Portrait Photography is an opportunity to commit a personality to memory. Portrait photographers today, find themselves on hand to mark special occasions. Posing is an essential part of your subject’s portrait.
In this online training you will discover eight highly effective techniques that will take your portrait photography to the next level. You will learn how to set up the scene for maximum impact as well as the best camera settings to use. By the end of this training you will be able to shoot stunning portrait photos with your DSLR or mirrorless camera.
1. Pick The Perfect Background For Your Subject
Portrait backgrounds are available everywhere, but not all of them will make your portrait photography stand out as much as they deserve. To solve this problem, you need to familiarise yourself with various backdrops.
You don’t always need to upgrade your equipment, buy luxurious items, or invest in accessories to make your portraits stand out. Sometimes, all you have to do is select your backgrounds wisely.
In portrait photography the background is just as important as the subject. A busy or distracting background will take attention away from the person in your photo.
Usually for portrait photography you will want a neutral, simple background that will not distract the viewer from your portrait subject.
Pop of texture or color
However, you don’t have to choose a completely plain background. For example, an interesting wall or fence could provide a wonderful pop of color or texture.
A busy background will ruin your portrait. A simple one will look too boring. Are detailed backgrounds really worth it?
Time and time again, photographers have proven that details can enhance portraits, deepen their stories, and motivate photographers to be more aware of backgrounds.
Another technique is to include an object in the background to provide added interest or context. For example, an artist, a painter in front of her easel, a fisherman in front of a boat or a musician in front of her piano or guitar.
You can also find items on the location that signify the occupation of the subject. Use books, personal computers, windows, boards, lobbies, and walls to create ‘concept’ image components.
Adding props to your portrait photography is a great way to add a dash of color, excitement, and impact to the shots. Using photography props creatively can completely alter the nature of the photograph. You can develop your signature style by experimenting with shapes, textures, colors of props.
Colors can enhance your subject’s features or simply make your composition look striking.
When you look for backgrounds to include in your portraits, make sure their colors complement your subject’s face and clothes. Watch out for appealing yet gentle colors that won’t take the attention away from your model
A mild green background will look good with a white outfit, for instance.
Soft backgrounds are ideal for closeup, emotive, and moody portraits. Sharp portraits emphasize facial features, movements, and expressions. If any of these points sound appealing, then blurred backgrounds are perfect for you.
If you want to be strategic when taking photos, keep these things in mind:
Make sure the background supports your story. Does it match the emotions you’re trying to create? Don’t choose a random location just because it looks aesthetically pleasing. Instead, find a place that complements your subject’s clothes, expression, and pose. This will add meaning to every background detail.
Avoid an abundance of noise. Taking photos in a very busy place will result in messy photos. If there are too many elements in your composition, your subject will be lost in all the chaos. Choose a place that has just enough details to tell your story.
Create an inspiration board. The more detailed photos you observe, the easier it will be to make your own compositions. This goes for any photography genre; when I first started taking photos, I learned so much by simply looking through my favorite artists’ galleries.
DIY Backdrop Ideas for Indoor Photography
If you’re shooting indoors, you can create your own DIY backdrops with the help of simple items. Some of these will make your photos look like studio shots, while others will simply add a pleasant texture to your compositions:
Use bedsheets to add a pop of colour to your indoor portraits. If you want to add more depth to your background, use wrinkled sheets. They may not look appealing in real life, but they’ll definitely complement your portrait.
Lace curtains can be used to light up your subject’s face and add a bright atmosphere to your entire photograph. I often use curtains to take very soft, minimal indoor portraits. They never cease to impress me, especially on days when I’m out of ideas or when the weather isn’t giving me enough light.
String lights are great for creative and vibrant portraits. They’ll add a beautiful string of bokeh to your backgrounds.
When it comes to outdoor backgrounds, the trick is to find a peaceful location. It’s easy to move around when you’re taking simple portraits, but it’s much more of a challenge to relocate when you have a bunch of props with you.
Before you plan your shoot, make sure you find a location that’s safe, comfortable, and well-lit.
Choosing the right backgrounds will make your portraits stand out, challenge you in fun ways, and improve your observation skills. In addition to taking eye-catching photos, you’ll be more aware of colors, compositions, and lighting.
This knowledge will have a positive impact on every part of your creative life. Even when you take photos in another genre, you’ll be able to use these lessons and significantly improve your work.
The more backgrounds you experiment with, the closer you’ll get to taking amazing portraits. Why not start now?
