101 Portrait Photography Tips

[content_band style=”color: #333;” bg_color=”#ffddea” border=”all” inner_container=”true”] [custom_headline style=”margin-top: 0;” level=”h4″ looks_like=”h3″]Visiting on an iPhone?[/custom_headline]

Click here to subscribe to our FREE photo tips podcast in iTunes with one click. You'll get a weekly mp3 photo tips show downloaded to your iPhone so you can learn photography while you commute, exercise, or clean the house.


The largest collection of portrait photography tips on any single page of the Internet. Clever tips, too!
Hover over this picture to pin this article on Pinterest!

This is the largest collection of portrait photography tips ever assembled on a single page of the Internet.  To write this portrait photography article, I asked members of the Improve Photography community to submit their favorite portrait photography tips.  This article is a combination of my favorite tips, mixed in with the tips from the community.

If you'd like to join the Improve Photography community, LIKE our Facebook fan page!

1.  Photograph the subject in their native environment.  Some people just don't belong in a studio.  They feel awkward and it shows in camera.  So instead of forcing Grandpa into the Walmart Photo Studio, let him go to work in his workshop and photograph him doing what he loves.  Instead of tears and tantrums when you try to dress up your child all pretty for studio punishment, let him play with the toys and snap pictures of every moment.

2.  Never shoot kids or babies from your normal standing height.  This is the view we always have of kids–the tops of their heads.  Get down on the ground and take images from their level.

3.  Consider giving the subject space to look into.  Place the subject on one side of the image and have them look into space (not the camera) towards the other side of the frame.

Portrait photo of a boy looking out through a window at a rain storm.
Window light

4.  Window light.  Don't have an expensive studio or want to get more natural portraits? Normal lighting in a house or during the heat of the day is not flattering on skin; however, once light passes through a window, it is very soft and diffused.  Consider placing your subject next to a window so the light hits the model at an angle (not looking straight out the window).  Without much effort, you've created beautiful light which studios strain to copy.

5.  NEVER use the on-camera flash.  On-camera flash gives a deer-in-the-headlights look to even the most beautiful subject.  Because the light is perfectly in line with the lens, the light hits the subject squarely and creates a flat light that is far from flattering.  If you choose to use a flash, it's truly necessary to get an external flash that can be mounted to the side of the photographer.

Macro portrait photography
I call it a “macro portrait.” It's a picture inside a larger picture.

6.  I know you want pictures of the face, but you might also consider going smaller.  What about photographing a child's sandy feet while he plays on the beach or your grandmother's hands, or your friend's eye.  Sometimes the tiniest details speak volumes.

7.  Over expose.  I know I just spent two pages telling you not to do this, but over exposing (making the image too bright) is a common and beautiful technique for giving a portrait a clean and simple look.

8.  Do something totally off-the-wall.  Want cool pictures of your friend in her prom dress?  Throw her in the pool with the prom dress on.  Want cute pics of a baby?  Put them in a huge basket like Anne Geddes or dress them in clothes that are 5 sizes too big.

9.  Stop the waving and smiling.  When shooting family pictures, nothing can ruin the moment more than saying, “Hey Dan, look at the camera!”  Your picture will be destroyed.  I'm not saying you have to shoot candid photography all the time, but when you are going to have the subject know you're taking the picture, at least pose the subject properly rather than having them just stand off squarely at the camera.

10.  Shoot up to give power; Shoot down to take power away.  In tip #2, I mentioned that it generally isn't good to shoot down on babies and kids.  The reason is that kids are already small, so shooting down on them is so common that the photo does not look as it should.  Similarly, you can make a subject seem more powerful by shooting from a lower angle up to the subject.  For example, it would be ridiculous to shoot Michael Jordan from above.  Since you want to make a sports star look powerful, it would make much more sense to shoot that subject from a lower angle.

11.  If one person is a bit stale, two people are perfect.  Whenever I'm shooting a subject that gets a bit camera-shy and won't give me much of an expression, I always try to let the person interact with someone different.  For example, trying to get kids to have fun and smile will be tough without a parent being in the studio too.  This technique works the same with adults.  If your subject looks a bit stale, wait until they talk with someone else to capture the best expressions.

Bride with whitened teeth

Especially where brides are wearing white dresses, the bride's teeth need to be perfect.

12.  Whiten teeth properly in Photoshop.  For quite a long time, I brushed exposure onto the teeth to make them look whiter.  I never got the results I wanted until another photography told me that it was better to brush brightness onto the teeth rather than exposure.  Overnight, my digital teeth whitening improved drastically. Try it! If you can’t, I recommend using professional portrait editing service Weedit.photos which can help you to make a Hollywood smile naturally and without visible changes. Also they may help you with creating presets to enhance the portraiture as itself.


13.  Contrast clothing and location.  I recently shot engagement photos for a couple who chose to wear bright colors.  The bride wore bright pink and the groom wore a light blue shirt.  Those colors undoubtedly catch the viewer's attention, so I chose to place them in front of muted backgrounds.  For this shot, I chose old grey brick walls, blurred out dark backgrounds, etc.  The results were perfect!  You can also apply this tip when shooting a model who is wearing muted colors.  In this situation, shoot the model against a brightly colored background to make the model stand out.

