Portrait Photography Explained

Portrait photography doesn’t need to be expensive, requiring a studio and all the kit you can carry. åÊTake a look through Flickr, PhotoBucket and the like and there are thousands of superb portrait shots using natural light, backgrounds and poses. åÊRemembering a few rules will stand you in good stead of capturing great images portraying emotion beauty and composition.

Pre Shoot

Now before you even start, make sure you have considered the following as ther are all crucial elements for a good portrait photograph; White Balance – Do you have the correct white balance selected for the lighting conditions you are shooting in? For instance the differences between an outdoor shoot and an indoor, artificially lit one are huge when it comes to the lighting conditions and therefore, the White Balance which should be selected. Even outdoors there are different lighting conditions, strong sunlight, clouds and even ambient light from street lamps etc all play a part in your decision in which White Balance to select. åÊIn my previous post ‘How To Balance Colour Using A Grey Card Within Photoshop’ takes this process one step further, have a read!

portrait photography

ISO – Try to keep the ISO as low as possible (between 100 and 200), this will minimise noise in the image, especially in close up shots where there is a lot of skin detail. åÊCounter act the low ISO if required using lighting, this shouldn’t be an issue in outdoor, well lit shoots, but for indoor shoots lighting should be a primary concern. Aperture – For most portrait shots your camera should be set to eitheråÊAperture PriorityåÊor Manual mode. åÊThese modes give you the flexibility of controlling the aperture and therefore, the depth of field. Remember, if using manual mode and you change your aperture, you will probably have to adjust the shutter speed to compensate. Lighting – Consider your shoot environment and try to be creative with what you have at your disposal. If you are to shoot an outdoor portrait then you have the different times of day, locations and situations available such as a sunny highly lit beach shot for that ‘holiday’ feel, a sunset to bathe your subject in a golden glow or even an urban shot for that gritty feel using light from street lamps or a subway. It is always a good idea to visit an outdoor portrait location prior to the shoot so see how the light effects the scene, variables such as shadows can be used to great effect but can also cause issues with the subject, in either case this should be considered carefully. I have listed a few very useful article regarding Studio Lighting below;

If it is an indoor shoot then either artificial light from lamps etc can be used or natural light from windows can be utilised in various ways (blinds, stained glass etc), see below.åÊ I have previously written an article on taking a lightåÊmeter reading and linked to several useful articles elsewhere, this can be found here. Don’t Forget – Spare batteries and memory!

portrait photography

Portrait photography gear

Obviously a camera is essential for a photograph, other equipment that is also very useful and provides you with more flexibility are; External flash – having an external flash gives you the freedom to play around with the light source (if not using natural light exclusively. åÊHaving 2 off camera flashes is ideal but obviously cost prohibitive. åÊThese can either be controlled with a wireless system or using a cable (remember if using a cable that you are obviously constrained by the length of that cable). åÊA cable will probably be cheaper but if you have the money and think you will get the use out of them, go for a wireless control system as this offers more flexibility and, depending on the type you go for, can be expanded for use with more external flash guns. Wireless/remote trigger – (if needed) to minimise camera shake and avoid having to wait for the self timer to count down before every shot you should consider a trigger for your camera. åÊIf you don’t have one then set the self timer to the least time possible to avoid your subject sitting there in their pose for ages, waiting for the camera to take the photo.

