10 Tips for Improving Your Portrait Photography
Mastering portrait photography takes considerable time and practice, but you can elevate your skills immediately with these best practices.
- Focus on the eyes. There are a few simple ways to accelerate your skill development in portrait photography. First, focus on the eyes. Eyes are evocative and powerful. Compose the portrait so that the subject’s eyes are a central focal point. Consider blurring the background to place even more emphasis on their facial features.
- Use indirect light. Nothing ruins a portrait like a subject squinting into direct sunlight. When shooting portraits, choose a light source that is bright but not direct. If you’re shooting inside, consider placing the subject near a window to take advantage of the natural window light. When you’re outside, shoot in a shady area or wait until it’s cloudy. You can also use a portable diffuser to soften direct light.
- Shoot at your subject’s eye level. For example, when shooting children, place yourself at their level instead of shooting from above. There might be instances in more creative portraiture in which experimentation with angles will yield interesting results. Get creative, but keep in mind that shooting from above can diminish your subject, and shooting from below can create unflattering angles.
- Practice with someone you know. Portrait photography is an intimate art form. Begin by practicing with someone you already have rapport with, and ask them to provide you with feedback on your style. A confident photographer knows that there is always more to learn.
- Respect your subjects. Subjects who are not used to having their picture taken are usually uneasy about being with a photographer. Even people who are used to it don’t like it that much. Trust and respect are important. For instance, checking the back of the camera frequently to look at the picture might seem rude, unless you show the subject what you are looking at too. Making the subject stay for hours will not help things either. If things aren’t going well, it is better just to schedule another session
- Consider the setting. There’s more to good portrait photography than professional portrait headshots lit with a softbox. Shooting environmental portraits in a natural setting (as opposed to a staged one) can be a great way to create visual interest while also revealing something about your subject’s life and personality. Consider shooting your portrait subject as they go about their normal life and activities, especially if they’re having trouble relaxing in front of the camera.
- Aim for a shallow depth of field. When shooting portraits, you typically want the focus to be on your subject’s face, not the background. In other words, you want the subject’s face to be in sharp focus, but the background should be much softer. To get this effect, you may need to tinker with your DSLR’s camera settings. A wide aperture will help create a shallow depth of field, and to compensate for the increased light, you’ll probably need to increase your shutter speed.
- Practice with different portrait lenses. While a standard 50mm lens might work great in many situations, you may want to experiment with some other options when it comes to shooting portraits. It may seem counterintuitive, but telephoto lenses (or other lenses with longer focal lengths) can be great for portrait photography, since they can intensify the contrast between your subject and the background. They also allow you to shoot close-up photos without getting too close. It’s generally best to avoid wide-angle lenses (unless you’re going for a distorted or surreal style), as they exaggerate your subject’s features, especially near the edge of the frame.
- Use post-processing to bring out highlights. When you post-process portraits, you’re continuing the line of thought you had when you were shooting—which involves paying close attention to the relationship between your subject and your background. When a viewer looks at a photo, their eyes are usually drawn to the brightest or most colorful part of the image, so when you process a photo, you can balance the brightness and the colors to make sure your subject stands out.
- Always shoot in RAW. When you go into post-processing, you want to have as much material to work with as possible. With digital photography, that means shooting in RAW. While RAW formats introduce larger file sizes and greater complexity, they also give you the greatest possible control over how your images look. You’ll be especially thankful for RAW images when it comes to adjusting the white balance of your photographs.