How Do You Take Portrait Photos?

portrait photography

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 or mirrorless camera to give them more control when they take family portraits or pictures of friends, getting great shots of people is always a challenge.

People’s pictures fall into two categories: portraits and candid. Either can be made with or without your subject’s awareness and cooperation.

However near or far your issue, however intimate or distant the gaze your camera casts, you always need to keep in mind the elements of composition and the technique that will best help you communicate what you are trying to say.

Portrait photography is a balancing act – there are so many things to keep in mind. Communicating with your subject and making sure they feel at ease is vital.

And from a technical perspective, worrying about camera settings, choosing the correct lens and composing your shot are critical elements of the process. This article will offer some portrait photography tips to help you sharpen your skills. 

The difference between amateur and professional portraits can be vast. So we’ve compiled this list of the most important portrait photography tips for any photographer to know. Breaking things down into bite-sized chunks will help you to master portrait photography. 

Portrait Photography Tips: Subjective

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Get Closer

The most common mistake made by photographers is that they are not physically close enough to their subjects. In some cases, this means that the centre of interest—the issue—is just a speck, too small to have any impact. Even when it is big enough to be decipherable, it usually carries little meaning.

Viewers can sense when a subject is small because it was supposed to be and when it’s small because the photographer was too shy to get close.

Don’t be shy. If you approach people correctly, they’ll usually be happy to have their picture made. It’s up to you to break the ice and get them to cooperate.

Joke around with them. Tell them why you want to make the picture. Practice with people you know so that you are comfortable; people can sense when you aren’t.

Settings—The Other Subject

The settings in which you take pictures of people are necessary because they add to the viewer’s understanding of your subject.

The room in which a person lives or works, their house, the city street they walk, the place in which they seek relaxation—whatever it is, the setting provides information about people and tells us something about their lives.

Seek balance between subject and environment. Include enough of the location to aid your image, but not so much that the subject is lost in it.

Candids: Being Unobtrusive

You may want to take photographs of people going about their business—vendors in a market, a crowd at a sports event, the line at a theatre.

You don’t want them to appear aware of the camera. People will often see you, then ignore you because they have to concentrate on what they are doing. You want the viewers of the image to feel that they are getting an unguarded, fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the scene.

There are several ways to be unobtrusive. The first thing, of course, is to determine what you want to photograph. Perhaps you see a stall in a market that is particularly colourful, a park bench in a beautiful setting—whatever has attracted you.

Find a place to sit or stand that gives you a good view of the scene, take up residence there, and wait for the elements to come together in a way that will make your image.

If you’re using a long lens and are some distance from your subject, it will probably be a while before the people in the scene notice you. You should compose your image and get your shot before this happens when they see you, smile and wave.

There’s a difference between being unobtrusive and unfriendly. Another way to be hidden is to be there long enough so that people stop paying attention to you if you are sitting at a café, order some coffee, and wait.

As other patrons become engrossed in conversations or the paper, calmly lift the camera to your eye and make your exposure.

In most cases, people either won’t notice or won’t mind. But be judicious. Don’t keep firing away and become a nuisance.

They will mind. You can also set the camera on the table with a wide-angle lens pointed at your subject and simply pressed the remote release when the time is right. Modern autofocus and auto-exposure cameras make this easy to do as well.

Anticipating Behavior

An essential element in people photography is knowing your subjects well enough to anticipate what they will do. It’s the only way you are going to be able to get pictures of it.

If you wait until you see it, it’s too late. The key is to observe people. Always have your camera ready.

If you’re going to be shooting in one situation, set the aperture and shutter speed in advance, so you don’t have to fiddle with them while you’re shooting. Watch people through the viewfinder. If you’re paying attention, you’ll sense what’s about to happen.

Predicting Relationships Within the Frame

Many people photography is understanding human nature and being aware of how people usually react in given situations. If someone is sitting in a café, he will usually look up when the waiter approaches.

People will generally smile when they see a baby or open a present. Crowds rise when a batter smashes a ball that looks like it’s headed for the seats. Think about the situation you are photographing and how people are likely to act in it. Then prepare yourself for the moment.

Candids With Consent

Unobtrusive candids seek to be fly-on-the-wall images that catch people going about their business, seemingly unaware of the camera and the photographer.

This yields images that are more toward the objective end of the objective/subjective continuum. However, there is not, of course, any photograph made by an utterly accurate human.

Candid shots with consent made when the photographer is actively engaged with the subject and the issue is conscious of this involvement are very different. Photographs are records of the photographer’s relationship with his or her subject.

In consensual candids, the connection can be either obvious (the issue looks directly into the camera) or subtle—the relationship is implied because the image feels more intimate. We sense that the photographer was physically close to the subject and that the person was aware of being photographed.

