People pictures fall into two categories: portraits and candid. Either can be made with or without your subject’s awareness and cooperation.
What is portrait photography?
Portrait photography is about capturing the essence, personality, identity and attitude of a person utilizing backgrounds, lighting and posing.
While this definition may sound simple, portrait photography can be one of the most challenging forms of photography to master. The goal is to capture a photo that appears both natural and prepared to allow the subject’s personality to show through.
As long as the portrait photographer can effectively capture the subject’s character, the equipment he/she uses does not really matter. While it always helps to have equipment that is state of the art, it is really not needed.
Portrait photography is a style of photography that portrays human subjects. Portrait photography has been around since the dawn of photography, when Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in 1839—the same year that Robert Cornelius aimed the camera at himself and took what is widely believed to be the first self portrait photograph (or “selfie” in modern parlance) ever, laying the groundwork for portrait photography to emerge as its own art form.
What does a portrait photographer do?
The portrait photographer is responsible for taking pictures of their subject(s). Portrait photographers find the best background/location with the correct lighting for their portrait photographs. Most portrait photographers also provide their subjects with posing tips. They also edit and print the photos to give to their clients.
Cheap, fast, and portable, portrait photography soon replaced traditional hand-painted portraiture, allowing amateur and professional photographers more freedom in documenting the human condition.
However near or far your subject, however intimate or distant the gaze your camera casts, you always need to keep in mind the elements of composition and the technique that will best help you communicate what you are trying to say.
A common duty for the portrait photographer is to find a location for the background in the portrait photograph.
The photographer can choose to shoot their portrait photograph within a studio or they can choose to find a location outside of a studio through location scouting.
A popular choice within portrait photography is a plain background within a studio setting. This is ideal for most traditional portrait photographers because it allows them to isolate their subject and eliminate any distracting background elements.
The other option is to find a location outside of a studio.
By photographing outside of a studio, the photographer can introduce creative elements that can help reflect the character and personality of their subject, allowing the viewer to get a better sense of the person within the photograph.
Whichever location the photographer chooses, they always ensure to have the main focus be on their subject and not the background/location.
Lighting a portrait photograph is one of the most crucial aspects of portrait photography as different lighting setups can create a whole different attitude/emotion of the portrait.
Most portrait photographers do not rely on the camera’s built-in flash and instead either use natural light or studio lights and reflectors.
If the photographer is shooting within a studio, he/she may use a combination of reflectors paired with out of camera lights to illuminate the model.
If studio lighting is not available or that is not their style, they may opt for a naturally lit portrait photograph. If this is the case, the portrait photographer relies on the natural light of the sun.
This requires greater knowledge of daylight timing and body positioning in order to produce effective natural light portrait photography and if performed correctly, can produce beautiful portraits.
What makes a photo a portrait?
A photo becomes a portrait when the subject along with the background, lighting and emotion can evoke a sense of connection between the viewer and the portrait photograph.
A candid photo is not considered a portrait, however, the most candid portraits are often the best.
Why is portrait photography important?
Portrait photography can be important for many reasons and those reasons may vary from individual to individual.
A portrait photograph may be important for historic preservation, personal branding or for personal pleasure.
There is no one reason why portrait photography is important.
Just like any other form of art, it can be hard to explain why it is important. The reasons stated above may suffice in answering this question. Perhaps it is the connection a good portrait photograph can bring to the viewer that makes portrait photography an unexplainable need among the masses.
The emotions and feelings that can be evoked through a good portrait photograph resides in each one of us and only when we see it through a good portrait can we connect with that feeling on a deeper level.
Why do we need portrait photography?
We need portrait photography so portrait photographers can share their work with their audience and uncover a sense of connected emotion within them.
The audience could be the photographer themselves enjoying portrait photography for their own hobby/pleasure or it could be the family of a client whose portraits you photographed.
It is a balance between satisfying your personal self while also satisfying your client. A portrait photographer has a lot of power in deciding how they want their audience to feel when they view their portraits.
The most common mistake made by photographers is that they are not physically close enough to their subjects. In some cases this means that the center of interest—the subject—is just a speck, too small to have any impact. Even when it is big enough to be decipherable, it usually carries little meaning. Viewers can sense when a subject is small because it was supposed to be and when it’s small because the photographer was too shy to get close.
Don’t be shy. If you approach people in the right way, they’ll usually be happy to have their picture made. It’s up to you to break the ice and get them to cooperate. Joke around with them. Tell them why you want to make the picture. Practice with people you know so that you are comfortable; people can sense when you aren’t.
You’re more than halfway to great photo portraiture if you can make a genuine connection with your subject.
Anthony Pidgeon, a pro portrait photographer, explains, “So much of a great portrait is about the rapport. That’s not a technical aspect of photography, but I think with portraits it’s really key because you’re collaborating, ideally. Your subject is going to offer you something, and you’re going to honor that and find a way to express it. There’s an element of trust: Do they trust you? Do you trust them to stick with you through the process? Has a rapport been established? Then you can find the best expression of that with lighting and posing and composition.’’
Anna Goellner, who specializes in wedding photography, puts it like this: “You’re trying to tell a story. You’re trying to show who this person is.”
Make a connection.
So how do you go about creating that collaborative moment? Setting up a great photo shoot takes time, so be sure to give yourself a little space. Shawn Ingersoll, a designer and photographer, suggests that when scheduling a shoot, you should allow at least an hour. He explains, “It’ll be maybe the first 30 minutes before you’ve really gotten to know each other.”
