A comprehensive guide to shooting captivating portraits

dc-lovensky-437061-unsplash

Taking photos of people is a fundamental skill in photography. Even if your true interest lies in other types of subject matter, such as landscapes or still life, you still pick up many basic techniques from shooting portraits that you can apply to other genres of photography as well.

Photo by Rachel Pfeutzner

Whether you want to pursue portraiture seriously or just familiarize yourself with the craft, these eleven easy tips will help you make any subject look their best in your images.

01. Adjust your camera settings

While it’s easier to leave everything on Auto and shoot away, you’ll understand how each photo turns out the way it does when you configure the settings yourself. Knowing how each setting can affect the way your images look can give you better control over the kind of portraits you want to produce.

Photo by Brooke Larke

White balance

Make it a habit to check your white balance (WB) before shooting. This setting ensures that all white objects in real life are rendered white in your photos, even if your light source casts a different hue. For portraiture, this setting is crucial in reproducing accurate skin tones in photos.

Most cameras choose white balance automatically, but like many automatic features, it doesn’t always work correctly. If you’ve used other digital cameras before, you’ve probably noticed that each device renders light and color slightly differently. The best way to deal with this is to adjust it yourself.

Photo by Chad Verzosa

Many cameras make it simple for you by giving you a choice of presets that represent certain lighting conditions including incandescent, direct sunlight, and cloudy.

You can customize the white balance further by selecting a specific color temperature in Kelvin (consider this a full manual setting for WB). Adjust the temperature incrementally until you find the right value. Remember that the lower you go, the more orange your photos will look; the higher, the bluer it becomes.

Photo by Chad Verzosa

Focus

Most of the time, using Autofocus is good enough when taking portraits. However, in situations where light or contrast is low, your camera may have a hard time focusing so you also need to learn how to focus manually.

Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen

When using Autofocus, the single AF point option (AF-S or single area AF) will help you nail your focus quickly on a single subject.

Photo by Ilya Yakover

A general rule when taking portraits is to focus on the eyes so that the whole face looks sharp. If you focus on any other facial feature, such as the nose, there’s a possibility that the rest of the face will be blurry—especially if you’re using a shallow depth of field.

ISO

Photo by Smart Photo Courses

Keep your ISO settings low to minimize noise. When the lighting is good, go for ISO 100 or 200. In low light conditions, try to keep it as low as possible regardless of whether you can go up to ISO 25,000 or more. Consider using a wider aperture or a slower shutter speed to compensate for the exposure.

02. Identify the right lenses for the kind of shots you want

Photo by Evan Wise

Although the most common recommendations for portrait lenses are in the 35mm to 70mm range, you can take stunning portraits with a wide variety of focal lengths. It’s wise to get a feel of shooting with different lenses to see which ones match your style best.

Lenses with a wide aperture (such as f/1.4) are best for portraiture as you can work with a shallow depth of field to make your subject stand out from the background. They are also perfect for low light situations and creating a creamy bokeh effect.

Photo by Guilherme Stecanella

Wide angle lenses aren’t typically used for portraiture but it doesn’t mean that you can’t experiment with them when taking photos of people. The field curvature caused by its focal plane creates interesting portraits like the photo above. Its unusual perspective makes the subject appear very close to the viewer while the background appears far and slightly distorted.

Photo by Chad Verzosa. A portrait taken with a 50mm lens.

Keep in mind that wide angle lenses may distort the person’s body or facial features. If you want to keep your subject’s proportions natural, consider buying either a 35mm or 50mm prime lens. These lenses closely match what our eyes see in real life and aren’t as susceptible to warped perspectives as their wide-angle counterparts.

Photo by Owen Winkler. A portrait taken with an 85mm lens featuring nice bokeh and virtually no distortion.

03. Select the right location

Make sure that the place you find will help you realize a particular concept or feeling you're going after. For instance, if you’re photographing a newly-engaged couple, you could look for a hill with lush grass or a beach where you can easily create a romantic mood.

Photo by Dani Vivanco

Keep an eye out for potential shoot locations that match your vision. If you’re shooting indoors, be mindful of surrounding objects that can appear distracting.

If you’re shooting environmental portraits where your subject is in a casual setting (workplace, home, studio, etc.), look for a background that says something about them. For instance, if your subject is obsessed with books, you could shoot them reading in their bedroom or a bookstore or library.

