55 Quick Tips for Better Portrait Photos

If you are looking to improve your technical ability to take portraits, here are 55 tips, tricks, and techniques that will make you a better portrait photographer. Whether you are a beginner looking for advice from a professional or an experienced photographer looking to refresh your memory or try something new, take a look at the list below. The list doesn’t really follow a logical order. Nor is this list exhaustive or all-encompassing. I tried to start with some semblance of organization, but it devolves as the article continues. No matter what, you’ll find something that will help you create better portraits.

Photograph by Aaron Taylor.
Photograph by Aaron Taylor.

1. Light

Light is the most important part of any photo. The perfect location, pose, or composition is worthless without light. On a basic level, you need light to expose your image. I’m always surprised by how bright a room seems compared to what the camera registers. But what’s much more important than having light is having good, interesting light. You want to capture light that’s different than what we see everyday. On most days, we see bright, hard light that comes from a small, slightly warm light source above–the sun, while huge compared to us, is really far away, which makes the light source really tiny.

You want a photo with light that is different than your typical sunny day. You want light from a different direction, a different color temperature, a different hue, or a different size. A good photo always starts with good light. When you start to differentiate interesting light from normal light, your photography and your portraits will improve. Your friends and family might think you’ve gone crazy because once you start thinking about light, you’ll always be thinking about light. You’ll start saying things like, “Wow, this light would be perfect for a portrait session,” or, “Can we pull over and take a photo? The light is perfect right now.” Don’t worry, this is perfectly natural behavior for a photographer. Everyone else is just crazy. Right?

For more about light, Jim has a great beginner tutorial here.

2. Time of Day

One way to get better light is to photograph at a time of day when the sun isn’t high in the sky. Photographers love to shoot portraits during “golden hour.” The sun is lower, more diffuse, and a more golden hue, which all make for great portrait lighting. Golden hour occurs for the hour or so after sunrise and the hour or so before sunset. If your subject takes your advice and agrees to a golden hour session, they’ll probably want an evening session, right? Who wants to wake up early and take photos? Consider this, though: an evening session means that you’ll be constantly losing light, but a morning session means that you’ll be constantly gaining light. The morning light you gain might not be “golden” anymore, but you won’t have to end things because the sun went down. One other benefit to morning golden hour can be the dew, mist, or fog that might be lingering from overnight. All of those little water droplets on leaves or flowers can add interest or reflect light or even become little bokeh bursts in the image. As the saying goes, the early bird gets the perfect light for portraits, right?

3. Shoot Right After It Rains

Another situation where unique light presents itself is right after rain. As clouds begin to clear, you get diffuse, soft light. The moisture in the air can add atmosphere to your portrait. As I said in #2, the water on the environment can add character to your photo, either reflecting light, creating unique bokeh, or opening up the possibility for a unique reflection in a puddle or stream of rain water. If there’s rain in the forecast, don’t cancel a session and reschedule, especially if the rain will pass quickly. The unique light and atmosphere you get right after a storm will be well worth the wait.

4. Get closer

This article is about creating better portraits. Portraits are about people, so fill the frame with people. More often than I’d like to admit, I go home and crop my portraits tighter. There’s usually just a little too much space around the subject. Getting closer will allow your camera to capture more detail. Getting closer will make your image more intimate and alluring. Resist the urge to back away. Get closer.

5. Crop in

If you don’t take the advice in #4, fix the problem when you process your portrait. Get rid of unnecessary background, headroom, and other space around your subject by cropping tighter. If you’re editing a headshot, experiment with cutting off the top of the head, too. As I said above, I’m almost always cropping my portraits tighter. I want the people to be the main focus, which often means cropping out what’s around them or cropping tighter. Even if you think your image is great, experiment cropping tighter. Chances are, you’ll like the tighter image even more.

