Mastering portrait photography is a key skill for any serious photographer. Not only do portraits test your skills, but producing a great portrait photograph gives you a piece of work that will probably be treasured for a very long time. With that in mind, we wanted to cover the topic of portraiture very thoroughly indeed.
This page brings together every portrait photography tutorial and tip on the site (and several other sites) that we think will round out your skills as a portrait photographer. It is also a living document for portrait photographers who want a single online reference for the craft. It will change and be updated often, so bookmark it and come back as you need to.
What is Portrait Photography? A Definition
Portrait photography is capturing the photograph of a person or a group of people and can be one of the most challenging genres of photography . Portrait photographs capture the personality, character and mood of the subject and they can be considered an artistic representation of a someone’s character. Portraits should be captured in a way that they tell a story about the subject and create a connection between the viewer and the subject.
Portrait photographs go beyond just photographing the people where the face, especially the eyes are always given more attention in a portrait as they speak the mood and portray the emotions of the person. Posing also plays a major role in creating effective portraits as it contributes to the overall power and story of the image.
A Portrait Photography Gallery of Some of Our Favourites of Late
What Gear Do You Need for Portrait Photography?
The Best Lens and Focal Length for Portrait Photography
Choosing a lens based on a genre or a purpose is the first step to a wise investment when it comes to photographic gear. So, if we are talking about portrait lenses then we can narrow our choices down pretty fast. Portraits photographers crave creamy bokehs, little distortion and fast focusing capabilities. Normal angle of vision lenses or short telephotos will work near perfectly for you; so let's start talking about how to pick the best lens for you.
In general terms, the classic focal length for a portrait lens on a 35mm camera is 85mm. But there are a few caveats so read on.
We'll skip the budget too so you won't limit yourself (at least not in the first stage of choosing the best lens for your portraits).
This is the most common sensor in the market.
There is no way of going wrong with this one, if you really are into portraits, then you need to invest in a good 50mm lens. When mounting a regular 50mm lens into a camera with an APS-C sensor, the lens will tighten down due to the camera's crop factor. This will transform the lens' angle of view to something similar to a telephoto lens sitting between 75mm and 80mm.
These lenses offer little distortion, and often come in fast apertures that span from f/1.8 to even f/0.95. Here is where your budget will come into play. Higher quality and more powerful internal components will increase the lens value, and the fastest the aperture, the more it will thicken the price tag as well.
Most portrait photographers using a cropped sensor camera opt for a 50mm f/1.8 (and if they can afford it, a f/1.4).
Full frame sensors
Here options turn out to be broader, from 50mm to 85mm lenses.
Normal lenses on a full frame camera are the purest experience there is, it simply feels like you are watching with your eyes bare naked, and that's enough reason for trusting 50mm on a full frame. Just like we said above, built quality and aperture capabilities will determine the price tag.
If you want tighter shots without having any barrel distortion, then you can also consider 85mm lenses, which are a little bit longer. Longer lenses will produce even more blurred shallow depth of field, something highly desired when taking portraits. This is the classic portrait focal length.
The Best Camera for Portrait Photography
Cameras aren't built for a single purpose but for several, nevertheless, there are some that are great value for certain genres like portrait photography. All of these cameras are great, and your choice should be guided by lens options, ergonomics, and budget.
Glass before bodies!
The Best Portrait Camera with an APS-C Sensor
For a camera under $1,000 ($999), it offers really great value for portrait photography and other applications as well. It is like going close to a full frame without going broke. It has a 24.2 megapixels sensor, and is awesome for video as well.
Despite the fact that it is indeed a very new camera, it has some solid legacy supporting it. This camera has a new state of the art 26.1 megapixels X-Trans CMOS 4 sensor. And comes with 16 film simulations, and they all are beautiful. You can have this jewel of a body at only $1,499.00.
Best Portrait Camera with a Full Frame Sensor
We have mentioned this camera in several posts, and it is simply because it is a great camera. These guys really nailed it with this full frame DSLR, and is a wise investment if you are still shooting DSLR systems. It has a 45.7 megapixels, full-frame sensor and can be bought at $3,299.95.
Sony A7R III
This is the almighty of mirrorless full frame cameras with a decent price tag. It has a 42.4 megapixels, full-frame sensor with built in eye-tracking autofocus, and since it doesn't have an optical low-pass filter, image quality isn't compromised. You can get it for $1,999.99.
