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Portrait photography: How to take perfect portraits

portrait photography how to
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Portrait photography is a bit like balancing a marble on a plate. There are so many things to keep track of. You have to communicate clearly with your subject, make them feel at ease, worry about camera settings, choose the right lens and compose your shot all at the same time. In this article, we'll offer some portrait photography tips to help you hone your skills. 

You’ll find mastering portrait photography isn't quite so difficult if you break things down into bite-sized chunks: posing, lighting, colour, accessories, exposure settings, and lens choice are the main things you need to focus on. That’s exactly what we're talking about here – use the quick links opposite to jump to a particular section. I'm going to demystify the process of portraiture and give you some quick-start portrait photography tips. So let’s start with our first section, posing.

To get the best from this article, you'll need a good DSLR. Take a look at our guide to the best cameras for creatives for our pick of the best options. However, you can still get a fair way with a good camera phone – especially if you also pay heed to these smartphone photography tips.

Portrait photography tips: Posing

I’m going to save you about three years of learning with this next sentence. Unless you’re working with a professional model, don’t pose your subject. Chances are you’ll be shooting friends and family, so making them pose is just gonna make them feel nervous and look awkward. Also, if you’re not a seasoned portrait photographer you won’t have the experience to pose them well anyway. But there are a few things that’ll make your subject feel comfortable, happy and relaxed which makes for a better shot.

By giving the subject something to focus on they are visibly more relaxed and as such create a more natural pose

By giving the subject something to focus on they are visibly more relaxed and as such create a more natural pose

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

You’re gonna hear 'What do I do with my hands?' A LOT. This is when their nerves will spike, and that makes for a bad photograph. To remedy this, give them something to do. They could thumb through some old photos, or play with some jewellery they’re wearing. Pockets are a great way to hide fidgety fingers, just avoid shooting your subject straight-on unless you’re going for that boyband/girlband look.

Are your subject’s eyes looking strained? Get them to look off to one side and/or close their eyes to remove the problem. It’ll look graceful and timeless – just because you’re taking their portrait doesn’t mean you need their eye contact as well.

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With one shoulder dropped the subject’s hips naturally tilt in the opposite direction

With one shoulder dropped the subject’s hips naturally tilt in the opposite direction
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)
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This forms a line of interest throughout the body in the shape of the letter ‘S’

This forms a line of interest throughout the body in the shape of the letter ‘S’
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

For wider shots you’re looking to make curves and S-shapes with their body to place points of interest throughout the frame. If you feel like the subject can take a bit of suggestion, just get them to drop a shoulder or a hip to break up the parallel lines in their body.

Overall, the most important thing when working with your subject is to be friendly and make them feel comfortable. Aim to chat to them more than you shoot; it builds rapport and trust between you both. Offer them a drink and play music in the background to avoid awkward silences when shooting.

Portrait photography tips: Lighting

Sunlight (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, so you have a directional light source, and the size of the window will determine how diffused the light is. 

Light that's more spread out is more flattering for portrait photography

Light that's more spread out is more flattering for portrait photography

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Look for soft light – that is, light that’s been spread out – it’s flattering for portraits by helping hide pores and smooth wrinkles. That’s because there’s little difference between shadows and highlights. You’ll find soft light outside on an overcast day, in shade or through north-facing windows with no direct sun. 

For example, in the images above there are no direct sun rays coming through the windows, so the light is already heavily scattered. This wide spread of light from the window is directional and softens facial features.

Hard light is much more difficult to control

Hard light is much more difficult to control

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Hard light is means direct sunlight – whether the model is inside or outside. It's best to avoid hard light when starting out in portrait photography. It’s more difficult to control, and gives extremes in brightness, from cavernous black shadows to white-hot highlights. Hard light accentuates skin texture and casts unflattering, sharp shadows. 

It’s difficult to get a good exposure in harsh, direct sunlight. Shadows are too dark and highlights too bright – plus the subject will likely squint if looking towards the sun.

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Position the camera to the side for graceful light and easy exposure

Position the camera to the side for graceful light and easy exposure
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)
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Exposing for the background when back lit means the subject will be far too dark

Exposing for the background when back lit means the subject will be far too dark
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

The key to perfect portraits is to capture the light and the shadows. A great, quick portrait set-up goes something like this. 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. Avoid shooting the subject with the subject back lit (i.e. the light is behind them) or risk underexposing the subject.

Portrait photography tips: Colour

Clothing and styling makes a big difference to how your portrait looks. For a classic, timeless approach use neutral and earth tones such as browns, greys, whites and blacks. To give your portrait more punch look for splashes of vivid colour such as bright clothing, make-up or colourful backgrounds. However, avoid mixing all three options unless you feel confident behind the camera.

Left-right: Shade, Sunny and Tungsten white balance

Left-right: Shade, Sunny and Tungsten white balance

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Capture accurate colours by matching the white balance in the camera to the available light. Is it sunny outside? Choose the sunny preset. Under shade? Hit the shade preset. Lightbulbs indoors? You guessed it… Tungsten! 