6. Make lines straight

Whether you have your subject sitting on a set of stairs or there’s a blurred-out window in the background, the horizontal and vertical lines need to be straight. Pay special attention to your horizon–a slanted horizon can really ruin an image, especially if the slant is minor. A purposeful tilt might yield interesting results, but a lazy tilt that you just didn’t notice will weaken your portrait. Unless you’re going for a sense of chaos or instability, straighten your horizontal and vertical lines. When in doubt, straighten horizontal lines as a priority over vertical lines. We see a significant horizontal line all day, everyday–the horizon–so we are more sensitive to off-kilter horizontal lines than vertical lines.

7. Use the surroundings to frame the subject

To help guide your viewer, use the elements of the environment to frame your subject. You might use something obvious like a doorway or window, or the frame might be more subtle like an opening in a set of bushes or different colored panels on a wall. Pay attention to the creative ways you can frame your subject. One way you’ll know if your surroundings might lend themselves to a frame is if you have a line, like a branch or building corner, sticking out of your subject’s head. Moving slightly to the left or right could turn that element into a frame rather than a random line.

8. Use the surroundings to lead to your subject

Keep an eye out for all manner of lines. Streets, staircases, cars, chairs, pretty much anything can become a leading line to your subject. The leading line might not be obvious at first. It might take moving around a bit to make seemingly-random objects become leading lines, but attention to line can help draw your viewer around the frame and to your subject. One interesting way to use your surroundings to lead the viewer’s eye is to consider qualities of light. The interplay of light and shadow, while not a physical line, can help lead your viewer, especially if your subject is placed where a change in light or a burst of light is occurring.

9. Steady Yourself

If you’re not using a tripod, then you need to do your best to become one. Widen your stance, bring your arms and elbows close to your body, and hold your camera with your left hand under the lens, not over it. If you do this, then you’ll actually kind of look like a tripod. Your legs will be wide for stability, and your upper body will be tight. If you’re on your stomach, spread your elbows wide (like a tripod!). If you can lean against something safely, like a tree or wall, do that to steady yourself. If you can safely prop your camera against something, like the back of a chair or a railing, then do it. All of this will steady your camera, reducing the possibility of motion blur, resulting in a sharper image.

10. Breathe in and hold your breath

Before you click your shutter, take a deep breath in, hold it, and click. That way, you click the shutter when your body is still rather than when your body is moving slightly when you breathe in or out. Breathing in and holding your breath for a short time will steady your entire body, again resulting in a sharper image.

Photograph by Aaron Taylor.
Photograph by Aaron Taylor.

11. Use a longer focal length…

Conventional portrait knowledge will tell you to use a lens with a longer focal length, at least 85mm, perhaps even 100mm and beyond. Some photographers swear by their 70mm-200mm lens, zoomed to 200mm for portraits. What’s great about a longer focal length for portraits is that the perspective compresses the image, which is especially flattering for people. Whether you’re photographing a headshot or a group of people, everyone looks better with a longer focal length. Longer lenses will also make it easier to blur the background, which is especially helpful if you’re shooting with a kit lens that can’t open to as wide of an aperture as a more expensive lens. Even if you have to shoot at f/5.6, when you’re zoomed to 200mm, you’ll still blur the background while keeping your subject in focus. Just remember that if you use a longer focal length, you won’t be able to include as much of the surroundings unless you back up quite a bit, which might then create an image without intimacy or detail in the subject. When you use a longer focal length, be comfortable showcasing the people rather than the surroundings.

12. …Or use a short focal length

On the other hand, you can use a shorter focal length, like 50mm or 35mm or even 24mm, to include much more of your surroundings. This is especially useful for photographing someone in their home, perhaps their office or workspace. Be careful to make sure that the subject stays in the middle of the frame, and don’t get too close to the subject; otherwise, you run the risk of distorting their body or features due to the perspective of the wider lens. Use a wider lens for a more journalistic look and feel to your portraits.

13. Use a wide open aperture…

Using a wide open aperture like f/2.8, f/2, or f/1.2 not only lets in a ton of light, but the wide apertures give you a shallow depth of field. The shallow depth of field creates great separation between your subject and whatever is in the foreground and background. A wide open aperture also creates great bokeh and, if you’re really wide open, can give your photo an almost dream-like quality. An environmental portrait with a shallow depth of field is what so many families and brides are looking for these days. Everyone seems to want a golden hour portrait in a field of wheat with a shallow depth of field, right? Just be careful: you can miss your focus the wider you set your aperture. You have to pay close attention to steadying your camera and nailing your focus point when you shoot at a wide aperture.

