Portrait Photo

Written by
Kevin LJ, Professional Photographer

Reviewed by
Chris Johnson, TPG Editor

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Many photographers avoid portrait photography because they feel uncomfortable about it. I know I did when I first started taking photos. I’d photograph almost anything, so long as no people were in my compositions. That changed. Now I frequently make portrait photos of people I know and even of people I don’t know.

But what is a portrait photo?

  • A portrait is simply a photo of a person.
  • It can be very formal. 
  • It might be relaxed and casual. 
  • It might include only part of the person’s face or the whole body. 
  • A portrait photo might include many people or just one. 
  • It might be a photo you’ve taken of yourself.

Selfies are about the most common type of portrait these days. Everyone can snap a photo of themselves using their phone. What’s not so easy is capturing great portraits of other people that convey their identity.

A good portrait is expressive. It has depth and meaning. It illuminates a person.

“It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.” ~ Paul Caponigro

What makes a good portrait photo? A couple of key things:

  • Any camera and a lens
  • The right settings on your camera
  • The right lighting, even if outdoors
  • The right poses
  • The right props, if any at all
  • The right composition

Camera Gear for Portrait Photography

You can use any camera and lens combination to make a portrait. Some will enable you to make more formal portraits; others will produce less conservative results.

A standard portrait focal length is usually considered to be within the range of 50mm to 135mm on a full-frame camera. So if you’re using your 18-55mm kit lens on a crop sensor camera, setting the focal length anywhere between 24mm and 55mm will work. Or you can use a 50mm prime or a more specialized portrait lens like a 105mm f/2.8 or a 135mm f/2, or the equivalent for a crop sensor camera. 

Making portrait photographs using focal lengths within this range, you’ll not have any distortion problems. If using a wide-angle lens, your portrait subject may appear stretched. Using longer focal lengths will compress the image. This can make a subject look a little distorted or off.

Your choice of focal length needs to be made based on the type of portrait photos you’re taking. A formal portrait is almost always best made with a lens within the standard portrait lens range. Making other types of portraits, less formal ones, you can explore using different focal lengths. 

I often use my 35mm f/1.4 lens for making environmental portraits. I prefer it because I can be comfortably close to my subject and still include enough of the background to have my subject in context. I’m close enough to my subject to talk with them naturally. With a longer lens, I need to be further away from the person to capture enough background. This makes communication a little unnatural.

Camera Settings for Portrait Photography

Portrait photography skills involve being able to manage your camera settings well. It pays to maintain a reasonably fast shutter speed when photographing people because they tend to move. Even a small amount of movement can ruin a portrait if your shutter speed is set too slow. 1/250th of a second is a good base to work from.

Managing the depth of field for portraits is also important. It’s very popular to take portraits with blurred backgrounds. But you still need to have enough of your subject sharp; otherwise, the pictures can look odd.

The aperture setting you choose affects the depth of field. So does the distance you are from your subject. The focal length of your lens also affects the appearance of the depth of field. 

The wider aperture you use, the less of your photo is in focus. The closer you are to your subject, the shallower the depth of field is, no matter what lens or aperture you use. The longer the focal length lens you use, the more blurred the background is. You need to be aware of these to capture enough of your subject in an acceptably sharp focus.

In good portrait photography, the photographer has the subject’s eyes in focus. Or at least one of them. Having both of the subject’s eyes out of focus tends to ruin a portrait. This is most common with a shallow depth of field.

Lighting for Good Portraits

How you light your portrait photography determines much of the photo’s atmosphere. Direct sunlight or another form of hard light produces a different look and feel than soft light. 

It’s important to consider the mood you want your portraits to convey. Managing the lighting and camera settings well enables you to create the style of portrait photos you want. 

Using harsh light, like direct sunlight, you’ll have hard shadows on your subject. This helps create a more intense atmosphere than soft, even lighting. Depending on your subject and their expression, you can use harsh light to convey a serious mood or a more fun feeling.

