From austere black and white images to dreamy images with blurred backgrounds, portrait photography relies on a photographer’s handle of the camera, their sense of the subject, and their creative ability to bring those elements together in unique ways.
What Is Portrait Photography?
Portrait photography is a style of photography that portrays human subjects. Portrait photography has been around since the dawn of photography, when Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in 1839—the same year that Robert Cornelius aimed the camera at himself and took what is widely believed to be the first self portrait photograph (or “selfie” in modern parlance) ever, laying the groundwork for portrait photography to emerge as its own art form.
8 Portrait Photography Tips
A DSLR or mirrorless digital camera lets you manipulate the different aspects of your photo compositions. Once you know how to operate your camera, you can adjust the ISO and exposure compensation to alter the light, or change the shutter speed depending on whether your portrait is still or moving. You can adjust your depth of field to increase the sharp focus on your model’s facial features and blur a distracting background, or use a deeper depth with a wide-angle lens for a more environmental portrait.
Below are a few photography techniques you can use to enhance your shots and turn your good portraits into great portraits:
- 1. Diffuse your light source. When selecting an environment, consider that a soft, diffused natural light from an indirect source is best for shooting portraits. Direct, harsh light or a full sun can cast unwanted dark shadows or create unnatural skin colors. Use a diffuser like a soft box or a white sheet to help soften the light and produce a more flattering effect.
- 2. Use a longer lens. A 50mm lens is considered a mid-range telephoto lens, and a standard length many portrait photographers like to use. However, this length creates a familiar and ordinary scene. Use a longer lens, like one in the 85mm to 200mm range, to produce better image compression without distorting the pixels. A longer focal length can bring your background closer to your subject, increasing the bokeh (background blur), and creating a more dynamic image.
- 3. Find a different position. You can bring new perspective to your photos by breaking the rule of thirds and shooting at angles that aren’t so neatly composed, or even at your subject’s eye level. Try taking shots at different angles and distances around your model. Shoot from an aerial viewpoint or from the side, change up your model’s poses, or even try a candid shot to figure out the most flattering angle for their portrait.
- 4. Bring your own lighting. The camera flash is an essential feature that brings light into your photos, but it doesn’t always provide the light you need. Some flash, especially if used in a close-up headshot, can make a subject’s face appear washed out and disproportionate. Off-camera flash is useful for changing the lighting conditions to enhance contrast and control the shadows in your portraits, making them more visually interesting and dynamic. While natural light can be great for outdoor portrait photography, direct sunlight can sometimes be overpowering. You can use external strobe lighting to underexpose the available light and use your own to create the perfectly lit shot.
- 5. Alter the aperture. A wide aperture will produce a shallow depth of field, blurring the background and making your subject the main focus. However, if you have more than one subject (like a family portrait), a smaller aperture will keep everyone in focus.
- 6. Try props. Shoot through objects in your foreground, like foliage or architecture, for a more dynamic element to your composition. A longer lens can help blur the objects in front, centering the focus on your subjects, adding an interesting aesthetic component to your shot. Shooting through transparent objects can produce unique patterns or reflections, while shooting through something like a fence can provide interesting framing around your subject. Capture your subject through store windows or between branches for a more dynamic composition.
- 7. Use gels. Gels can help change the mood or alter the color temperature of your portraiture. If your photo shoot is producing unnatural skin tones or odd color casts, you may have to adjust your light temperatures. If you’re shooting on an overcast day, you might want a color temperature orange (CTO) gel to make the environment warmer. Conversely, if your images appear too warm, you might want to apply a color temperature blue (CTB) gel to cool it down. The type of shot you’re going for will determine the temperature you need, so plan for your environment accordingly.
- 8. Finish with editing and post-processing. Retouching and enhancing your photos with editing software can give your scene the final look it needs. Whether you need to crop an unwanted edge, lighten a distracting shadow, or tweak the background of your shot, become familiar with editing programs and their functions in order to bring your portrait photography to the next level.