Other Pieces of Gear
If you are serious about portraits, then you should invest in the following:
Good and reliable lights (flashes or strobes)
Big softboxes that will make your lights nice and smooth
Tripods that will keep your camera steady and in the same place
Our Latest Articles on the Topic of Gear
What Are the Best Portrait Photography Camera Settings?
With portraits, since you want to have sharp and clean images, there are certain settings that you need to use to make good portraits. Since lighting and other conditions can vary with each shoot, it is best to know what to do with each specific portrait shoot. We will look at the three basic settings that need to be taken care of, for all types of portraits.
Aperture: Depending on the type of portrait and the number of people in an image, you will need to carefully choose the aperture. Remember, the wider the aperture, the blurrier the background will be.
If you are shooting portraits of a single subject, you can use apertures as wide as f1.4, but remember, depending on the focal length and distance between you and the subject, other parts of your subject’s body may go out of focus - even the nose. So choose the aperture value according to what you are looking to create.
Make sure the eyes are in focus in the portrait as this gets a bit challenging when using very wide apertures. If you are shooting from one side of your subject, make sure that the eye closer to the camera is in focus, but in order for the portrait to look better, you might consider using a narrower aperture between f/2.8 and f/4 to have both the eyes in focus.
For couple shoots or where there are two people in a portrait, it is good to play it safe by using aperture values between f/2 and f/4 so that both the people in the frame are in focus. If you are sure that both the subjects are on the same focal plane, then you can get away with f/2, but when there is doubt, it is better to use f/3.5 or f/4.
If you are shooting a bunch of people, then to have all the members of the group in focus, you will have to use narrower apertures in the range f/5.6 to f/11 depending on the size of the group you are photographing and along how many rows they are arranged. Using a narrow aperture will ensure that every person in the frame is in sharp focus.
Shutter Speed: Shutter speed is an important factor when it comes to any genre of photography. You need to have your subject in focus without any blur due to even the slightest movement.
In order to achieve this, instead of the general 1/focal length rule, I am going to say that you will need to have a shutter speed, greater than 1/ twice the focal length of your lens so that your images turn out sharp. It is safe to always stay greater than 1/250 of a second and if you are shooting using a crop sensor camera, you will need to take the crop factor into account.
For example, if you are shooting with an 85mm lens, it is good to have shutter speed greater than 1/(2 x 85) = 1/170 of a second for full frame camera and 1/(1.5 x 2 x 85) = 1/255 s for a crop sensor.
If you have a lens or a camera body that has image stabilisation, and you are in a situation where you need to slow down the shutter speed, then, when using a full frame camera, your shutter speed needs to be greater than at least 1/85 s and on a crop sensor, it needs to be greater than 1/(85 x 1.5) = 1/128 of a second. Note that even the slightest movement of your subject can cause blur in images and render them useless.
ISO: Based on your aperture and shutter speed, you will need to set your iso to get the correct exposure. Using very low iso values between 100 and 400 will yield noise free images and this is possible on bright sunny days. But if you are in a situation where the light is too low, for example a dark cloudy day and/or you are using a narrow aperture maybe for a group photo, you can slightly increase the iso to between 400 to 800 get the correct exposure. Indoor photo shoots in ambient light may require you to bump up the iso, but you can make use of external flash to compensate for the low light.
Remember, increasing the iso and having a slightly noisy image is better than having a blurred image with no noise. So do not compromise on shutter speed. Increase the iso if you need to in order to get the shot.
Portrait Photography Techniques and Tips for Beginners
The truth is that you can make some pretty significant strides in your portrait photography skills, even with rudimentary tips. Here are some portrait photography tips for beginners that will get you better images, almost instantly.
Think Soft Light: One of the key tips in portrait photography is that people look better in soft light without harsh shadows. Examples of soft light might include the light coming in through a window, or the light of an overcast day (where the sky is basically a big soft box). In general, the larger the source of light (in relative terms) the softer the shadows cast by that light will be.
That also means you should try to avoid shooting people in harsh light conditions - midday sun, spotlights, direct flash. Sometimes you will need to shoot in those conditions, but try to soften or diffuse the light by bouncing it (wall, ceiling etc), reflecting (reflector, umbrella etc) it or diffusing it (softbox, material etc).
Backgrounds Are Important: An old trick of street photography is to choose the background before you choose the subject and the same holds broadly true in portrait photography.
If you’re in a controlled setting with a cooperative model, you really want to consider what is in the background as it can be distracting or complimentary.
Focus on the Eyes - And if you can only focus on one eye, make it the eye closest to the camera. In almost all circumstances, the eyes are going to be the key to getting a good portrait photograph. If they are out of focus, it is difficult to save the image. So make sure you nail it.