Soft light brings a different feel to a portrait photograph. The shadows are more gentle, especially when there’s a fill light, or you use a reflector. This type of lighting helps you create a more relaxed atmosphere.

Natural Lighting for Portrait Photography

Using natural light for portrait photographs means you have fewer technical aspects to think about. You have less control over available light, but you can concentrate more on your subject and camera settings. This is why many beginners prefer outdoor portrait photography.

It’s important to look at the light on your subject. In particular on the subject’s face. 

  • How do the shadows affect the shape of their face?
  •  Can you see the person’s eyes, or are they hidden in shadow? 

How you position your subject in relation to the light can help you manage how the shadows look. The darker the shadows, the more important it is to ensure they look right. 

Having the sun behind you, whether it’s direct sunlight or on a cloudy day, can create problems. The sun will make your subject squint, mainly in the morning and late afternoon when it’s lower in the sky. During the middle of the day, sunlight on your portrait subject will cast dark shadows in their eye sockets and under their nose and chin.

Positioning your subject, so the light is illuminating them from one side produces a different type of portrait. Side lighting can produce a more moody portrait when the shadows are very dark. You can hide half or more of a person in a deep shadow. This certainly affects the mood of the portrait.

Backlighting a person you’re photographing produces different results again. A well-backlit portrait must also be well-exposed. With light coming from behind, you must set your exposure carefully, so your subject’s face is well exposed. Or you can create a silhouette.

Using Flash, Strobes, or Continuous Lighting for Portraits

Flash or any other type of artificial lighting gives you more flexibility when lighting your portrait photos. Sometimes it is best to pose your subject and then adjust the light or lights to achieve the look you want.

Setting up lights before your subject arrives allows you more time to connect with your subject. When you know the look and feel of the portraits you want, you can be set up and ready to start taking photos when your subject is comfortable.

You also have more control over the style of lighting. You can diffuse light to make it softer and more even. Or you can add a snoot or grid to direct the light and help to control the shadows.

Anything other than natural daylight does complicate the process. This is because you have to spend more of your time and attention on the technical aspects of lighting.

Lighting Portrait Photographs for Mood

How you manage and control how light affects your subject has a major impact on the outcome of your portrait photography.

You can use deep, dark shadows to create a sense of mystery in a portrait. Or you can use lots of fill light to eliminate shadows and make more light-hearted portrait photos.

Soft light for portraits is easier to work with. You will not have problems with shadows making weird shapes on your subject. The contrast levels are lower, so capturing a more even exposure is easier. Post-processing photos made with soft, natural light is also more straightforward.

Portrait Posing Basics

One of the most challenging aspects of portrait photography is knowing how to pose your subjects. Much of it comes down to your ideas and how you communicate them to your subject.

There are tons of different posing guides available. Using posing guides helps you develop the best ways to pose individuals, couples, and groups. A set of posing cards or an app on your phone provides you many options. 

I’ll often select portrait photos I like and show them one at a time to my subject. This communicates more clearly than words sometimes. 

When a model can take a look at the type of pose you want, it can be easier for them to comprehend. Clear communication always makes a portrait photography season run more smoothly.

There are so many ways you can pose people. But you must give good directions and not leave it entirely up to your model. They might feel good standing or sitting in a particular pose, but it may not look best looking through your camera. They cannot see from your perspective unless you take a photo and show it on the camera monitor. 

Photograph a person you know; it’s often more straightforward to get them to pose how you want them to. 

“A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.” ~ Edward Steichen

Style, Props, and Clothing for Portrait Photography

Knowing the style of portrait photos you want to make before you take your camera out of your bag makes for better results. Starting with a clear idea for the look and feel you want to create is foundational for any good portrait photograph. 

Do you want a classic, traditional style of portrait? Or are you after something more relaxed or extravagant? Will your subject want to use the image for a profile picture or on some form of ID? Beginning with the end in mind helps you get there more effectively.