2. Prepare Your Portrait Subject For The Shoot
Even if you use the best, most expensive camera equipment, it will produce poor results if your subject isn’t ready, comfortable, relaxed and feeling their best.
Subject should be Calm and Relax
Being photographed is quite an unnatural and therefore stressful experience for the subject, so your job as a photographer is to make the experience simple, fun and stress-free.
Break the ice by making small talk. Even if you know the person well they may still be feeling worried. It is always a good idea to keep communicating with the model before and during the shoot.
Explain the kind of shot you want – or ask them what kind of shot they would like. Be open to suggestions from your subject.
Children should forget about camera
Children may sometimes be easy to manipulate into getting into position. At other times, their shyness may act as a barrier. For children portrait photography, get down to their level and talk to them gently. Tell them you’re going to have great fun. And encourage them to play and forget about the camera. Kid photography props such as clay, soft toys, legos, cookies, chocolate act as excellent distractions.
Clothing in Neutral Colors
If possible ask your subject to wear neutral colors – preferably dark colors – because this helps your subject’s face take attention better.
Check the Clothes
Check your subject over. Try to fix if there is any sluff on clothes, uneven buttons and zips, collars…
One of the best preparations you can make is to be prepared yourself. Have your camera and any additional equipment set up, and take a few test shots before expecting your subject’s full attention.
3. Pose Your Portrait Subject Like A Pro
Now that your subject is ready, comfortable and relaxed you need to keep them that way throughout the shoot. Work quickly but confidently and calmly, giving them clear instructions as you shoot.
You will need to constantly guide them as they may not know how to pose.
Getting your subject to pose in a way that complements them while keeping in mind the lighting, camera angle, and background is always an exciting puzzle. Try out various combinations of poses and angles to find the best options for your shoot.
Don’t ask complicated requests from them. Have them simple adjustments, for example, “Raise your chin a little,” “Straighten your back,” or “Now look at me.”
Let’s explore some different posing techniques that you could try. Have your subject sit down. This keeps them still and they’ll feel more relaxed and comfortable.
lean slightly towards the camera
Have the subject lean slightly towards the camera for a more engaging pose (or shoot slightly from above to get the same effect).
Have their body and shoulders turned slightly away from the camera for a natural feel. Or, for a more confrontational image, have their shoulders square-on to the camera as shown below.
For something a little different, shoot from an unusual perspective such as very low or very high. These angles can add a lot of impact and variety to your photographs.
You can make your subjects look slimmer, thicker, shorter, or wider, depending on the angle from where you are shooting them. Move around the scene and see what specific angle captures the image best. Tilting the camera can also add a dramatic effect to the picture. Waists can look slimmer if the subject turns his or her waist away from the camera.
Introducing props is a great way to add something special to the shoot. These could include hats, party glasses, balloons, a pen, a flower or a musical instrument. You can use chairs, umbrellas, sunglasses, scarves, jewelry, and other souvenirs to put emphasis and balance into the scene.
If nothing else it will help break the ice and lighten the mood – even if you don’t end up using the props in all your shots.
You can keep a gallery of creative portrait photography shots on your mobile phone. Keep adding benchmark photos to this gallery. It would help you big time in figuring out various options that can work in the shoot right there and then. Showing a visual example to the subject would also help communicate better to them.
4. Ensure the Subject Is Well Lit
Lighting is critical to a photographer and forms the golden rule of lighting in photography.
Generally speaking, natural daylight is the most attractive light source for portrait photography – especially if you don’t have studio lighting.
The creative use of the sun as a light source in outdoor portrait photography can produce stunning results. A good photographer should be able to use the available lighting to his advantage.
Shooting outdoors in natural light gives the best results but poses many challenges. You would need to plan according to the weather, time of the day, and changing lighting and environment conditions as the day progresses.
On sunny days, a shaded area will provide you with bright bokeh, vibrant colors, and even lighting for your subject’s face.
A slightly cloudy day provides a lovely soft light. Direct sunlight isn’t usually desirable because it creates strong, sharp shadows on the subject’s face. In such conditions it’s best to find some shaded area to position your subject.
On cloudy days, an open field will give you a lot of soft light to enhance your backgrounds.
Choose mornings or late afternoons when the sunlight gets diffused, and you get a lovely, warm, natural glow. At night, an open place (e.g. a roof or a hill) will allow you to experiment with city light bokeh.
Alternatively, embrace the opportunity and shoot (carefully) into the sun, with your subject’s back to the sun. This is called backlighting and can result in a golden glow around your subject.
Keep in mind that shooting into the sun does require you to provide some “fill” light to illuminate the shadows on your subject’s face.