14. …Or use a narrower aperture

If you’re a little tired of the look described in #13, if you shoot in a studio, if you miss your focus when wide open, or if you simply want more of your subject in focus, then choose an aperture like f/4, f/5.6, or f/8. You won’t get that buttery bokeh mentioned above, but you will get a sharper image. You’ll also have a little more leeway when it comes to nailing your focus. A narrower aperture can be a little more forgiving. So if you’re tired of portraits where the eyes are in focus but the ears are fuzzy, then narrow your aperture. You might surprise yourself when you realize how much you like a portrait that’s not shot totally wide open.

15. Use a big light source

A big light source will give you softer light and more gradual fall-off from light to shadow. The bigger the light source, the more flattering the light tends to be for portraits. Novice photographers tend to want to back the light source away from their subjects, thinking that the space will allow the light to somehow spread and become softer and better–this is not the case! Get your subject close to a big light source and you won’t be disappointed.

16. Bounce your flash

One way to get a big light source is to turn your speedlight towards a wall and fire away. What was a light source that’s smaller than a credit card just became a light source the size of a wall or ceiling! If you’re careful about the direction of your speedlight, you can create a huge, flattering light source simply by aiming your speedlight at a wall. (Sorry, if you only have the little flash that flips up on some cameras, then you can’t do this. Go get a speedlight! You’ll thank yourself a million times over.)

17. Modify your flash

If you don’t have a wall to bounce your flash and make it bigger, you can use an umbrella, a softbox, a reflector, or even a piece of foam core. With an umbrella or softbox, you’re attaching something to your speedlight and making the light source bigger. With a reflector or piece of foam core, you’re doing the same thing as bouncing your flash off of a wall, only you’re aiming at something more specific. You can even fire your flash into a big bed sheet or shower curtain. Anything that will allow you to either shoot through it or reflect off of it can make your light source bigger.

18. Find a big window and stand six feet away

Photographers love windows. Windows diffuse the light from the sun beautifully. If you have a north or south facing window, you’re in even better shape because you’ll have more even light throughout the day. Have your subject take a few steps back from the window. That way, the light isn’t too harsh. Plus, you’ll see a soft, beautiful transition from light to shadow on your subject. Window light is a photographer’s best friend.

19. Simplify the background

For some reason, people tend to think that a perfect background for family photos is a medieval castle covered in ivy next to a ten-story waterfall that’s surrounded by wildflowers with a rainbow overhead. I often have clients looking for the most unique and ornate location for their family photos. But we’re taking portraits here, right? The photos are about the people, not the backdrop. Strive to simplify your background and make the people, not the location, the main attraction. You don’t need to simplify to a solid, flat wall, but perhaps getting rid of everything except the wildflowers would do. In portrait photography, the cliche of “less is more” really is true.

20. Simplify the colors

Similar to #19, do what you can to simplify the colors in your portraits. Pick a certain palette–perhaps various shades of blues, greens, and yellows–or find a backdrop of all gray and brown stones. Too much color can be distracting, so make an attempt to simplify the number of colors (and where they are) in your portraits.

Photograph by Aaron Taylor.
Photograph by Aaron Taylor.

21. Find the edge of the shade

If you’re shooting portraits during the harsh midday sun, finding some shade is often the go-to technique. But you don’t need to walk a mile deep into the forest to find good shade. Instead, find the edge of the shade, just beyond the sunlight. You can use the landscape that’s still lit by the sun as a natural reflector. That means that you’ll need to stand in the sun while your subject is in the shade. You’ll have to play with how far into the shade your subject will need to stand. Too close to the edge and your subject will probably still be squinting. A few feet back into the shade will allow you to balance using the aforementioned natural reflector with the more even, soft light you’ll get in the shade.

