Portrait Photography Tips & Ideas
Have you ever wanted to take better pictures of your family or friends? Or just learn the best portrait photography tips from professional photographers to help capture these unforgettable candid moments in your life?
Then you’re in the right place because this guide, created by the amazing snappers at iPhotography™, is packed full of portrait photography tips for the beginner. What’s more, it’s loaded with vital tricks and techniques for improving your portraits for the more experienced photographer.
If you’re keen to learn even more about Portrait Photography then be sure to check out our extensive online Portrait Photography Course.
History of Portrait Photography
The photographic portrait has been around almost since the birth of photography. As humans, we’re the easiest and most interesting subjects to photograph. So, let’s just rewind ourselves a little bit to learn a few fun facts on the timeline of portrait photography.
Portrait Photography Camera Settings
Coming back to the modern day now and we should explore what camera options are available to us to helps us create some amazing portraits.
First and foremost, any camera can be used for portrait photography. However, there will be features and functions specific to some camera types that makes your portraits that bit more dramatic.
It all depends on what kind of portrait you want to shoot. Having the option to use wide apertures with your camera will introduce shallow depths of field. This will make it easier to isolate your subject from the background.
Any aperture from f/4 and wider will give a beautiful depth of field providing you are close to your subject.
Lenses between 50-85mm are ideal for portrait photography. They cause very little distortion to the scene making the subject appear as natural as possible.
Although, you will have to take into consideration the crop factor though if your camera has a cropped.
If you are shooting with just one subject, then turn your camera’s focus mode to Spot or One-Shot (or a similar name variant).
Use this Spot method of focusing to hone in on your subject’s eyes for the most engaging portrait.
Next, remember to reframe your composition after focusing. Because it’s unlikely your subject’s eyes are going to be in the dead centre of your picture.
Picture Perfect – Don’t move your camera forwards or backwards after focusing your shot otherwise it will end up blurry. If you do move, refocus before taking the shot.
Picture Perfect – Try to avoid using your camera’s built-in flash as it’s too small and underpowered to be flattering on any portrait.
If you’ve got a larger group of people in front of you then use a Subject Tracking mode. An AI Servo or Continuous focus method as your subjects may be more likely to move.
You may even find that your digital camera may currently carry a portrait mode. When selected, it changes the camera’s settings to be optimized for taking a portrait.
Have a look through your user manual to find out. The camera will deal with the technicalities. You can concentrate on being creative which can be useful for your first portrait shoots.
If you are shooting your portraits indoors regularly then it may be worth investing in an off-camera flash.
There are lots of third-party manufacturers who make generic flashes for lots of different cameras.
Generally, this could bring the price down. Most importantly, do some research online to see what flashes are available for your camera.
And if you want to get really creative then purchase a compatible wireless trigger to go with your flash.
Then, you can position your flash unit at unusual angles to make your lighting quite distinctive.
Ultimately though, there aren’t any ideal settings that are suitable for all types of portraits as every single portrait will be different.
So experiment with your camera settings to see what works best for you. We hope the portrait photography tips in this section have helped.
Family Portrait Photography Tips
Out of all the photoshoots you could ever face as a portrait photographer, families are without a doubt the most challenging. Yet, the most rewarding. Working with multiple subjects at the same time will test your awareness and timing. You will need to make sure that all your subjects are ready at the exact same moment. Which is not an easy task if children are involved.
If you are just starting out with photographing families and you aren’t ready to be too adventurous with your shots. Formal family portraits maybe a good place to start. However, you’ll need to remember these helpful portrait photography tips when posing family members:
All members should be looking at the camera
All expressions should match (i.e. everyone smiling)
Hand positions mirror each other
Hands positioned on laps or shoulders
Co-ordinated / Matching clothing is used
Shot on a prime lens, no wide angles or telephoto lenses
Camera position at eye level
Everyone remains static, no movement
But, if traditional family portrait poses aren’t for you then make it a little more fun. Introduce some creative props. Try finding items that bring the family physically closer together such as a board game, they can be huddled around the board while you capture their reactions.
Or get everyone on their feet and moving by starting a pillow fight between the adults and kids. Be aware you’ll need to make your shutter speed a little faster to stop the cushions looking blurred.
You will have to assess any prop based on the type of family you encounter. You need to pick items that are relevant and personal to that family. Ask them to pick out props of their own based on their hobbies or sporting interests.
It’s a good idea to talk to the family while you’re taking the shots. Make them relaxed and distracted from the camera. It can be a nervous event to have your portrait taken so put yourself in their shoes. Talk to them about their upcoming holidays, hobbies and family events.
Picture Perfect – Use a remote shutter cable if you want to talk to your subjects without being hidden behind the camera.