There are a lot of other portrait photography tips for beginners that you should consider. Here are some of our more popular articles on the subject:
Some Great Video Tutorials on Portrait Photography
Understanding Portrait Photography Lighting
While planning your upcoming portrait session, you have to consider different lighting options and how they suit your creative ideas as well as your model’s vibe. No matter if you’re shooting an outdoor session with natural light or a studio session with various artificial lights, you should know the basic rules of lighting in portraiture.
Natural Lighting for Portraiture
Natural lighting for portraiture is something that almost every photographer attempts to master.
If you’re shooting outdoors, keep in mind that an overcast day can be the best day for portrait photographers who wish to shoot using natural light. Clouds act as a giant light diffuser and make the sunlight very soft and the colors in your image richer. You do not need to look for a shady place or a time when the sun will be low to avoid creating harsh shadows on your model as you would on a sunny day. You should , however, try to keep the sun behind you so that your model is uniformly illuminated.
On the other hand, another great way to light a portrait when shooting outdoors is having the model backlit using the sun (especially in the golden hours). This kind of lighting can be truly splendid but it does require a certain amount of advanced technical knowledge. If you’re still a beginner when it comes to portraiture, backlit shots can help you take your skills to the next level. You may have to use spot metering depending on how much light variation you have in the frame and learn to use your exposure settings correctly to compensate for the backlight.
You can create great portraits with natural lighting even indoors if you use diffused window light. There’s really no wrong time of day to use window light - it’s a good idea to spend a few moments in the room where you will be shooting just observing the light and visualizing how you to use it to illuminate your subject. This kind of lighting can be used to light up a subject and to create some dramatic portraits as the side light can illuminate one side of the subject leaving the other side in little or complete darkness depending on the strength of available light inside and outside. This is a wonderful way to light your subject and if you wish to illuminate the darker side of your subject to create a different mood in the image.
Artificial Lighting for Portraiture
When it comes to artificial lighting in photography, there are two types of it – continuous and strobe lighting.
Continuous lighting for portraits can be divided into three different groups – incandescent, fluorescent and LED lighting. Incandescent lighting ranges from the common light bulb to large tungsten “hot lights” used in the studio and on movie sets. This lighting is warm in colour temperature compared with natural daylight. On the other hand, fluorescent lights come in many different colors - cool white, warm white, daylight balanced and traditional green. It’s hard to set correct white balance for fluorescent lighting, so do a custom white balance using a grey card .
LED studio lights can range from very stable in color temperature to very unstable. The brightness can be varied with a built-in rheostat and some models have two color temperatures, or slide-in filter panels. The quality of the light from LED lights can be somewhat harsh and it doesn’t spread out much, so you might need to soften this light with light modifiers or bounce it off a wall.
When it comes to strobe lighting, there are various flashes and studio strobes. Strobe lighting is probably the most commonly used artificial lighting in photography but it’s not suitable for video, as the duration of the flash is too short.
There are many manufacturers of strobe lighting systems and many light modifying accessories to go with them such as umbrellas and softboxes. Strobe lighting is usually more powerful than continuous lighting but it’s harder to control it and you might need to readjust frequently during your shoot.
You can use either a single artificial light or something more elaborate, such as a multi-light setup. This kind of complex setup includes the main light (key light) and additional lights such as fill lights, hair lights and background lights.
Portrait Lighting Patterns
There are four common portrait lighting patterns that every portrait photographer should know and these are split lighting, loop lighting, Rembrandt lighting and butterfly lighting.
Learning the correct light placement can be quite fun because there are many ways to create something quite unique.
More lighting guides you might be interested in for portraiture lighting:
A Guide to Using Flash in Portrait Photography
While Lighting is one of the fundamental requisites of good portrait photography, mastering flash for portraits is quite a challenge. We can completely change the look of a subject purely by the way we sculpt the light on to their face. Flash is both simple to use and complicated to master in portrait photography, so in this section we will take a look at types of flashguns you can use, which modes to use and how to get great lighting for your portrait shots.
Types of Flashguns
The most common flashguns most of us use are the built-in camera flash and the hotshoe mounted portable flash units. If we are shooting in a studio environment we may possibly use larger mains powered flash heads. The principle of using all of them are very similar.