Pidgeon notes that every session will be different, so you’ll need to stay alert to your subject — some will be more available than others. “I think it depends on the person — where they’re at, what’s going on, whether they want to be there. A lot of times, they don’t,” he says. “A lot of times, they’ve had five things lined up before you, and they’ve got another five after you, and they’re just watching the clock. Some people will say, ‘Yeah, let’s do something cool.’ And some people will say, ‘Let’s get this over with.’ Some people are really shy. Getting a feel for their level of engagement directs a lot of it.”
When you have a sense of the person you’re working with, then turn your attention to the room. Pidgeon suggests asking yourself, “Are there natural light sources? Is it a situation where I’m going to use harsh lighting, soft lighting, direct, indirect? What’s going to tell this story?”
It’s easy to feel rushed when you’re taking someone’s picture, but one of the keys to taking a good portrait is to allow the time to connect and consider. Naba Zabih, a wedding and engagement photographer, says that even in the flurry of a big event, it’s important to take time to compose an image that you’ll be proud of. She continues, “Especially when everything’s digital and super fast-paced, just stop, and compose, and think about the shot before you actually take it.” Keep in mind that with a portrait photo, you’ve got an extra variable to consider: “People are people,” Zabih says, “so they are definitely going to be harder to shoot than something that’s still — they’re going to move. They blink. “
Settings—The Other Subject
The settings in which you make pictures of people are important because they add to the viewer’s understanding of your subject. The room in which a person lives or works, their house, the city street they walk, the place in which they seek relaxation—whatever it is, the setting provides information about people and tells us something about their lives. Seek balance between subject and environment. Include enough of the setting to aid your image, but not so much that the subject is lost in it.
Candids: Being Unobtrusive
You may want to make photographs of people going about their business—vendors in a market, a crowd at a sports event, the line at a theater. You don’t want them to appear aware of the camera. Many times people will see you, then ignore you because they have to concentrate on what they are doing. You want the viewers of the image to feel that they are getting an unguarded, fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the scene.
There are several ways to be unobtrusive. The first thing, of course, is to determine what you want to photograph. Perhaps you see a stall in a market that is particularly colorful, a park bench in a beautiful setting—whatever has attracted you. Find a place to sit or stand that gives you a good view of the scene, take up residence there, and wait for the elements to come together in a way that will make your image.
If you’re using a long lens and are some distance from your subject, it will probably be a while before the people in the scene notice you. You should be able to compose your image and get your shot before this happens. When they do notice you, smile and wave. There’s a difference between being unobtrusive and unfriendly. Another way to be unobtrusive is to be there long enough so that people stop paying attention to you. If you are sitting at a café order some coffee and wait. As other patrons become engrossed in conversations or the paper, calmly lift the camera to your eye and make your exposure. In most cases, people either won’t notice or won’t mind. But be judicious. Don’t keep firing away and become a nuisance. They will mind. You can also set the camera on the table with a wide-angle lens pointed at your subject and simply press the remote release when the time is right. Modern auto focus and auto exposure cameras make this easy to do as well.
An important element in people photography is knowing your subjects well enough to be able to anticipate what they are going to do. It’s the only way you are going to be able to get pictures of it. If you wait until you see it, it’s too late. The key is to watch people carefully. Always have your camera ready. If you’re going to be shooting in one situation, set the aperture and shutter speed in advance so you don’t have to fiddle with them while you’re shooting. Watch people through the viewfinder. If you’re paying attention, you’ll sense what’s about to happen.
Predicting Relationships Within the Frame
A great deal of people photography is understanding human nature and being aware of how people usually react in given situations. If someone is sitting in a café he will usually look up when the waiter approaches. People will generally smile when they see a baby or open a present. Crowds rise when a batter smashes a ball that looks like it’s headed for the seats. Think about the situation you are photographing and how people are likely to act in it. Then prepare yourself for the moment.
Candids With Consent
Unobtrusive candids seek to be fly-on-the-wall images that catch people going about their business seemingly unaware of the camera and the photographer. This yields images that are more toward the objective end of the objective/subjective continuum, though there is not, of course, any photograph made by a human that is completely objective. Candids with consent, made when the photographer is actively engaged with the subject and the subject is conscious of this involvement, are very different. Photographs are records of the photographer’s relationship with his or her subject. In consensual candids, the relationship can be either obvious (the subject looks directly into the camera) or subtle—the relationship is implied because the image feels more intimate. We sense that the photographer was physically close to the subject and that the person was aware of being photographed.
Engaging Your Subject
The first order of business is to engage your subject. This is where we all have to learn to overcome our shyness and approach people in an open and friendly manner. Be up front about who you are and what you’re doing. Don’t just barge into a scene with your cameras blazing. In fact, it is usually best to leave your camera in its bag when you first approach people, so as not to frighten them. Take time to engage the person in conversation, just as you would if you didn’t have a camera. Remember the Golden Rule. Think about how you’d feel if someone approached you and wanted to make a photograph. How they did it would determine how you would respond.
Approaching Unfamiliar Cultures
One of the keys to success in photographing cultures different from your own is doing as much research as you can before you go. Talk to people who have been there and get their recommendations. Find out if there are any taboos about photography, and if so, what they are. Another key to success is to be sensitive to local customs and the different reactions people may have to you and your camera. Learn a few simple phrases in the local language so you can at least say hello to people and ask if you can make photographs of them.
Some people have no problems with photography, and you should treat them in the same courteous and respectful way you would treat people at home, by engaging them and seeking their permission. Others have objections to photographs being made of certain individuals or groups. Some people object on religious grounds. Some feel that you want to make fun of them, to show their poverty or some other aspect of their lives to the world. Other people believe that when you make an image of them you are stealing their soul or in some other way taking something away from them.
They are right, of course. Photographers talk about capturing the essence or spirit of a person or place. We do take something, and we profit by the taking. You should always respect people’s feelings and beliefs. There are selfish reasons for this—you don’t want to be beaten up or thrown in jail. But the main point is that people are always more important than photographs. You don’t want to abuse people, and doing something against a strongly held belief is abuse. And the photographs would probably not be very good anyway.