Engaging Your Subject

The first order of business is to engage your subject. This is where we all have to learn to overcome our shyness and approach people in an open and friendly manner.

Be upfront about who you are and what you’re doing. Don’t just barge into a scene with your cameras blazing. It is usually best to leave your camera in its bag when you first approach people so as not to frighten them.

Take time to engage the person in conversation, just as you would if you didn’t have a camera. Remember the Golden Rule. Think about how you’d feel if someone approached you and wanted to take a photograph. How they did it would determine how you would respond.

Approaching Unfamiliar Cultures

One of the keys to success in photographing cultures different from your own is doing as much research as you can before you go. Talk to people who have been there and get their recommendations.

Find out if there are any taboos about photography, and if so, what they are. Another key to success is to be sensitive to local customs and the different reactions people may have to you and your camera.

Learn a few simple phrases in the local language so you can at least say hello to people and ask if you can take photographs of them.

Some people have no problems with photography, and you should treat them in the same courteous and respectful way you would treat people at home by engaging them and seeking their permission.

Others have objections to photographs being made of specific individuals or groups. Some people object on religious grounds. Some feel that you want to make fun of them, to show their poverty or some other aspect of their lives to the world.

Other people believe that when you make an image of them, you are stealing their soul or, in some other way taking something away from them.

They are right, of course. Photographers talk about capturing the essence or spirit of a person or place. We do take something, and we profit by the taking.

It would help if you always respected people’s feelings and beliefs. There are selfish reasons for this—you don’t want to be beaten up or thrown in jail.

But the main point is that people are always more important than photographs. You don’t want to abuse people, and doing something against a firmly held belief is abuse. And the pictures would probably not be perfect anyway.

You may be asked to pay for photographing certain people.

My advice is to comply with such requests. You pay for a postcard when you travel; why not for an image you make? It is usually not much money for you but maybe quite a lot for the people you want to photograph. If you do not wish to pay, you can always move on.

Portrait Photography Tips: Technical

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Posing

We’re going to save you about three years of learning with the following sentence. Unless you’re working with a professional model, don’t pose your subject.

Chances are you’ll be shooting friends and family, so making them pose is just going to make them feel nervous and look awkward. Also, if you’re not a seasoned portrait photographer, you won’t have the experience to pose them well anyway. But there are a few things that’ll make your subject feel comfortable, happy, and relaxed, making for a better shot.

You’re going to hear, ‘What do I do with my hands?’ A LOT. This is when their nerves will spike, and that makes for a wrong photograph. To remedy this, give them something to do.

They could thumb through some old photos or play with some jewellery they’re wearing. Pockets are a great way to hide fidgety fingers; just avoid shooting your subject straight-on unless you’re going for that boyband/girlband look.

Are your subject’s eyes looking strained? Get them to look off to one side and close their eyes to remove the problem. It’ll look graceful and timeless – just because you’re taking their portrait doesn’t mean you need their eye contact as well.

You’re looking to make curves and S-shapes with their body to place points of interest throughout the frame for wider shots. If you feel like the subject can take a bit of suggestion, get them to drop a shoulder or a hip to break up the parallel lines in their body.

Overall, the most important thing when working with your subject is being friendly and making them feel comfortable. Aim to chat to them more than you shoot; it builds rapport and trust between you both. Offer them a drink and play music in the background to avoid awkward silences when shooting.

Lighting

Sunlight (natural light) is the simplest and quickest way to light your portrait subject. The trick to lighting like this is in the blocking and positioning of the morning.

An easy way to get good lighting for your issue is to use a window. The walls around it will naturally block the light, so you have a directional light source, and the size of the window will determine how diffused the light is. 

Look for soft light – that is, light that’s been spread out – it’s flattering for portraits by helping hide pores and smooth wrinkles. That’s because there’s little difference between shadows and highlights.

You’ll find soft light outside on an overcast day, in the shade or through north-facing windows with no direct sun. 

For example, in the images above, no direct sun rays come through the windows, so the light is already heavily scattered. This widespread of light from the window is directional and softens facial features.

Hard light means direct sunlight – whether the model is inside or outside. It’s best to avoid hard light when starting in portrait photography.

It’s more challenging to control and gives extremes in brightness, from large black shadows to white-hot highlights. Hard light accentuates skin texture and casts unflattering, sharp shadows. 

It’s challenging to get good exposure to harsh, direct sunlight. Shadows are too dark and highlight too bright – plus, the subject will likely squint if looking towards the sun.

The key to perfect portraits is to capture the light and the shadows. A great, quick portrait set-up goes something like this. Place your subject in front of the window and shoot them side-on from a distance. Notice how the light coming in falls off rapidly as it travels through the room. 

