Portrait photography tips can run the gamut from simple tweaks to your camera settings to the seemingly impossible task of getting children to stay still.
Although many photographers upgrade to a decent DSLR to give them more control when they take family portraits or pictures of friends, getting great shots of people is always a challenge.
The difference between amateur and professional portraits can be vast. So we’ve compiled this list of 14 of the most important portrait photography tips for any photographer to know.
We’ll start off with the basics on aperture, shutter speed and lens choice, then move on to focusing and photo composition techniques, before showing you how to use natural light and reflectors to dramatically improve your results.
We’ll then discuss some of the more advanced portrait photography tips, such as the benefits of using flashguns and other accessories when shooting portraits.
Whether you’re taking portraits of your friends or you’ve been commissioned to photograph a family, and whether you’re shooting in a pristine studio or outside in your local park, the helpful advice below will help you become a better portrait photographer.
01 When to use Exposure Compensation
A common photography problem when shooting portraits light skin tones is under-exposed portraits. You’ll notice this more when shooting full-face photos or when there’s lots of white in the scene – brides at weddings are a prime example.
To brighten up subjects when using Aperture Priority mode, you can try using Exposure Compensation.
Try dialling in up to +1 stop of positive Exposure Compensation to lighten up people’s faces. For more on when to use this feature, see our free cheat sheet on using exposure compensation.
02 Aperture advice
When shooting portraits, it’s best to set a wide aperture (around f/2.8-f/5.6) to capture a shallow depth of field, so the background behind your subject is nicely blurred, making them stand out better.
Shoot in Aperture Priority mode to control depth of field; in this mode your SLR will helpfully set the shutter speed for a correct exposure.
Specialist portrait lenses tend to have even wider maximum apertures (from f/1.4 to f/2.8) in order to blur backgrounds further.
03 Shutter speed settings
When setting shutter speed, factor in your lens’s focal length otherwise camera-shake (and blurred results) will become an issue.
As a general rule, make sure your shutter speed is higher than your effective focal length. For example, at 200mm use a 1/250 sec shutter speed or faster.
This also means you can get away with slower shutter speeds when using a wide-angle lens – such as 1/20 sec with an 18mm focal length.
For more on this portrait photography tip, see our guide to common mistakes at every shutter speed – and the best settings to use.
04 Increase your ISO
People move around a lot as they’re photographed, not to mention blink and constantly change their facial expressions – and there’s nothing worse than a photo of somebody half-blinking or gurning instead of smiling!
To avoid these problems, and to prevent motion blur appearing, you’ll need to use a fast shutter speed.
This will also help to ensure sharp shots and avoid camera-shake because more often than not you’ll be shooting portraits handheld.
While in Aperture Priority mode and maintaining a wide aperture, to increase your shutter speed simply increase your ISO (from ISO100 to ISO400, say).
In low light (indoors and outside), you may need to increase it to ISO800, 1600 or even 3200. A little grain is infinitely better than a blurry, useless photo.
A telephoto (over 70mm) lens captures a narrower angle of view, and less of your subject’s surroundings will appear in frame. Focal length also affects depth of field (DoF).
A wide-angle lens will capture more depth of field compared to a telephoto lens. This is why telephoto lenses are favoured over wide-angle lenses for portraits, as they further knock backgrounds out of focus to make people more prominent in the scene.
Portrait Photography Tips: Focusing and Framing
06 Creative compositions
Don’t be lazy with your compositions. Too often photographers stand back, thinking it’s best to include all, or at least the top half, of their subject.
Zoom in instead to fill the frame for a more inspired photo composition. Positioning your subject to one side of the frame, with ‘space to look into’, is a great technique to master, as is experimenting with wide apertures to capture a very shallow depth of field.
But remember to make sure your focusing is as precise as possible – with our example, shot at f/2.8, we focused on the model’s left eye, which has thrown her right eye nicely out of focus.
07 Use a reflector
A quick and affordable way to brighten up your portraits and to give them a professional look is to use a reflector. Use them indoors (near windows) or outdoors to bounce light back onto your subjects to fill in unwanted shadows.
Many reflectors come double-sided or with detachable covers, so you get a choice of white, silver and gold reflective surfaces. The white surfaces of reflectors can also double up as diffusers to soften strong direct sunshine.
If you’re really strapped for cash, you can make a reflector by simply using a large sheet of white cardboard – which you can also cover with tin foil for a silver effect – and it should still work a treat!
