10 quick portrait photography tips

Improve your photos with our expert help. Here are 10 quick portrait photography tips to help you give your pictures personality…

Follow these 10 simple steps to master your camera and start taking people pictures to be proud. Feel free to add your own quick portrait tips in the comments box below…

How to take pictures of… People

Image by Ga-Ken Wan / POTY 2009

1 Natural light

Natural or available light can produce beautiful and flattering portraits, and many photographers prefer its subtlety to flash light. However, there’s an art to controlling it so you get the best results. Try and avoid direct sunlight, because it can create hard and ugly shadows on faces. Working in areas of open shade, try using a relector to bounce light onto your subject. It’s easy, relatively inexpensive and can give your portraits a professional look. You don’t even have to use a manufactured reflector (although it will last longer) – a scrunched up piece of kitchen foil that’s been flattened out again and stuck to card makes a great makeshift reflector.

2 Try fill flash

Flash too can be great for portraits. If there’s no open shade to work in and you have no choice but to shoot in the harsh midday light, try using a technique called ‘fill flash’. Pop a flashgun onto your camera – or, if you’re close enough to the subject, use your camera’s pop-up flash – and use its light to literally ‘fill in’ the hard shadows caused by the strong light overhead.

3 Use off-camera flash

If you want to get really creative with your flashgun, try taking it off the camera. Using a special cable or remote trigger you’ll be able to light your subject from either side, above or below, and this can create stunning results, giving the impression that you’ve actually used an expensive studio set-up. Experiment with different positions to see how the light changes the mood of your portrait.

4 Ring flash

A ring flash is a circular flash that attaches to the end of your lens. It was actually developed so that medical, forensic and macro photographers could get super close to their subject and still get a good even spread of light. However, in recent years it’s been adopted by portrait and fashion photographers for the unique halo-like shadow it creates. Try using a ring flash for your portraits and get a cool and contemporary look.

5 Studio lights

Studio lights give you maximum control. Using strobe lights with accessories such as umbrellas, soft-boxes, snoots and barn doors you can create a variety of moods and styles to enhance your portraits. If you don’t have a studio of your own, most towns and cities will have one available for hire at a reasonable rate.

6 Environmental portraits

Taking portraits of people in their environment can add another dimension to your images.  For example, by photographing an artist in their studio with a wide-angle lens you can squeeze a fair amount of the room into the shot and reveal aspects of the subject’s character that might be overlooked with a simple head shot.

7 Pose or candid?

There are opportunities for fantastic portraits whether you give your subject direction or not. A well-taken candid portrait can capture the essence of your subject’s personality in a split second, but you’ll need quick reactions to get the best results. A more deliberate and considered approach that might involve some direction and interaction between photographer and sitter can also produce magical results, but you’ll need make your subject feel at ease.

8 Model release

It’s a good idea to get a model release from your subject, especially if you have aspirations to use the finished shot for publicity purposes or you might sell it through a stock library. Create your own model release template, print a few copies and carry them around with you in your kit bag – that way you’ll have one handy should the perfect shot present itself.

9 Need a model?

Friends and family can make great subjects, especially if you need to practise your portrait skills. However, a time might come when you want to spread your wings a little further. There are a number of websites that act as a hub for photographers and models to trade services. Inexperienced models who need prints for their portfolios will often be willing to work in exchange for pictures (time for prints) and this can be a great way to hone your skills on a limited budget. Always be upfront about what you want and how you intend to photograph your model before you get started.

10 Learn from the best

A good portrait is often more than a mere visual representation of the subject, and it seeks to reveal something of the subject’s personality. Look at portraits and ask yourself what devices the photographer has used to communicate the subject’s character. Whether it’s great lighting or good rapport, the work of other photographers can help you to build your skills.