Get the subject to look towards you for stunning, soft shadows across the face, or have them look out the window for an accented profile. Avoid shooting the issue with the subject backlit (i.e. the light is behind them) or risk underexposing the subject.

Colour

Clothing and styling make a big difference in how your portrait looks. A classic, timeless approach uses neutral and earth tones such as browns, greys, whites, and blacks.

To give your image a more punch look for splashes of vivid colour such as bright clothing, make-up or colourful backgrounds. However, avoid mixing all three options unless you feel confident behind the camera.

This tricks the camera into reproducing accurate colours because all of these light sources look different – sunlight is middle toned, shade is bluer, and light bulbs are more orange, so the camera compensates by shifting its white point. If you’re unsure whether things look good or not, make sure you’re shooting in RAW file format (rather than JPEG) and change it when editing later. 

Accessories

There isn’t much you need to start taking some fantastic portraits with the camera you already have. However, if you want to take things to the next level, you can try few tricks.

Try placing translucent objects in front of your lens for cool effects. Things that work well are either see-through or translucent such as jewellery and CDs (remember those?). This reflects the light from the sun, giving the portrait an ethereal light flare and a coloured tint.

Smoke grenades look fantastic too, but be careful and use them outside on days with no wind – your subject needs to remain visible. You might also use solid objects such as leaves and flowers, but these are best placed around the edges of the frame.

This develops a sense of intimacy in your portraits and is excellent for romantic couples photographs. The key to making these techniques work is to keep the accessory close to the lens to drop out of focus.

Lenses

The whole ‘portrait’ lens thing is a myth – pick the focal length and aperture limit that’s right for you. These two lens variables affect your portraits in meaningful and impactful ways. Focal length affects photos in three forms: the field of view, depth of field, and perspective distortion. 

Wide-angle lenses (such as 18mm) give a wider field of view, making it easier to fit the surroundings into your frame, and they also have a greater depth of field, meaning things up close and further away are more likely to be sharp simultaneously.

The opposite is true the longer your focal length. Telephoto lenses (~70mm and up) isolate subjects with a shallow depth of field and flatten features.

The wider the aperture, the harder it is to resolve the light passing through it, to make sure things are sharp. All the colours from red to blue will determine at different distances unless some clever optical engineering and coatings are used. That’s why f/1.4 lenses are usually more expensive than f/1.8 lenses – because they’re harder to make sharp when wide open.

That’s hard enough for prime lenses (fixed focal length) but add to that a zoom range and the price can go up even more due to the requirement for more glass and more complex optical problems to solve.

That’s why cheaper zoom lenses will often have a variable aperture range such as f/4.5-5.6, with the aperture becoming narrower as you zoom in. It’s restrictive because the more you zoom, the less light passes through the lens.

This forces you to adjust shutter speed or ISO and affects depth of field, but it’s a small concession to make if you’re on a budget, as zoom lenses with constant apertures are often expensive.

Camera settings

If the best friend of the beginner portrait photographer is aperture, the enemy is shutter speed. Aperture controls our depth of field – how much of the scene is in focus.

A gap of f/16 will make almost everything sharp from foreground to background, whereas an aperture of f/1.4 means only a tiny slice will be short, with the rest falling into a creamy blur. 

There’s no right or wrong way to use an aperture. If the surrounding environment is as important as the subject, go narrow (f/8, f/11, f/16). Or, if your subject is the most important thing, or perhaps the background is distracting/ugly, use a wide aperture (f/1.4, f/2.8, f/3.2). 

Shooting at 1/10 sec shutter speed on a 50mm lens incurs camera shake, blurring the photo because the photographer can’t keep the camera still enough (Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Shutter speed determines whether motion is blurry or not. A fast shutter speed (1/1000 sec) is so short that even subjects in motion are frozen still, whereas a slow shutter speed (1/10 sec) will incur some blurring if either the camera or subject is moving.

The camera’s shutter speed has to be fast enough not to blur your topic, so keep the number the same as the focal length of your lens. 

For example: 50mm lens = 1/50 sec, 200mm lens = 1/200 sec. Use this to guide you, but know that it’s flexible; as long as things are steady, you could go down to 1/20 sec hand holding a 50mm lens without any blur.

ISO should be set accordingly to expose your image enough to get a clear view of your subject.

Modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can handle high ISO noise quite well, so you shouldn’t fret over how high your ISO is getting. As a rule of thumb, know that at above ISO1000, entry-level cameras will start to struggle.

Conclusion

If you apply these tips to your portrait photography, you will see improvement in your images. Not just in the technical qualities, but the overall success of the portraits as well.

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