10 Portrait Photography Tips That Will Make Stunning Portraits

Have you ever considered starting with portrait photography but you don’t know how to do it? I understand this feeling because for several years I was dedicated almost exclusively to nature and landscape photography. I started shooting portraits accidentally and my learning process was mostly by trial and error. In this article, I will share with you 10 portrait photography tips that are really helpful for me during my photo sessions.

What Is Portrait Photography?

Portrait photography or portraiture is about capturing human beings and conveying their emotions, stories, or situations. A good portrait photograph is able to illuminate the subject’s emotions and story through the use of lighting, composition, depth of field, and posing.

Taking stunning portraits is challenging and requires some practice, patience and establishing a connection with your model. For that reason, my tips are both about portrait photography settings and the relationships you establish with your model.

A portrait photograph of a female model in a field next to the beach. Looking at the camera and smiling
A portrait should convey emotions or add to the story of your model. In this portrait, you can see my friend Nita, wild and spontaneous as she usually is!

1. Portrait Photography Settings

Camera settings for portrait photography will depend on the situation of each portrait, but I will give you some general ideas that will be helpful as a starting point.

Focus Mode

First of all, I would select the autofocus instead of shooting in manual because focusing will be faster and easier with autofocus. In addition, you will not make your model feel bored while you try to focus manually.

For models who don’t move or who move slowly, I like to use the Single Area Focus Mode (this is the name in Nikon cameras. In Canons it is called One-shot AF Mode). When half-pressing the shutter release the camera will grab and lock the focus until you finally press it to take the photo. If the subject is moving rapidly, you can try the Continuous/AI Servo Focus Mode. In this case, the camera won’t lock the focus when half-pressing the shutter release. Instead, it will track your subject. To learn more please have a look at this camera focus guide.

A portrait photograph of a child running under a water jet in a garden
Taking a photo of a subject that is running, jumping or dancing is easier using the Continuous/Servo autofocus because your camera will track the movement.
Camera ISO

Next step is choosing an ISO value. ISO determines the sensitivity of your camera to light. The darker the place, the higher the ISO number you will need (your camera will be more sensitive to light and it will take brighter images). However, keep in mind that raising the ISO  means that your images will have a grainy look (also known as digital noise). You will need to evaluate if the noise is acceptable or not. If you need to raise the ISO too much you might consider using a flash or any other external light instead. To learn more please read this camera ISO article.

A model posing for a portrait photograph taken with high ISO
We were in a dark place when I took this casual portrait. I increased the ISO in order to get the maximum amount of light without changing any other setting in my camera (aperture or shutter speed). I didn’t mind about the noise because it fits well with the mood of the photo. But in some cases, noise is not acceptable and I use my flash instead of increasing the ISO.
Shooting Mode

Finally, I choose the shooting mode. Using a semi-automatic mode is a good option for portraits because you will be able to react faster to any changes. The Aperture Priority mode can be handy in most portraits because it allows you to set the aperture value. You can use low aperture values such as f/1.4-f/4 to create a blurry effect in the background or higher if you prefer the background to be sharper. Your camera will select the appropriate shutter speed automatically to get a good exposure. Read this guide to camera aperture for more info on how aperture works.

Portrait photograph of a smiling yogee taken with a lower f-stop of f/2.8
I wanted to have a blurry background, so the most important setting in this portrait was the aperture. Using the Aperture shooting mode, I set it to f/2.8 and I let the camera decide the shutter speed.

2. Focus on Your Model’s Eyes to Get Lively Portraits

When you compose an image, you always need to decide where to focus (which part of the image will be sharp). It is an important decision because it is a way to direct your viewer’s eyes (they always put their attention on this spot). In portraits, eyes convey very strong emotions, so it is always a good idea to focus on them.

A baby looking into the camera where I decided to focus on it's eyes. A great way to convey strong emotions in your portrait photography
“Eyes are the windows of the soul”. And for this reason, get them in focus in your portraits.

Be careful if you use low aperture values (f/1.8, f/2.2…) because if your subject doesn’t have both of her/his eyes located at the same distance from the camera, one eye will be sharp and the other will be blurry. To solve this problem you can either use higher aperture values or tell your model to move until the two eyes are approximately the same distance from the camera.

3. Avoid Unflattering Shadows

Depending on the position of the light source and its intensity, your model might end up with unflattering shadows in the face. If the light comes from above the subject (shooting outdoors during midday or if there is an artificial light such as a lamp or a streetlight right on top of your model) the effect is especially intense under the eyebrows, nose, and chin.