22. Put your subject’s back to sun

It might sound intuitive to have your subject face the sun. After all, if they face the sun, they’ll be covered in light, right? Well, yes, but they’ll also be squinting, and they might start to get hot or sweaty depending on how long they have to stand in the sun. Instead, turn them around so that the sun is at the subject’s back. Now they won’t be squinting, and you’ll get a great rim of light around their body, separating them from the background. Depending on the time of day and how you position yourself in relation to the sun, you might even be able to play with lens flare. You’ll have to watch out that you expose the subject’s face correctly. The tendency will be to underexpose the subject’s face to keep the rest of the image correctly exposed. You’re creating a portrait, so the subject’s face is most important–expose it correctly. You might “blow out” the sky, but a white sky might be worth the sacrifice for a properly exposed subject.

23. Find a natural reflector

I mentioned a natural reflector in #21, but that scenario isn’t the only way to use your surroundings as a reflector. Any light-colored surface can act as a reflector–a wall, a beach, a window, a car, anything that’s bouncing light. You don’t even need to use the surface as your main light; in fact, I’ll often use a natural reflector to balance out shadows that might be getting too dark for my tastes.

24. Be careful of dappled light

When you’re searching for shade on a sunny day, be careful that you don’t find a spot with spotty light shining through the leaves or branches of trees. You’ll recognize dappled light when someone’s eyes are lit by the sun while their forehead and mouth are shaded by a few leaves. Even light is the goal. While trees can provide you with shade, be careful of the quality and pattern of that shade.

25. Make your subject the brightest part of photo

To draw your viewer’s eye to your subject, make your subject the brightest part of your photo. I’m always on the lookout for backgrounds that are darker than my subject. You don’t need to shoot all of your portraits in a cave, but pay attention to walls, banks of bushes, and the like that are darker than your subject. If you’re following the advice in #22 (put your subject’s back to the sun), it can be tough to make your subject brighter than the sky. If you pay close enough attention to your surroundings, you can accomplish both at once.

26. Focus on your subject’s closest eye

The eyes are the most important part of a portrait. The subject’s eyes should be the sharpest part of the photograph. That means you need to put your selected focus point right on the subject’s eye. And if they’re not perfectly perpendicular to the camera, then focus on the eye that’s closest to the camera. If you don’t like the look of one eye in focus and the other slightly out of focus, either turn your subject or narrow your aperture a bit more.

27. Shoot from slightly above…

Photographing someone from slightly above allows you to make their head and face larger than their body. You see, whatever is closest to the camera will be bigger than what’s farther away. If you shoot from slightly above, chances are that you’ll slim your subject’s body since it will be farther away than their face. Also, shooting from slightly above helps to rid your subject of a double-chin, either because you won’t see it or because they’ll extend their jaw a bit to look at the camera. Shooting from above also prevents you from getting too much of a subject’s nostrils in the photo.

28. …Or shoot at eye level for kids

However, when I photograph children, I shoot from their eye level, not from above. We always see children from above, so a photo taken from above will just look normal. In fact, photographing a child from above will ensure that you never have a horizon line in the photo, which as I said before is how we see children on a daily basis. Instead, get down to their level and take the photo from their perspective. A photo from a child’s perspective not only changes the surroundings–and can include the horizon!–but it also gives them a stronger presence in the photo. I often find myself sitting or even laying on my stomach when photographing children.

29. Use a tripod and shutter release

Try taking portraits with your camera on a tripod while you use a wireless shutter release. Not only will this technique steady your camera, ensuring a sharp photo, but you’ll be able to get out from behind the camera, allowing you to make eye contact and more fully interact with your subject. This technique can be especially useful and successful when photographing children. You can yuck it up to your heart’s content to get smiles and laughs while you click shutter after shutter.

30. Turn off the lights

If you’re shooting indoors, turn off all of the lights and use either window light or your speedlights. Your subject or client might be confused when you turn the lights off. After all, now it’s darker, right? But the problem you’ve solved is multiple color temperatures. The light in your portrait will be cohesive and your post-processing will be easier if you turn off the lights and use only one color temperature.