14.  You're missing out on half of your model.  No, I don't mean that you could be shooting twice as many people.  I mean that there is a whole other side of your clients that you aren't shooting at all.  What's that side?  The back side.  Shots of the subject walking away from the camera, or of the subject's body turned away from the camera and head facing the camera can be quite compelling.

15.  Think application before taking the portrait.  What is your photo going to be used for?  While many of our photos are just used generally for looking at, some photos would be better either vertical or horizontal if it is going to be used for a specific purpose.  For example, if you're taking a portrait for someone's Facebook profile, you can get a much larger picture by shooting it in vertical orientation (up-and-down).  If you're shooting for a wedding announcement, it's probably better to shoot horizontal so there is enough room for text on the side of the couple.

A model is backlit as a photographer takes a portrait photo of her.
Backlighting is great for hard mid-day light.

16. When shooting in poor mid-day lighting, have the subject face away from the sun.  I see this done wrong more often than not.  Most of the time, photographers have the subject face the sun so their face doesn't look dim and shadowy in mid-day lighting.  This is unfortunate, because the hard light will create unflattering shadows on the face.  The best way to shoot mid-day portraits is to have the subject face away from the sun so their face is in the shade, and then have the photographer over-expose the picture so the face looks properly exposed.

17.  Spot metering is your friend.  If you don't feel comfortable setting the exposure manually to do the technique taught in tip #16, then learn to use spot metering.  With spot metering, you can simply have the camera meter on the subject's face to expose it properly, and then let the background be slightly overexposed.  For some people, spot metering may be a better option than manually setting the exposure for the face.

18.  Whip out the CTO.  When shooting in lower light (or if you have a really powerful strobe), you can put an orange gel on your flash so that the light that hits the subject is, well… orange.  Then, you adjust your white balance (I always just do it later in Lightroom) so the subject looks neutral, which makes the background turn blue.  Here is a great collection of examples of using this color shifting technique.  (Side note: I couldn't remember the term color shifting this morning, and several helpful readers reminded me on the ImprovePhotography Facebook fan page).  If you've never heard of gelling a flash, you will be surprised to know that a gel is not “jelly-like” in consistency.  It's just a plastic colored transparency.  You can buy a set of gels for around $10 on Amazon that fit most flashes.

19.  Compose and then focus rather than focusing and re-composing.  Could I have made this tip any more confusing?  Probably not.  What I mean is that it is generally preferable to compose the shot and then move your focus point on to the eye of the subject rather than focusing on the eye and then recomposing.  For more on this, check out this previous post on focus.

A young woman gets a portrait photo tip when using bubblegum as a prop.
Bubblegum can be a fun prop to help the model get a few casual shots.

20.  Models relax immediately when a prop is introduced.  Being a model is scary stuff.  It's just you vs. the guy with the giant lens.  When I see a subject feeling uncomfortable, I immediately search for a prop.  Pick a flower and give it to the bride to play with, give the couple bubblegum and take a photo of them blowing bubbles together, give a kid a toy, etc.  You don't necessarily have to include the prop in the frame (although it usually looks cool), but it is a guaranteed way to get the subject to relax a bit.

21.  Book a “real” photo shoot.  Contrary to popular belief, models are a dime a dozen no matter where you live.  Head on over to ModelMayhem.com and find a local model.  Many of them will not even charge you if you give them copies of the pictures you take.  It's called TFP–time for prints.  Oh, a warning on ModelMayhem… 90% of the models think their best pictures are when they are “disrobed.”  I always have my wife go on the site and choose a model for me so I don't have to see the nastiness.  Not cool.

22.  Buy a few scarves.  My wife, Emily, made me include this tip for the ladies.  She said it's a great tip for dressing women for a portrait photography shoot, but I think it's because she has an obsession with Confessions of a Shopaholic (the girl the green scarf).  Anyway, it has worked wonders for me in the past.  For $15 you can buy probably 10 scarves at any many stores.  Then, you can have your female subjects wear plain colors (such as a white T-shirt and jeans) and then wear different colors of scarves.  I found that this works GREAT for senior portraits, because teenage girls like “accessorizing” and changing clothes every five minutes.  Big time saver and you'll get many more looks out of one subject.

[callout type=”center” title=”Photography Portfolio Reviews – $39″ message=”Have the expert editors at Improve Photography review your photography portfolio in-depth and send you an audio feedback file for just $39″ button_text=”Check it out” href=”https://improvephotography.com/online-portfolio-reviews”]

23.  Raise that light for stunning catch lights.  Catch lights are a type of specular highlight (the tiny bright spot on any shiny and round object).  If you have no idea why catch-lights are cool, check out this article where I explain it.   If you're really picky, the best place to put a flash to get perfect catch-lights is high and a few feet to the side of the subject.  This will create catch-lights at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock, which is optimal because then the catch-light doesn't cover the pupil.