You may be asked to pay for photographing certain people. My advice is to comply with such requests. You pay for a postcard when you travel, why not for an image you make? It is usually not much money to you, but may be quite a lot to the people you want to photograph. If you do not want to pay, you can always move on.
Our family members are the people we photograph most frequently. We record the momentous occasions and the occasional moments. Albums full of baby pictures, first steps, Little League games, Halloweens, Thanksgivings, and weddings mark our passage through time. These photographs are our memories made real and are probably the most important pictures we will ever make or have. You should apply thought and technique just as rigorously, if not more so, to photographing your family as you do to any photo assignment. There is no better group on which to practice photography. No others will be so trusting or willing to indulge your ever present camera, your fumbling around with lights, and your mistakes. When you are photographing strangers, you either get the picture or you don’t. There is no going back to a fleeting moment. With your family, you can work on getting a similar moment again, and again, and again.
Hands and Other Details
The hands of a farmer, a pianist, a baker. The feet of a ballet dancer, a long distance runner, a place kicker. The belly of a pregnant woman, the bicep of a weight lifter. Hair caressing a pillow, fingers clutched in prayer, a peering eye. The details of the human body make great photographic subjects, either as expressions of ideas or emotions, as graphic shots, or as a way to say something about an individual. Whenever you are photographing someone, try to think of details of their body or dress that would get your message across in an indirect way.
Are there particular parts of their body or items of what they wear that are important to what they do for a living or a hobby? Does some part of them really stand out? Can you find a way to abstract what you want to say about the person by using one of these elements?
The point is to use your eyes and your imagination, whether you want to use detail and abstraction to say something about an individual or about the beauty of the human body. If you are making photographs of details of the human body, you will be working intimately with people and will have to direct them, tell them where to pose, and how.
How much money does a Portrait Photographer make?
This will depend on the area where you work, and the type of portrait photography that you do.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, portrait photography services are quoted at $15.15 per hour. It also reports that the annual income is between $30,000 – $40,000 for the average photographer and up to $70,000 for 10% of them.
Although this is not specific about portrait photographers, this can also be very different depending on where you live and the outlet of your photos.
You can increase your income by diversifying your portrait photography work. For example, do family portraits year-round, plus the yearbook of local schools which happens once a year, plus studio photoshoots to create images to sell in stock photography websites, etc.
What are some of the different types of portrait photography?
There are many subgenres of portrait photography, yet all have the same goal — capturing personality and people.
A traditional portrait often has the subject looking straight at the camera in a posed position. These types of portraits are usually shot within a studio with the help of studio lighting and a prepared background.
These types of portraits are usually cropped at the head and shoulders and are what often come to mind when people think of portraits.
Lifestyle portraits have a goal of capturing people in their everyday environment.
A professional lifestyle portrait photographer often “directs” as opposed to “posing” to create a lifestyle portrait that is more candid and effectively illustrates the subject in their natural environment.
An environmental portrait places emphasis on the environment while having the person remain the subject of the photograph.
These types of portraits usually take place within a location and environment that is important to the subject.
Environmental portraits differ slightly from lifestyle portraits from the fact that environment portraits are often more “posed” than lifestyle portraits. Portraits are about people. Environmental portraits are about people and what they do with their lives. They are about the kind of house a person lives in and how they decorate it; about what kind of work they do and where they do it; about the surroundings they choose and the things they surround themselves with. Environmental portraits seek to convey an idea about a person by combining portraiture with a sense of place.
Street portraits are often candid and unplanned. While there is planning within the approach to street portraits, the posing or actions of the subjects are mostly unplanned.
Beauty/glamour portraits often place emphasis on the beauty of the subject — often involving planning in regards to wardrobe and professional makeup.
Fine art portraits
Fine art portraits are often debated on whether or not they are a subgenre of portrait photography.
Many fine art portrait photographers are usually inspired by other types of artworks such as paintings.
These portraits are usually creative in nature allowing the photographer to explore their creative ideas.
Group portraits involve multiple people.
These types of portraits often involve group poses and interactions between the members of the group in order to create a candid photograph.
Many group portrait photographers also utilize prompts in order for the subjects to act out a certain scenario, often producing very candid results.
Group portraits are hard to do well, and the larger the group, the harder they are. It’s not easy to get a good, telling photograph of one person, and the problems are compounded exponentially with groups. We have all had the experience of trying to get the family or the ball team to pose for a picture. Just getting all of them arranged so you can see their faces is hard enough. Then, of course, you want an image where everyone looks good—no one’s eyes closed, no grimacing. Making group portraits takes imagination, patience, and diplomacy. Use your imagination. Find a way to relate the group to an environment that expresses something about what kind of group they are. Do it literally, humorously, dramatically, or by complete contrast. Get ideas from them.
The Self Portrait
Master the selfie.
Self portraits are a creative form of self-expression, but they’re also a great way to perfect your portrait photography skills. When you’re both the model and the photographer, you can take your time while adjusting camera settings, trying different lighting, and experimenting with creative ideas.
Self Portrait photography sounds pretty self explanatory: it’s a style of photography in which you capture your own portrait. But anyone can take this genre in a new and creative direction.
Self Portrait Photography Ideas:
Silhouette: Capture your own silhouette using the outlines of your face using plenty of backlighting to create a visually interesting work of art.
Rainbow: Use the science behind prisms and color bending to create natural rainbows in your self photography.
Showcase a hobby: Try taking your own photo while playing guitar, or reading in your favorite nook, or cooking.
Have fun with wigs and costumes. Have some fun and play dress up! It’s the perfect excuse to dig deep in your closet for some long forgotten clothes.