The type of clothing your subject wears has an impact on how their portrait photos look. Unless you’re only taking head and shoulders portraits, clothing communicates a lot about the person. It also influences the mood of portraits.

Colors, patterns, logos, and other clothing details can enhance or detract from a good portrait. Communicate with your subject before the portrait photography session. This allows them to come prepared with a few changes of clothes if they want. This gives you more flexibility in the types of portraits you create together.

Props can be the best friend of portrait photographers. Especially when photographing someone that is uncomfortable in front of the camera.

Does your subject play a musical instrument or a sport? Having them bring along an appropriate prop. Whatever they want to help them make the portraits more interesting. Having a selection of appropriate or fun props on hand can lift a portrait photo session.

Making Composition and Background Choices for Portraits

How you compose a portrait and what is visible in the background also impacts the look and feel of your portrait. Capturing stunning portraits often means making the most of the background. It also means pushing your composition skills.

Take time to check the surroundings. Make sure that where the light is right, there are no distracting elements in the background. The closer your subject is to the background, the more important this is. Placing a subject further away from the background makes it easier to control the depth of field and blur the background.

Bright lights can be extremely distracting. Even with a background that’s well out of focus, bright lights behind your subject can draw attention away from the person you’re photographing. 

Don’t always position your subject in the middle of your frame. Only use this type of composition very purposefully. Either for simple head and shoulders portraits or when it works best with the surroundings.

Be aware of how much negative space you leave above a person’s head. One of the most common mistakes new photographers make when taking portraits is leaving excessive space above the head. Tilt your camera down and include more of the person. This usually makes for a more interesting portrait photo.

Well-used negative space adds a lot to a portrait. It provides space for a person to appear and can add context. This is most important when taking environmental portraits. Including enough of a person’s surroundings helps build more of a story about them. You can manage this by where you take your photos from and the focal length lens you use.

Communicate Well With Your Portrait Subjects

Unless you’re taking candid portraits, it pays to communicate well with the people you photograph. Sometimes this may take more time than taking the actual photos. Other times it may be a matter of a nod and a smile to obtain permission to take a street portrait.

This was one of the most difficult things for me to learn as a photographer. At times I still find it challenging to do well. Learning to connect with people is easier for some photographers than for others. But I have noticed that shy photographers often make the most amazing portraits. I think this is because the portrait remains more about the subject than the photographer.

You must find the sweet spot in connecting with your subject. Talk enough to help them relax and open up. They’ll enjoy the portrait session more, and you’ll get better photos. But you risk stealing the limelight if you’re talking too much and not concentrating on your subject.

How you go about this is very personal. It can be quite a different experience for everyone. I first learned to do this when I worked at a newspaper. I realized I would not keep my job long or progress far unless I overcame my awkwardness. Most photos published in newspapers have at least one person in them. So I knew I had to work on this. I’ve now also written a book on this subject.

The better you know your camera and the more confident you are using it, the freer you are to communicate well with your subject.

“It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter."  ~ Alfred Eisenstaedt

Conclusion and Portrait Photography Tips for what Not To Do

Portrait photography is challenging because you must manage your camera and connect with your subject - as well as all the other aspects of making good photographs.

Start with knowing what type of portrait you want. Don’t make the mistake of leaving it up to chance. Communicate well with your subject beforehand. Ask them what they are hoping for or, when this is not relevant, tell them clearly what you want to achieve.

Have your equipment ready. Don’t wing it with the lens and settings you used for your previous photo session. Being in control of your camera and confident in your settings allows you to take more stunning portraits.

Always be aware of the lighting. If you’re using natural light, be it direct sunlight or soft window light. Think about the mood you want for the portraits and ensure that the light is right.

Compose your portraits carefully. Don’t make the mistake of trying to stick to the rules. Make sure you intentionally include any negative space in a meaningful way. Don’t leave too much space above a person’s head.

Remember, too, that the better you connect with your subject, the better portrait photographer you can be.

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