Photograph by Aaron Taylor.
Photograph by Aaron Taylor.

31. Use a Faster Shutter Speed

If you tend to slow your shutter speed in order to increase your photo’s exposure, stop doing that, especially if you’re taking photos of kids. You’re just asking for motion blur, either on your part from camera shake or on the part of your moving subject. Unless you’re adding some creative motion blur on purpose, you’ll want to keep a fast shutter speed. With my kids, I use at least a speed of 1/200, and when I can, I increase the speed to 1/400. I’ve found that kids who seem like they’re sitting still are always wiggling a little bit. Increase your shutter speed to combat motion blur. With adult subjects who can actually sit still, 1/200 or 1/160 will be fine. Anything slower and you risk a little motion blur.

32. Stop worrying about ISO

To bring more light into your camera because you’re following tip #31, increase your ISO. Some photographers have a fear of high ISO settings. They don’t want too much digital noise in their photos. But our cameras are sophisticated pieces of technology. They can handle more than we give them credit for. More importantly, photographers are really the only people who care about digital noise. Clients and subjects don’t notice noise nearly as much as they notice themselves. If you’ve never increased your ISO beyond 400, do it. Live a little. At a wedding a few weeks ago, I shot at ISO 1250 as we photographed the bride getting ready. After sunset, I was asked to do an impromptu photo of the grandparents. It was basically dark out, so I had to push to ISO 5000. And I didn’t hesitate to do it. Capturing that moment with those family members was much more important than a little noise in the photo.

33. Try Black and white

Changing your color photo to black and white is a great way to focus on the expression of the subject. When I’ve captured an especially natural look or focused perfectly on the subject’s eyes, I always try the photo in black and white. Color can be distracting. Black and white can call amazing attention to the subject. A black and white photo can also be the cure for a noisy photo if you’ve really pushed your ISO to an extreme.

34. Shoot from different angles

A step or two to the right or left can completely change a photo. You might think that you have the perfect perspective until you find that a better perspective is three feet to the right. You can really change your photo by moving even a small amount. Shooting from several angles will also give you different photos with the same pose. You can also discover which side is your subject’s best side by shooting from multiple angles. Remember, this isn’t just for the sake of variety; shoot different angles to find the best perspective.

35. Separate your subject from the background

All too often I tell a client that I’d like to use the trees as a backdrop only to see them quickly back themselves up and touch the trees with their backs. That’s not what I want at all! While I want the trees in the background, I want my subjects in the midground so that the trees blur out a bit. The easiest way to draw more attention to your subject compared to the background is by physically separating them from the background. Subjects find comfort when there’s something tangible nearby. Maybe they’d like to lean on something or just not feel like they’re standing in the middle of nothing. But that small sense of discomfort makes for a better portrait. Separate your subject from the background.

36. Create invisible black

You can create a portrait with a black background without actually having a solid black background. You simply need to have your subject stand in bright light with a dark area behind them. Then narrow your aperture, perhaps to f/11 or f/16. Set your ISO to 100, and adjust your shutter speed to give you an invisible black background. With minor adjustments when you post process, you should have a completely black background.

37. Create invisible white

You can create a portrait with a white background without actually having a solid white background in much the same way as the technique in #36. You simply need to place your subject in shade with something really bright behind them, perhaps a window or a bright street scene. Widen your aperture enough that the background blurs and “blows out.” If you expose for your subject’s skin, then you should blow out the background. With minor adjustments when you post process, you should have a completely white background.

38. Diffuse midday sun with your reflector

If you’re out photographing in the middle of the day, you can diffuse the light with your reflector. Most reflectors allow you to remove the reflective layer to reveal a simple diffuser. Have someone hold the diffuser above your subject and voila! You have diffuse, even light instead of harsh midday light.

39. Get the reflector closer

If you’re using a reflector to fill shadows or light your subject, keep the reflector close. If your reflector is far away, then you’re making your reflected light source smaller, which creates faster fall-off and harsher light. Get your reflector as close as possible to keep the reflected light soft and wrapping.

