The Complete Guide to Portrait Photography

As a photographer, learning how to professionally capture portrait photography is one of the most important skills you can develop. Good portrait photographers are highly sought after and well respected. And it’s a great way for a budding amateur to turn a hobby into a career.

Of course, if photography portraits were as simple as picking up a camera and shouting ‘say cheese!’, we’d all be doing it. But it’s not; there’s a ton of little intricacies to it.

From choosing the right gear and finding the perfect location, to posing the model and adjusting your composition, to mastering light and polishing photos in Photoshop. You have to know it all to master portraiture, and that’s what we’re going to cover right here…

Portrait Photography Gear

Although a good carpenter never blames his tools, he’ll also tell you the importance of having the right tool for the job. This guide focuses primarily on how to capture good portraits. A part of that is having the right gear—lenses, lighting, reflectors, backdrops, camera, and more—for the task.

If you’re just getting started, you don’t have to worry too much about buying too much gear all at once.

That said, below you’ll find a few articles which will help you get the very basics that you’ll need to start taking portrait photos.

How to Choose the Right Camera for Portraits

Although you can capture good portraits using anything from a simple smartphone to a $43,000 Hasselblad, the majority of people reading this will be using a DSLR.

This article takes you through the things you should be looking for in a DSLR for photography portraits, taking your level of experience and price sensitivity into consideration.

Best Camera for Portrait Photography: Canon EOS 5D Mark III

The Best Lenses for Portraits

Will you be shooting groups of people often? How much available space do you have? Do you want to take outdoor portraits with plenty of bokeh? Do you plan on carrying multiple prime lenses or do you want a single zoom lens?

This comprehensive article runs you through key questions you should be asking yourself when looking for an ideal portraiture lens and provides a roundup of the best Canon and Nikon lenses for portraits, along with their specifications.

Selecting portrait photography camera lens in the store

Image credit: BorrowLenses.com

14 Recommended Lighting Setups

A big part of portrait photography involves manipulating lighting setups. Good portrait photographers know how to adjust the quality, quantity, and direction of light with lighting tools they have at their disposal and can even adjust to situations when they have limited or no control over the lighting conditions.

‘14 Recommended Lighting Setups’ goes over a few of the things to think about when buying your lighting gear, such as recycling time, type of bulb, type of power source, etc., and provides a list of recommended setups based on those factors.

We cover some fundamental studio lighting patterns in the ‘Portrait Lighting’ section of this guide, as well as how to use natural and ambient light in non-studio situations in tandem with portable flash units.

Light plan illustrating lighting setup.

How to Set Up a Home Studio

Your studio is where all the gear comes together. This is your controlled environment, where you set up your camera, lighting, and other accessories so that you can take portraits in the style and manner that suits you.

If you’re just getting started with studio portraiture, you’ll most likely want to set up a home portrait photography studio as that is the most affordable way to begin practising.

Of course, setup isn’t everything—you will still need to work with the subjects in the studio to get the look, feel, and the effect that you want in the portrait—but all of that happens in this setting. The sooner you can get comfortable with working in the context of the studio, the sooner you’ll be able to improve your portraiture skills.

A classic space suitable for studio photography

Camera Settings for Portrait Photography

Setting your camera up for portraiture is a fairly straightforward process, as long as you remember this one key idea: emphasise the subject of the portrait above all else.

Classically, this means that you want to expose to achieve the highest level of clarity (no motion blur, as little grain as possible, depth-of-field, and white balance that are appropriate to the scenario, etc.) around the person or people in your portrait.

Your settings will vary depending on whether or not you are photographing in a studio, but if you remember to expose for your subject you can always balance your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO accordingly.

Image credit: User ‘tubb’ on Flickr

Portrait Lighting

Of all the different niches of photography, photography portraits are perhaps the ones that demand the most control over lighting situations.

This is because the positioning and intensity of the light is the main factor in how you call attention to your subject in a portrait. Light accentuates characteristics of your subjects’ faces and bodies, and the lighting setup that you choose can make or break a portrait.

How you light your subject can alter the mood of the image, emphasise or downplay physical features, include or exclude a setting, and more.

As a result for the need for precision and control over light, there are lot of different types of flashes and lighting setups available for photographers to use, as well as several key patterns that they should be aware of.

The articles in this section cover the basics of working with natural and artificial light sources.

10 Ways to Shoot Stunning Portraits With Only One Light

Sometimes you only have a single flash to work with. While this does limit the kinds of lighting setups you will be able to create, you can still use the flash you do have in combination with natural and ambient light to produce a number of appealing effects.