portrait photography

Background – For outdoor portraits the background is a forethought and consideration that ultimately does not require construction or purchase. åÊWhether the backdrop is a park with greens and colours from flowers etc or a brick wall, the background for outdoor portraits is as important (if not more important) than a studio shoot. åÊThere are a lot more unknown variables and potential distractions in an outdoor environment which should be considered. åÊBackground objects that stand out too much, other people and animals can all be an issue with outdoor portraits and should be part of the planning prior to venturing out on the session. For an indoor shoot it is another piece of equipment. åÊA background stand is essential in a studio environment to ‘hang’ the background cloth or paper from. åÊWhether you use colour, black/white, patterned or even a image for a background is an important consideration to contemplate. åÊPersonally I love a plain black background but that is just my dark side and personal preference. White backgrounds are great for family or children portraits as they light up the scene and are great in contrast with the bright clothes that children often wear. åÊOne thing I have always wanted to try is to replicate movie posters with some friends (the Hangover, Quantum OfåÊSolaceåÊetc), this will probably require an actual image as the background. åÊIf you’re clever with Photoshop then this may be your best bet, however a background with certain images to fit the theme can be used. Lens – A zoom lens such as 24-105mm is great for portrait photos as it gives you greater choice of focal lengths. There is a huge choice of lenses of this type at all sorts of price ranges. åÊI personally like Sigma lenses for the build quality and durability but there are plenty of makes and models to choose from. Tripod – Althugh not stricly required if you have sufficient light, a tripod is a good idea to have with you in case you require that extra support and steadiness.åÊ Further down I mention slowing the shutter speed down a bit to get a feeling of motion with some portrait shots, the tripod will also come in very handy for these photos as well.

portrait photography

Testing Testing

Once you think you have everything set up for the shoot either take a few test shots to fine tune things, this sounds obvious but be aware that the first few shots you take will probably not be 100% and some additional tweaking on the camera, with the light or in the way in which the scene is set up, may be required. You could even have a whole test shoot, process the photos and then you may know how to improve the photos the next time (probably best to use a mate for the test shoot as hiring a model twice obviously hits the wallet a bit!).

Outdoor Portraits

I have previously written an article specifically regarding Outdoor Portraits, I won’t go into it in detail in this article, instead please read the previous post.

Indoor/Studio Portraits

One of the main differences with shooting portraits indoors is the lack of obvious natural light. åÊOne way around this is to choose a area that has a window (usually the larger the better) to allow the use of any available natural light. åÊIf you do not have the luxury of a window then you do notåÊnecessarily require expensive studio lighting kits as you can use lamps from around the house etc. åÊEspecially useful are those lamps that have the flexible stands as this allows you to angle the light in pretty much any direction you like. åÊLights themselves can also form part of the imageåÊand add drama or added effect (such as strip lighting in an empty warehouse scene). If you are using natural light through a window then it may beåÊnecessary to increase the ISO on your camera to compensate as the light may not be as strong as the light obtained from a lamp or lighting kit, this may actually play to your advantage as you can achieve some great shots using the low light as this will create a shadow on the side of the subject that is not facing the window. If you have one then you can use a reflector to light the areas of the subject that are not directly in the path of the light source, I also read somewhere that by crushing foil and then rolling it back out out you can mimic the effect a reflector creates within a portrait shoot. åÊWhen using the reflector move it about in the light to create an even effect on the model, be careful not to cast too much light back onto the subject from the reflector though, to soften the effect, move the reflector a bit further away from the subject.

portrait photography

If you are using an external flash be careful as it can appear a bit ‘too much’ on the final image. åÊI use a diffuser a lot of the time as this softens the light from the flash, with flash guns it is also possible to control the strength of the flash and so thought should be given to this (and tested) to achieve the desired results. Another way to soften and balance the light is to bounce it off a wall or ceiling, this is achieved by aiming the flash diagonally towards the wall or ceiling so that the light bounces off this prior to hitting the subject. åÊThis allows the light to fill the scene a bit more than it would travelling straight from the flash gun and onto the subject. åÊSome flash guns (Canon 430ex MK11) come with a small flap on the flash itself that diffuses the light and spreads it out. The main thing when using lighting is to play around with different angles of light to find the most satisfying portrait, if your using a household lamp this is a lot easier than adjusting lighting kits, umbrellas, reflectors etc and so can actually be a bonus. Other light sources include fireplaces and candles, even the glow from electronic appliances such as TV’s, Mobile phones and PC’s can be used and I have seen some great portraits using these light sources (remember there are no set rules to how portrait photography should look as the final result, the more original the better in my opinion as this is what catches the viewers eye! If you are considering setting up your own home studio then take a look at a previous FPR post on the subject here.