The built in camera flash
The external, battery-powered flashgun
The big studio mains flashes
Flash Modes For Portrait Photography
Portable flash is the most common type of flash that we will use in portrait photography. As mentioned above these units are becoming very sophisticated in their capabilities but there is one mode that rules the roost when shooting people, manual mode. The reasons for this are simple:
Fine control of flash output
No variation in color or exposure
Best way to balance flash with ambient light
Manual flash has two basic settings. The first one regulates the power in increments. They will range all the way from full power down to 1/64th or 1/128th power. The second setting is lens focal length. This will widen or narrow the angle of the flash output according to the lens used.
When shooting with flash it’s important to remember that shutter speed (with a couple of caveats) has no effect on flash exposure. Only the aperture will will have any effect on direct flash.
The caveats are that you will be limited to a maximum shutter speed, called the sync speed. This is usually around 1/250th of a second but some more advanced dedicated units will sync at much higher speeds with specific cameras.
The other caveat is that the aperture will still affect any ambient light falling on our subject.
When using flash in manual mode, we can change the output setting to balance the flash with ambient light or to get the desired modelling in our subject’s face.
The other main flash mode that we can use are TTL or Through The Lens metering. This mode will cut of the flash once the camera sensor has received enough light giving us the correct exposure. It can however cause variations in exposure depending on where the camera’s sensor is reading.
EXTRA TIP: For example if our portrait model changes position, the camera’s sensor may read more of the background and change our exposure.
Shooting Portraits With a Single Flash
With a single hotshoe mounted flash, we can get great looking portraits. The three main ways we can use a single flash are these:
Fill In flash
Dual or Multiple Flash
As mentioned above, many modern flashguns allow wireless connectivity between themselves. This means we can trigger two, three or even more flashguns when we press the camera shutter.
More flashguns gives us more creative lighting possibilities.
For example with just two flashguns, we can use a standard portrait set up of setting both lights at 45 degrees to our model. By changing the manual output of one we can change the lighting ratio between them and hence add levels of modelling on our subject.
We could also use one flash and a reflector to the front of our model and one flash low down behind them. The rear flash will add a subtle backlight around our model’s hair.
In order to position multiple flash units you can attach them to lighting stands using hotshoe adapters.
Light Modifiers and other Sundries
As with cameras, it is now possible to buy a multitude of accessories for our flash guns. These range from very simple diffusers through gels to soft-boxes and snoots. Using a combination of flashes and accessories we can get studio quality portrait lighting for the price of a mid level DSLR.
Also useful are the plethora of smartphone apps now available. These can help us with lighting layouts as well as multiple flash exposure settings.
Using flash is, perhaps, the easiest route into creative portrait photography. If you want to get great results, dispense with the on camera flash and invest in a good portable flashgun. You can add to that at a later date to increase your portrait lighting creativity.
Portrait Photography Composition and Poses
In addition to proper lighting, interesting compositions and good knowledge of posing techniques are also essential factors in portrait photography.
Classic portraiture compositions can be divided into three categories - head and shoulder portrait, three quarter (3/4) portrait and full portrait.
In head and shoulder portrait, the subject is framed from the chest up, just to include their head and shoulder in the frame. These kinds of portraits show the character and features of the subject in more detail. When it comes to three quarter portrait, the subject is framed from knees up, which means the upper three fourth of the subject’s body is in the frame. These portraits let the viewer see a bit more of the character and features of the subject, compared to head and shoulder portraits. Lastly, in full portrait the subject is framed from head to toe and it fills most of the frame. Full portraits show the complete personality of the subject and they can be quite complex in terms of lighting and posing. They can include various props as well.
While many photographers nowadays are being creative when it comes to posing techniques, it’s good to know some classic rules of posing before doing something rather innovative. You should also make sure to emphasize your model’s best features and play down unattractive features.
There are 5 key points you need to remember when you shoot your models:
Arms and Legs
Feeling at ease
What is Environmental Portrait Photography?
Put simply, environmental portrait photography is taking photographs of people in their natural environment. That might mean shooting a welder in a garage, a dancer in a studio or a fisherman on a boat.
There are a lot of attractions for both the photographer and subject in environmental portraits. For starters, because the subject is in familiar surroundings, it is generally a lot easier to get them relaxed and looking more natural. As you can probably guess, when you take somebody into a photography studio, the first thing they do is tense up and become nervous as they are in an unfamiliar environment. Environmental portrait photography solves that problem.
Secondly, in general terms, photographing somebody in their own space generally throws up the opportunity for far more interesting photographs. Backgrounds are more interesting, colours are richer and points of secondary interest are easier to come by.