40. Lay down amongst trees

You can give your subjects unique catchlights in their eyes if you lay down amongst trees during the day. The sun will shrink their pupils, making their colorful iris huge. And the trees will create a unique pattern in their eyes. Just make sure that you can stand high enough to aim down without getting the view under their chin or up their nose. Most people don’t notice normal catchlights. Everyone will notice these catchlights.

Photograph by Aaron Taylor.
Photograph by Aaron Taylor.

41. Bokeh balls

Be aware of the smaller lights around you. Street lights, car headlights, string lights, stop lights, and any other small light source can be turned into unique bokeh. Just make sure you either separate your subject from the lights or shoot at a wide aperture. If you do this correctly, you’ll have colorful, creative bokeh balls to add interest to your photo.

42. Be careful of an extreme vignette

Adding a vignette around your photo is a great way to draw your viewer’s eye to the subject. But you must vignette in moderation. Do a squint test after you add a vignette. If you can clearly see a black or white vignette even when you squint, then you’ve gone too far. If you can clearly see your black or white vignette with your eyes wide open, then you’ve definitely gone too far. Also, I’ve never done a white vignette. Our eyes are drawn to what’s brightest in the photo. A white vignette will draw your viewer’s eye to the edges. Use a dark vignette, and use it in moderation.

43. Always keep a flash ready

I have a speedlight permanently attached to a bookshelf in my living room. My family spends the most time together there, but the room doesn’t always have great light for candid family photos. But I want good light even when we’re just doing our normal family thing. That’s why I have a speedlight ready at all times. I don’t want my client’s photos to have amazing light while my family photos suffer from poor indoor lighting. Thus, my speedlight is ever at the ready. Plus, this allows me to practice my off-camera-flash and my bounce-flash skills often. I get great photos of my family, and I get quality practice with camera and flash settings. If you need help learning how to use your new speedlight, check out these three links: Resource 1, Resource 2, and Resource 3.

44. Take photos every day and pick a technique to practice

I try not to let a day go by where I don’t take a photo of something. The only way to get better at taking portraits is through deliberate practice. I pick one technique and experiment with it each day. Maybe I’m using off-camera-flash. Maybe I’m pushing the limits of my camera’s ISO. Maybe I’m practicing manual focus. Whatever it is, I pick something and practice everyday. You should, too.

45. Capture natural expression

I rarely ask my subjects to smile. Whether it’s my family or a paying client, I don’t ask for smiles. Asking for a smile will give you a guaranteed fake smile. You know it and your subject knows it. It’s just not their real smile. Sometimes I try to capture their expression at rest. I often get a natural, resting facial expression from children. Children are often curious around cameras, so they’ll look right at the lens with an expression of relaxed wonder. I like this way more than a fake “cheese!” With older subjects, I just try to loosen them up, make them laugh, make them think about something else, anything to take the attention away from the camera and their urge to fake-smile. I think one of the reasons I love family photography, especially with young kids, is that many haven’t been forced to discover the fake-camera-smile yet. I can get such powerful honesty from little kids. I’ll take that any day over a fake smile.

46. Look at the edges of the frame

As you look through the viewfinder or at the screen on the back of your camera, trace your eye around the edges of the frame. Check for anything distracting or uncomfortably close. We have a tendency to focus on the subject, who’s usually in the middle of the frame. In doing so, you’ll lose track of what’s near the edges of your frame. You don’t want anything too close to the edge, and you don’t want a car or a sign or another person sneaking into the frame. Remember, your viewer will examine the entire frame even if you were only focused on part of it when you clicked the shutter. Examine the entire frame and make sure the entire image works.

47. Make sure nothing is sticking out of a head

My family and I love to have things stick out of our heads when we video chat. A favorite of ours is to turn on a fan and put that spinning fan right on the top of our head. When we photograph each other, we sometimes have trees or signs or animals sticking out of our heads, too. Silly business, right? While I might have fun doing this with my family, I make a point to avoid it entirely with clients. Even if you’re shooting at a shallow depth of field, a blurred out fence post or tree can still clearly stick out of someone’s head. Just like the advice in #46, look beyond your subject and make sure nothing is awkwardly sticking out of them.

