Portrait photography is more than just clicking pictures of people and making them look good. It is the art of capturing your subject’s essence and characteristics in just one click. It is a combination of technical skill and artistic expression.
Great portrait photography is as much about using the correct camera settings and adhering to guidelines as it is about breaking the rules and defying the norm. Confusing, isn’t it?
But do not fret, because we’ve put together a short list of portrait photography tips to help you master the art of portraits!
Portrait of a girl with a bouquet of wild flowers by Anna Ivanova, 123RF.
Sunlight, or natural light, is the simplest and quickest way to light your portrait subject. The trick to lighting like this is in the blocking and positioning of the light. An easy way to get good lighting for your subject is to use a window. The walls around it will naturally block the light (and sometimes even reflect it for your benefit), so you have a light source, and the size of the window will determine how diffused the light is.
Look for a softer light, meaning try not to place your subject right under the sun or fluorescent lighting. This gives a harsh shadow and is not very flattering. The key to perfect portraits is to capture both light and shadows.
Here’s how to set up a quick and easy portrait studio at home: place your subject in front of the window and shoot them side-on from a distance. Notice how the light coming in falls off rapidly as it travels through the room. Get the subject to look towards you for stunning, soft shadows across the face, or have them look out the window for an accented profile.
Portrait of a man in a stylish suit by lightfieldstudios, 123RF.
Clothing and styling make a huge difference, and can potentially create better contrast in a portrait.
For a classic and timeless approach, use neutral and earth tones, such as browns, greys, whites and blacks. To give your subject more punch, look for splashes of vivid color such as bright clothing, make-up or colorful backgrounds. There are no rules with this so feel free to experiment with many colors that might not traditionally go well.
However, something to avoid is to make sure the background does not drown out your subject (unless that is the intended effect). Make sure to keep your subject’s clothing and appearance a little different from the surroundings so that the viewer can still focus on them and not be confused with the colors.
Portrait of a stylish woman in sunglasses by ammentorp, 123RF.
Portrait of a girl in a meadow with yellow flowers by Svetlana Mandrikova, 123RF.
The most commonly used lenses in portrait photography are 50mm and 80mm, given their dynamic range ability when the focus on the picture is a subject. While taking pictures, lower your aperture as much as possible to gain complete focus solely on the subject.
Wide-angle lenses (such as 18mm) give a wider field of view which makes it easier to fit the surroundings into your frame, and they also have a greater depth of field meaning things up close and further away are more likely to be sharp simultaneously. The opposite is true the longer your focal length. Telephoto lenses (~70mm and up) isolate subjects with a shallow depth of field and flatten features.
Portrait of a girl with yellow flowers by erikaanes, 123RF.
One of the most common struggles many new and even experienced portrait photographers face is posing their human subjects. Unless you’re working with a professional model, don’t pose your subject. Instead, try directing them.
You’re gonna hear ‘What do I do with my hands?’ A LOT. This is when they get uncomfortable, and that makes for a bad photograph. To fix this, give them something to do. Ask them to play with their phones, to look away from the camera (into the distance), make them laugh and take a candid shot.
A huge part of photography is socializing so make sure to use all your party skills here to get the most authentic picture possible. The key is to make your subject feel comfortable and relaxed. Allow them to be themselves.
Portrait of a stylish woman by Svetlana Mandrikova, 123RF.
Portrait of a girl with yellow flowers against yellow backdrop by lightfieldstudios, 123RF.
Portrait photography isn’t just about having a great subject. It’s also about having a great background. But what does a great background look like?
A great background is straightforward and simple. You want your subject to remain the focal point of the photo. You don’t want the subject to get lost in a chaotic scene. While taking pictures, look around to see what you’d like your subject to be against.
Portrait a man in a suit at a subway station by Fabio Formaggio, 123RF.
Composition refers to the placement of your subject in an image. It’s important to compose deliberately as this way you make sure that your portrait subject really stands out.
A great starting point for all photographers is to follow the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds states that you should place your subject a third of the way into the frame. Therefore, when framing or composing your shot, keep in mind that you don’t need to center your subject. A portrait is usually more interesting if the subject is placed off-center.
You could even try to frame your subject by using a natural frame such as a doorway or window. If you’re photographing outdoors, look for trees or bushes and then place your subject inside them.
Leading lines are also a great composition trick as the lines direct the eye through the photo and lead them to focus on your subject. A ray of light, an arm, or a hand under the chin can provide subtle leading lines.
Portrait of an interracial couple by lightfieldstudios, 123RF.
The art of photography is constantly evolving, which means there are no set rules or boundaries on how to take a photo.
Some of the greatest photographers of our time were deemed great for their ability to be different from what others were doing around them. And the only way to fully grow is when one experiments with new ideas and styles that break the mold.
For more portrait ideas and inspiration, check out our specially curated portrait collection. Or if you’re looking to add a splash of spring into your portraits, check out our spring photography ideas.
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