Photo by Anthony Tran

04. Consider your subject’s wardrobe

As opposed to regular snapshots, portraiture requires more planning to make your subjects look their best. Although you can technically take portraits of people in any outfit, you’d want your subject to wear clothes that either stick to your shoot's theme or elevate their personality.

Photo by Warren Wong

If you’re thinking of doing a fun portrait session, feel free to ask your subject to bring casual clothes. However, if it's a formal shoot, ask your subject to wear a business suit, uniform (if they happen to be in the medical field, military, etc.), or at least a collared shirt and slacks. Always ask your subject to bring extra outfits, so you can play around with different wardrobe options. You can even bring a few props (hats, sunglasses, etc.) that you think might look good on them.

Photo by Dami Adebayo

You can also get a little creative and go for a themed photo shoot. Recreate dreams or fairytale stories and turn your subjects into story characters or superheroes.  Have your models wear costumes, play with props, and let their imaginations run wild. This type of shoot isn’t only fun but also creates more unique and memorable images.   

Photo by Annie Spratt

As the photographer, the responsibility of making sure your subject looks good in their outfit falls on you. Before shooting, inspect your subject’s clothes. Check if their shoes are tied, their shirt is tucked in, and with no wrinkles showing. Make your subject feel good about what they’re wearing, and it will show in the images.

Photo from Raw Pixel

05. Experiment with different forms of lighting

You can have a high-end camera, the most scenic location, and the best models to shoot—but if you don’t have good lighting you won’t get the best photos. It’s good practice to always keep an eye out for the best lighting situations, whether you’re shooting with natural or studio lights.

Outdoors

One of the best times for shooting outdoors is during the golden hour. This phenomenon happens twice a day, shortly after sunrise or before sunset as the sun is close to the horizon. The light during this time casts a soft golden glow on your subject which makes portraits look flattering and even ethereal.

Photo by Meireles Neto

If you happen to find yourself shooting in less than ideal lighting, there’s always a way to solve issues you might encounter.

For instance, if the sun's high in the horizon and your subject is squinting, shoot in the shade to avoid harsh lighting. You can also have your subject wear a hat or have them pose in a way that their eyes are shielded from the sun.

Photo by Allan Filipe Santos Dias

A great way to prevent your subject from squinting is by having them turn away from the sun. However, this also causes backlighting (a term used when the light source is behind the subject), so use fill-in flash or a reflector to eliminate bad shadows.

Photo by freestocks.org
Photo by Matthew Kane

You can also take beautiful portraits even when it’s overcast. The clouds act like a big studio softbox that diffuses the light from the sun. Of course, it ultimately depends on how thick the clouds are. If it gets too dark and the light looks too gray and dull, you may want to consider an alternative source of light.

Photo by Ariel Lustre

Indoors

If you want to shoot with natural light indoors, place your subject close to a door or a window where ample light can get in. The indirect light from the sun usually produces an ambrosial glow that's perfect for portraits. You can also use thin curtains to diffuse the light if it’s too strong.

Photo by Tanja Heffner

If you want to shoot indoors using available artificial lighting, you need to consider the color temperature of the light bulbs. Incandescent lights cast harsh yellow tones that can make your subject’s skin tone look unnatural. Make sure to adjust your white balance accordingly.

Photo by Nicole Harrington

Neon signs are also great for portraits because they add a splash of color to your images. Have your subject stand near a neon sign and let its bright and otherworldly radiance define the dimensions of their face and body.

Photo by Samridhhi Sondhi

Flash

Shooting in poorly-lit locations might require you to use flash. You can use it to illuminate the scene if there isn't enough available light to make an exposure. It also works well in filling in shadows when your subject is backlit.

Photo by Ivana Cajina

If you often find yourself in situations where you need to shoot with flash, consider using external flash instead of the one built in your camera. Aside from having more control over the intensity of the flash, you can also angle it differently, and save battery life as external flash units have their own batteries.

Flash comes in handy when photographing backlit subjects. Photo by Larm Rmah

To prevent your photos from looking starkly lit and unnatural, install a diffuser on your flash to soften the light burst.

06. Make your subject comfortable

Many people find posing in front of a camera challenging. You can help your subjects by suggesting things they can do so you can capture their most flattering angles. Consider the suggestions below as general guidelines. It’s best not to force your subject into a specific pose as they could end up looking stiff—let them fall into position naturally.

