A Guide to Portrait Photography

Portrait photography is all about capturing a person's personality. This guide will help you shoot portraits that tell a story about the subject.

Portrait photography can be one of the most challenging forms of photography. Capturing a photo that appears natural and conveys the subject's personality is a skill that takes patience and practice.

The good news is that it doesn't rely on fancy or expensive equipment; portrait photography is all about capturing some sense of a person's character rather than producing a technically perfect composition.

The following tips will help you move beyond simple "snapshots" to taking some truly engaging portrait photos. By following them, you'll find it easier to bring out your subject's unique characteristics. You'll also begin to develop an eye for a good portrait shot, and learn how to turn an average shot into a great one.

Capture Their Personality

Portrait photography is all about people. Your photos don't have to be technically brilliant so long as you capture the essence of your subject. Think about what makes your model so uniquely "them" and try to capture that in your portrait. A good portrait photograph will tell a story about the person in it.

Woman with surprised look on her face

The best portrait photographs convey something about the subject's personality. Image by Beatriz AG.

A great way to get a natural looking portrait photo is to photograph the person when they're off guard or not posing. When you put most people in front of a camera they automatically put their "photo face". Keep talking to them to help them relax, and to distract them from the fact that the camera is there; you'll end up with a much more natural photo that exposes their personality.

Shoot loads of photos. Shots are cheap, particularly when it comes to digital, so fire off as many as you can. Not only does this improve your chances of getting a good portrait shot, but your relentless snapping will make it impossible for your model to keep up their posing, no matter how hard they try. When they finally relax, that's when you'll likely get your most telling shots.

Choose a Location That Suits Your Subject

A studio setting with a plain background is a popular choice in portrait photography - it is perfect for isolating the subject and cutting out any distracting background elements. If you don't have access to a professional studio, you can always set up a home studio with a modest budget.

However, you can often create a more intimate, telling portrait by photographing your subject in surroundings that reflect their personality. Get to know them, and find out about their hobbies, interests and favourite places, and then see if you can somehow incorporate one of these into your portrait.

Female guitarist lit in yellow

Placing your subject in a meaningful location will produce a more compelling portrait. Image by Mic Wernej.

Photographing your subject in a place that reflects their character can add real interest to a portrait photo, helping the viewer to build up a mental picture of that person, in effect "getting to know them" better.

Whatever background you choose for your portrait, always remember that the main focus of your photo is the person, not the place. Keep the background free from distractions, use a wide aperture to send it out of focus, and keep your subject large in the frame.

Take a Step Back

If you shoot a portrait photograph from too close, you will distort the subject's face, making it seem round and bulging, with a huge nose. This can be very distracting, not to mention completely unflattering.

Move back as far as your lens will allow and zoom in on your subject. The further back you can get, the less distorted their face will be, and the more attractive and "real" your portrait will look.

Portrait of an old lady

Minimise facial distortion by moving back from your subject and zooming in. Image by H J Wesselink.

If you have the option of changing your camera's lenses, you may even want to consider using a telephoto lens. These will reduce the distortion even more and they have the added benefit of a narrow depth of field, perfect for separating your subject from the background. Most professional portrait photographers use long lenses when shooting portrait photos, and some go so far back that they actually need to use a walkie talkie to communicate with their model!

Lighting Your Portrait

When it comes to lighting a portrait photograph, you shouldn't rely on your camera's built-in flash. Lighting your subject from the front will completely eliminate any facial shadows, leaving their features looking flat and uninteresting. Not only that but you may also end up casting distracting shadows on your backdrop.

If you are shooting in a studio, use a combination of out-of-camera lights and reflectors to light your model. Aim to get slightly more illumination on one side of their face than the other - this will give their features depth.

Girl in red top holding umbrella

Lighting your subject from the side helps to accentuate facial features, giving them depth. Image by Rach.

If you don't have studio equipment then shoot your portrait in an area with plenty of natural light. Shadows may become a problem, so use a reflector (or large piece of white card) positioned on the other side of the subject to fill in the shadows.

You can compliment your light set up with a burst from your camera's flash to highlight their eyes. This can bring real life to your portrait photo. If your flash is too strong and harsh, try covering it with some tissue or thin paper to produce a softer effect.