24.  The worst way to get a “candid” expression from your subject.  Whenever I go on a shoot, I always try and get an assistant that can help pose the subject and make them laugh and play so that I can focus on the photography.  My pet peeve is when the assistant says something like, “You look so stiff!  Loosen up!”  Ugh!  Telling the subject that they don't look good only makes the situation ten times worse.  Never tell the subject they look stiff or they need to loosen up.  It backfires 100% of the time.

A beautiful woman gets a portrait photo taken of her while sitting in a window sill and looking out.
To have your subject framed, she doesn't have to sit in the middle of the frame. This window frames the subject and still follows traditional rules of composition.

25.  Use framing in a creative way.  Have your model look through a window or have them lean up against a door frame and your portrait composition can look much stronger and more interesting.  I like using this technique to take pictures of babies and toddlers by placing the child in a crib and having them peer through the bars of the crib at the camera.  Always makes for a great shot.  I've tried doing the same thing with people looking through prison bars, but it's never been quite as flattering.

26.  Try high-key or low-key lighting.  Some photos look great overexposed for a clean and bright look, but the same model in the same pose can look scary and moody in low-key lighting.  Learning to control the amount of light can make a huge difference in the feel of your photo.

27.  Quit being a pansy.  Many portrait photographers would love to get out and shoot more, but don't have the opportunity to find models to shoot.  Fortunately, any human can be a portrait model (although you probably want to find someone better looking than Scottie Pippen.  Yikes).  I was teaching a sunset portraiture class in Naples, Florida a few months back and no models were available for the shoot.  Did I crawl into a fetal position and cry in the corner all afternoon?  Yes, but that was for a different reason.  Actually, we just asked random people on the beach if they wanted their pictures taken.  By offering to email them the picture, we had tons of different people to practice on and got some fantastic shots.

28.  Use ultra-wide lenses for a cool perspective.  Shooting portraits with an ultra-wide lens can cause some serious problems if you don't know how to do it correctly.  Wide lenses generally distort facial features, which the subject will hate you for; however, check out this article on wide-angle portraits, and this article on using fisheye lenses creatively and you'll be on the right track to capture awesome and unique portraits.

29.  Warm that flash for sunset portraits.  Sunset portraits are a favorite among portrait photographers, but few people do it right.  A sunset is not daylight balanced.  The light from a sunset is quite warm: red, yellow, and purple.  Buy some gels and warm up that flash to make the picture look more natural.

Depth-of-field shot with a model standing in a street.
Since the photographer is further away from the model, the photographer has to use a very low aperture to get shallow depth-of-field in this shot.

30.  Crank that aperture for full-body portraits.  I am shocked on almost a daily basis how many photographers fail to understand that aperture is not the only camera setting that impacts the depth-of-field.  To learn the four (or five, depending on how you count) factors that impact depth of field, check out this article.  When shooting a full-body portrait, the photographer is obviously further away from the subject.  This means that the depth-of-field is much deeper.  For full body portraits, remember that your aperture must be significantly lower (or your focal length significantly longer) to get a blurry background.  To get shallow depth-of-field for full-body portraits, you might check out the 85mm f1.8 for Nikon, or the 85mm f/1.8 for Canon.

31.  Throw horizons to the wind for fun portraits.  Landscape photographers, who are typically quite picky about horizons being perfectly level, would want to cry if they heard this tip.  But, giving the composition a good tilt can create a fun and unique portrait.  I took ONE TILTED FRAME onthree different senior picture shoots and all three seniors chose the tilted picture.  It's a fave of clients, even if some photographers think it's cliche.  To learn more, check out this article on tilting.

32. When taking a portrait of a group, always focus on the closest person to the camera.  You'll regret it if you don't, because the front person will be out of focus–even if you have a slightly higher aperture.  Trust me on this one.

33.  Get that model release!  I have a library of dozens and dozens of great portraits that I can't use commercially because I never got a release.  I did a black-and-white of a homeless man that became quite a popular photo, but it will spend its life collecting dust on my hard drive because I can't sell it.  Ugh!

34.  Try out electronic model releases for simplicity.  My life changed when I downloaded an app for my smart phone that includes a model release that the client can sign by writing with her finger on my phone.  It makes things much simpler for me and I am now much more likely to get the release.  Just search “model release” on the Android or iPhone App Stores to find an app for you.  I also keep a few paper releases in my photo bag since iStock and other microstock agencies still don't accept digital model releases.

35.  Learn the famous S pose.  Every human being who could ever be considered a portrait photographer must know the s-curve.  It's essential posing education, and I'm definitely going to be teaching it greater detail in my 30-day portrait photography class.  Basically, the model does this pose by making the (camera right) side of a model make the shape of an S with the shoulders and hip creating the right edges of the S.

Message in a bottle with a portrait photography model in the background.
This is a fun portrait-ish shot with the model out of focus.

