Written by
The Photography Guy, Professional Photographer

Reviewed by
Chris Johnson, TPG Editor

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Making great portrait photography can be really rewarding but it’s not always as simple as sticking your subject in front of the camera and pressing the shutter button.

Here at Smart Photography Courses, we have mentors on hand to offer all manner of advice on all aspects of photography. This time around though, we have compiled some top tips to really make your portrait photography as good as possible.

Whether you are photographing your family and friend or have hired a model it is really important to get the most out of your subject. Interact with them to bring their personality to life, photography really is so much more than pressing that button.

If you’re looking to amaze your viewer with you stunning portrait photography then consider some of the tips and tricks in this blog post.

featured image for better portrait photography

Quick Ways To Improve Your Portrait Photography

The Techniques We Think You Should Try

Below are some of the techniques that we believe will really benefit the development of your portrait images.

So whether you’re simply taking photos of family and friends or you’ve organised a model for a nude photography shoot you can apply many of the techniques we discuss.

As always these aren’t set in stone and we always encourage experimentation. These are merely suggestions and things that we consider when creating portraits.

1. Focal Length

You can shoot portraits on all types of lenses but some give way better results than others.

A 50mm lens on a full frame camera body is pretty close to what our eyes see and this is a great place to start.

You should avoid using wide lenses close up as this will distort your models face an be really unflattering.

By using a lens such as a 50mm or an 85mm you will get a really nice perspective as well as separation for your main focus and the background.

2. Use Natural Light

One of the best ways to get awesome portrait shots is to make use of natural light.

Photographing your subject in direct sunlight can be unforgiving on your subject’s skin and features, so always look for things that soften this.

Windows with shutter blinds are a great and inexpensive way to control the light hitting your subject and will give a really soft and whimsical look to your portrait photography.

3. Change Your Height

Shooting from slightly above your subject can be a great way to capture flattering portraits.

By elevating your photography position it will reduce the likelihood of giving your subject a double chin.

If you’re smaller than your model you can always get them to sit down or you can look for things to stand on to get that extra height. If all else fails, bring a fold-up stool or set of ladders to your next shoot!

4. Try Backlit Portrait Photography

woman smiling in a backlit portrait shot

Example of a backlit portrait

A really good way to get dreamy soft and flattering portraits is to shoot with the light source behind your subjects.

Shooting backlit can be achieved at any time of the day but it will generally look best later on in the day or at golden hour.

You may need to use manual mode as having the light source behind your model can throw the automatic camera settings. This typically means your camera tries to make the image darker and results in underexposed photos.

Use Live View in Manual Mode if you need to and that way you can see exactly what your camera is going to capture.

5. Get Up Close

Robert Capa famously said ‘If your photos aren’t good enough you’re not close enough’ and this can definitely be true for portrait photography.

Standing off in the distance shooting on a 70-200mm lens might make you feel more comfortable but you’re not going to have a connection with your subject.

By getting up close and personal with the person you are photographing you can pick up on subtle facial expressions and really bring their personality to life.

6. Wide Aperture

Using your lenses max aperture is a sure fire way to isolate your subject and get killer portraits.

If you are using a 50mm prime lens then you might be able to set your aperture to f/1.8, f/1.4 or even f/1.2.

Whichever your lens is capable of it is going to render an out of focus background which will really make your subject pop.

Set your camera to Aperture Priority and manually change your ISO to 100 if you are outdoors. This allows the camera to automatically set your Shutter Speed to you can spend more time focussing on composing and arranging your shot.

7. Get Candid Shots

Depending on the type of images you’re trying to create don’t get too caught up in overly posing your shots.

Think about how you can bring your subject’s personality to life and capture candid moments.

A candid moment can really reveal your model’s true facial expression and will help people who are uncomfortable in front of the camera.

Having the ability to capture candid in the moment photos is a really good skill to have as a portrait photographer. We talk considerably about story telling as part of the Smart course. Here you can also receive a fantastic certificate while learning how to take your audience on a journey.

Something to consider:

Do you want to become a better portrait photographer? Smart is the world’s leading online photography course offering in-depth training, mentoring and classes to creatives of any skill level.

If you want to improve your photography then be sure to sign up to Smart today!

8. Shutter Speed

If you are photographing your portraits indoors it is always good to be mindful of your shutter speed.

Too slow of a shutter speed can result in blurry images which no one wants to look at.

As a rule of thumb, we say that your shutter speed should be a minimum of double your focal length. For instance, if you’re shooting on a 50mm lens your shutter speed should be a minimum of 1/100sec.

Please note that we say the minimum. That’s based on you having a stationary subject and a steady hand. If your subject is moving and you’re trying to capture candid images you may need a faster shutter speed. Raising your shutter speed will obviously impact on your ISO and aperture settings.

You will need to play around with your settings to achieve the results you’re after.

9. Use Off-Camera Flash

Pointing your flash straight at your subject is a sure fire way to capture a deer in headlights style image that is really unflattering to your subject.

By positioning your flash off camera it will result in much nicer imagery that flatters your model.

10. Direct Your Subject

If you are using professional model your level of direction might not need to be that much.

However, if you are working with an inexperienced model or say a bride at a wedding directing your subject can be really important. Giving them something to do or somewhere to look can really make the difference to the success of your shoot.

It can be quite intimidating to look down the lens and pose so instead think how you can subtly direct your subject to get the best natural photos.

Don’t be worried about directing your subject and talking them through what you are trying to achieve as this can produce the best results.

11. Find Shaded Areas

Shaded areas can provide you with really even lighting to capture your portrait photos.

If it is a particularly sunny day it can also reduce the likelihood of your model squinting at the sunlight.

Having a nice wide aperture set for your lens will also result in some gorgeous bokeh particularly if you are in a woodland setting.

12. Movement

Rather than shooting solely static images think about involving a level of movement within your images.

Allow your model a sense of freedom but still communicate what you want them to do.

For example look over there, walk over here, lower your chin, look over at that tree. This will make the image taking less formal and produce more natural portrait photography.

13. Background

Although your background is likely to be out of focus in a portrait headshot you should still consider what you’re capturing.

Compose your image in a way that naturally frames your subject or reduces distracting elements.

For example, avoid having the branch of a tree go directly through your models head or prevent a trash can being in the shot.

14. Emotion Is Sooooo Important

Getting great emotions out of your subject whether happy or sad will really make your images stand out.

Rather than getting bogged down in nailing the perfect settings think more about how you can bring your subject personality to life.

You could have the most technically perfect settings to your image but if there is no emotion your viewer will lose interest quickly. If there isn’t a connection within your image then your photos will look bland and boring.

Where To Go From Here

We hope you’ve taken some useful information from this blog post that will help you develop as a photographer.

As we have tried to emphasise portrait photography isn’t necessarily all about having the right settings. This obviously helps to produce a nice image! but it’s about conveying a connection between you and your subject, an emotion or a feeling that the viewer can get when they look at your photos.

Hopefully, you will experiment with some of these techniques and send us your results so we can see how your images are progressing.

If you’re after some inspiration in the meantime you should check out our best portrait photographers blog post. It is stacked full of photographers who are taking the industry by storm as well as some tips from pro photographers.

See you in the next one!

Further Reading

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