Fill light can be reflected sunlight, bounced back onto the subject’s face using a reflector or even a simple sheet of white card. Alternatively you could use your camera’s flash or an external flash. Reflectors are cheap to buy, and if you are an amateur on a budget, they might be a good starting point. You may also use a camera with a low aperture to get the most details in a picture taken in a less lit area.
You can use natural daylight indoors too. For best results put your subject near a window, and have your subject facing slightly towards the light. You can create a mood using side-lighting.
You will see shadows on the parts of your subject. And some parts of your subject will be dark. This can add depth and a sense of drama to the image.
If the shadows are too dark try bouncing some of the window light back onto these shadowy areas using a reflector.
5. Use An Appropriate Focal Length
Focal length has a major impact on your photos because it introduces a predictable amount of image distortion which can make or break your portrait photography.
Find out what focal lengths your lens offers by examining the lens barrel. The focal lengths are displayed in millimeters, like 18mm or 55mm If you’re using a fixed or prime lens there will only be one focal length.
To select a focal length on a zoom lens, rotate the zoom ring on the lens barrel. If your camera doesn’t have a zoom ring, use the zoom plus or minus buttons on the camera body.
How do you know which focal length to use? There’s no right and wrong here, but the following information will help you decide which is best for you.
A 50mm focal length will give you the most accurate representation of your subject because it creates no distortion of their face. The photo above was shot with a 50mm prime lens.
If you shoot with a focal length below 50mm you’ll start to see some undesirable distortion of the facial features. For example, the size of your subject’s forehead, nose and nearest cheek will be exaggerated while other features like ears, chin and hair appear to reduce in size.
While this can produce amusing results it’s not usually desirable. In addition, you’ll need to get closer to your subject in order to fill the frame. This may be too close for comfort for you and your subject!
A focal length of over 50mm can make your portrait subject’s facial features start to appear flattened. In moderation this is quite flattering – but at extremes it can make the person’s face look very wide or fat. 80mm is a popular focal length for portraits although some photographers prefer 100mm or longer.
A lot of photographers out there say that their 50mm is a “must-have” portrait lens, but what a mid-range lens offers is a very familiar perspective, something that our eyes are used to seeing all the time. To create a more interesting image, we avoid shooting portraits in mid-range because the images look too ordinary.
Most of our portraits are shot at 200mm or 85mm to create beautiful image compression that a 50mm would not be able to produce. The compression will not only flatter your subjects with less feature distortion, but shooting at a longer focal length will also create more dramatic background blur (bokeh) and brings the background closer to your subject. It may be more difficult to communicate with your subjects while shooting at 200mm, but the difference will be apparent and well worth it.
Also, the longer the focal length the further away from your subject you’ll have to be in order to fit them into the frame.
This can be beneficial when shooting candidly for more natural, relaxed results or if you feel your subject will benefit from having some space. However it could be a problem if you simply don’t have enough room to get far enough away from your subject – for example when shooting indoors.
6. Using Aperture Priority Mode and Blur Background
Portrait photography, first and foremost, is about your artistic expression and technique, which takes a lot of practice to perfect. Once you start understanding the nuances of portrait photography, it’s time to invest in a good camera and lens. There is no such thing as the best camera for portrayals, as most cameras nowadays can capture great portraits. It’s a matter of understanding how to use them efficiently under different lighting and environmental conditions.
As with all photography, the camera lens is the most vital tool in catching the right shot. Again, there is no such thing as the best lens for portrait photography. It is up to you to decide which lens fits the scenario best.
A sure-fire way to raise your portrait photography game is to shoot with a shallow depth of field. This allows you to have your subject in sharp focus while the background appears blurred or out of focus, helping your portrait subject stand out.
You can control the depth of field on your camera by adjusting the lens aperture. The aperture is the opening inside your lens which allows the light to travel through from the front of the lens to the camera’s sensor. Your lens will have a minimum and maximum aperture range.
Aperture is measured in f/stops. The bigger the lens aperture, the smaller the f/number will be. The larger the aperture, it is the smaller the f/number, the more blurred your background will be.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to choose the largest aperture (smallest aperture number) that your lens offers. F/4 is a go-to aperture for portraits as it should provide enough depth of field to have all of your subject in focus.
To change the aperture on your camera ensure you set the shooting mode to Aperture Priority or AV Mode.
Then use the thumb wheel, dial, buttons or menu settings to increase or decrease the aperture value.
You can experiment with smaller and larger aperture sizes but the golden rule is to make sure your subject’s eyes are in focus at the very least, and ideally the tip of the nose too.