36.  De-focus the subject.  Sometimes the subject is only part of a portrait.  To apply this technique, you might focus on the subject's hat and have the person standing a few feet away, reaching for his hat.  Or, you could do the same thing with a kid's toy or a woman's high-heel shoe.  It's a fun and creative shot.

37.  Fill the frame.  Zoom way in on the subject's face, eye, or hands.  Filling the frame shows great detail and will set your photo apart from the millions of snapshots that we see every day on our friends' Facebook pages.

38.  Check for sharpness on the eyelashes.  It can be very tough to tell if your shot is in focus by looking on the back of the LCD screen.  The way that I check for sharpness is to zoom in on the picture on the LCD to look at the eyelashes.  If you can see individual eyelashes, then you know you have a tack sharp photo.  Eyelashes look like a blur of black?  Not so sharp.

39.  Get a vertical battery grip.  Battery grips are large attachments that clip onto the bottom of the DSLR and include an extra battery.  While the battery is handy, the real advantage of a battery grip is that they give you another shutter button.  This extra shutter button can be pressed when the camera is in portrait (up-and-down) orientation so you can hold the camera more steady without sticking your elbows up and contorting your body to get a vertical shot.  This will make you more likely to change your camera orientation and your shots will be much sharper.  Battery grips are typically pretty expensive ($200+) but head over to Amazon and search “battery grip” and the name of your camera model.  For most popular models of DSLRs, you can pick up a third-party battery grip that is every bit as good as the name brand battery grip for around $50.  Click here to see the cheap battery grips on Amazon.

40.  Get out of the model's face.  I did something incredibly stupid while shooting a black-tie event for a company last year.  I totally forgot my 70-200mm f/2.8, so I had to shoot with a short 50mm lens for the candids while the guests had dinner.  To get a decently tight shot with a 50mm lens in this situation, I needed to be about 5 feet from the subject.  It was a failure.  Everyone froze up and looked terribly uncomfortable when I got that close with my camera.  I couldn't get any decent candids that way and it ruined the shoot.  Personally, I shoot most of my portraits at 100mm or more unless it's a full-body shot, in which case I shoot at about 70mm.

Many photographers crowd around a model and use reflectors for a portrait.
Reflectors everywhere!

41.  Use the correct side of the reflector.  5-in-1 reflectors are both cheap and incredibly useful for portrait photography.  Still, most photographers buy one and have no idea when to use the different sides.  You can read more about what side of the reflector to use, but the basic idea is that the translucent side goes between the sun and the model, the white side is for use in studio or bright light, the silver side is for low-light or when you need a lot of light, the black side is to subtract light and cause a shadow, and the gold side is useful for warm shots like sunsets.

42.  Don't cheat yourself into thinking that you can make a great portrait without great lighting.  Your photo will be no better than the quality of the light… if the light is mediocre, do not expect anything more than a mediocre photo.  Tip by Deon Odendaal on the Improve Photography Facebook fan page.   

43.  Be yourself and shoot what you love.  I think it is unfortunate when photographers do downright strange things to try and make a creative portrait.  Do things that you like.  If you're more of a serious type, then shooting traditional portraits in a studio is probably what you'll do best.  If you're more fun and flirty, then shooting models in an ice cream shop or jumping on a trampoline will probably produce your best work.  Let your photos reflect who you are and what type of photography you are passionate about.  Tip by Christine Whelan on the Improve Photography Facebook fan page.   

44.  Use the right tool for the job.  Softboxes, beauty dishes, shoot-through umbrellas, and reflective umbrellas all produce different qualities of light.  Many photographers simply buy one and think soft light is soft light, but using the right tool for softening your flash actually makes a huge difference in the portrait.  Check out this article to learn more.

This great expression on the groom's face will be gone in half a second. You better rip that shutter!

45.  Let that shutter rip to get great expressions.  You'll never get the perfect expression if your hand isn't beating the living daylights out of your shutter button.  Getting great expressions means taking a lot of photos and trying to stay alert when the perfect moment occurs.  Tip from Celicia Steidl on the Improve Photography Facebook fan page.

46.  Stop re-living your mistakes.  This takes discipline, but it will probably help to advance your portrait photography more than all of these other tips combined.  After every shoot, instead of just throwing away the shots that don't look good, sit down and study every single one.  Photographers have a bad habit of only studying their good shots, but looking at the bad ones and forcing yourself to determine why it doesn't look good can help you to prevent that mistake from happening again.  Tip from Levi Moore on our Facebook page. 

47.  Photos weren't made to be bits.  It isn't always convenient to print photos, but I have found that few things help to motivate me than seeing some of my photos printed large on my wall.  Make a few prints of your portraits and you'll be more motivated to keep going.  Also, it helps you to keep thinking about the picture every time you see it so you can improve it a little bit the next time.  Tip from Doug Williams.

48.  Keep your model warm.  It is summer in the Northern hemisphere, but trying to keep a subject in the cold will backfire 100% of the time.  Nobody looks good with frostbitten ears and a red nose.  Also, keep a few spare batteries in a pocket because batteries die fast in the winter.  Tip from Pat Glass on our Facebook page.

