I wasn’t thinking of tips just for portrait photographers when I put these portrait photography tips together. We all have people in our lives that we want to photograph. So, because these portrait tips are for everyone, I’ve not included any tips that involve additional portrait photography gear. These tips are about what really matters – capturing memories.
It’s just you, your camera and the person or people you want to photograph.
Even if portrait photography isn’t your thing, you’ve got family and friends that you’ll photograph as part of your life. If you can make them look good in photos they’ll thank you and they’ll be happy to be photographed by you again.
Actually, that’s the biggest secret to a successful portrait – when someone is comfortable in front of your lens you’re already ahead of the game.
If portrait photography is what you want to do, well, these portrait photography tips are a good place to start! Plus you’ll find this portrait cropping guide very handy too.
1. The best time for portrait photography outdoors
The number one best time for taking natural light portraits outdoors is without doubt the golden hour. There are a few reasons why the golden hour is the best time of day for portraits and here they are:
- Quality of the light. The light is soft, so shadows are less harsh than at any other time during daylight.
- Color of the light. During the golden hour natural light has a lovely warm, orange color that is flattering on skin.
- Angle of the light. Because the sun is not directly overhead, your subject won’t have “racoon eyes” caused by shadow as the light hits your subject’s brow.
- Catchlights in the eye are easier to achieve, because the eyes aren’t in shadow.
Further reading: Golden hour photography – when is it and why is it so amazing?
The next best time for portrait photography is during blue hour, which is not actually an hour at all. In fact, it can be just 15 minutes, so you need to be ready for it when it comes. A few blue hour tips:
- Blue hour is twilight and follows golden hour, once the sun has sunk below the horizon and the sky starts to deepen to a dark blue color.
- Light is super soft and very, very even. This is wonderful for skin as the lack of shadows is very flattering.
- Use the true magic of blue hour by including city lights in the scene. The orange glow of the lights complements the deep blue of the sky beautifully. Plus, as our eyes don’t see light like this, it makes it a bit special.
Further reading: Blue hour photography tips and tricks for creative photos
2. Portrait photography tips for overcast days
Don’t be put off by overcast weather conditions. I’d much rather do a portrait shoot on an overcast day than on a bright sunny day.
When the sky is overcast you don’t need to worry about harsh shadows. The light is soft and kind on skin.
So the trick is simply not to include the sky in photos. Unless of course it’s a wonderfully dramatic sky and you can make it work for the style of the shoot. Couples photographed against dramatic skies look great. Young children not so much.
To hide the sky just look for:
- Anything that rises up above the height of your subjects
On very overcast days make sure that your subjects face into the light, even if you can’t really see the sun. Remember that your eyes can see much better than your camera can, and light direction will still impact your photo. However, on low light days:
- We need all the light we can get
- and we don’t need to worry about blinding subjects
- or harsh sun showing up every line
Further reading: How to take great photos in bad weather
This photo was taken on a very overcast day in a thick forest. There wasn’t much light, but it was also very soft, because of being so diffused by the clouds and forest.
3. Use the right focal length for portrait photography
The worst thing you can do is distort your subject’s features. Using the wrong focal length will do that.
The best focal lengths for portrait photography are between 85mm and 105mm.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t take a decent portrait with your nifty fifty. You can. In fact, if you know what you’re doing, you could take a good portrait with a 35mm lens. You just have to be careful of how close you are to your subject and where they are in the frame.
The closer your subject is to the edge of the frame, when using a lens below 50mm, the more distorted they will be.
Also, if you get up close with a wide angle lens for a head and shoulders shot you’re going to make their nose and forehead bulge. It’s not a good look.
4. Make sure eyes are sharp in portraits
Focus is of course really important, and making sure the eyes are sharp in particular is essential in portrait photography!
- If someone is looking out of a photo at you, their eyes need to be sharp.
- If they’re out of focus in the background, they shouldn’t be looking to camera.
Humans look at eyes before anything else. If the eyes are out of focus the whole image feels out of of focus, and if they’re blurry, but looking to camera their gaze will pull attention away from the main subject (the person in focus).
But it’s not enough just to say make sure the eyes are in focus. The eye closest to camera is the important one. Make sure that one is the sharpest point in the photo as that’s the eye that’s going to attract a viewer’s attention first.
5. Posing people in photos
Posing is a very big subject in portrait photography, and too much to cover right now, so I’ll just mention hands in this tutorial.
Hands are very important in photos and can easily ruin a shot. Okay, ruin is probably a bit strong, but bad hand placement can be the difference between a great portrait to an okay portrait.
- If somebody is sitting down with their hand resting on the arm of the chair, so that it’s closer to camera, it’s going to look big and might also make their arm look short. Have them bring the hand closer to their body by pivoting from the elbow. This of course is more important for women.
- It’s best not to have the back of a woman’s hand facing to camera as, again, it will look big. The side of the hand is more flattering.
- For couples holding hands it’s better if their fingers aren’t intertwined as it makes their hands bigger and more prominent.