How To Take Children’s Portraits
Children are not easy and can be a real challenge to photograph. If you are planning on making a small hobby out of children’s portrait photography then prepare yourself. They’re physically, mentally, and emotionally different, and because of this, they’re often unpredictable and uncooperative as photographic subjects. This means you’ll need to be understanding of their development and be able to relate and communicate appropriately. Photographing children isn’t for everybody but the tips here will help you.
It is important to have a few props to hand when working with young children. They will change their minds quickly as to what to play with, so you don’t want to run out of options and lose their attention. You will find you can’t use props as a distraction or visual stimulus with toddlers. Instead, they will insist to hold and play with any new toy and instantly claim it as their own (so don’t give them anything expensive!).
We’ve found there are a couple of little tips and tricks that you can try to engineer expressions on young children. Try saying things like ‘show me your angry face’, ‘can you roar like a lion?’ or ‘stick your tongue out’ and keep the camera ready for their reaction.
Picture Perfect – Think about the space you have to photograph in. Because props will be thrown around and tossed aside regularly, make sure it’s not going to damage anything nearby.
Always remember to praise children too when they do what you want. Saying ‘Well done’ and ‘Good Boy/Girl’ is a good way to build a rapport, even ask for a high five to break down the barriers. Ultimately, the more they interact with you the better your images will be.
With an older child it’s worth pushing your creativity further. Incorporate hobbies/interests to add a theme or a style to their portraits. Dressing kids up in their favorite sports kits and recreating pictures of their sporting heroes is a great idea. Use low angles to make them look more dramatic and powerful.
Get creative with your composition. Crop into your portrait closely and photograph only half of your subject’s face for an unusual approach. Make sure you line up the edge of the shot with the middle of your subject’s nose for the evenest crop.
And if you want to do something completely unique. Try adding in a background to enhance the environment of the portrait by involving some simple hand-drawn shapes and items. This is easy to re-create by using a blank wall which you could paint a background on or stick some shapes to the wall. Alternatively, turn your hand to Photoshop and add those shapes in post-production.
Communicating with Teens
But if you want to photograph teenagers then you’ll need to discard with the sweet talk. You’ll need to become more communicative and engaging instead. Teenagers are more emotionally charged and tend to be defensive from the outset. So you’ll need to find conversation connect over. Don’t be condescending or boring, use any knowledge of pop-culture to start a conversation, but don’t expect it to be easy straight away.
If you are struggling to get the expressions you want then let them be themselves. After all what is a portrait but a reflection of self? If they opt to shy away from the camera then let them. This may be a good opportunity to try out some creative cropping, quirky angles and detail shots.
Overall photographing children comes with different challenges depending on the actual age of the individual. Therefore, try to be understanding to your subject and find ways of bringing out their personality.
The portrait photography tips we have shared in this section should help you.
How to Photograph Couples
When photographing couples your portrait should aim to describe their relationship by using appropriate angles, lighting, props and poses.
You can capture the romance, the humor, the rivalry’s, the arguments and the companionship of two people. It’s all about storytelling.
Talk to your couple first and find out why they are having their portrait taken. Is it to capture a special proposal, celebrate an engagement, a wedding, an anniversary, a birth announcement, a pregnancy shoot or (as morbid as it may seem) for posterity purposes?
It’s important to know the reason why as that becomes your ‘super-objective’ to your story’s narrative.
Get to Know Them
You can take a lot more time when working with adults and especially with nervous subjects. It’s good to spend time getting to know them before you break out the camera.
Explain to them clearly how you want to start the shoot, what outfits and props you want to use first. Then, give them time to check themselves over, so they feel a bit more confident before going in front of the camera.
Do some research online to find inspiration for the age group of the couple you are going to photograph. Ask yourself what would be the most comfortable environment for them. Are they outgoing people? (possibly consider an outdoor location); Do they seem more discreet and private? (maybe hire or create a studio); Or are they somewhere in between? (potentially a home shoot)
Encourage Natural Smiles
To evoke natural and genuine emotions with your couple then think about using locations that have special meanings to them. It may be a place where they first met. Or where they went on their first date. Either way it will always create an emotional response in their expressions being in familiar surroundings.
Make your couple comfortable at the start of your shoot. Don’t take any photographs for 5 minutes or so, just chat to them about the ideas you have. If you have made a mood board or drawn out some ideas show them to get their reaction. After all, they may have ideas of their own. They may be based on some of their props. Integrate them as best as you can into your plan.
Be a little bit silly and outlandish with your ideas too. If your couple are good sports then they may let you be a more creative with your ideas if you explain and justify them beforehand.