Portrait photography

49.  Learn the lingo when working with models.  When trying to find a model for a shoot, you'll need to learn to speak their language.  They are fluent in the language of money, which makes it easy to find a model; however, models also say things like TFP, which means “time for prints.”  If a model says he or she is willing to do a TFP shoot, that means you won't have to pay them, but can compensate them with the photos from the shoot instead.  Also, watch out for acronyms like TFCD (basically the same as TFP, but this time they want the digital photos).  Oh, and sometimes the model gets really lazy and just says they want to do a TF shoot.  You can translate TF in your mind to mean “give me the photos and I'll pose for free.”

50.  Superglue your camera to your hand.  Okay, don't.  But it will help you to capture photos when you bring your camera everywhere.  Sometimes you might find an interesting homeless person on the street to photograph (I actually do this pretty regularly), or an interesting person for street photography.   Terasa Lewis submitted this tip on Facebook.

51.  For street photography portraits, go incognito.  Cameras are everwhere, but carrying around a giant camera bag tends to scare people when doing street photography.  Terasa Lewis recommends using a low-profile camera bag for doing street photography.  This bag is a popular one for street photographers to choose.

52.  Bring a “Save the Shoot” kit.  Bring a few non-photography-related items in your photo bag that can help save a shoot when something goes wrong.  The kit might include safety pins for “wardrobe malfunctions”, Band-Aids, a bottle of water, an extra battery and memory card, etc.  Tip submitted by Jenny Yates on Facebook.

53.  Find interesting-looking models.  It seems that photographers always seem to pick models who look similar to them, but trying to find someone completely different can really add to your portrait photography.  I'm not much of a motorcycle goth tattoo type, so when I get the chance to photograph that type of person, I'm amazed by everything about the person.  This difference makes me interested in the shoot and helps me to get great shots. Nevertheless, I can always turn to portrait editing services as Highendbeautyretouching to edit everything so every model to be satisfied with results.

Man with a surfboard gets a portrait taken on the beach.
I'm sure this photo uses fill flash as well, but notice how the sand and the white surfboard can be great reflectors?

54.  Use natural reflectors.  When shooting at the beach, the white sand will act as a giant reflector if the model is sitting down and close to the sand.  When shooting in the city, the top of a silver trash can lid can be a reflector.  When shooting near the water, the water can act as a reflector.  Remember that the sun is not the only light source.  In fact, sometimes what the sun is reflecting off will throw more light on the subject than the direct light from the sun.  Tip from Ross Phillips on Facebook).  

55.  Wait for a cloudy day.  Nothing makes me happier when shooting portraits than a cloudy day.  It makes the lighting even and soft because the clouds act like a giant reflector.  Also, it cuts out some of the light from the sun so that I can overpower the ambient light with my flash.

56.  Ditch the light stand and use a broom handle instead.  When shooting with an assistant, I find it much easier to attach the flash to the end of a wooden dowel or broom handle rather than using the light stand.  This way the assistant can just hold it instead of putting the light on a stand and worrying about the light getting knocked over in the wind all day.  Makes things much faster to work with.

57.  Protect your flashes with air-cushioned stands.  If you choose to use stands (when you don't have an assistant or you're shooting indoors), spend an extra $30 to buy air-cushioned light stands so that the light won't come crashing down if you release the clamp without holding the extension pole.  It's definitely worth the extra money.

58.  Put three (or more) photos in a row. I love shooting in continuous high mode when I photograph kids.  Inevitably, they dump a bucket of sand on their head, trip, or do something funny.  Take the three or four pictures and combine them into a little film strip in Photoshop to show the short story. If you want to make something unusual, create a photo manipulation from the photo by means of personal Photoshop skills or portrait retouching services like FixThePhoto company suggests. You can transform the child into everybody – a cartoon’s character or a superhero.

59.  Never allow the model to wait on you.  Nothing kills the excitement and energy of a shoot more than making the model wait for 10 minutes for the photographer to work on getting lights set up and camera settings properly prepared.  Get your gear ready before the model ever shows up so you can keep the energy moving.

60.  Contrast clothes and environment.  When I shoot portraits for clients, I love to take couples who are dressed nicely into old rustic city locations, and when the subject is dressed casually, I like to take the subject into a more formal location like a church or garden.   The contrast makes for interesting portraits.

61.  Get a proper system in place for your memory cards.  Portrait photographers commonly come home from a shoot with thousands of photos, which usually means that more than one memory card is being used.  If you aren't very careful, you might slip a card with photos from the shoot back into your camera, format it, and re-write on top of it.  Get a system in place of where you store your blank cards, and where you store your full cards that need to be transferred to the computer.  Tip by Eric Brundige.

62.  If you haven't yet learned your lesson, pay attention to the background.  Nothing is worse than a great expression on the model with a lousy telephone wire or power pole distracting the viewer.  Tip by Shannon Craycroft.

Simply putting one flash behind the kids would make them look less… bald.