- When people put their arms around each other, make sure that you don’t just see their fingers peeking around the other person’s shoulder or waist. It looks like their fingers are growing out of the other person.
- Rather have them not each all the way around and instead rest their hands behind each other’s backs.
This is not a posing tip, but as we’re talking about hands, make sure you don’t cut off your subject’s hands or feet. Of course you don’t have to take a full length photo every time, but pay attention to where you crop them. The rule of thumb is not to crop at the joints.
Further reading: Cropping portraits for flattering results
6. Change your perspective
Different perspectives, or viewpoints, bring variety to a set of portrait images and make a portrait shoot more interesting. So don’t photograph everyone from the same height, especially if you’re tall. In other words, get down. Sometimes really low.
If you’re photographing children, or if the family pet is involved, change your perspective by getting down to their level and photographing them at their eye level.
If people are sitting down, bend your knees. Maybe even kneel.
When we look at pictures taken at the subject’s eye level, we connect so much more with the photo.
For a posed family portrait that’s not at all stuffy try this:
- Get everyone to lie in a circle on their backs, heads in the center, feet facing out.
- Then photograph them from above.
- Move around the circle and take a few shots.
Kids especially love it and it usually gets everyone laughing, because it’s a bit of fun and not at all serious. Keep photographing in the moment after the shot when they’re interacting with each other.
7. Backgrounds in portrait photos
We’re always aiming to separate our subject from the background in portrait photography. This helps them to stand out and not get lost in background clutter.
Portrait photoshoot tips
If they’ve agreed to an actual portrait session, your job is easier. You can plan:
- A good location
- At the right time of day
- And have them wear colors that work for the location
- Then position your subjects in the ideal spot, against a great background
- And where the light works
Further reading: Urban photoshoot tips for creative portrait photography in cities
It’s not so easy if it’s not a planned shoot, but the same “rules” apply. They are:
- Make sure there are no trees, poles, bushes etc growing out of people’s heads
- Look for colors that work well with what your subject is wearing
- Pay close attention to the light – backlight is beautiful and fantastic for separating the subject from the background
- If the background is cluttered either change position or use a shallow depth of field to blur the background
Further reading: 5 background photography tips for better photos
Portrait photos at social gatherings
So, without turning the family barbecue into a photoshoot, here’s how you can still get great portrait pics…
Grow an extra set of eyes so that you know where everyone is and what the background looks like at the same time. I’m only half joking, but here are more realistic tips:
- Be present, join in conversation, but stay aware of what’s going on around you and how the light is falling on your subjects
- Make sure that your camera is ready to capture a well exposed photo. In other words, if you’ve been photographing with your back to the light and then turn around to photograph from the other direction, adjust your camera settings straight away so that you’re ready for a shot. When the right moment presents itself, or you feel that a moment is about to happen, you’ll ready to lift your camera and capture it.
- Instead of positioning your subject against a good background, you’re going to have to move around to ensure the background behind them works
- BUT You’re not a lion looking for the weakest zebra in the pack. Nobody wants to be that zebra and their discomfort will soon start to show. So don’t move around constantly or keep the camera up to your face the whole time.
I got down really low to photograph this little girl playing at her eye level. In the image above you can see the adults sitting chatting in the background while the little girl was caught up in her imaginary world. I shifted my position slightly so that they were no longer visible in the background.
Which brings me to my bonus portrait photography tip…
Bonus portrait photography tip – capture personality rather than grinning faces
Remember, great photography evokes emotion. So when you look at photo of somebody you know and everything about it just shows who they are, the person you know and love, you’ll feel your connection to them. What can be more beautiful than that?
If you’re photographing a family, the beauty of the image lies in their connection to each other. Let them interact naturally and capture that rather than their well behaved photo faces.
Oh, and don’t ask them to say cheese! Young children especially learn a “cheese face” that’s nothing like their normal happy face. If parents tell their young children to say cheese during a portrait session with me, I follow it up by asking everyone to shout bananas. And I join in! It breaks the cheese curse and gets everyone laughing.
The photo at the very top of this tutorial is a prime example.
Unique portraits show your subject’s personality. They don’t always have to be looking at the camera for that. If you’re photographing just one person, let them connect with you, so that when they look down your lens they’re looking through the camera at you. It’s easier when photographing friends and family, but it’s definitely possible with strangers too.
I’m not advocating ambushing your subjects, but when people are off guard and allowed to be themselves, they shine. So, at a social gathering, rather than interrupt, capture everyone’s portraits in a candid style while they’re busy having fun.
For additional portrait photography tips, try: 5 portrait photography techniques for better photos
Final word on portrait photography
There you have it, years of professional portrait photography summed up in 7 top portrait photography tips and a bonus that will make your subjects happy to be photographed again! Well, of course there’s a bit more to portrait photography than that, but it’s a good place to start.
My last point, though is the most important… Portraits are memories frozen in time. Make them fun to remember.
If that means not getting everything perfect, that’s okay. Next time you’ll be better, but the memory you captured will always be there.
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