Portrait Posing Tips
It’s going to be really important for you to know how to pose your subject in a portrait, so take some time to read our portrait posing guide which will take you through a range of portrait photography tips and techniques for composing your subject.
Keep a little list of these posing shapes in your pocket so you can be more creative and make some really cool family portrait poses that conform to a strong composition but also look innovative and unique.
Get your family moving around to make your shots look candid and energized. Running around, pushing and shoving each other. Or cuddling tightly, piggy-back fights and tug-of-wars perhaps? They’re just a few little games you can play to make for brilliant interaction and expressions.
The other problem you may encounter while posing is what we like to call stiff body syndrome. When you take a portrait people often tense up. So, give directions and say things like “Try to relax your shoulders and head a bit”, “look over this way” or jokingly shout “cheer up everyone!” to get a nice relaxed expression.
Picture Perfect – For shots with a lot of movement then its best to use a wide-angle lens and a large space to make the action look natural without cutting people out of the shot. It’s also important to increase your shutter speed to around 1/250th to avoid any blur.
And when you are photographing children, then posing is somewhat limited as they won’t be inclined to stand still for long periods but, keep it simple, as young children may not be able to understand poses.
Picture Perfect – With portrait photography the best posing tip we can suggest is to demonstrate the pose first for them to copy.
Use different angles as well to maximize your posing options. High and overhead angles can make children lying or sitting down look cute and innocent. Low angles make short subjects seem taller and more dominant which can be fun, particularly if they are pretending to be superheroes.
Posing children for a portrait may involve some coaxing and patience. Don’t get disheartened if it doesn’t go perfectly straight away. However, make sure you have the camera ready just in case because the unplanned candid portraits can be more revealing about a personality than the posed shots.
When working with individuals then a good tip to keep in mind is that you should try to rotate your subject. Roughly 45 degrees away from the camera so that their shoulder is the closest point to the camera. This change in angle makes the body appear slimmer as the shoulders are the widest part of the body so disguising their width will keep the attention of the viewer on the subject’s face and not on their body.
Picture Perfect – If you do have a subject that won’t sit still, then switch your camera to burst mode to make sure you don’t miss those important moments.
Posing couples can be a lot slower in pace and more considered to create a very strong feeling in your portrait. Body language is very important when telling a story through portrait photography. You can pose your couple to look lovingly at each other with arms wrapped around each other and bodies close together. Or you can use it negatively by facing them away from each other or standing apart to create the idea that there is a divide between them.
Whereas with traditional portraits you tend to find all subjects are looking at the camera, it’s not always needed with couples to create a romantic feeling in your shots. If both subjects are gazing into each other’s eyes, then the camera becomes a voyeuristic viewpoint where we get to look into a private moment.
Try out different poses where the couple are close together. Then, make small changes in their positions such as front facing, leaning over the shoulder and posing back to front to give you more options.
Use hands to create a sense of closeness with your couple, by posing them so that their arms crossed over their partner’s chest will make them look protective or united.
Picture Perfect – Cropping in close so that you can only see the profiles of your couples increases the intimacy and removes any distracting background elements.
Posing Maternity Portraits
When it comes to posing for maternity portraits then you will have to be considerate of your subject. They may have limited mobility due to the pregnancy so try to keep your subject comfortable at all times by offering them a comfortable seat in between poses.
You can be more creative with your lighting with maternity portraits. For example, if you have a flashgun then position it behind your subject to create a silhouette of the ‘bump’. But if you don’t have a flash to hand, try and use daylight and pose your subject in a doorway or in a window bay to create a similar effect.
Simple profile poses will give you a nice clear outline of the ‘bump’. But your subject will either need to be partly nude or wearing figure-hugging clothing to make their outline more pronounced. Asking your subject to place their hands (and even the father’s) over the bump makes for a joyous moment as the couple are thinking about their forthcoming bundle of joy.
Soft chiffons and silk material are ideal to be draped around your subject as they are lightweight and thin. Combine these soft draping’s with a little bit of wind to create a very dramatic maternity photograph making your subject look powerful yet elegant.
Creating Natural Light Portraits
If working with studio lighting and flashguns isn’t your cup of tea, then you’ll need to understand how to use natural light to create dramatic portraits. There are two types of light that you’ll encounter when using sunshine as your light source: hard and soft.
Hard Light is found where the lighting is direct, non-diffused and is not bouncing or scattered by local objects or conditions. The built-in flash on your camera is a hard-light source. When direct and non-diffused by clouds, the sun is also a hard-light source. The transition from light to dark gets increasingly smaller as the light source gets harder.
Soft light effectively ‘wraps’ itself around a subject like a thin silk due to its wide spread from the initial source. This creates shadows with a gradual transition from light to dark. There are no hard-shadow lines. It is created from a scattered or diffused light source. Soft light is found where the lighting is indirect or where it passes through a diffuser, clouds or some other translucent material.