If the background doesn’t look blurred enough, try moving the subject further away from the background. The further the background is from the subject the more blurred it will appear.
7. Expose For Face of Your Subject
Exposure refers to how bright or dark your image is. In portrait photography the most important part of the scene is the subject’s face. So, make sure that the face is correctly exposed – not too dark (under-exposed) and not too bright (overexposed).
For portrait photography it’s better to have a background that’s too dark or too bright than to have a face which is under or over lit.
Depending on which mode you’re shooting in you can easily adjust the exposure compensation setting on your camera. This enables you to increase or decrease the exposure to suit.
Alternatively, set your camera’s metering mode to Spot metering or Center-weighted metering. This tells the camera to ignore overly light or dark regions around the edge of the scene which might trick it into under or over exposing the shot.
Learning to look for reflective surfaces and silhouetting opportunities will greatly enhance your images both visually and in depth. For silhouettes, it is key to find a strong light source and place it behind your couple; this could be anything from the sky to a window or even a patch of light on a wall.
For reflections, try to be creative with the different types of reflective surfaces; sometimes, the best reflections are found in unexpected places like floors, glass, puddles, and granite walls.
It takes time and practice to train your eye to find great light. Once you learn how to “find the light” in any situation, it will help you master taking some amazing portraits. Lighting is, after all, the essence of photographic images.
Whether you are using the sun, a window, or an ordinary light bulb, these light sources can be used to create beautiful edge light when the light source is place behind your subject. The effect that rim light creates can enhance the dimension of your image by separating your subject from the background, outlining and focusing on your subject.
8. Focus On The Eyes
Portrait photos look best if the eyes are in sharp focus. This improves the sense of eye contact between the subject and viewer, creating a powerful and engaging photo.
So, when shooting portraits, especially with a shallow depth of field, make sure you set your focus point carefully.
Your camera most likely has several Autofocus / AF points which are visible in the viewfinder. Select the central AF point using the AF option in your camera, then position the central focus point directly over one of the subject’s eyes.
Now half-press the camera’s shutter button to lock focus. If necessary, move the camera to recompose your shot for the best composition, then press the shutter button down and take the shot.
If recomposing, ensure you don’t change the distance between the camera and the subject otherwise the eye will no longer be in focus.
Many cameras offer the ability to magnify the scene in the viewfinder which is invaluable for checking focus before shooting.
To really make your subject’s eyes “pop” try the following trick that all the best professional portrait photographers use. Simply ensure your light source is reflecting in your subject’s eyes.
These reflections are called “catch lights” and they’re extremely effective at turning a boring portrait into something really special. For maximum effect, have only one catch light per eye and aim to have them nearer the top of the eye.
Many times we are stuck seeing what is right in front of us. It is, after all, the easiest answer to everything. Challenge yourself to find a different angle from above or below eye-level to bring a new perspective to the image. This technique can also be used to flatter subjects of different body types and heights.
Portrait Photography Summary
In this online training you’ve learned eight important photography techniques that will help you shoot stunning portrait photos with your camera.
To summarize, take the time to find a good backdrop and ensure the lighting is adequate to illuminate your subject.
Make your subject feel at ease and try out different poses. You could even try adding some props to add visual interest and context.
Select a large aperture (small f/number) to create a shallow depth of field with a beautiful blurry background. Adjust the exposure compensation to correctly expose for the subject’s face.
Use a suitable focal length to ensure the subject’s features aren’t distorted, and ensure you set your focus point carefully. The most effective focus point is usually on the subject’s eyes.
Follow these tips and you’ll soon be creating beautiful professional-looking portrait photos with your DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Camera Basics — Start taking control
Start making sense of camera terminology and the various modes on cameras. Get familiar with what cameras can do and how to make the most of yours so you can enjoy your photography quickly.
Your View of the World Through Your Camera
Explore different lens types, get to understand focal length, and how to get the most out of your current set up.
Learn how to improve photos instantly by gaining a basic understanding of composition and ideas on what to look out for.
Shutter Speeds — Adding dynamic movement to your photos
Discover what shutter speeds are and how to use them creatively to capture motion, an important step to full control.
Apertures — Controlling light & depth
What exactly apertures are and how to use them effectively to create depth — the next step to full control.
Good Exposure & Light Meter
What is exposure and how does the camera measure light? You will learn how to snap the perfect picture every time. No more photos that are too too dark or too bright
Manual Mode — Take complete control
You will put together everything you’ve learned previously to take full creative and technical control