One of the many things I love about portrait photography is the freedom it allows me to share my world the way I perceive it at any given moment. Freedom of expression has to be the point which all art revolves around or else it’s not really art. This is why I find many of the photography rules that are often dogmatically espoused to be troublesome. Not because there’s no value in learning the fundamentals — photographic theory, as it were — but clinging to those ideas as if there’s only one right way to achieve something is terribly shortsighted.
Article by Jason Little, Ritesh Saini and Amber Ketchum
Note: Check out our general photoshoot ideas article here for more ideas.
For those who are new to portrait photography or who are looking for simple but effective ways to change up your portrait work, I’ve got a couple of easy portrait photography ideas that might work for you.
Any Lens Is A Portrait Lens
Ok, 85mm may be the “perfect” portrait lens but the way I see it, what’s perfect in one scenario may not be in another. Perhaps 85mm is perfect for headshots. It’s not ideal for environmental portraits, however.
A 35mm lens is probably the one you’d want to go with for environmental portraits.
Headshots? You’ll want to stay away from the 35mm.
The point is that with any focal length you have to know what you’re gaining and what you’re giving up and how those factors will impact your portraits. That’s it. If you own one camera and one lens, you can make portraits.
Concerning focal length, here are a few things to keep in mind: shorter focal lengths tend to be accompanied by distortion. Whatever is closest to the lens is going to appear larger than it is in reality; keep noses, eyes, hand and feet at a reasonable distance from wide angle lenses. These lenses are great for lifestyle, environmental and event photography, or for when you just want a full body portrait.
Conversely, longer focal lengths minimize distortion and compress the background, generally creating pleasing bokeh and beautifully blurred backgrounds. Telephoto lenses also make it easier to compose in such a way to eliminate busy/distracting backgrounds by isolating your model in the best part of a scene.
One possible downside to using very long focal lengths is that you risk removing the intimacy between yourself/your camera and your model due to the need for greater working distance.
This Angle Or That Angle?
You’ve probably gotten just as much advice about what angle to use for portraiture as you have gotten about what focal length to use.
Again, I say, the choice is yours, and it should be based on the attributes of your model and what look you’re striving for. Allow me, however, to throw my support behind the low angle. Very low…like, lying on the ground or flood with your camera low. Getting low works for any kind of photography — street, macro, landscape — but it’s an angle choice too seldom used by portrait photographers.
Photographing your subject from down low adds a sense of engagement, power, and importance to the individual’s persona. Plus, shooting upwards is another useful method of eliminating background distractions.
Any focal length (used effectively) plus a low shooting angle equals a dynamic portrait. Of course, things like location, posing and clothing might also factor into a good portrait. But when you strip the making of a portrait down to its most essential elements, all you need is a camera, a lens and a willing subject.
Portrait Photography Ideas & Techniques for Group Portraits
Group portraits, whether formal or informal, are always a big hit wherever friends and/or family are gathered. Weddings, family reunions, graduations, birthday parties — you can be sure to find people jockeying for position in front of a camera at all of these events. The impetus behind group portraits is, perhaps, of a more sentimental nature than other types of photography; as we grow, evolve, and journey through life, we will inevitably have to part ways with some of our closest family members and best friends. We rely on group photos to remind us not only of the individual faces that mean so much to us but also of the events to which those faces are connected.
Given the value of group portraits, it’s important to get them right — something that doesn’t always happen. You’ve seen them, those groups shots where there always seems to be that one person looking in a different direction than everybody else; two or three of the people in the shot are blinking; someone’s missing from the shot because they went back for an eggnog refill at the last second. If you’re the photographer, these are things you’re going to have to deal with, but there are steps you can take to help make the whole process less awkward and the outcome more successful.
- Be prepared — ensure your camera and any other gear are operating properly, have an idea of how you’re going to frame your shots and where you’re going to set up.
- Make sure the location you choose is relevant to the event, is large enough to accommodate the size of the group, and is free of background distractions.
- Quickly fire off multiple exposures to mitigate the lack of uniformity caused by blinkers and those whose facial expressions may not be matching the rest of the group at the moment of capture.
- Keep tall people in back, shorter people in front or at the sides.
- Place VIPs (bride and groom, graduate, guest of honor at a birthday party) front and center; everyone else should fall into place around them.
- If you plan to do any formal shots, try to get those as early in the proceedings as possible while everyone is still well-groomed and functioning at a relatively high energy level.
- If you’re working with an especially large group and your wide-angle lens still can’t fit everyone in the frame, try shooting from a higher vantage point.
- Don’t be afraid to take control of the situation. People generally respond well to direction because they know they will like the resulting image.
- Pay special attention to the lighting. Whether you’re working with natural light, flash, or both, you need to be sure that everyone in the group is well lit and nobody’s face is left obscured by shadows.