63.  Get a hair light.  Putting a flash or the sun behind the subject is perfect for making the model pop of the background.  This is especially true when the subject has dark hair and the background is also dark.

64.  Don't delete photos in-camera.  Especially for portraits where tiny things like where the model's eyes are looking and if any strands of hair are out of place make a big difference, it would be crazy to delete photos by judging the shot on the LCD.  Just wait until you can put the photo on the computer before deciding what photos to keep and what photos to obliterate.  Tip by Doug Williams.

65.  If you accidentally use a bit too much flash, it can be fixed in post.  I'm not talking about when you had the flash on so bright that your neighbors complained, but if the flash was a little too hot, then use the brightness setting in Camera Raw or Lightroom to help take the edge off the lighting.  Many people try to do this by changing the exposure or recovery settings, but I usually get much better results by adjusting the brightness.

66.  Buy a 50mm f/1.8 lens.  It's an incredible lens for $100!  Enough said… well, not really.  I always have more to say.  If you don't own one, you're crazy.  Here's a link to the Canon 50mm, and here's a link to the Nikon 50mm (Caution Nikon users, this 50mm doesn't have a focus motor, so if you use a D3100 or D5100, it won't autofocus.  This is the 50mm f/1.8 that has a built-in motor.  Tip by Eric Brundige, saying to get a fast lens.

67.  Use windows as a giant softbox.  To get the light even softer, you can hang a frosted plastic shower curtain over the window as a diffuser.  It's PERFECT light for those who don't have fancy flash gear!

68.  Predict how people will interact when shooting candids.  Candid portraits are tough to get unless you can act quickly when just the right expression or action is taken by the model.  One way to predict when the right moment will happen is to pay attention what the person is doing.  The person on the sidewalk will raise his hand and yell when the taxi cab drives by, the groom will smile when the bride walks up the isle, the opposing team will look devastated when the game ends and they lose.  Predicting what will happen can help you to get candid photos with dramatic expressions.

Group picture with uneven heads.

69.  When shooting group portraits, try to get the heads uneven.   Group photos never look good when the people are lined up in perfect rows.  Next time you shoot a small group like a family, try to vary the heights of their heads to get a more interesting and natural composition.  I like to do this by finding some large boulders or a hill for the group to sit on so they are uneven.

70.  Spacing is key for group portraits.  It would be almost impossible to get the people in a group portrait too close together.  The people will feel more comfortable with more space between them, but the photo always seems to improve when the group is tight together.

71.  KISS your model.  Okay, that was just a catchy title to get you to read this tip.  What I mean is to Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Fumbling around with softboxes and backdrops won't improve the photo all the time.  Sometimes it's best just to sit down with a camera, a lens, and the subject being themselves.

72.  Get to know your subject.  This tip is often overlooked by photographers who frankly don't have the skill yet to take a portrait that reflects the person's personality, but it is absolutely vital.  I recently shot my brother-in-law's engagement photos.  Since I know he is more of a traditional person, I already knew what type of shot he would–and would not–like.  Take the time.  Tip by Will via Email.

73.  Long noses should look straight at the camera.  To minimize the distracting look of a long nose, shoot the model head-on and with the chin slightly up.  This helps to mask the flaw so the viewer can see the person without distraction.

74.  Know your gear by heart.  The expression of a person can change rapidly from one instant to the next.  Knowing how to change your camera settings without even looking can improve the number of times you're able to capture the moment.

75.  Try not to show the flat portion of the hand.  Hands can look distracting and unnaturally large in a photo of it is turned 90 degrees to the camera.  It's best to have the hand curved away slightly from the camera.

A dancer does a move with her hand on the ground.
Great poses like this don't happen on accident. Take the time and plan it out.

76.  Choose your poses before the shoot.  Making a shoot list and possibly printing off some examples can help you to keep the energy of a shoot moving.  Like the picture of the model dancing on the left, you'll never get the great and creative poses that you want until you work for it.  Sit down and spend some time thinking of creative poses, and when you get out to shoot portrait photography, don't be afraid to try some new things.

77.  Use a polarizer to minimize reflections on glasses.  Nothing is worse than coming home from a shoot of someone who wears glasses only to realize that there was glare on the glasses for the whole shoot.  Just put on a polarizer and the problem is largely solved!

78.  Learn to use the golden mean rather than the rule of thirds.  The difference between the golden mean and the rule of thirds is only slight, but I find that the photos often look much more natural when I place the subject's eye slightly more toward center than the rule of thirds.

79.  Don't be a DSLR snob.  I know you can get a better picture with your DSLR than your cell or your point-and-shoot, but don't miss the opportunity to catch a great expression or a great moment just because you don't have your DSLR with you.  Shoot it with whatever you have.  Tip by Beverly Humphrey.

80.  Make a list and check it twice.  Even if you've packed your gear a thousand times, create a pre-shoot check list just like airline pilots use and use it every time. Empty your shooting bag or vest and put everything back in its proper place. Check the Batteries, Re-format your cards, test fire every camera and lens combo to make sure you are ready for anything that comes your way. Tip by Ramon Llorens.