A portrait photo showing unflattering shadows from the bright midday sun
I took this portrait at midday to show you the effect that shadows can have in the face.

To avoid ugly shadows you can do several things: tell him/her to move the head up to avoid the shadows, shoot backlight or move to the shadow or to a place where the light is not coming at a right angle.

Same model photographed again to avoid unflattering shadows on her face. resulting in a much better portraiture
We moved to the shadow and the unflattering shadows disappeared.

4. Unclutter the Background to Avoid Distractions

Unnecessary objects in the background are distracting, so it is a good habit to make sure you don´t have any before taking the shot. Most times you can avoid them just by moving a little and changing the perspective. Sometimes you will need to do some physical work and remove them (little garbage such as pieces of paper or plastic bags, decorative objects etc.). While uncluttering the background on the spot might seem annoying, believe me, it will save you a lot of time sitting in front of the computer later, trying to eliminate things with Photoshop or any other photo editing software.

A model posing in a pathway
Before taking this shot I needed to pick up some plastic bags and cans that people had left behind.

It is also important to check that there are no objects such as trees or an antennas “coming out” from your model’s head or body. The resulting portrait will be quite disturbing!

A portrait of a small boy but with a distracting tree bark visible behind his head.
This portrait will be even better if that little tree wasn’t sticking out from his head.

5. Take a Variety of Shots, Including Close-Ups.

Playing around with the distance from your model will give you a nice variety of portraits. You can take full body portraits that include the background in order to place your him/her in a location. This is a great option if the background adds something to the story.

A model posing for a portrait photograph while walking in a beach
In this portrait, the background was important because I wanted to give a romantic/nostalgic look to the image.

If the background is not adding much, you can zoom in on your subject. You can take a full body portrait or give your model more importance by taking a ¾ portrait. Then you need to crop somewhere between the waistline and the knees. Just take care of not cropping exactly at the knees, elbows or any other body articulation because it creates a strange effect to the image, as if the limb is chopped.

A couple posing in a wooded area
This portrait was about the couple. Having a bit of background was nice because it places them in a natural environment without taking emphasis away from them.

Don’t forget to take some close up portraits. In close-ups, the model fills the whole frame. For some models, it might be disturbing if you stick the lens right up their face. In these cases, it is handy to have a short telephoto lens (such as this Canon 70-200mm F/4 L lens) to keep a bit of distance from your subject and just zoom in to get a beautiful close-up.

A close up portrait photograph of a mom kissing a daughter
Mom and daughter were the focus of this portrait and no background was needed to show their love.

6. Apply Composition Rules to Get More Interesting Portraits

Taking care of the composition of a portrait is harder than it looks because as a photographer you also need to pay attention to the light, your camera settings, and even your model’s feelings. However, a portrait with a weak composition won’t convey much to the viewer. However, composing your shots can also be a lot of fun! To get started with it, you can use some of the “classic” composition rules. With time you can use more complex composition rules or even break them totally if you need to!

One of the most well-known composition rules is the Rule of Thirds. Imagine that you break the frame into nine equal squares (3×3). Some cameras have a grid that actually allows you to see them! The rule says that if you place the interesting parts of your scene in the intersections of the lines, your image will be more balanced (more pleasant to the viewer’s eye). In the case of a portrait, the important parts are your model and his/her eyes.

A smiling model posing for a portrait photograph where her eyes are placed on the intersections of rule of thirds grid lines.
The Rule of Thirds is about placing your main subject in the lines or the intersections of a 3×3 grid.

Another interesting composition rule for portraits is the Rule of the Gaze. It says that you need to leave an empty space in the direction where the model is looking at. This space adds interest to the scene and makes the viewer look at where/what the model is looking at.

A portrait of a child looking at a distance
The Rule of the Gaze consists of leaving an empty space in the direction where the model is looking.

Read this photography composition guide to read 20+ composition rules that will get you amazing results.

7. Choose Easy and Natural Poses

It is easy to get carried away and tell your model to do a pose that is not the most comfortable for him/her. If your model is feeling awkward, it will be noticeable in the portrait. If this happens, just change to another pose. I usually prepare a list of poses and suggest one after the other until we find the ones that the model prefers.

My model here, Silvia, felt comfortable in this pose and as a result, she looks natural and has a genuine smile.