It’s best to avoid the harsh light when the sun is high in the sky, as the heavy shadows it creates across the subject’s face won’t be flattering. Days where the light is subdued by cloudy weather are perfect conditions for natural light portraits as the clouds act as a huge diffuser, casting a soft light onto your subject’s skin.
Ideally, use a wide aperture around f/4 to bring in a much natural light as possible for your portrait. This will reduce the depth of field, but can help separate your subject from the background which emphasizes them more.
Seek Out Shade
Use window light to your advantage by casting graduated shadows across your subjects’ face to make them look mysterious. Alternatively, soften the shadows entirely by covering the window with net curtains or opaque material.
And if you can’t find any shade at all, you may have to artificially create some soft light by using thin white cotton sheets to diffuse the daylight. Shooting in your backyard may make this easier if you can attach the sheets to a washing line.
When the sun is starting to set, think about shooting into the light for a striking silhouette, but use a gold reflector close to your subject’s face to balance the exposure. Remember when shooting a backlight portrait, you need set your exposure for the ambient light behind your subject. This is so that the background doesn’t become flat.
Soft light will always be the most flattering quality to use in location portraits, but it doesn’t mean that hard light is a bad thing at all.
Picture Perfect – If you can’t avoid the bright sunshine though, look for a location with some shade, such as under a tree and use a wide aperture to raise the exposure.
You can embrace the hard light further and incorporate the creative shadows made by structures such as window frames or Venetian blinds. By using a small aperture (f/11 for example) you can increase the contrast making your subject’s face look segmented.
Picture Perfect – When you are outdoors then look around for objects that are going to create those heavy shadows, but they are only going to be obvious on cloudless days.
As the sun changes its position in the sky over the day you’ll need to make sure you change the camera position so that you aren’t casting your own shadow onto your subject. Ideally, position yourself so that the light is coming from behind you as this will give you the evenest exposure across your subject’s face.
Professional Portrait Photography Tips & Tricks
We’ve put a lot of suggestions into this portrait photography tips guide so far, but there are some hidden tricks and techniques that we’ve yet to share. These are golden nuggets of information that many internationally acclaimed portrait photographers use while shooting and we wanted to pass these portrait photography techniques on to you.
Reflectors / Diffusers
If the natural light isn’t perfect for your portrait then consider investing in a reflector and diffuser to make shooting outdoors less limiting. Use the reflector to shy your subject away from strong sunlight and bounce it back on to their face – gold reflectors work great when shooting at sunset. A diffuser will soften direct sunlight making shadows softer and skin appear more feminine.
Watch the Light
Once you’ve set up your shot just take a moment to look through the viewfinder and judge that where the light is falling is exactly how you want it. Try to avoid shadows on your subject’s eyes and under their nose it’ll only make them look tired and heavy. The beauty of natural light is that it gives you live results, what you see through the viewfinder (providing you’ve got a balanced exposure) is what your portrait will look like.
Composition is Key
There are a number of compositional techniques that you could use when framing your portrait, but the rule of thirds is the one that will make your portrait proportionally balanced. By framing your subject’s eyes on the upper third you can then offset your portrait to the left or right power points to increase the drama of the shot.
Build a Rapport
Real Expressions Matter
Don’t be scared to get close up to your subject, filling the whole frame with their face. It will make any portrait look powerful and distinctive, it forces any viewer to engage instantly due to the lack of distracting elements. If you aren’t comfortable about encroaching on someone’s personal space, then use a zoom lens to crop in close.
You can make little adjustments to your subjects pose to avoid unflattering them. Asking them to lower their chin but keep their eyes focused on the camera will disguise their chin and neck areas which many people are conscious of. It’s a good idea to use high angles and folded arms to cover up unwanted mid-drifts if your subject is quite concerned about these areas.
Landscape photographers typically adopt this trick, so they can darken or lighten skies, but you can adapt it for your portraits too. What you’ll need to do is press the Exposure Compensation button (found on most DSLR cameras) and increase it to +1 stop, it will lighten up people’s faces without altering the aperture or shutter speed settings. If you find that you need to darken the exposure, then change it down to -1 stop.
Well, we hope you are ready for your fantastic adventure into the world of portrait photography.
The portrait photography tips and techniques we have shared in this guide will certainly help you – but remember to start small and work upwards.
Try taking portraits of willing friends and family members to increase your skills and confidence before moving onto bigger things.
But ultimately enjoy it!
The iPhotography Team
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Photographing children can be difficult and often takes more time that you would expect. Be sure that you ask Mum and Dad if they want any particular shots as it can take all day in some cases.