Assuming that your camera is an off-camera flash that you can operate by remote and that you have access to a reflector or nearby reflective surfaces, you can use these techniques to achieve everything from a dramatic, high-contrast image of your subject to one that’s balanced and evenly-lit.

Because you won’t be able to move the natural or ambient light, you’ll need to be aware of how you’re positioning your subject in relation to that light before you select the placement and direction of your flash.

Image credit: Cameron Knight

How to Use Light Reflectors

Reflectors are a cheap and easy way to add more light to your photography portraits. They are cheap, lightweight and easy to use objects. They don’t require batteries, meaning they can go anywhere.

There are many different types you can buy. Most will come with combined styles, such as gold, silver and diffused. They all have a different effect on the added light hitting your subject.
Reflectors are great tools in adding light into your scene for better portrait photography

Hillary Grigonis

For all the help in using and hacking reflectors, read our article here.

Must-Know Portrait Lighting Patterns and Tips

While entire books have been written on the many lighting patterns that photographers can use in different scenarios (in portraiture and otherwise), there is a set of very basic lighting patterns that the beginning portrait photographer can use as guidelines. These are:

  • Split lighting
  • Loop lighting
  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Butterfly lighting
  • Broad lighting
  • Short lighting

These patterns are among the most useful and easy to create with basic lighting gear. Many more advanced lighting setups are, in fact, variations or elaborations on these basic ones.

Memorise these and you’ll have a solid foundation of lighting choices when you need to take a portrait. With these basics mastered you’ll be better prepared to assess more advanced facets of lighting such as light quality, direction, and ratio.

How to Use Window Light for Portraits

One of the biggest portrait photography tips we can give you is to use natural light. Using the natural light which shines in through a window is a great way to get soft light onto an indoor subject which costs nothing and is often overlooked.

The effect of the window on the outdoor light is essentially the same as that of a softbox on a flash, ie. the intensity of the light is lessened and the light itself is

Done right, the effect can be very impressive and professional-looking, but since this is exclusively a natural light source dependent on the time of day and weather, you’ll need to pay close attention to the quality of the light as well as how you are positioning your subject in relation to the window light.

DIY Speedlite Flash Modifiers

If you have a Speedlite, why not try some DIY. Store bought modifiers can be expensive to buy, and you might find you don’t use them all the time.

Creating them at home means that you get to try different ways to light your portraits without spending a lot of money. You can try before you buy, or just keep the ones you made.

With a few small pieces of plastic, you can create a few different modifiers. Other items you might have laying around the house. You might need to buy a pack of pringles, but then you can enjoy them too!

A can of Pringles and straws can create a great DIY Speedlite modifier for your portrait photography

Portraiture Lighting Terms

Studio lighting for photography portraits is vast topic unto itself. There is a large amount of terminology that you’ll encounter when dealing with it.

Becoming familiar with the vocabulary of lighting will help you become better at knowing the types of light sources, patterns, and tools that you’ll need when you make portraits.

This short glossary is a handy reference that you can refer to when assembling your lighting kit and manipulating your lighting setup while working in the studio.

Shooting During Twilight

Taking a good low-light photo portrait outdoors is potentially a tricky proposition. As you might have guessed, there is a little bit more involved than just showing up with a flash setup.

You will need to assess your surroundings to see what kind of ambient light will be in your composition. Then, you’ll have to adjust your settings and position your model accordingly.

Twilight is a great time to take portrait pictures outdoors. You’ll still have the faintest of light in the sky after the sun has gone below the horizon line. This article walks you through six steps that will get help you to take great-looking photos during this time of day.

Portrait Posing and Composition

Once you’ve set up your shooting environment for your portrait, you’re ready to compose the actual image.

Portraits are all about the person or people you are photographing. Composition, therefore, will involve working with them on poses that will highlight what you are trying to achieve in your portrait.

Posing your subject can be one of the tougher aspects of portraiture. It requires a separate competency from the rest of your photographer skill set. Guiding a model through poses demands at least a basic understanding of the human form and nonverbal communication.

Moreover, posing men and women are quite different undertakings. You will need to know what kinds of poses are attractive and impactful for both.

Establishing a good rapport with your subject is invaluable here. Without strong communication, frankly, you won’t be able to produce great images with your model.

Ultimately, achieving fluency at posing requires as much practice and observation as mastering your camera. Here we’ve provided a few starting points for you to learn how to pose your subjects effectively.