When helping somebody to pose, it helps to understand how they are feeling, so put yourself on the other side of the lens and try the poses yourself! After that, you will be able to explain perfectly to your models what to do and understand how they might feel. I also find it really helpful to demonstrate the poses rather than trying to describe them with words. You will save a lot of misunderstandings that might sound something like “Look right! Not your right! I meant my right!”.

And instead of telling your model to pose, you can tell him/her to do something: walk, look towards the sky, play with their hair or dance. This will give you the chance to take some nice candid photos and it is a great strategy for anyone who doesn’t like posing.

A couple being prepped for portrait photography session by asking to hold hands.
Give your models something to do (Hold your hands and look at each other) to take some candid shots.

8. Invest Time Connecting with Your Model

This is the most important tip in this article. If your model trusts you, he/she will open up to you and his/her expressions will be natural. Talk with them about random light-hearted subjects until you find one they love to talk about. Subjects will change from model to model, so this part needs a bit of improvisation. I usually talk with them about their kids, holidays, trips and hobbies and I avoid subjects that might get us into a negative mood, such as politics, economics or work problems.

Me talking to a child who I was photographing
This is me having an interesting talk with one of my favorite models.

And also very important: you need to listen to them! Be patient and genuinely interested and they will relax and show you their true selves. As this process might take some time, I don´t plan the most important shots at the beginning of a photo session. Please refer to our photo session tips for more info on how to prepare for your next session.

9. Wear Comfortable Clothes

As a portrait photographer, the most popular question I get from my clients is: “What should I wear?” My answer: “Something that makes you feel great and that is also comfortable”. I always prefer a model that feels comfortable and natural over a model who feels out of place. Besides, I help them with some general tips. Feel free to use them if you like them:

“Avoid anything that can be distractive, such as strong colors, crazy patterns, or big texts.The reason I tell them so is that all the outstanding clothes can catch the attention of the viewer more than the model himself.

A yoga portrait photo session where the client is wearing a bright red yoga pants
These red tights are outstanding. In that case, it is fine because we wanted to promote the brand. If it is not the case, I would avoid this type of colors.

Dress in concordance with the occasion. There are locations that require more elegant clothes than others and vice versa.

A couple with an infant posing for a casual sunday photo session with casual attire
This family was perfectly dressed for a casual Sunday outdoors.

“Bring accessories: scarves, hats, necklaces, sunglasses...” Accessories are playful and can add diversity to the photo session, so I encourage the models to use them.

A couple with an infant psong for a portrait session with few accessories: hats, sunglasses...etc
Hats, sunglasses, scarfs… all accessories might add some diversity and fun o your portraits.

Come coordinated, but not dressed exactly in the same way” (for couple or group portraits). This might be a personal opinion, but I find it strange if a whole group all dressed in the same way. I guess I find it a bit unnatural. If you agree, you can tell your group to coordinate their clothes but not to come in identical clothes. For example, if they decide to dress casual, all of them should wear casual clothes. If one of them would wear elegant clothes, he/she would seem an outsider.

A couple posing for a portrait session with matching clothes
This couple is coordinated (they both wear urban casual clothes), so they look more natural than dressing exactly in the same way.

10. Bring Toys When You Are Taking Kids Portraits

If you are taking kids portraits, the best photography accessory you can bring with you is a bunch of toys!. They don’t have to be fancy or big, just something cute and fun. Any time you feel the kid is getting bored you can take them out and play a little. This will help to improve his/her mood.

A little girl holding a pink toy that I brought to build trust and a relationship with her.
This beautiful girl is holding one of the little toys I bring to the photo sessions. Toys are priceless when the kids are feeling shy or just asocial.

Toys are also really useful to make kids look towards the camera: just play with them right next to your lens while taking the shot. It will require some juggling skills, but it will be worth it!

I hope these 10 tips will be useful to you! Just remember to practice both your photography and social skills and soon you will be taking stunning portraits.

We would love to see your results at the comment section below. You could also join the PhotoBlog.com platform and share your photos with the world.

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About the author

Sarah Rodríguez-Martínez

I am a self-taught photographer based in a sea-side town close to Barcelona. I love shooting portraits, yoga photography and nature. I have a lot of fun editing in Lightroom, my favorite editing software. Besides photography, I practice yoga, I am a recognized coffeeholic and I hate Mondays. You can contact me easily by both Instagram (@sarahrmphotos) and email ([email protected])

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