Check out additional ideas in our resource for instagram photo ideas.
The Casual Portrait
Wherever you are with your camera, always be on the lookout for those moments when a person’s character shines though. If you have a formal portrait session with someone, make some frames of him while he straightens his tie or while she brushes her hair before the formal sitting. Walk back to the car with her and shoot her on the street. If you are on a spring picnic with the family, look for that moment of bliss when your wife leans back, sated, to enjoy the caress of the warm sun. If you’re on the street, look for the impatient expression on a pedestrian’s face as he waits for the light to change. Always be on the lookout for the telling moment. Every person has a story, and every picture should tell part of that story.
Black And White Portraits
The idea of black and white photography may seem simple enough, but learning how to properly balance lighting and whether or not to shoot in color and edit into black and white later will help your images stand out from the rest.
Black and White Portrait Photography Ideas:
Silhouette: Take advance of the nature of contrast in black and white photos by creating a silhouette!
Experiment with shadows: Shadows are more defined in black and white photography, making them a fun element to try and capture.
Make a home studio: Hang up a sheet, set up external lighting, and put together a makeshift home studio for a photoshoot. This is especially perfect for rainy days.
Separate people from their backgrounds: Set up a backlight in order to separate your subject from their black background.
Use light to highlight forgotten features: Add extra lights to help highlight features forgotten in the black and white setting.
Emphasis emotions: Encourage your subject to show a range of emotions. Black and white portrait photography emphasizes emotions more than color prints.
Outdoor Portrait Photography
This genre of portrait photography is popular among many groups, but especially for graduation, engagement, and family photoshoots. In order to make the most of your time in the outdoors, follow the tips below:
Outdoor Portrait Photography Ideas:
Photograph through objects: Position a branch, bunch of flowers, or similar close and in front of the lens and photograph your subject through it. This adds an interesting element to the perspective.
Document the seasons: Have your subject dress to represent the season and use your photography to highlight your favorite parts and colors of that time of year.
For photographing trips outdoors or while abroad, make sure to read our guide on travel photography tips.
Corporate portrait photography is business-oriented. These photographs are used for corporate magazines, internal communications and events, or the company’s website.
Professional Portrait Photography
If you have a professional portrait photography session setup for the near future, you may be wondering what to expect. We’re here to help:
Professional Portrait Photography Ideas:
Prepare everyone ahead of time: Plan out everyone’s outfit a few days in advance and make sure everything is clean and pressed for the photoshoot.
Don’t stray too far from your natural look: Do your best not to overdo your hair or makeup for the photo session. You’ll probably wish in the years to come you looked more like yourself.
Have fun: Make a day trip out of your photo session and have some fun! The photos will come out better if you feel more relaxed on the day of.
Family Portrait Photography
Family photos, while important to have through the years, are often a source of stress. But we want to help you get the perfect photos for your photo book without all the headache. Make sure to check out the resources below:
Family Portrait Photography Ideas:
Adaptation is key: When it comes to children, you never know what can happen. Prepare for the unprepared and come prepared with snacks and things to help the kids make it all the way through the photo session.
With children, turn the photoshoot into a game: Keeping the kids entertained will not only keep the photoshoot on track, but keep big smiles on their faces for a great final product.
Read our family photo focused resources on what to wear for family photos, the best colors to wear for family photos, and large family photo ideas.
Child Portrait Photography
Are you trying to take forever photos of your newest little one? Or maybe you’re trying to take pictures of your child’s first day of school and you’re looking for ways to make it extra special. If so, check out our tips below:
Child Portrait Photography Ideas:
Make use of their imagination: Play dress up, start a new game, or make it up as you go– the more you play into their imagination, the more their personality will show through in the photo.
Use the opportunity to explore: Take your little ones and your camera to the park, museum, or zoo and explore something new! Their faces of wonder are sure to make the best portraits.
Make sure no afternoon tea party or rainy day in gets forgotten by taking advantage of our free photo book offer. That way you’ll have your child’s portrait photographs for years to come.
Portrait Photography Poses
You don’t have to turn your friends, family and loved ones into models in order to get great photos. Instead, just follow our best practices for portrait photography poses to get the most out of your photoshoot.
Turn the shoulders slightly: Turning the subject’s shoulders so they don’t face the camera straight on allows for a more flattering angle.
Pull the chin forward: When people naturally stand or sit straight, the face often sits further back than is photographically appealing. Pull their head and chin forward to create better definition.
Keep hair off the shoulders: For those with long hair, make sure their hair is pulled away and off of their shoulders. Options for the hair include putting it up, letting it rest in front of the shoulders or behind the back, or pulling it to one side.
Lift the arm slightly: Lifting the arm facing the camera creates more definition and slims the frame.
Shift their weight: Try having your subject shift their weight to their back foot.
Lean forward from the waist: Have the subject lean forward towards the camera for better looking posture.
Sit on the edge of a chair for sitting portraits: Don’t let the subject lean back against the chair. Instead pull them forward to help create better posture.
What Equipment Do You Need for Portrait Photography?
To take great portraits, you’ll need the following equipment:
1. Camera. In theory, any camera, from a disposable to a smartphone to digital cameras, is suited for portrait photography. However, a DSLR or mirrorless camera is ideal since they offer manual settings, affording a photographer tight control over adjustments like exposure, aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. Remember that whatever camera you use, be sure to master your camera settings – there’s nothing worse during a photography portrait session than to be fumbling around with dials and buttons. It can look unprofessional, and can disrupt the flow of the shoot.
2. Lenses. For beginners, start with a lens between 85mm and 135mm before experimenting with zoom lenses or longer telephoto lenses for close-up photos. (We’ll discuss lenses in further detail below.)
