Tips on portrait photography

Taking pictures of people can often be hit and miss. One shot may appear stiff and contrived. The shot might be unflattering or not capture the person’s true character. Having taken numerous shots of people myself, I have come to lean what to avoid in portrait photography and certain practices to improve the result.

Taking Photos of People

You could set the camera onto portrait mode. This will automatically blur the background behind the figure via a wide aperture setting. It will also prompt a narrow angle lens to reduce distortions to the face. But this alone will not optimize portrait photography. Sometimes, overriding the manual settings will not only create interesting shots, but say something about the character of the subject.

The Best Camera Settings for Photography

If aiming for a straight head-and-shoulders shot, avoid using a wide angle lens or of shooting too close. This could magnify the size of the facial features such as the nose, which can be very unflattering. To reduce this distortion, zoom the lens slightly in and stand further away from the subject. This will ‘flatten’ the features, making them appear more in proportion to each other.

The Best Lighting for Portrait Photographs

There is no wrong or right lighting to but I personally prefer natural daylight to flash. Flash merely bleaches out the contours of the face and sometimes creates unwanted colour casts. Sunlight can reveal form in fascinating ways. Rather than place your subject facing the sunlight, try different angles. Look for interesting shadows that drop off to the side. To fill in dark shadows, place the subject next to a highly-reflected wall, such as white pebbledash or a window. This will illuminate the dark side of the face, revealing form.

A Successful Portrait Shoot

Take several shots from different angles and various lighting. Early morning or evening light will generate interesting hues, such as crimsons and violets. If intending to create a ‘halo’ effect via backlight, shoot into the sun but a fill-in flash will be needed. Watch out for the light fogging out the shot. Make sure the sun does not shine directly into the camera. The first shot will rarely be the best. Keep taking shots even when the subject is not ready to pose. Engage the subject in an activity he/she enjoys to create a natural shot. Petting a dog or sniffing a flower is two such examples.

 Tips for Portrait Photography

The subject does not need to smile or ‘pose.’ In fact, deliberating over the camera settings could cause the subject’s expression to freeze. Allow some shots to be less than perfect and unexpected and interesting results are almost guaranteed. Take advantage of the moments the subject appears distracted or forgets him/herself. Such shots can be very revealing.


Shooting Portraits Indoors

Taking pictures of a subject indoors will require a different approach. Light becomes a premium as there is simply less of it. I would avoid artificial indoor lighting as these can cause unwanted casts. Sitting the subject next to a window will create interesting sidelights; look for a secondary light source, such as reflections from a mirror or a daylight bulb to fill in dark shadows, although high tonal contrasts can reveal interesting textures on skin or prominent features. Such high tonal contrasts in photography are ideal for a black and white approach.

Guide to Interesting Backgrounds for Portraits

Placing the subject in context of his/her surroundings, such as a study or workshop will reveal character too. Set the aperture to a narrow setting (say F8 or more) to increase focal range. This will bring the background into focus as well as the figure. Setting a small aperture may require the use of a tripod and a subject who can keep still for a moment. However, a natural shot is more likely if pressing the shutter when the subject is not quite ready. Often the best shot occurs just before or after the subject is posing.

Professional Portrait Photography Tips

Getting great results for a portrait shoot often results from the least expected moments. Posing or smiling for the camera will only make the subject appear frozen or contrived; similarly, using a wide-angle lens or getting too close up, could bring unflattering results. Rather than overplan the shoot, I will conduct the shot in the subject’s natural environment such as a garden or workshop. I prefer natural daylight to lots of flashbulbs indoors. A sunny day will reveal form, but a fill-in light may be required if there are deep shadows. Look for reflected light from bright surfaces such as a white wall. Shooting indoors may require additional light-sources such as a window, mirror or a daylight bulb. A longer shutter speed will be required, as will (sometimes) a tripod.