Posing People in Photographs

When shooting models, it’s your responsibility as the photographer to give them the guidance they need to look their best in front of the camera. This applies regardless of whether you’re shooting professional models or family members.

These 10 steps, while generally geared towards the former (you wouldn’t likely be asking for fashion poses during a family portrait photo shoot, unless perhaps you were shooting a family of models!), are some good basic rules of thumb that you can follow when giving directions from behind the camera.

Image credit: Clay Cook

How to Pose Men In Photography Portraits

Posing men traditionally involves highlighting angles and emphasising the implied power of strong and sharply-defined lines. These means emphasising the V-shaped torso and the jawline, while downplaying round shapes and non-dominant body language.

The prominence of these lines as well features of the subject’s physique can be controlled by adjusting how the subject is positioned in relation to the camera. And, to a certain extent, through lens selection.

The overall effect of the pose should be to show broad, stable shapes with a clear structure. This gives the composition a visual strength which communicates the idea that the subject himself is strong.

Image credit: Lucian Badea

How to Pose Women In Photography Portraits

Women’s poses in portraits traditionally have stressed the curves of the female form. In contrast with men’s poses, women’s avoid straight lines and hard angles.

The key thing to remember when posing women is that the eye should move easily around the portrait. You guide it along with the curves that you introduce throughout the pose. Subtle curves can be created by bending the wrists, elbows, and knees, in ways that are harmonious with the model’s form.

The ‘S Curve’ is a classic pose that guides the viewer’s eye down the frame from the face, to the arms and hands, following on to the model’s legs.
Woman showing female portrait poses, has one hand behind her head, looking away from the camera

Sarah Rodriguez-Martinez

How to Pose for Family Portraits

At its most basic, the family portrait is a group photo in which the subject is comprised of members of the same family. It’s essentially a record of who’s part of the family and highlights the relationship between the people in it.

The classic family photography portrait usually shows the family in a studio, posed as a group, facing the camera. However, recent years have seen a trend towards creative family portraits. These highlight the personality of a family or present the family members posed unconventionally in some funny or visually interesting setting.

The important thing to remember is to keep the composition balanced. You’re working with multiple people in a single image.

This article presents some ideas that will help you create poses that break the mould of the traditional family portraits to show the unique family dynamic of your subject.

Image credit: Hillary K Grigonis

10 Classic Tips For More Interesting Portraits

So you have grasped the basics of shooting portraits and have gained some experience shooting them in a conventional way. Now you will likely want to start experimenting with the form to make them more visually interesting and different.

These suggestions will give you some ideas of what aspects of portraiture you can play around with and how to do that. The key is to challenge some conventions of portrait composition, lighting, posing, etc., while retaining others.

Your image is still recognisable as a portrait, but with a ‘twist’.

Peter Hurley’s Guide to Portrait Posing: The Jawline

This is portrait photographer Peter Hurley discussing the impact that a properly posed jawline can make on a headshot. It’s a bit of a long video. But it’s worth watching all the way through to see how some subtle adjustments can be the difference between a well-defined jawline and the dreaded double chin in your portrait.

How to Crop Portrait Photography Photos: Easy Guide

Deciding where to crop your subject isn’t always an intuitive process, especially if you’re new to portraiture. This handy cheat sheet is a visual guide to places where it’s ‘ok’ to crop a subject in a portrait photo, and places you should avoid cropping.

Refer to this if you’re not sure where to crop when composing your photo.

cropped photo of curly haired brunette in a brown dress and boots looking back while walking down a dirt path in a park

Self Portraiture

How to Take Flattering Self Portraits

Taking self-portraits is easier than a reguar portrait photo. You’re directing yourself and not another person or group of people, but it’s not without its own challenges.

You will need to consider the location where you want to take your self-portrait and prepare that location for shooting. This includes setting up your camera and any lighting you may be using.

Depending on the location, you may or may not have a mirror with you that you can use. Having one makes adjusting your pose a bit easier. If you don’t have one, you should still know how to pose yourself so that the portrait is a flattering one rather than an awkward or bad-looking one.

21 Creative Self Portrait Ideas for Photographers

Self- Portraiture is where you turn the camera on to the person who is usually behind it. You! Here, you photograph yourself. You may find this a little daunting, but since you gave so much direction to other, you know exactly what you need to do.