The first thing you want to avoid is distorting the face of the subject. So, super wide-angle lenses are not the best choice.
When you’re photographing children, a wide-angle lens can make them look more adorable as it would accentuate their big eyes, for example. But it needs to be used carefully.
As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t use anything under 35mm for portrait photography. A 50mm lens would be an ideal lens to use as it is the closest to how we see the world.
Also, 50mm prime lenses usually have a good aperture of f/1.4 to create a nice bokeh and are not very expensive.
A medium telephoto can work too. Something between 85mm and 105mm. This will create a compression effect that is flattering for facial features – essential for portrait photography.
It will also blur the background with not so wide apertures. However, you do need to have enough space in the studio or location to use them.
On the downside, being further away from the subject creates less intimacy and might be more difficult to break the ice and make your subject feel comfortable and relaxed.
3. Tripod. A sturdy tripod enables you to set up your portrait shot and get your model in sharp focus. Then, you can concentrate on your model and capture multiple different expressions from the same vantage point.
Some photographers prefer to shoot handheld to keep the spontaneity of the photoshoot. If this is the way you want to go, make sure that you’re always using a fast enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake.
Using a tripod for portrait photography has many advantages. If you’re using a wide aperture, you can use the viewfinder to zoom in and make sure that you keep the eyes in focus.
It’s disappointing when you open your photos later on the computer and find that you had the focus on the nose and the eyes are a little blurry.
Also, you can create the perfect composition and leave it there. Then take your eyes away from the viewfinder so that you can create a connection with the subject. Finally, if you’re shooting portrait photography in low light situations, a tripod allows you to keep everything sharp without having to raise the ISO so much.
These are a great way to fill in the shadows without having to add extra light. They are perfect for softening the light when you’re shooting under strong sunlight, for example.
Are reflectors needed for photography? Well, not in every situation, but where there’s light, a reflector can be a really handy accessory to own.
They come in different materials and colors according to what you need. Usually, they are sold in sets, one of each color: white, silver, and gold.
They can be foldable and convenient to carry; you just have to decide on the size. The small ones are great for portrait photography headshots, but they won’t help you if you’re doing a full-body portrait.
5. Lighting. At a minimum, you’ll want a speedlight or flash attachment for your digital camera, particularly for interior and studio work. However, there are other lighting tools available for portrait photography. See below for a deeper dive on portrait lighting.
On-camera flashes can be used as a fill light. For example, a ring flash will give the skin a nice smooth look and reflect on the eyes in a flattering way.
Other speedlights are also used if you put a diffuser or a softbox on them. In any case, this will depend on the lighting setup you’re going to be using if you’re outdoors or indoors, and the final result that you’re looking for.
6. Backdrop. If you’re taking your portrait photographs in a studio, you’ll want a simple backdrop. In general, opt for a backdrop that’s at least 6 feet long for ¾ length portraits and 10 feet long for full-height portraits. Photography backdrops come in a variety of materials, including vinyl, canvas, muslin, and even paper.
If you’re doing portraits in the studio, a backdrop is a must-have accessory. There’s a great variety on the market, sometimes that makes it difficult to decide which one to get.
You need to consider color and material. They can range from simple, seamless paper, to elaborate patterns or scenes. It will depend on your personal style and the type of clients you have.
You should also consider the size; if you often do portrait photography of groups or families, you’ll need a bigger backdrop than the one you would use for headshots.
How to Choose Camera Settings for Portrait Photography
The dynamic nature of the subject, paired with a wide range of environments from professional studios to the great outdoors, means there is no one-size-fits-all setting for a camera. What is important to keep in mind, instead, is the relationship between your lens, your portrait subject, and your background. Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are all related to the brightness, or exposure level, of the image.
Your portrait camera settings will depend on whether you’re using a tripod, or holding the camera yourself.
1. Tripod. When using your camera on a tripod, shoot in Manual Mode. This will allow the maximum level of customizability for your shots. Since camera shake is less of an issue with tripod photography, you can slow your shutter speed, helping you make use of all available light. When slowing your shutter speed, use a low ISO setting of 100-400.
2. Handheld. When you’re shooting portraits with a handheld camera, shoot in Aperture Priority mode. This will allow you to account for different angles and lighting by adjusting the amount of light entering into the camera through the lens. To compensate for the additional movement of handheld photography, increase your shutter speed to 1/200th or higher, then compensate for this by raising the ISO.
What Are the Best Photoshoot Environments for Portrait Photography?
The environment you choose to shoot in goes hand in hand with your camera settings. There are two broad categories of environments: indoors and outdoors.
1. Indoor. Indoor environments for portraits include homes and places of work, as well as professional photography studios complete with backdrops, a full lighting setup (flash and all), and other props.
2. Outdoor. Outdoor portrait settings range from the urban, like city streets, to the natural, like gardens and parks.
Find the right light for your portrait photography.
So many elements of portrait photography rely on intuition over technical control, so it’s useful to be able to identify or arrange great lighting for your portrait session from the start. If you’re shooting in a studio, you’ll get to make a lot of these decisions in advance.
Ingersoll suggests, “If you want a dramatic, high-contrast portrait, you’re probably going to use more direct light, whether that’s sunlight or artificial lights. If you’re looking for a less dramatic photo, more like a professional headshot, that’s going to be more diffused, with multiple light sources. You’ll have a primary one, typically the brightest, and it’s going to light up one side of the subject’s face. Then you’ll want to light up the other side, so you’ll have a secondary stroke — otherwise you’re going to have a very dramatic picture. A third light is optional. Sometimes you use that to light up their hair or the backdrop, if there is one.”