Photo by Averie Woodward

Standing poses

Photo by Sorin Sîrbu

If your subject is standing up, tell them to angle their shoulder slightly toward the camera. If their stance is too straight, ask them to shift their weight from one leg to the other, so they'll look relaxed.

You can also have your subject rest their hands on their hips or in their pockets to create S or triangle shapes instead of boring straight lines. Make sure they look natural and not tense.

Sitting poses

Photo by Etienne Boulanger

While sitting, you can start by asking your subject to either place their hands on their thighs or put their elbows on their knees. From there, you can start experimenting with different positions.

Ask your subject to sit on the edge and lean forward. Doing so will force them to assume proper posture naturally.

Head shots

Take some test shots of your subject's face from different sides to figure out how to make them look their best.

Photo by Muhd Asyraaf

Consider how the facial features appear from every angle. Once you've figured out which angle of the face is most flattering, have your model turn that side towards the camera.

Additionally, remind your subject to bring their chin forward. This little trick would not only make them look flattering but would also make their face and neck look slim.

07. Direct your subject’s eyes

The eyes are essential in portraiture. Different gazes convey different emotions, and it’s your job to direct your subject’s eyes to effectively capture the mood you’re after.

Photo by Joel Campbell

When taking photos of the eyes, always look for good lighting. You want ample light to hit your subject’s iris to make the eyes glow and look alive. You can can use a catch light (a light source used for illuminating the eyes) to make them sparkle. It could be the sun peeking slightly behind buildings or a small lamp hanging from the ceiling. A ring flash also works as a good catch light because it’s round like the iris, and it produces a more focused beam than other light sources. Position the flash so that it ends up on the upper left or upper right edge of the iris.

Photo by Andreas Fidler

08. Shoot candidly

Not everyone you shoot is a model. When you ask an inexperienced subject to pose, they often end up looking ungraceful. To make them feel more comfortable in front of the camera, you can try shooting them candidly while they’re doing activities.

Photo by Christopher Campbell

Go somewhere scenic like the park or the beach. Let them relax and enjoy the views. Silently follow them with your camera and wait for the right moment to happen. You can take some good photos of people even when they’re just walking or sitting.

Photo by Jakob Owens

Feel free to ask them to do things to create more interesting photos. Ask them to climb a tree or frolick in the waves, and wait until they’re so engrossed in the activity before you start shooting.

09. Take a series of shots

Any slight change while posing can alter the overall mood of the photo, so always take a series of shots whenever you’re shooting portraits. Doing so increases your chances of getting the right image. Also, having several photos to choose from is better than having only one option.

Ask your subject to do several poses, and take several photos of each pose. Try switching to Burst Mode to avoid missing beautiful moments that may only last a split second. This method is especially useful when your subject is moving a lot.

Photo by Zulmaury Savedra
Photo by Zulmaury Saavedra

10. Try different perspectives

Don’t just stick to one angle when taking photos. When you look at the results, you might end up realizing that the angle you chose wasn’t the right choice after all.

Photo by Sharon Garcia

Explore the space around you and try different perspectives. Shoot high, low, up close, and from afar. Capture every pose differently, so you’ll have a variety of choices.

Photo by Tanja Heffner

You can also experiment with unconventional angles every once in a while. You can try the dutch angle, where you tilt the camera just so the horizon looks slanted, or flip the camera (or the photo) upside down, so your subject appears as if they’re defying gravity. Although it goes without saying that you need to apply unusual angles sparingly, you can use them occasionally to make your photos unique and interesting.

11. Try shooting in black and white

Even in the age of color, black and white still hasn’t lost its charm. The lack of color makes monochrome images look more dramatic, timeless, and mysterious—the very same elements you’d want in your portraits.

Photo by Florian Perennes

Since you’re working with a digital camera, it would be wise to shoot in color and render the images in black and white during post-processing. Shooting in RAW also helps so that you can edit your files without any loss in quality later on.

Photo by Mohammad Metri

When editing, save your photo in black and white but keep the original color file. Having a color option will be helpful in case the image doesn’t work in black and white.

Photo by Igor Rand

When starting out, practice with the people you know such as your family or friends. Shooting somebody you’re comfortable with makes you less nervous. As you get better at interacting with other people and directing them, you can start expanding your network and trying your skills on new subjects. Once you know the basic techniques you need for portraiture, you can apply your skills to shoot just about anyone.