This tricks the camera into reproducing accurate colours because all of these light sources look different – sunlight is middle toned, shade is bluer and light bulbs are more orange, so the camera compensates by shifting its white point. If you’re not sure whether things look good or not, make sure you’re shooting in RAW file format (rather than JPEG) and change it when editing later. 

Portrait photography tips: Accessories

There isn’t much you need to start taking some fantastic portraits with the camera you already have. However, if you want to take things to the next level there are few tricks you can try.

This portrait was shot with a CD in front of the lens

This portrait was shot with a CD in front of the lens

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Try placing translucent objects in front of your lens for cool effects. Objects that work well are either see-through, or translucent such as jewellery and CDs (remember those?). The photo above was taken with a CD placed just in front of the lens. This reflects the light from the sun, giving the portrait an ethereal light flare and a coloured tint.

Smoke works best in a portrait when it wraps around but doesn’t cover the subject’s face

Smoke works best in a portrait when it wraps around but doesn’t cover the subject’s face

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Smoke grenades look awesome too, but be careful and use them outside on days with no wind – your subject needs to remain visible. You might also use solid objects such as leaves and flowers, but these are best placed around  the edges of the frame. This develops a sense of intimacy in your portraits and are great for romantic couples photographs. The key to making these techniques work is to keep the accessory close to the lens so it drops out of focus.

Portrait photography tips: Lenses

The whole ‘portrait’ lens thing is a myth – just pick the focal length and aperture limit that’s right for you. These two lens variables affect your portraits in meaningful and impactful ways. Focal length affects photos in three forms: the field of view, depth of field, and perspective distortion. 

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.

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24mm

24mm
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)
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50mm

50mm
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)
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80mm

80mm
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)
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110mm

110mm
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)
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200mm

200mm
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

In the gallery above (use the arrow icons to scroll through) you can see how focal length affects a person’s features due to perspectival distortion. Every time we go longer with the focal length we have to step back further away to keep the person taking up the same amount of space in the frame. Notice how the facial features appear flatter as the focal length goes up.

The wider the aperture, the harder it is to resolve the light passing through it, to make sure things are sharp. All the colours from red to blue will resolve at different distances unless some clever optical engineering and coatings are used. That’s why f/1.4 lenses are usually more expensive than f/1.8 lenses – because they’re harder to make sharp when wide open.

That’s hard enough for prime lenses (fixed focal length) but add to that a zoom range and the price can go up even more due to the requirement for more glass and harder optical problems to solve. That’s why cheaper zoom lenses will often have a variable aperture range such as f/4.5-5.6 with the aperture becoming narrower as you zoom in. It’s restrictive because the more you zoom, the less light passes through the lens. This forces you to adjust shutter speed or ISO and affects depth of field, but it’s a small concession to make if you’re on a budget, as zoom lenses with constant apertures are often expensive.

Portrait photography tips: Camera settings

If the best friend of the beginner portrait photographer is aperture, the enemy is shutter speed. Aperture controls our depth of field – how much of the scene is in focus. An aperture of f/16 will make almost everything sharp from foreground to background, whereas an aperture of f/1.4 means only a small slice will be sharp, with the rest falling into a creamy blur. 

There’s no right or wrong way to use aperture. If the surrounding environment is as important as the subject, go narrow (f/8, f/11, f/16). Or if your subject is the most important thing, or perhaps the background is distracting/ugly then use a wide aperture (f/1.4, f/2.8, f/3.2). 

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f-1.4 at 50mm

f-1.4 at 50mm
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)
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f-4.5 at 50mm

f-4.5 at 50mm
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)
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f-8 at 50mm

f-8 at 50mm
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)
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f-16 at 50mm

f-16 at 50mm
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

In the gallery above are four examples of how aperture changes the depth of field of a portrait, all taken on a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G. Use the arrows to scroll though. You can see that narrowing the aperture from f/1.4 up to f/16 extends the depth of field so the background is more clearly rendered.

Shooting at 1/10 sec shutter speed on a 50mm lens incurs camera shake, blurring the photo because the photographer can’t keep the camera still enough

Shooting at 1/10 sec shutter speed on a 50mm lens incurs camera shake, blurring the photo because the photographer can’t keep the camera still enough

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Shutter speed determines whether motion is blurry or not. A fast shutter speed (1/1000 sec) is so short that even subjects in motion are frozen still, whereas a slow shutter speed (1/10 sec) will incur some blurring if either the camera or subject is moving. The camera’s shutter speed has to be fast enough not to blur your subject so keep the number the same as the focal length of your lens. 

For example: 50mm lens = 1/50 sec, 200mm lens = 1/200 sec. Use this to guide you, but know that it’s flexible, as long as things are steady you could go down to 1/20 sec hand holding a 50mm lens without any blur.

ISO should be set accordingly to expose your image enough to get a clear view of your subject. Modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can handle high ISO noise quite well, so you shouldn’t fret over how high your ISO is getting. As a rule of thumb, know that at above ISO1000, entry-level cameras will start to struggle.

Jason Parnell-Brookes is an Internationally award-winning photographer, educator and writer. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014.

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