Pidgeon advises, “As people get older, you want to soften up the light a bit, unless you really want to accentuate the texture in someone’s skin. But if someone has acne scars or wrinkles, you wouldn’t typically work with a dramatic light, unless this is really part of who they are. I think part of it is asking, ‘Is this going to be kind to them, show them in their best light? Are they a dynamic person? Do they have an edge to them? Is this appropriate?’”
He warns that portrait photographers need to understand how to balance their lights. “A lot of beginners tend to overpower with flash, and then you have that mugshot kind of look,” he says. “You’re basically making two exposures at the same time when you’re balancing the main light and the fill light. When you develop an understanding of how that balance works, you can make incremental changes instead of just saying, ‘OK, I’m going to blast it or I’m going to take it away.’”
If you’re shooting outdoor portrait photography, using mostly natural light, you’ll need a slightly different toolkit. Goellner’s experience with outdoor weddings has taught her that the middle of the day is the worst time to shoot. She explains, “The sun is right overhead, and you’ll have shadows under their eyes. I’m looking for even lighting for portraits. If it’s the middle of the day, which so many times during a wedding it is, you always look for trees.”
It’s all about the eyes.
Goellner holds that one of the most important tips for portrait photography is getting a sharp focus on your subject’s eyes: “If you’re focused on somebody’s forehead or bangs, and their eyes are out of focus, it automatically kills it,” she says, “unless you’re being really artsy.” Beyond this simple but vital reminder, you’ll want to consider the lens you’re working with.
Goellner says that the best lenses for portraiture will open up really wide. “A really wide aperture lets in a lot of light, and lets the background be blurry,” she says. Wide-angle lenses and a shallow depth of field help you to keep the focus on your subject, rather than losing them to background elements that might be less important. Goellner’s go-to portrait lens is an 85mm lens.
Derek Boyd, a photographer in the Pacific Northwest, suggests trying out even longer focal lengths: “If you have a long focal length and you’re close to your subject, you’ll have very shallow depth of field,” he says. “So a 200-millimeter lens is great for portrait work. Basically, you shoot almost as close up as you can with it, and it looks great because the background gets blurred out. And the compression that telephoto lenses cause — it’s a little bit of distortion that’s very flattering to people. It makes noses look a little bit smaller, and it makes eyes look a little bit better. It’s just very complimentary.
“It’s hard to describe,” Boyd continues, “but any time you see a nice tight portrait like a glamour shot, that’s almost always done with the very long focal length. Now, on the other hand, you have your wide focal lengths, so that would be anything 30 millimeters and lower. If you get real close to somebody with a wide-angle lens, it makes their head look really big and everything in the background look really small, and you almost get that fish-eye effect. It is not complimentary. You can use it for portraits, but it looks silly.”
The kicker here is the ability to choose your focal point. Boyd explains, “Before I shot on a real camera, an SLR, I’d only shot on point-and-shoots where everything was in focus. I think that’s the difference between a snapshot and a real artistic photograph — highlighting your subject. That doesn’t mean that you have to use shallow depth of field, but a professional-style portrait will. And the first time that you do it on your own, it’s like magic. That look is something that I’ll always be a sucker for. I’ll always love a portrait with a just completely blurred-out background, and a nice, sharp eye with a catch-light, a nice twinkle in the eye.”
How to Choose Lighting for Portrait Photography
You have a variety of options when it comes to portrait lighting equipment, including:
1. Flashes and strobes to create bursts of light and fill any gaps in your ambient lighting.
2. Reflectors and bounces can be used to absorb or redirect both ambient and artificial lighting.
3. Remote flash triggers can help you trigger multiple flashes in specific combinations on the fly.
4. Umbrellas, softboxes, and diffusers to soften harsh artificial lighting setups and reduce the “staged” quality of a studio portrait.
How To Get Comfortable With Your Portrait Subject
Besides deftly handling a camera, a good portrait photographer is well-versed in the art of making people feel comfortable. Ideally, this relationship-building begins before a shoot.
1. Meet your subject for coffee and learn more about them. What are their interests and hobbies? What do they do for work, and how does that make them feel? What are some places that hold meaning for them? Could they share any pictures of themselves that they love? This pre-shoot research demonstrates a thoughtfulness that should facilitate a more productive and comfortable shoot.
2. Get their approval. There may be scenarios, however, in which you won’t have time to do extensive research before taking someone’s portrait. In this case, it is first and foremost important to obtain the person’s approval. Be respectful in your approach and kind throughout the process. Fortunately, unlike buildings, roads, or even wildlife, human subjects have the added benefit of offering a photographer feedback, whether consciously or subconsciously.
3. Learn to interpret body language. Some people blossom in front of the camera while others become shy. Some might be willing to sit for hours while others might want to rush through the process. The portrait photographer bears the responsibility of interpreting the subject’s body language and making tweaks to the process as they see fit.
4. Share your process. Sharing parts of the process also helps people feel comfortable. If your subject is shy, try suggesting a handful of poses to warm them up. Show the result on camera and ask what the subject thinks, what they like and what they dislike. Offer advice for improving the shot. Making the process collaborative simultaneously empowers the subject and allows the photographer to get not just a great portrait, but also a true one.
15 Tips for Great Portrait Photography
Here are some tips for taking stunning portrait photography.
1. Diffuse your light source. When selecting an environment, consider that a soft, diffused natural light from an indirect source is best for shooting portraits. Direct, harsh light or a full sun can cast unwanted dark shadows or create unnatural skin colors.
2. Pay attention to height. Portraits taken from below the chin tend to be unflattering, while shots that are too high can diminish your subject.
3. Use setting to your advantage. While a studio can help you exert full control of your lighting, a more natural setting like an office or backyard can add personality to your portraits, as well as make your model feel more relaxed.