- Be willing to break the mould. Don’t feel obligated to stick to the standard script of posing and framing your shot. Everyone will appreciate a little creativity.
- Try to remain upbeat and positive — as the photographer, you set the tone for everyone else.
- Get someone to help you! Having an assistant in your corner will keep your stress levels lower.
7 Detailed Tutorials that will Improve Your Indoor Portrait Photography
Indoor portrait photography can be a bit challenging, especially in regards to lighting choices. When it comes right down to it, lighting in photography is a science. One little tweak in the position or type of lighting can change the entire tone of a photograph, for better or for worse. Below is a list of some of the best portrait photography ideas I was able to locate, based on indoor portrait photography.
Creating Beautiful Indoor Portraits without Flash – This article by photographer Ed Verosky is featured on the website Digital Photography School. What I liked most about this article was the very thorough descriptions and detail, with the main focus being on different types of lighting available to avoid flash use. Ed talks about using available household lighting, natural light from windows (with curtains as filters in some cases), and how to manipulate each to suit your needs. He also addresses post-processing issues such as white balance or noise. All in all, a very thorough article, with all camera settings disclosed and no dumbing down of the jargon required to keep the article beginner friendly.
Simple Digital Portrait Photography for Beginners – This article focuses on simplicity, as much as is possible with this type of thing, and is aimed towards beginners. What I liked most about this particular page is that it also gives a list of must-have equipment and accessories for those just starting out. We all begin somewhere, and it really helps to have this information available to avoid common start-up mistakes.
Most tutorials you find online totally skip the fundamentals – what is a softbox? Where do I find one? Do I need one?, etc, I could go on forever. This article is still very detailed and thorough, definitely worth a read for beginners, but even if you're not just starting out you may find something useful here. I am a big advocate of the use of natural light combined with flash. It creates warmth that is absent otherwise. I hate using flash on its own, and the author of this article agrees with me, so I am naturally very pleased with this entire post.
Inspirational Portrait Photography Tips – In need of a little inspiration? Breaking the rules is so much fun. I just loved the photos shown here, and the tips accompanying them are interesting. If you are looking to spice up your portraits, do not forget that rules are only guidelines and sometimes stepping outside of the box is the best decision you could make. Let's face it, portrait photography can be a little redundant at times.
Natural Lighting and Diffuser Tips (Video) – I was not sure about this video at first, but after watching, I realized that the tips are pretty basic but very important. The sample photographs shown are really helpful as well because listed is the camera settings, the direction of light, and reflector position.
Composition and Posing for Indoor Portraiture (Video) – This video is awesome! A lot of times we forget how important composition is, and the same can be said for posing. What do you do when a client is asking you to take 10 pounds off of them in their portraits? If a client is self-conscious about their skin, their weight, or any other specific trait, there are ways to help ensure that you create photographs for them that they will be happy with. The last thing that you want to do is accentuate the very things your client is concerned about. This video tutorial offers a ton of tips on these very delicate concerns that many clients may have.
Light Modifiers (Video) – This video is very thorough and focuses on modifiers, it is one of my personal favorite lighting videos that I have ever found. They go into great detail about each method, the options available, and the pros and cons (and things to avoid) for each setup. Covered are umbrellas, softbox, barn door, and reflector panels. They show each in action, the video is long enough to cover everything thoroughly without being too long. Enjoy!
101 Portrait Photography Tips – What more could you want, 101 tips is a lot. Everything imaginable is covered here. While this particular article does not focus on indoor portrait photography specifically, almost every one of the 101 tips can be applied indoors.
There are so many options on the internet for photography tutorials, and weeding through the good and the bad can be tiresome and overwhelming. Getting information from just one source is not enough, there is probably not a single tutorial or article available that covers everything.
There is not always a right or wrong way, especially when it comes to lighting. The biggest things to remember are to avoid shadows unless you are planning to capitalize on them for artistic effect, and always know where your lighting is going and the effects it will have on your subject and your final photograph.
That said, do not forget the basics, remember to pay attention to background and composition, and always strive for the highest quality photograph possible.
5 More Mistakes Beginners Make In Portrait Photography And How To Avoid Them
Portrait photography isn’t as easy as those who are good at portrait photography make it seem. You’ve got a lot to think about on the creative side, various environmental elements to control for and it helps to have a strong, if fleeting, connection with your model. Plus, there’s all the technical stuff — aperture, metering, focal length.
We all know that a good portrait is much more than a casual snapshot. And while not everyone is cut out for world-class portraiture, we’re all capable of making portraits that we can be proud of. Having some great portrait photography ideas of your own is essential, but so is avoiding some of the traps.
One ingredient of success in anything is making mistakes and learning from them (or learning from the mistakes of others). If you can avoid these five common portrait photography mistakes, you’ll find success sooner rather than later.