If you don’t know where to start, you’ve come to the right place. The tips and tricks in this article will teach you how to find inspiration. It will also help you know how to invest in the right equipment. Get ready to transform yourself into someone different.
Creative portrait photography can yield some very interesting results

Taya Ivanova

How to Improve Your Self-Portrait Photography

Now that you have a pretty good idea of where to start, how to start, the equipment you may find useful, its time for us to start photographing. Many amazing photographers have turned the camera towards themselves. Vivian Maier is just one of those.

There is no limit to the inspiration you can find out there. The self-portraits may include pets, interesting locations, a transformation of yourself into a different character (fiction or non-fiction) or just a simple close up. You can experiment with light, or the lack of it.

Like everything in photography, the choice is yours. You just need to start, criticise your own work, practise and improve. This article gives you everything you will need.
Improve your self portrait photography by looking at others for inspiration

Taya Ivanova

7 Fun and Creative Self Portrait Locations

Finding locations for your self-portraiture can be easy and difficult at the same time. The setting and therefore background is just as important as your subject.

Anywhere can be a location, but does it give you inspiration and fill your image with something interesting?

Look at your setting as a continuation of your mood and feeling. Use negative space to place a stronger focus on the subject. Colour also has an impact, whether juxtaposed or otherwise.

Read our article here to become inspired in locations for your self-portrait photography.

Styles of Portraits

A Guide to Black and White Portrait Photography

Shooting in black and white can give your portraits a classic, timeless look. When colour is removed, details of texture, shape, and positioning stand out even more.

The emphasis on the person is heightened as you see previously unnoticed subtleties. I find that the textures that you see in black and white portraits really reveal the character of a person’s face.

While everything you’ve learned about portraiture does still apply, black and white photography portraits are special. It forces you to think even more about light and shadow in your compositions. And about capturing the emotions and expressions without the distraction that colour sometimes can bring.
Black and white portrait photography of a couple with a view over the ocean in the background.

Taya Ivanova

How to Take Fun and Natural Family Portraits

This article talks more about the basics of how to do traditional family portrait photography.

You will learn about what to consider when choosing a location, how to arrange the people in the photos, taking smaller group photos with different family members. And how to light the group, highlighting relationships, working with kids, and of course, what camera settings you’ll want to use.
Photograph of father and son for portrait photography

Anabel DFlux

10 Things Your Photography Contract Must Include

A photography contract for portrait photography is to ensure both parties retain their rights.

It makes sure that neither side can do anything with the images that were not pre-discussed and agreed upon. A risk of prosecution from either side can be enforced if consent was not given.

One rule for photographing people is to get a model release. This is a contract between both parties, allowing the use of the model’s image. Most stock photography requires this if you wish to sell the images online.

Read here for the other nine tips on what your portrait photo contract needs to have.
A contract is used to ensure both parties, the photographer and the photographed hold on to their portrait photography rights

Natalia Robert

Post-Processing & Sharing Portraits

The aim of post-processing portraits is—you guessed it—to make sure that the subject of your image is the central focus of the image. And that they look attractive and appealing.

This amounts to you adjusting image values to accentuate certain physical features, such as eyes, hair, and skin tone. And eliminating distracting things such as blemishes and noisy background elements.

Pixieset – An Image Sharing Platform 

As a professional photographer, delivering your images in a timely manner that matches the quality of your photos is paramount.

That’s where Pixieset comes in. This is a platform that allows you to easily share large files with your clients. This all comes at a monthly fee.

This means your clients will be happy, satisfied, and likely to work with you again! It’s definitely one of the top options for file sharing.

For the full review, and information on how to get started, read our article here.

Pixieset is a perfect way to share your portrait photography with your clients

Processing Portraits in Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom can be used for the majority of your portraiture post-processing. It affords you a slightly smaller toolset than Photoshop. But it enables an easier workflow and archiving process through its organisational features.

For global changes to an image as well as cropping, Lightroom has all your bases covered. Plus, if you are working with a large batch of files which need to be edited, tagged, and organised, then Lightroom will likely be more useful to you. It has the ability to apply presets to multiple photos and add metadata and notes to your files.

This guide gives you a solid overview of how to organise your portrait files. And how to perform the major corrections and edits that portraits usually need.

Editing Portrait photography in Lightroom

Processing Portraits in Photoshop

When you think of removing bags under your subject’s eyes, getting rid of unflattering marks and stray hairs, and warming up flat skin tones, you’re thinking of ‘retouching’.

Retouching portraits is an essential skill and Adobe Photoshop is your go-to tool for these kinds of edits. It’s usually the final stage of portrait photography before you have a finished product.

This article has tutorials on some of the most commonly used retouching techniques including spot healing, frequency separation, and dodging & burning.

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