4. Use a wide aperture. When you use a wide aperture, you’re narrowing the depth of field. This will create a blurred background that will make your subject stand out.
This is a simple trick to separate your professional portraits from a snapshot that anyone can take. To achieve this, you need to adjust your camera settings.
If you’re not very comfortable switching camera settings and using it in manual mode, choose aperture priority. With it, you can choose the aperture that you want, for example, f/2.8, and the camera will automatically choose the shutter speed and ISO that will fit for correct exposure.
5. Use a grey card
An easy way to solve this problem in post-processing is by taking a first shot where the subject is holding a grey card.
Then, you can use Lightroom to correct the white balance in that first image and later apply it to the rest of the photos from that session.
6. Choose the right lighting
As a photographer, lighting is the most important thing you have to work with. In portrait photography, you want something that is flattering for your subject, but also communicates what you’re trying to say.
First, you need to decide if you’re going to use natural light or artificial light. Remember that this decision isn’t necessarily decided because of where you’re going to be shooting (outdoors vs indoors?).
For example, you can use natural light when you are indoors by using window light. Then you can use a reflector on the opposite side to fill in the shadows.
You can also use artificial light outdoors. This is particularly common if you are shooting at dawn or night.
Another matter to consider is whether you want hard light or soft light (see examples). This refers to the type of shadows that you want to have.
If you want a lot of drama, you should add dark, hard shadows. This can be flattering as long as they are positioned correctly in relation to your subject.
Otherwise, soft light is the norm for portrait photography. If you are outdoors you need a cloudy day, shoot early or late avoiding the midday sun, or position your subject under a shade.
If instead, you are using artificial light, then you can soften it with some modifiers. You can use diffusers or softboxes.
Several lighting setups are already proven for portraits, for example, Rembrandt light, three-point lighting or Butterfly light. For a more moody look, check out chiaroscuro lighting too.
7. Shoot on location
Photographing portraits is not just about the people; it’s also about the environment. If you’re not going to be working in the studio, choosing the right place to do the photoshoot is extremely important.
This is not only important for the lighting that you’re going to need, but also for the mood of the portrait. It’s a very different outcome placing the subject in the middle of a lavender field as opposed to in front of a graffiti wall.
Talk to your client, get a sense of what they like and what they want to communicate with the portrait. Be open to their suggestions on where you want to go and decide together.
8. Use the right background
Don’t forget to look at what’s behind your subject before pressing the shutter button. Often it’s easy to forget because you get too involved in the lighting and the posing and capturing the right expression, but the right background is crucial.
Even if you are going to blur it, you don’t want it to be distracting from the subject. And especially if you want to keep it in focus, it needs to complement it. Keep an eye on the color and pattern.
When you are working outdoors, it’s often enough to rotate the scene to find a better background. If you are doing portrait photography in the studio, you can buy different backdrops to keep on hand.
9. Relax your subject
Portrait photographers need to have good people skills. Since it’s often done with non-professional models, it’s your job to make them feel comfortable to take a better portrait.
A frozen smile and a tense body will hardly make a good portrait unless you’re doing that on purpose for conceptual reasons.
Be friendly and professional that will make them feel safe and less self-conscious.
Know your camera settings so well that you don’t need to keep fiddling with buttons and dials, and can maintain eye contact with your subjects, guiding them through the session to make fun and meaningful pictures.
10. Learn to pose
You need to know different strategies for each subject because it’s not the same to pose women, men, couples, or groups.
For example, the male body is more about angles, so you can accentuate the jawline by asking them to push the chin out. The shoulders should look broad and squared; you can then pose him looking towards the camera.
This is the opposite of what you need to do for women, where the emphasis is on curves. You’d want to pose her body sideways and lean back a little.
For groups, you can pay attention to the figure formed by the group as a whole. For example, create a triangle by placing more people in the front sitting down, and fewer people behind them standing up.
Compile a collection of your favourite portrait photography images as a reference to use as a go-to guide. Keep it in your mobile phone so you can show it to the model too.
Often it’s easier to show them what you mean instead of trying to explain it with words. Also, remember that you should never touch them without asking for permission.
It’s natural to have an impulse to move them or position them if communication is not going well, but you should be aware of their personal space and respect it.
It’s your job to communicate effectively, and that’s when visual aids can come in handy – check out Together Cards as a great way to direct your couples into natural-looking poses.
11. Use props
Props are a great way to fill the composition and make the portrait more interesting. If they are of a personal nature, they will add an emotional touch too.
They can say something else about the person being portrayed, and they can help them relax when the posing isn’t coming naturally.
Make sure that they are appropriate to the type of portrait that you’re doing though. For a couple’s photo session, it is OK to use romantic things (perhaps rose petals), but they wouldn’t be suitable for a corporate shoot.
Anytime you are choosing the framing of your photo, you need to consider the composition. This is especially important if you’re going to include more elements.
Remember that the person is your main subject with portrait photography (i.e. the props are secondary), so place them wisely inside the frame. There are a number of composition guidelines that you can follow to help you out with this.
Some of the most common are the rule of thirds and the golden rule. Of course, you are always free to experiment and make different choices based on your previous experience.
12. Capture the emotion
One of the most interesting things about photographing people is the emotion that you can capture in their expression. This is particularly important in wedding photography.
That’s what makes the difference between a good portrait that shows joy and a bad portrait with an awkward smile.
The sincerity of the emotion is what makes the viewer connect with the people in the portrait, even if they are strangers – maybe you’ve looked at wedding photography in the past and felt a connection with the couple, even if it’s people you don’t know.
Of course, joy is not the only emotion that you can capture; again, it depends on the type of portrait. Honesty, love, surprise, pride, grief… all of these feelings can be communicated through your images.
