration, enthusiasm and other fascinating emotions that look really captivating in portraits.

34. Use Flattering Poses

portrait photography poses

Typically, models know their beneficial poses for portrait photographs. While posing models, remember that the parts of the body closest to the camera appear bigger than those farther from the lens. Clarify whether there are some body parts a model doesn’t want to be emphasized. For instance, in case the model wants to conceal the width of her hips, suggest pushing her butt back for a more slender look in the shot.

35. Calibrate Your Monitor

portrait photography monitor calibration

Imagine that you have been editing a portrait photo for a while and then you realize it was all for nothing, as your computer renders the colors and tones incorrectly. Therefore, it is recommended to calibrate the computer by tweaking brightness, saturation, contrast and gamma. In case you can’t achieve precise color rendering, invest in an automated calibration device.

36. Use Professional Presets and Actions

professional portrait photography presets before after professional portrait photography presets before after
 

Stop performing repetitive steps and start using professional portrait photography presets and actions. They will automatically and quickly adjust all the necessary settings and you will get a consistent look in all shots.

37. Smooth Skin with Frequency Separation

portrait photography techniques frequency separation portrait photography techniques frequency separation
 
Order Skin Airbrushing for $5 per photo

One of the most effective portrait photography techniques for smoothing skin is frequency separation. With its help, you may easily regulate the intricate shades and textures in the shots. Frequency separation is useful for smoothing out colors along with light and dark picture parts, enhancing the skin tone for a healthy and natural look.

38. Whiten Teeth with Hue/Saturation

portrait photography techniques whiten the teeth portrait photography techniques whiten the teeth
 

A yellow tint on teeth can ruin your gorgeous photography portraits. When the lighting isn’t properly adjusted, the models’ flawless whitest teeth may appear yellow in shots. However, you may correct this defect in Photoshop by tweaking Hue/Saturation adjustment layers for an appealing smile. Be careful not to go overboard, otherwise, you will make the teeth appear unnaturally white.

39. Outsourcing Portrait Photo Retouching

outsource portrait photography editing fixthephoto outsource portrait photography editing fixthephoto
 
Order Portrait Retouching for $5 per photo

Portrait photo editing is undoubtedly a challenging process. You have to be very careful since you deal with the skin tone and you need to preserve the naturalness. If you don’t want to do image editing for hours, there is a way out. Simply approach online outsourcing picture post-production services. They will do everything for you, your only task is to indicate your specific requirements and wishes.

40. Turn Photos into Black and White

portrait photography black and white

Applying a black and white filter to your portrait photography is an excellent way out if it is really hard to achieve proper white balance due to poor lighting conditions. Moreover, with black and white effect, you portraiture acquires that ageless look and certain one-of-a-kind charm. Monochrome images don’t distract attention from the main idea and emphasize the beauty of the model.

41. Learn How to Crop

portraits photography cropping

Among the most important portrait photography tips when it comes to picture editing is using cropping. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t crop at the bending areas – elbows, knees, toes, wrists, ankles, fingers and waist, otherwise, the model’s proportions will be distorted in the shot. Your cropping should enhance the model’s body, making it look slimmer.

42. Stay Prepared

You may leave it to chance and go to the photo session without special preparations. But wouldn’t it be better to get ready in advance and provide an enjoyable shooting process both for you and the model? Select an appropriate date, time, location, check that you have brought all the necessary equipment with you and don’t forget about food and water for models. Besides, think through the possible way outs in case of emergencies or unpredictable situations.

43. Prepare a Model Release/Contract

photography contract

You should also be prepared for the photo session legally by signing a photography contract. Contract terms determine what you can and can’t do with pictures. It protects both a photographer and a model from potential obligations and legal claims, varying from a person’s discretization to interference with private life.