Wet hair on a model.
This photographer obviously made a pre-shoot checklist. Had he not, he might have forgotten to bring a large bucket of water to dump on the model's head.

81.  Get involved in photography.  Go out and shoot with other photographers…not just in your interest area, but anyone that will go out. Watch their style, packing tips, equipment, how they shot, what they shot…and then spend time reviewing at the end of the day–hopefully on a computer, but even looking at each other's LCD screens of what they shot can be a big help.  I learn something new everytime. Tip submitted by Deb Ausen.

82. Think like you're shooting film.   Sometimes it's helpful to shoot a ton of pictures to catch the perfect expression, and sometimes it's better to slow down and think methodically.  Make each picture perfect before you press the shutter and use an exposure. Think and slow down.  Tip by Alison Williams.

83.  Watch for elastics!  I laughed when I read this tip on the facebook page by Alison Williams, because I can't tell you how many hours I've spent in the last few years Photoshopping hair ties out of the picture when the client or model forgot to take them off.

Little kid gets a picture taken of him by a portrait photographer while playing on the ground.
Get low to the floor and let the tantrum run!

84.  It doesn't all have to be perfect and pretty.  For example, shooting a two year old throw a tantrum on the kitchen floor can actually make for a great shot if the photographer is shooting from down low.  Similarly, photographing a guy all sweaty and dirty can make for a dramatic shot.  Don't always look for the pretty stuff.  Tip by Trish Phillips.

85.  When shooting for clients, write their name on a sticky note and put it on the back of your camera.  You can also use medical tape and write with a marker.  I really hate it when I forget the client's name mid-shoot.  Very embarrassing to keep saying, “And… uh.. will you… yes, you… please move your head forward?”

86.  Soften your on-camera flash.  I personally use the Gary Fong Lightsphere to soften my flash when I'm shooting a reception or event photography indoors, but it works just as well as Tupperware.  It works fairly well and certainly looks better than shooting bare flash.

87.  Perfect your on-camera flash.  While getting a perfect photo with a softbox takes a lot of skill, it's pretty hard to get a BAD photo with a softbox.  On-camera flash is totally different.  It takes a lot of practice to get it to look just right.  To learn more about on-camera flash, check out this book.

88.  Adjust the lighting to fix deep-set eyes.  Some people, like me, have their eyes a little further back from the eyebrow.  This often causes deep shadows in the eyes.  To fix this problem, simply lower the lights a little so they throw light under the brow.

The classic “warm cookie” smile (from tip #89)

89.  Know how to direct the client to give the look you want.  It takes practice to learn how to communicate your posing ideas to the client.  With time, you'll learn how to give directions clearly.  For example, I commonly tell clients and models “Don't show any teeth for this one, but just think about smiling as you pose.”  The client always understands that direction easily.   Other photographers ask the client to think about warm cookies, but that's just way way way too corny for my taste 🙂

90.  Know the tips for hiding wrinkles.  If your subject is a bit more mature and has wrinkles or heavy laugh lines, follow these tips (1) Use more frontal light rather than side-light, (2) bring the light in close and use a large light source to get it unusually soft, and (3) rather than have the client smile, follow tip 89 and just have them think about smiling.

91.  Choose your model carefully.  I always laugh when I see the models that photographers choose for a shoot that will be used commercially (even iStock).  They always seem to choose the “hottest” girl they can find, rather than a nice-looking person who is attractive and approachable.  The truth is that sometimes the “hot girl” also looks kinda mean and… unapproachable.  How many companies do you know of that want an unapproachable person to be the face of the company?  Not many!  Pick someone who is attractive and approachable, who has that “girl next door” look.  Tip from Yuri Arcurs.

92.  Set your picture style to portrait–even if shooting in RAW.  Canon calls them picture styles, and Nikon calls them picture controls.  Whatever you call it, the way the camera processes the photo will have a (fairly significant) impact on how the final picture looks.  Many photographers are taught that the picture style doesn't matter if you're shooting in RAW, because you can change it later without any loss of data.  While this is true, it fails to take into account the fact that the photo shown on the back of the LCD is a JPEG preview that uses the picture style.  This can impact the way you expose the picture and how you set up lighting.  Since I'm mostly a landscape photographer, I always have to remember to change to the portrait picture style when I shoot people or else I will mess up the lighting if I think there is too much contrast between foreground and background.

93.  Quit sharpening blindly.  It is absolutely necessary to sharpen portraits, and no.  Sharpening and the “Clarity” slider in Photoshop or Lightroom is not the same thing.  Unfortunately, many photographers sharpen portraits globally by using unsharp mask on the entire image or the “Sharpness” slider in Lightroom.  Portraits absolutely require selective sharpening.  The eyes and hair should get quite a bit of sharpening, but the skin should usually be blurred rather than sharpened.  Take the extra 30 seconds on your portraits to sharpen selectively and you'll see a significant improvement in your image quality.

Sunset silhouette.
This is a perfect silhouette portrait because the shape of the model is more important than seeing the facial features.

