If you are looking to improve your technical ability to take portraits, here are 55 tips, tricks, and techniques that will make you a better portrait photographer. Whether you are a beginner looking for advice from a professional or an experienced photographer looking to refresh your memory or try something new, take a look at the list below. The list doesn’t really follow a logical order. Nor is this list exhaustive or all-encompassing. I tried to start with some semblance of organization, but it devolves as the article continues. No matter what, you’ll find something that will help you create better portraits.
Light is the most important part of any photo. The perfect location, pose, or composition is worthless without light. On a basic level, you need light to expose your image. I’m always surprised by how bright a room seems compared to what the camera registers. But what’s much more important than having light is having good, interesting light. You want to capture light that’s different than what we see everyday. On most days, we see bright, hard light that comes from a small, slightly warm light source above–the sun, while huge compared to us, is really far away, which makes the light source really tiny.
You want a photo with light that is different than your typical sunny day. You want light from a different direction, a different color temperature, a different hue, or a different size. A good photo always starts with good light. When you start to differentiate interesting light from normal light, your photography and your portraits will improve. Your friends and family might think you’ve gone crazy because once you start thinking about light, you’ll always be thinking about light. You’ll start saying things like, “Wow, this light would be perfect for a portrait session,” or, “Can we pull over and take a photo? The light is perfect right now.” Don’t worry, this is perfectly natural behavior for a photographer. Everyone else is just crazy. Right?
2. TIME OF DAY
One way to get better light is to photograph at a time of day when the sun isn’t high in the sky. Photographers love to shoot portraits during “golden hour.” The sun is lower, more diffuse, and a more golden hue, which all make for great portrait lighting. Golden hour occurs for the hour or so after sunrise and the hour or so before sunset. If your subject takes your advice and agrees to a golden hour session, they’ll probably want an evening session, right? Who wants to wake up early and take photos? Consider this, though: an evening session means that you’ll be constantly losing light, but a morning session means that you’ll be constantly gaining light. The morning light you gain might not be “golden” anymore, but you won’t have to end things because the sun went down. One other benefit to morning golden hour can be the dew, mist, or fog that might be lingering from overnight. All of those little water droplets on leaves or flowers can add interest or reflect light or even become little bokehbursts in the image. As the saying goes, the early bird gets the perfect light for portraits, right?
3. SHOOT RIGHT AFTER IT RAINS
Another situation where unique light presents itself is right after rain. As clouds begin to clear, you get diffuse, soft light. The moisture in the air can add atmosphere to your portrait. As I said in #2, the water on the environment can add character to your photo, either reflecting light, creating unique bokeh, or opening up the possibility for a unique reflection in a puddle or stream of rain water. If there’s rain in the forecast, don’t cancel a session and reschedule, especially if the rain will pass quickly. The unique light and atmosphere you get right after a storm will be well worth the wait.
4. GET CLOSER
This article is about creating better portraits. Portraits are about people, so fill the frame with people. More often than I’d like to admit, I go home and crop my portraits tighter. There’s usually just a little too much space around the subject. Getting closer will allow your camera to capture more detail. Getting closer will make your image more intimate and alluring. Resist the urge to back away. Get closer.
5. CROP IN
If you don’t take the advice in #4, fix the problem when you process your portrait. Get rid of unnecessary background, headroom, and other space around your subject by cropping tighter. If you’re editing a headshot, experiment with cutting off the top of the head, too. As I said above, I’m almost always cropping my portraits tighter. I want the people to be the main focus, which often means cropping out what’s around them or cropping tighter. Even if you think your image is great, experiment cropping tighter. Chances are, you’ll like the tighter image even more.
6. MAKE LINES STRAIGHT
Whether you have your subject sitting on a set of stairs or there’s a blurred-out window in the background, the horizontal and vertical lines need to be straight. Pay special attention to your horizon–a slanted horizon can really ruin an image, especially if the slant is minor. A purposeful tilt might yield interesting results, but a lazy tilt that you just didn’t notice will weaken your portrait. Unless you’re going for a sense of chaos or instability, straighten your horizontal and vertical lines. When in doubt, straighten horizontal lines as a priority over vertical lines. We see a significant horizontal line all day, everyday–the horizon–so we are more sensitive to off-kilter horizontal lines than vertical lines.
7. USE THE SURROUNDINGS TO FRAME THE SUBJECT
To help guide your viewer, use the elements of the environment to frame your subject. You might use something obvious like a doorway or window, or the frame might be more subtle like an opening in a set of bushes or different colored panels on a wall. Pay attention to the creative ways you can frame your subject. One way you’ll know if your surroundings might lend themselves to a frame is if you have a line, like a branch or building corner, sticking out of your subject’s head. Moving slightly to the left or right could turn that element into a frame rather than a random line.
8. USE THE SURROUNDINGS TO LEAD TO YOUR SUBJECT
Keep an eye out for all manner of lines. Streets, staircases, cars, chairs, pretty much anything can become a leading line to your subject. The leading line might not be obvious at first. It might take moving around a bit to make seemingly-random objects become leading lines, but attention to line can help draw your viewer around the frame and to your subject. One interesting way to use your surroundings to lead the viewer’s eye is to consider qualities of light. The interplay of light and shadow, while not a physical line, can help lead your viewer, especially if your subject is placed where a change in light or a burst of light is occurring.
9. STEADY YOURSELF
If you’re not using a tripod, then you need to do your best to become one. Widen your stance, bring your arms and elbows close to your body, and hold your camera with your left hand under the lens, not over it. If you do this, then you’ll actually kind of look like a tripod. Your legs will be wide for stability, and your upper body will be tight. If you’re on your stomach, spread your elbows wide (like a tripod!). If you can lean against something safely, like a tree or wall, do that to steady yourself. If you can safely prop your camera against something, like the back of a chair or a railing, then do it. All of this will steady your camera, reducing the possibility of motion blur, resulting in a sharper image.