portrait photography


Aperture is very important as this will dictate whether the the background is in focus (and could contain distractions) or if it is blurred and enable the subject to stand out from the background. åÊUsing an open aperture will blur the background and make the subject stand out, remember though that if you go to an F-Stop like F2 it will be tricky to get even the full features of the subject in focus, in this circumstance it is always best to focus on the eyes to make sure that these are sharp and detail is captured. You can increase the ‘blurred’ effect on the background if you have a zoom lens by moving away from the subject and zooming in using a more open aperture (F2 – F4ish). åÊOne really cool effect of this is ‘Bokeh’ I have previously explained this effect in a previous article, this can be found here. åÊIf you place small lights in the background then this will create bokeh when using an open aperture. The above may be the difference between having to cover up objects in the background to avoid distractions and blurring them to an extent where they actually become a blurred mixture of colour that create a unobtrusive backdrop.

portrait photography

By Defence Images


There are a number of different types of composition when it comes to portrait photography, the main ones are;

  • Head and Shoulders – The traditional cropping for this shot is above the chest, don’t crop too closely around the subject for this type of shot and play around with the position on the subject, having them to one side of the photo can work really well.
  • Three Quarter Length – This should be cropped half way up he subjects thigh (cropping at the knee or waist is a bad idea as usually looks really odd!) åÊLeave some space above the subject and to the side also as this works well.
  • Full Length – For full length shots the pose is really important (as you can see the hole subject), try to leave more space above them than below and also more space on one side than the other.

The Subject

If your subject is not at ease (either with you are just generally) then this will show in your photos. åÊOne option is to hire a professional model as they do photo shoots all of the time and are used to it. Another, less expensive option is to use a friend for a few shoots as you can have a laugh with them and they will probably be a lot more forgiving if you need to change a few things or appear a bit on edge at first. åÊA mate will probably have more time than a model and as such you will feel more at ease and less rushed than you would with a deadline. åÊOnce you are more confident with your portrait skills then you can move on to client and model work (if you want!). How the subject poses is also very important in portrait shoots, if you ask them to hold a pose that they are not comfortable with then it will show in their facial expression and they will probably get quite annoyed! Posing in a relaxed position will also relax the subject, such as sitting laid back in a chair or leaning against a wall etc. åÊYou may also be taking portraits of someone enjoying past time or hobby such as a sport or even with their car, this is also a good way of relaxing the subject and getting some good shots as they are doing something they feel comfortable with and enjoy.


By Timmy2wheels

One thing that a lot of people have trouble with when posing for photos (me included!) is what to do with their hands, if they are posing in a chaire or sat down in general then they could put their hand on their chin or cheek, if they are standing then they could always put their thumbs in their pockets (sounds obvious but not often thought of when it comes to posing for a photo). åÊThey could even put their hands on their hips, this needs thought as it can look a bit weird in my opinion but I have seen portraits where it works really well. åÊNever let the subject fold their arms as this looks aggressive and ‘stand offish’. If you are looking for a smile in your subject the you need to get them to smile naturally, there is nothing worse than a forced smile, so get practising your comedy routine!

By TJ_fluffy_onlineå©

Family/Children Portraits

If it is family or children portraits that you are capturing then the key is to get to know the subject, children will react better (and therefore provide better emotions and facial expressions) if they are happy and comfortable. åÊThey need to be used to the camera to enable them to almost forget its there, this can be achieved by getting the child interested in what is going on, showing them the photos on the camera will help with this. Energy is a great tool in itself and you should get loads of shots when kids are running about playing as these will produce interesting natural shots. Using local locations that children enjoy such as parks etc will also help as this is the natural environment for children and as such they will be happier and more comfortable (unfortunately with theåÊparanoia of a lot of today’s parentsåÊbe careful if other children are playing)åÊ. In order to capture sharp images of children running around you will have to select a faster shutter speed, if you want to introduce an element of movement or speed of the children running about then you could combine a flash and slightly slower shutter speed, this will introduce a feeling of movement while the flash will freeze the action.