48. What's biggest on the body?

In tip #27, I told you to shoot from slightly above so that your subject’s head would be closest to the camera. I mentioned that whatever is closest to the camera will appear larger in the frame. Be aware of this as you pose your subject, especially groups of people. Elbows, feet, and hands can quickly creep closer to the camera, making those body parts look bigger than they should and taking attention away from your subject’s face. Look at what’s closest to the camera; it’ll be biggest in the frame. Chances are, you’ll want the subject’s face to be biggest, or at least not outshined by a foot or hand.

49. What's brightest on the person?

As you are processing your photos, give your photo the squint test and see what’s brightest on the subject. You want your subject’s face to be the brightest, right? Be careful that a knee or elbow or shoe or hand hasn’t caught your light and become the brightest part of the subject. Selectively burn brighter parts to make them darker and then dodge a slight exposure boost on your subject’s face. The effect might be subtle, but it’s worth it.

50. You need shadow

While much of this list is about the light in your photo, don’t forget that you also need shadow. Shadow gives dimension and shape to your subject. Without shadow, your subject will be flat and uninteresting. The amount of shadow you include is up to you and might depend on your subject. Just don’t get rid of shadow entirely. Shadows can do as much, if not more, for your photos than light can.

Photograph by Aaron Taylor.
Photograph by Aaron Taylor.

51. Be careful of what you wear

I once wore a bright red baseball cap to a client’s session. I got home and began editing the photos, some of which were headshots. I started to notice that my red hat was showing up in their eyes. How distracting! Imagine if I had worn a fluorescent yellow shirt. That yellow shirt would show up in every close-up. Wear a neutral or dark outfit. That way, your wardrobe doesn’t become an integral part of the reflection in their eyes.

52. Make people touch

When you have two or more people in the photo, get them touching. Have them hold hands, touch hips, sit on laps, whatever you need to do to close some of the gaps between them. Physical closeness will translate to emotional closeness. Remember all those times that a photographer told your group to scoot together? You probably thought people on the edges just weren’t in the frame, right? What’s more likely is that the photographer wanted the group to look close, to look more intimate. Physical connection creates emotional connection.

53. Use natural, clean processing

As I write this article, we are still smack dab in the middle of matte filters, faded and nostalgic color palettes, and all other manner of creative filters. I’m sure we’ll look back on these days and wonder why. My advice is to keep things natural, clean, and crisp. Make a correct, natural skin tone and white balance your number one post-processing goal. Be wary of pushing the boundaries of processing creativity. In the moment, you might love what you’re seeing. But years down the line, you might wish for a more true-to-life portrait. Of course there’s a time and place for creativity, but I err on the side of realism.

54. Light (again!)

It’s worth coming back to my first tip. A good photo does not occur without good light. Your number one goal must be to begin to understand the qualities of light and how those qualities create interesting light. From the moment you wake until the moment you fall asleep, you need to begin to examine the light around you. Experiment and see what works, what looks unique, what provides interest beyond the norm. You need to understand Light with a capital “L.”

55. Portrait photography is about people

Finally, not a single tip, trick, or technique here is of any value if you don’t make a genuine, comfortable connection with your subject. Technique is important, but relationships and rapport are what make portraits stand out. The best photographers are technical masters, but more importantly they know how to make people comfortable and natural in front of the camera. Your relationship with your subject should start long before the first shutter click and it should continue well after you’ve processed the photos. Portrait photography is about people. Never underestimate the power of a personal connection.

9 thoughts on “55 Quick Tips for Better Portrait Photos”

  1. Could not agree more with the background topic – everyone seems so worried about where the shoot will be. It’s important to educate and show them examples where it’s the people and not the backdrop that matter. Back drop shots are good for vacations at landmarks and done with a cell phone – not a family shoot.

    Nice read 🙂

    1. Thanks, Brian. I might just have to write a little blog post for my website about how to choose a location for a portrait session that helps nudge clients in a simpler direction. Thanks for the kudos.

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