10. BREATHE IN AND HOLD YOUR BREATH
Before you click your shutter, take a deep breath in, hold it, and click. That way, you click the shutter when your body is still rather than when your body is moving slightly when you breathe in or out. Breathing in and holding your breath for a short time will steady your entire body, again resulting in a sharper image.
11. USE A LONGER FOCAL LENGTH…
Conventional portrait knowledge will tell you to use a lens with a longer focal length, at least 85mm, perhaps even 100mm and beyond. Some photographers swear by their 70mm-200mm lens, zoomed to 200mm for portraits. What’s great about a longer focal length for portraits is that the perspective compresses the image, which is especially flattering for people. Whether you’re photographing a headshot or a group of people, everyone looks better with a longer focal length. Longer lenses will also make it easier to blur the background, which is especially helpful if you’re shooting with a kit lens that can’t open to as wide of an aperture as a more expensive lens. Even if you have to shoot at f/5.6, when you’re zoomed to 200mm, you’ll still blur the background while keeping your subject in focus. Just remember that if you use a longer focal length, you won’t be able to include as much of the surroundings unless you back up quite a bit, which might then create an image without intimacy or detail in the subject. When you use a longer focal length, be comfortable showcasing the people rather than the surroundings.
12. …OR USE A SHORT FOCAL LENGTH
On the other hand, you can use a shorter focal length, like 50mm or 35mm or even 24mm, to include much more of your surroundings. This is especially useful for photographing someone in their home, perhaps their office or workspace. Be careful to make sure that the subject stays in the middle of the frame, and don’t get too close to the subject; otherwise, you run the risk of distorting their body or features due to the perspective of the wider lens. Use a wider lens for a more journalistic look and feel to your portraits.
13. USE A WIDE OPEN APERTURE…
Using a wide open aperture like f/2.8, f/2, or f/1.2 not only lets in a ton of light, but the wide apertures give you a shallow depth of field. The shallow depth of field creates great separation between your subject and whatever is in the foreground and background. A wide open aperture also creates great bokeh and, if you’re really wide open, can give your photo an almost dream-like quality. An environmental portrait with a shallow depth of field is what so many families and brides are looking for these days. Everyone seems to want a golden hour portrait in a field of wheat with a shallow depth of field, right? Just be careful: you can miss your focus the wider you set your aperture. You have to pay close attention to steadying your camera and nailing your focus point when you shoot at a wide aperture.
14. …OR USE A NARROWER APERTURE
If you’re a little tired of the look described in #13, if you shoot in a studio, if you miss your focus when wide open, or if you simply want more of your subject in focus, then choose an aperture like f/4, f/5.6, or f/8. You won’t get that buttery bokeh mentioned above, but you will get a sharper image. You’ll also have a little more leeway when it comes to nailing your focus. A narrower aperture can be a little more forgiving. So if you’re tired of portraits where the eyes are in focus but the ears are fuzzy, then narrow your aperture. You might surprise yourself when you realize how much you like a portrait that’s not shot totally wide open.
15. USE A BIG LIGHT SOURCE
A big light source will give you softer light and more gradual fall-off from light to shadow. The bigger the light source, the more flattering the light tends to be for portraits. Novice photographers tend to want to back the light source away from their subjects, thinking that the space will allow the light to somehow spread and become softer and better–this is not the case! Get your subject close to a big light source and you won’t be disappointed.
16. BOUNCE YOUR FLASH
One way to get a big light source is to turn your speedlight towards a wall and fire away. What was a light source that’s smaller than a credit card just became a light source the size of a wall or ceiling! If you’re careful about the direction of your speedlight, you can create a huge, flattering light source simply by aiming your speedlight at a wall. (Sorry, if you only have the little flash that flips up on some cameras, then you can’t do this. Go get a speedlight! You’ll thank yourself a million times over.)
17. MODIFY YOUR FLASH
If you don’t have a wall to bounce your flash and make it bigger, you can use an umbrella, a softbox, a reflector, or even a piece of foam core. With an umbrella or softbox, you’re attaching something to your speedlight and making the light source bigger. With a reflector or piece of foam core, you’re doing the same thing as bouncing your flash off of a wall, only you’re aiming at something more specific. You can even fire your flash into a big bed sheet or shower curtain. Anything that will allow you to either shoot through it or reflect off of it can make your light source bigger.
18. FIND A BIG WINDOW AND STAND SIX FEET AWAY
Photographers love windows. Windows diffuse the light from the sun beautifully. If you have a north or south facing window, you’re in even better shape because you’ll have more even light throughout the day. Have your subject take a few steps back from the window. That way, the light isn’t too harsh. Plus, you’ll see a soft, beautiful transition from light to shadow on your subject. Window light is a photographer’s best friend.
19. SIMPLIFY THE BACKGROUND
For some reason, people tend to think that a perfect background for family photos is a medieval castle covered in ivy next to a ten-story waterfall that’s surrounded by wildflowers with a rainbow overhead. I often have clients looking for the most unique and ornate location for their family photos. But we’re taking portraits here, right? The photos are about the people, not the backdrop. Strive to simplify your background and make the people, not the location, the main attraction. You don’t need to simplify to a solid, flat wall, but perhaps getting rid of everything except the wildflowers would do. In portrait photography, the cliche of “less is more” really is true.
20. SIMPLIFY THE COLORS
Similar to #19, do what you can to simplify the colors in your portraits. Pick a certain palette–perhaps various shades of blues, greens, and yellows–or find a backdrop of all gray and brown stones. Too much color can be distracting, so make an attempt to simplify the number of colors (and where they are) in your portraits.