94.  Try a silhouette!  The best time to shoot a silhouette is when the sun is low on the horizon and the shape of the model is clear and distinctive.  For example, little girls running across the beach at sunset would be a perfect time for a silhouette.

95.  Artificially light your subject naturally.  Some of my favorite portraits use light sources other than outdoor lighting or flash.  There are many other “natural” light sources that you can use to get a dramatic mood, such as  a person holding a candle near their face, or being lit by the light that comes off a computer screen in the dark, etc.  This type of lighting sets a mood that can't be recreated any other way.

96.  If you're going to use HDR, use it wisely.  HDR has many negative effects that I discuss in my eBook on HDR.  For example, HDR increases the grain (not noise!), brings out texture, produces unnatural colors, and fills in all shadows.  While the magnitude of the impact of these drawbacks can be minimized, HDR will always increase these things.  Unfortunately, all of those things are negatives for portraits.  While HDR can be perfect for shooting a portrait where detail and grunginess is the style of the photo (like a black and white of a bearded man in a third-world country), most models don't want to look grainy, shadowless, and textured.  But sometimes we want to shoot an HDR portrait anyway to get a cool “look” on the background.  To get the best of both worlds, process the HDR normally and then process one of the single RAW images as a traditional portrait.  Then mask together the two images so the skin of the traditional image is shown, but the HDR of the background is shown.  Now you have the best of both worlds.

97.  If you are going to crop it, give it a full amputation.  Cropping in on a person can be difficult.  Beginning photographers commonly shoot only full body shots because they aren't quite sure where to crop the body.  The best tip I can give is not to crop off part of the body half-way.  For example, if you're going to crop off part of the head, make sure it isn't just skimming off the top of someone's scalp.  If you are going to crop the top of the head, then crop down into the forehead so the viewer feels that you did it on purpose.  Many photographers teach not to crop along the joints (knees, elbows, wrists, etc).  That is also good advice, but I think that what it is trying to teach is to crop intentionally.  If you're going to crop a little of the body, crop a lot.

98.  Use backdrops creatively.  Studio backdrops (you know, the splotchy colored ones that look like they were tie-dyed by a two year-old) generally make for a pretty dull portrait, but there is a way to fix it!  The reason the textured background looks boring is because it is evenly lit.  Remember, light is EVERYTHING!  By turning the backdrop so it is at an angle to the camera, part of it will fall into shadow while the other side will remain brighter.  This contrast makes the backdrop look ten times more interesting.  You can do the same thing with a white background.  The side closer to the camera will be white, and the back side will look dark gray because it won't catch the light as much.  This gradient can be a really creative background.

99.  Bring a cheap romance novel to the shoot.  One cool tip I thought of the other day is to play a game when on a shoot.  For example, I thought I could bring a cheap paperback romance novel to an engagement shoot.  If the couple is a bit stiff and won't play with each other and laugh, I bring out the book and have them start playing a game.  They have to open the book and read one full sentence of the romance novel to their partner without laughing or smiling.  Inevitably, it leads to hysterical laughter, smiling, and natural-looking expressions.  All the while, I'm standing 20 feet away capturing the moment.

100.  Use the correct focus mode.  When in the moment of a portrait photography shoot, it's easy to forget the little things.  For 99% of portraits, I use single-shot focus mode.  However, if I switch to a shot of someone walking down a path toward the camera or a groom jumping as the couple runs to the chapel, then I need to remember to switch to continuous focus (Nikon) or AI Servo (Canon) so that the photo is sharp even though the subject is moving.

101.  Pay it forward.  This information doesn't write itself.  It takes me a LOOoong time to write posts like this for the community, so I would appreciate it if you'd share this post on your Facebook/Twitter/Google+ by using the buttons on this page.  The Facebook and Twitter share buttons are way back up at the top-right of the page, and the Google+ button is right below this.  Thanks!

168 thoughts on “101 Portrait Photography Tips”

  1. Wow, that’s a long list, all very helpful! I will have to finish it later…question on #33 model releases…do you have more info on that? At what point do you need a model release form? For instance in a landscape that contains people, but they aren’t immediately recognizable (except by, say their mother, maybe) is a release required?

  2. I have to say this is a fantastic list, but it’s a bit overwhelming. I think you should have released it smaller posts. I am reading through it and every 2nd or 3rd tip I’m thinking “Oh I should go out and try that”. But by the time I get to the 30th tip I have a list that is too long already!

    Thanks for this great list of tips though!

  3. Great information! Take me a while to read through it all, but I will. I’ll have to try a few things out at a time. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great information! I’ve seen many items on your lists that I haven’t seen before. I almost didn’t open the post, because all the list seem to be the same…so glad I did! I will be following your blog!!!

  5. Great tips! I can’t wait to try them out. I already bookmarked this and plan to print as well. Thanks for taking the time!

  6. Wow, thats a lot of tips. Great stuff. I always tell my interns. Practice technical stuff, so it’s just habit, so you can spend your time building a relationship with your client. They will always feel better and look better.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top