1. Don’t Shoot In Program/Full Auto Mode with Portrait Photography
Program mode has its place in photography but it’s really no good for portraiture. When in full auto mode, you are leaving your camera to make too many decisions for you. The camera can’t read your mind and decipher what look you’re going for — it’s just going to give you a generic meter reading with no regard for the subject matter.
To truly harness the creative potential in any portrait, it’s best to work in manual mode.
Here are a few basic guidelines for shooting portrait photography in manual mode:
- Set ISO first. Portraits are typically shot in good natural light or with studio lighting, so keep ISO as low as possible.
- Set the aperture next. If you’re looking to create portraits with shallow depth of field, set your lens to its largest aperture.
- Balance the exposure. Now round out your settings by adjusting the shutter speed until the metering indicator falls right in the middle.
- If manual mode seems too daunting a task at first, aperture priority will serve you well. You set the aperture and leave the rest to the camera. More often than not this will yield the desired results.
2. Don’t Use Multiple Focus Points
Cameras these days are packed with focus points — even some entry-level mirrorless cameras come with upwards of 100 AF points. You don’t need that many to make a portrait.
The problem with using a focusing mode with multiple AF points is that you can’t control what the camera might focus on; it might focus on something in the background or on your subject’s chin.
Set your camera to use one focus point and focus on the eye closest to the camera. This way, the most important part of your subject will be in focus and the background will be blurred out.
3. Don’t Forget About The Background
This applies primarily to situations when you’re shooting portrait photography outdoors. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your model who, indeed, should be the center of your attention, but you can’t forget about the background.
No matter how attractive your model is, a distracting background is going to lessen the aesthetic of the overall image.
Generally, you want to keep the background as simple and clean as possible, which can present a bit of challenge when working outdoors, but there are ways to achieve this:
- Pre-shoot scouting. Sometime before a session, search out a location that offers a backdrop with the clutter-free characteristics you desire. Doing this in advance saves a whole lot of time and frustration on the day of the shoot.
- Use the right lens. Using a telephoto lens can help create subject-background separation. With enough distance between your subject and the background, a telephoto lens will effectively blur out the background so that your model remains the center of attention.
- Get creative with perspective. There are times when your options will be limited — no telephoto lens, no clutter-free spaces. In these situations, you’ll have to play with perspective. It’s actually pretty simple: shoot from down low or from up high. A change in perspective is often all you need to eliminate a distracting background.
4. Don’t Disappear Behind Your Camera
A successful portrait session relies heavily on a positive working dynamic between you and your model. If your model is a human being, treat them as such. Talk to them, have meaningful interactions with them.
You can’t simply hide behind your camera and bark out instructions the entire time and expect for either party to be pleased with the experience.
5. Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment
All the portrait photography ideas mentioned above are rough guidelines designed to help you navigate typical portrait scenarios. As such, these ideas are not immutable. If you really want to have some fun and eventually start producing awe-inspiring portraits, you’ll need to experiment with your own portrait photography ideas. As with most any other creative pursuit, you learn the rules so that you can ultimately break them in more creative ways.
Once you’re comfortable with the basics of portraiture, start experimenting with different focal lengths, shutter speeds, locations, and lighting scenarios to see what you can create.
Perhaps the best advice I can give is to go into portrait photography with no fear. Yes, you’ll make mistakes, maybe even some of the ones listed here. But that’s okay — all those mistakes are easily corrected.
The only thing standing between you and good portraits is whatever limitations you place upon yourself.
10 Stunning Portrait Photographs That Make Brilliant Use of Backlighting
There is a common belief that a portrait photography technique that keeps the subject perfectly lit from the front will capture good photographs. While it is generally true in many cases, shooting against the light and utilizing backlighting can let you create some stunning images and is one of many portrait photography ideas that will get you interesting results.
Take portrait photos, for example. Backlit portrait images can help you capture rim lighting, the fine illumination or halo of light surrounding your portrait subject, especially with the light dispersing through their hair. This can be accomplished using both natural and artificial light. Early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is low in the sky, is a great time to utilize sunlight to photograph backlit portraits.
This section is a collection of portrait photography ideas that illuminate how backlighting can add a magical touch to your portrait shots. It's not going to be about silhouettes though, just to be clear. We hope that these photos inspire you to capture backlit portraits of your own.
If creating portraits is something that interests you and you would like a more complete training on capturing memorable portraits, do take a look at Kent DuFault's guide on the art of portrait photography over at Photzy.
But for now, let's sit back and enjoy these photographs!
Learn the Art of Portrait Photography
To get more complete training on portrait photography ideas, take a look at the guide The Art of Portrait Photography over at Photzy. It covers everything you need to know to take great portrait shots consistently – lighting and posing tips, composition guidelines, getting great shots from minimal equipment, and much more. Click here now to check it out.