By Asia Veroli

Family shots are similar in terms of keeping the interest of the subject, if people get bored during a shoot then its bad, if this happens then maybe take a break and have a chat about what type of things you would like to run through next and also ask if the family have any suggestions or requests for the types of shot they may have thought of during the shoot. Capturing the family in a natural pose is important, families are naturally close and so their pose should reflect this, you should also get some fun shots (no one really likes those ‘standing to attention’åÊsolemnåÊfamily shots you see in theåÊmantelpieceåÊin films. åÊSeperate shots of the siblings and the parents are a good idea as well as this will give a good variety to the finished catalgue of photographs and give the client more to choose from (it will also work well for your portfolio). Candid shots of the family can often prove to be the most natural, honest portrayal of their love and the reason that they would like to illustrate this with a photo shoot. åÊTake some shots when the family are mucking about of if general laughter breaks out from something one of the kids has done.

By pixelens photography

Urban Portraits

My favourite type of portrait is the urban portrait. åÊI love the grittiness, freedom and variety that a town or city provides in terms of shapes, textures, colours and lighting. åÊI usually look for colour and lighting first and then texture however there are occasions when the first thing that draws me to a location is the pattern/texture of a building or structure. Street lights can also provide a great element to a shot as it acts as a spotlight for the subject but in a more raw way. åÊThere are also many different moods and emotions that an urban portrait can portray, from loneliness to joy and from fear toåÊexhilaration, the genre of portrait shot also allows for a more casual approach where the subject is concerned as this is åÊthe natural attire for being in the street. Try using stair cases for different angles of shot and also for shapes and shadows, whether they be outside fire escape stairs or car park star cases these are are great resource for a shoot (ask permission if using fire escape stairwells, probably best out of office hours as well!) ;) Depending on the lighting conditions and what effect you are going for there are no real hard and fast rules when is tomes to the setup of the camera, HDR can work well when done subtly however these would probably have to be processed from a single RAW file due to the movement of the subject (unless you have great light and can fire off the bracketed shots very quickly).


By i.am.leon

Candid Street Portraits

The great thing about street portraiture is that you don’t have to have a specific subject as there are literally thousands of them wondering around! Now one of the main issues is today’s attitude towards anyone with a camera in public. åÊSad but true is the paranoia that many people have if they think they are (or could be) captured in a photo by someone they don’t know. åÊTry to go out shooting with a friend to reinforce the fact that you’re not some weirdo taking pictures of kids and don’t let other peoples suspiciousness effect your actions (don’t start to hide the fact that you have a camera!). åÊKeep a smile on your face and be sensible in what you capture with your camera, also respect people’s personal space, they didn’t come out to have someone jumping in front of them to get a photo! ;) One great way of capturing candid portraits is to pretend your taking a photo of something behind them, like a building or statue, I put this into practice recently when I wanted to capture 2 guys have a beer outside a pub, I pretended to be taking the shot of the pub itself, as long as you don’t stare at them and almost ignore them they won’t be suspicious and continue to act naturally.

Golden rule – if you’re in doubt as to whether to take a shot then don’t!


By micah.e

A telephoto lens is a great piece of kit as it allows you to keep your distance whilst being able to zoom in for the detail. åÊIf your at maximum zoom then a tripod or monopod is a good choice to ensure steady images. Another good tip is not to use the camera in the normal way (holding against your face!). åÊTry either shooting loads of shots from your hip or generally how you naturally hold the camera OR pretend to be viewing images previously taken or that you are adjusting the setting and then through the live view take the shot of the subject.

By prosto photos


All of the above is a guide only and you should remember that photography is a form of expression, with this in mind never be afraid to break the rules if you feel it will enhance the photo.åÊ I break many of the rules all of the time (in most cases I ignore them!).åÊ The main thing is to know the basics so that you have a starting point and a framework for your photos.

Photoshop Portrait Tutorials

Below is a selection of great portrait tutorials form resources all over the web;

Other useful articles on FPR include;

If you fancy practising by shooting a few self portraits then I have written many articles on the subject as well as publishing a few self portrait photos specifically;

My portrait set on Flickr can be found here. Further reading – Portrait Photography Below are a number of great examples of portrait photos from Flickr;


By David Blackwell.


By TLC Fotografie

TimPortrait Photography Explained

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