08 Focusing your camera
When using wide apertures (especially f/2.8 or faster), your depth of field decreases dramatically, so it’s crucial your focusing is bang on, otherwise you could end up with out-of-focus facial features; the person’s nose may be sharp but the eyes soft.
With tightly composed photos, focus on the eyes; with wider compositions, focus on the head. To help with pinpoint focusing, manually select a single autofocus (AF) point.
A good technique is to set the central AF point, half-press the shutter button to focus on the eyes/head, then recompose to position your subject off to one side before fully pressing the button – this is often a much faster way of shooting than fiddling with AF points.
Alternatively, set AF points in the top corners and place them over your subject’s eyes to take your shot. Either option will help you position your subject off-centre for a more balanced composition.
09 Posing for portraits
How your subject stands, poses and looks will have a dramatic effect on your results. A slight change in facial expression – such as whether they smile or not – can radically change the entire feeling of the photograph.
When shooting, try and capture a range of expressions so you can pick which you prefer when editing them back home on the computer.
Also consider setting up portrait shots where your subject looks off-camera, up or down, or to one side. Play around and see what works.
READ MORE ON POSING
How to pose for pictures: find the most flattering angles for you and your subjects
How to pose headshots and hands: free portrait posing guide
How to pose full-length males: free posing guide
How to pose full-length female portraits: free posing guide
10 classic posing mistakes every portrait photographer makes (and how to fix them)
Portrait Photography Tips: Using flash
10 Get artistic with flash lighting
Equipped with a flashgun, remote triggers and a good-sized diffuser, you open up the possibility of a vast array of clever and cool lighting set-ups.
Light your subjects from the side to add drama to your portraits, and get creative by under-exposing the sky or background, dialling in -2 stops of Exposure Compensation to capture a moody backdrop behind your subjects.
10 Wired and wireless flash triggers
Although your digital camera’s pop-up flash can be handy and helpful, there are many reasons to invest in a hotshoe flashgun.
One of our favourite portrait photography tips is to use off-camera flash. An off-camera flash is much more powerful, which means a brighter burst of light, enabling you to set smaller apertures to capture more depth of field, or to light up a group of people.
You also have more control over its settings, and you can angle it up or sideways to bounce the light off ceilings and walls.
11 Stand by me
Consider investing in a flashgun stand, such as the Manfrotto 5001B Nano stand (£45), plus a Manfrotto 026 Lite Tite Swivel Umbrella Adapter head (£29).
A stand not only acts as a second pair of hands, it also enables you to position your flash up high or down low, pointing the head exactly where you want the light to hit.
12 Using fill flash on sunny days
Although it may seem odd to use flash when the sun’s out, that’s precisely the time when you should use it!
The sun can cause all sorts of problems for portrait photographers: harsh shadows across faces, unbalanced exposures and burnt-out highlights.
Use a bit of ‘fill flash’ and you’ll instantly improve your portraits; your camera will capture a much more balanced exposure, because your flash will light up your subject while the camera exposes for the background.
13 The benefits of off-camera flash
A flashgun is detachable and can be fired via a cable, or wirelessly using a remote control attached to your hotshoe (some of the latest SLRs can even fire flashguns remotely, without the need for an additional trigger).
You can also use two flashes in unison for more complex lighting set-ups. Using a remote trigger will enable you to fire one flash, to act at the ‘master’, which in turn will fire the second ‘slave’ flash unit at the same time.
Attach diffusers and softboxes for a bigger, softer – and more flattering – spread of light.
14 Five flash upgrades & add-ons
- A hotshoe flashgun (or two). Check out the Nissin Di866, £200.
- Flashgun diffuser. The functional Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce is a good option, £18 (see page 130).
- Flashgun softbox. LumiQuest Softbox flash attachments come in a range of sizes, from £25.
- A remote flash cable, such as the Canon OC-E3 Off-Camera Shoe Cord or Nikon TTL Remote Cord SC 28.
- Wireless flash triggers, such as Hähnel’s Combi TF Remote Control and Flash Trigger, £50.
Free portrait photography cropping guide
Classic Portrait Ideas: how to take pictures of people from all walks of life
3 stupidly simple lighting techniques that will transform your family portraits
10 common exposure problems every photographer faces (and how to fix them)
19 stellar posing tips and camera tricks for flattering pictures of older people