44. Create a Portfolio

portrait gallery

In case you are at a starting point of your shooting career, you can’t do without photography portfolio. It serves not only as the evidence of your professionalism but will also attract new clients. Build your portfolio using online website creators, for instance, WIX, and upload the pictures that most accurately demonstrate your photography style and level of proficiency.

45. Find the Right Location

portrait photography location

The overall look of the shot greatly depends on the chosen location. Taking studio portrait photography, you are most likely to shoot against a solid backdrop to concentrate attention on the model. Nevertheless, give preference to more interesting backgrounds once in a while, maybe landscapes, streets or cityscapes. A properly selected background will complete the original idea, contribute to a peculiar atmosphere in the picture and won’t distract from the model.

46. Use the Color Wheel

portraits photography color wheel

Once you start picking clothes, backgrounds and tones in image editing software, remember that the colors are supposed to complement each other. For appealing digital portrait photography and well-balanced shades, take advantage of the color wheel. Simply focus on opposing colors. For instance, in case you look for a color that complements blue, examine the color wheel and you’ll see that the opposing color is orange.

47. Work with Clothes, Makeup, Hair Stylists

portrait photography makeup

Very often, shooters, hairstylists and makeup artists collaborate to enjoy creative portrait photography. Having all these people doing their job during the photo shoot increase your chances of getting the pictures you need. It is really important to familiarize yourself with the people from the beauty industry and suggest them to work together.

48. Get Inspired by Other Photographers

portrait photography inspiration

When you examine the portrait gallery of your favorite photographers, try to examine their works very carefully. Pay attention to the play of light and shadows, poses, the scene and general vibe. If you look at the incredible portraiture on a daily basis, creative ideas will come to your mind all the time.

49. Listen to Constructive Criticism

Shooters may become really sensitive when someone starts criticizing their work. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t neglect sound criticism. Sometimes, you may see obvious mistakes only when a professional portrait photographer draws your attention to them. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice from experienced shooters; they may be willing to guide you in the right direction.

50. Use Social Media

Use social media to your benefit – for promoting your photography services, posting your masterpieces and increasing the number of customers. Social media has proved to be one of the most effective ways of building a successful portrait photography business. Register on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and communicate with your audience on a regular basis.

Freebies for Portrait Photography Editing

Are you just an aspiring photographer who hasn’t figured out how to edit portraits? Don’t worry, I have prepared a small collection of free portraits photography editing tools for you.

Free PS Action "Classic”

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Need to whiten teeth in Photoshop? Then this action will help a lot. It preserves the natural look of teeth, not making them blinding white. The result will surely impress you.

Free LR Preset "Contrast”

free portrait photography lightroom preset contrast before afterfree portrait photography lightroom preset contrast before after
 

Level out the model’s skin tone, tweak white balance, clarity, brightness and lighting with the help of this wonderful preset. It is absolutely perfect for studio portrait photography.

Free PS Action "Color POP”

free portrait photography photoshop action color pop before afterfree portrait photography photoshop action color pop before after
 

This action is aimed at adding vividness to the eyes making them more contrasting. In case the eyes in the portrait don’t look sharp, the action will fix this problem and put the emphasis back on the eyes.

Free LR Preset "Film”

free portrait photography lightroom preset film before afterfree portrait photography lightroom preset film before after
 

Imitate a film effect in your portrait photography by applying this LR preset. It alters the color grade, adds a retro filter along with noise to the image, giving it a magazine-styled look.

Free PS Action "Smooth Skin”

free portrait photography photoshop action smooth skin before afterfree portrait photography photoshop action smooth skin before after
 

Any portrait retoucher wants to create smooth and shiny skin. No need to spend hours in Photoshop eliminating pimples and similar minor imperfections, as this PS action will do everything for you. The action smoothes out the skin and doesn’t fully ruin its texture.


Ann Young

Hi there, I'm Ann Young - a photographer, photo retoucher and of course, journalist. Here on FixThePhoto blog you can find all of my reviews, photography and photo editing tips, pricing guides, and photography experiments. read more