Wedding photography in particular is an excellent opportunity to capture a myriad of emotions, experiment with poses, techniques and a whole variety of shots.
13. Try faceless portraits
Most people assume that a portrait needs to include the face of the subject, but that’s not mandatory.
You can experiment and focus on the hands, the feet, a full body with the person looking away from the camera, and so many other choices.
Don’t be afraid to explore the full potential of the human body during your next portrait photography session and make that the main subject of your images.
14. Change perspective
Moving around and changing your point of view can dramatically change a portrait and make it more interesting.
Depending on where you are and the subject you’re photographing, you can get down on the ground or position the subject on a higher plane, for example, at the top of the stairs.
You can do the opposite too with your portrait photography – climb on a tree or shoot from the window looking down at the subject on the ground.
The possibilities are endless but make sure you have some variety and not just shoot at eye level. This can make the difference between a beginner and a professional portrait photographer.
15. Don’t be afraid of retouching
Post-production, i.e. the photo editing process, is an essential step for creating engaging portrait photography.
There’s a huge selection of editing software available in 2022, but Capture One Pro is commonly used in the portrait industry for its accurate colour reproduction, particularly with skin tones.
Photoshop is used for more intensive retouching, using the liquify tool among other powerful photo manipulators. Lightroom is another favourite, for its time-saving batch editing functionality.
Exposure X6 (review) offers interesting filters and styles, and then there’s Luminar AI with its artificial intelligence powered facial recognition.
Whatever software you choose, remember not to go overboard with the edits. It’s easy to overdo things like skin smoothing, which can create an unnatural looking portrait.
Once you’ve learned the rules, try breaking them.
Many photographers will start out using automated program modes to shoot. Those can be very helpful as you begin, allowing you time to connect with your subject and concentrate on lighting, but Pidgeon warns that they can ultimately hamper your progress.
“A program can give you the basics, but I don’t think you can get very creative,” Pidgeon says. “The program is there to keep you within the range of ‘this will be fine.’ But if you’re getting into photography, you want more than fine. You have to go manual to get that nuance. And that’s scary — a lot of people think, ‘Hey, this particular program mode works great. I got awesome photos in this situation. I don’t want to let go of that.’ And then suddenly you’re in a different situation, and it doesn’t work. The program was doing the work for you, doing all the math for you, and making a lot of decisions. So then you have to go back and figure out how exposure works.” Learning those manual camera settings, and getting access to more nuanced decisions means you can get much more creative, artistic portrait photography.
And there’s no need to stop with refining your use of exposure. Alex Tan, a photographer and designer based in Los Angeles, encourages even more experiments. He says, “I think filling the frame is really interesting: when there’s parts of an image that aren’t necessarily fully in the frame or there’s a subject that’s very much in the foreground and maybe covering a third of the frame. I feel like I’ve transitioned a lot lately from taking portraits of people that were perfectly centered in the frame on really clean backgrounds to ‘What would that look like if the camera was actually in this room and it was behind somebody or looking over somebody’s shoulder?’”
All of this harks back to that foundational element of portrait photography. Tan says, “This is probably a general rule of thumb for a lot of photography: story is king. That’s the reason why we make things, the reason why we design, the reason why we make films, the reason why we write — and I just would really encourage people to not forget that.”
Zabih emphasized this same idea, saying, “Portraiture is interesting because you often kind of throw the rules out the window. If I’m able to capture some kind of emotion in the photo, I feel like it’s huge. I’ll do photos where I’m purposely messing up the photo — where I lower my shutter speed or shoot things cropped in a way that I normally wouldn’t. And as long as there’s emotion in the photo, they end up being my favorite. What’s cool about portrait photography is it doesn’t have to be a perfect image to be the best image.”
Find some portrait inspiration.
The world of portraiture is vast and varied. If you’re looking for a good place to start, try exploring a few different portrait styles to see what works best for you.
Take professional headshots.
With headshot photography, you can bring your creativity into a professional setting. While corporate headshots often need to follow a specific style or visual approach, you can always find unique ways to help individuals stand out and bring personality to their pics.
From fine art portraits to avant-garde fashion shots, glamour photography highlights a subject’s personality, attitude, and appearance. Learn how to plan your own glamour photoshoot, polish your images with post-production editing tools, and then add some glamour shots to your portfolio.
Portrait Photography FAQs
What settings should I use for portrait photography?
You ideally want a low ISO (around 100-400), a fast shutter speed (around 1/200), and a wide aperture for nice background blur (e.g., f/2-f/4). It’s best to use autofocus and have your drive mode to single shot.
What makes a great portrait?
That’s open to interpretation, but generally speaking, a great portrait is one that’s technically well photographed with eyes in focus and that shows the character of the subject.
What F stop is best for portraits?
Individual portraits usually look best with nice subject separation and background blur; for that, an aperture of around f/2.8 is a good place to start. For group portraits, you’ll need more in focus – so opt for around f/4-f/8.
Is 50mm good for portraits?
Yes, nifty fifty lenses can be great for portraiture, especially for shooting full length and three-quarter length shots. 50mm lenses are usually affordable and offer a wide aperture for nice bokeh.
Resources Related To Portrait Photography
If you found this guide on portrait photography helpful, and you’re looking for additional resources, make sure to check out our other photo guides below:
nationalgeographic.com, “People and Portrait Photography Tips.” By RobertCaputo; masterclass.com, “What Equipment Do I Need for Portrait Photography?”; shutterfly.com, “45+ Portrait Photography Tips And Guide For Anyone.” by Shutterfly Community; photofocus.com, “What is portrait photography? The importance of portraits.” By Nate Torres; adobe.com, “Create great portrait photography.“; shotkit.com, “WHAT IS PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY? TIPS, GEAR & MORE.” By Mark Condon;