10 top tips for shooting portraits

6. Work with light, don’t let it work against you

Model aside, light is one of the most important aspects of portraiture and without good light your images will look dull and boring. 

Light is something of a magical ingredient in photography, and you may be surprised about how little of it you actually need. Shooting with your subject sitting next to a window is often a great way to achieve a clean background with moody lighting. For this type of image don’t be afraid to use a high ISO setting such as ISO 3200, as well as exposure compensation to control exposure.

In situations where there is no light, consider adding your own with flash. You’ll nearly always get the best results from off-camera flash, and if you’ve never tried it before it’s probably much easier than you think. One flashgun, triggers and a reflector are all you need to get started with some basic yet eye-catching techniques.

7. Shoot at the subject’s level

One of the most effective viewpoints for portraits is fractionally above the subject’s eye level, looking down ever so slightly. So slight in fact, that it’s difficult or impossible for the viewer to notice. 

Of course, there will be times where you might want to create a narrative, so you may decide to shoot from a low angle to make the subject look more powerful and/or dominant. Conversely, shooting down from a noticeably high angle will make the subject look smaller or more submissive. 

When it comes to children and pets, a common mistake is for photographers to shoot from their standing height, which results in a poorly composed image and one where the subject is too small in the frame and captured from an unflattering angle. So, get down to the subject’s level and your images will immediately improve.

8. Guide and direct your subject

Simply asking someone to stand in front of the camera and smile is rarely enough direction for anything more than a quick snapshot. For something more considered, explain what you’re aiming for and, if necessary, demonstrate what you mean. 

Looking through books and magazines to find poses you like before a shoot, as well as having a few ‘stock’ poses you know will work, will make the shoot itself much smoother.

Read more: The 8 best portrait lenses for Canon DSLR users

One way to get a portrait session started, whether you’re working with a professional model or a friend or family member, is to ask them to pull faces at the camera. Not only will this help you and the subject to relax, it’s not uncommon to get some fun and interesting shots from the exercise too.

9. Work on a personal project

One of the best ways to motivate yourself and to give your photography a sense of purpose is to shoot a personal project that follows a theme. The theme itself can be as wide or as narrow as you wish, and can be technique, subject led or even based on an editing style. 

Themes could include shooting strangers against a white wall in a city; tight head shots lit by flash; focusing on men with beards; black-and-white, low-light portraits; people at work; people wearing hats ... the list goes on!

Working on a project with a set theme allows you to focus on the variable, which is the individuals you’re photographing, while the location or photographic approach remains the same in each to provide consistency. Producing a body of work could take as little as a few hours, or as long as several years. It’s your project, so approach in a way that suits the theme and your working style. 

10. Develop an editing style

Image: AlexAndrews, Getty Images

Image: AlexAndrews, Getty Images

Having a shooting style can often come from shooting a personal project with a theme. As you focus on a specific technical and aesthetic approach you’ll soon begin to see a personal style developing. 

Editing is just as important, and finding your voice through your editing is a great way to not only differentiate your work from that of other photographers, but also to give it a professional finish.

Portraits are difficult to edit well because they’re much easier to ‘overcook’ than, for example, landscapes. Plus, you’ve got skin tones to deal with and it’s important to keep these as natural as possible – even when applying effects such as retro colouring and desaturation techniques. 

Shoot Raw files and process them as naturally as possible at first, then use Photoshop to apply effects because there’s much more fine control here for effects than in Raw-processing software. Converting to black and white, however, is best done in Raw.

Read more: 32 tips to make a basic camera more powerful