If you are going down the path of becoming a portrait photographer, then improving your game in environmental portraiture is certainly something you should be doing. Here are some further resources on environmental portrait photography:
Portrait Photography Post-Production with Photoshop and Lightroom
Mastering portraiture is not just about getting the shot perfect in camera. Just as important is the work we do in post production. Given the perfect model in the perfect lighting set up, we would still need to work on the images in post-production in order to get the “look” that we require.
Tone and lighting will need to be worked on as well as details in the models face. Even on the very best day our subjects may have blemishes, look a little pale or lacking sparkle to their eyes. Whilst there is an argument for more natural shots, if your subject is also you client, they are going to want to look the very best they can. In this section we will look at some simple edits you can make to improve the look of your portraits in both Lightroom and Photoshop.
The Basic Edits for Portraits
The first thing we need to do is carry out the basic edits to the image, primarily exposure and colour balance. We won’t go into detail here as there are many general articles on how to do basic editing in Lightroom and Photoshop.
What you are looking to do is get the overall image looking right. You start with exposure. In Lightroom this would involve moving the black and white sliders until you are happy with contrast then adjusting highlights and shadows to suit. You would then set a general white balance to ensure you have the skin tones correct.
In Photoshop you would do similar corrections. We assume that you would be shooting in RAW as this gives you the best flexibility. Adobe Camera RAW offers similar exposure and colour controls as Lightroom. Once edited you can further fine tune the basic edits using Levels or Curves.
After basic exposure edits we will look at the two most important aspects of editing a portrait. Smoothing the skin and boosting the eyes.
Skin Smoothing in Lightroom
Our aim in skin smoothing is not to make our subjects skin to look like the surface of a ballon but to eliminate pimples, spots and where required, wrinkles.
First we need to zoom into 1:1 or 1:2 in order to get in close to the blemishes.
Next, in the Develop module we will pull up the Spot Removal tool setting to Heal not Clone. Set a suitable brush size then set the feather to 15-20%. This will smooth the edges of our spot removal.
Now click on the blemish that you wish to remove. You will see a second circle appear. This is the area from which the blemish will be covered.
Move this second circle around to find the best match for skin color and tone.
Click Done with happy.
EXTRA TIP: In order to remove a wrinkle, we can set the Spot Removal tool as before but in this case click and drag along the wrinkle and match the surrounding skin.
Skin Smoothing in Photoshop CC
We use a similar principle in Photoshop but using the spot healing tool. Select the Spot Healing Brush tool from the tool box and make sure that Content Aware is is selected at the top.
Again set a brush size suitable for the blemish you are going to remove. Usually its best to make the brush about 10-20% larger than the blemish.
Unlike Lightroom the Spot Healing does not require feathering. Instead the Content Aware algorithm automatically works out the best match from the surrounding skin to cover the blemish perfectly.
As with Lightroom, we can use the same technique of click and dragging the Spot Healing Brush to cover over wrinkles.
Brightening Eyes in Lightroom
Like skin smoothing our aim in brightening eyes is to create a subtle improvement to the look. In Lightroom we can do this using the Radial Filter.
Select this in the Develop Module then draw out a circle over the iris of the eye.
Use the click points to drag the circle into shape and position so that it covers the iris completely. Leave feathering set to 50 and invert the filter so that we are working purely on the eye.
Now we can raise exposure a little to lighten the iris.
We can also change the colour of the iris slightly by using the Color Temperature slider.
Adding clarity will boost the contrast and detail whilst boosting saturation will give the iris make it stand out against the white of the eye.
We can also make the whites of the eyes, whiter. To do this we will use the Adjustment Brush.
Select a suitable brush size, and make sure Auto Mask is checked at the bottom.
From the bottom left of the main screen check Show Selected Mask Overlay. This will show our brushed area as red.
Now brush in the white areas of the eye. You can now boost the exposure slightly to brighten the eye and also reduce color temperature to remove any yellowness from the eye.
Brightening Eyes in Photoshop
In Photoshop there is a very quick and easy technique to boost the brightness of the eyes. As always, zoom in to the area you wish to work on.
Create a new levels adjustment layer from the menu: Layer - New Adjustment Layer - Levels.
Now adjust the highlights on the levels to bring the eye whites and iris up to a level that you are happy with. You will notice the entire portrait has become lighter.
With the adjustment layer selected go to Image - Adjustments - Invert. The overall image will return to the default exposure.
From the Toolbox select the Brush Tool and set Opacity and Flow to 100%. Set a suitable brush size and set hardness to 0%. From the bottom of the toolbar make sure foreground color is set to white. Now gently paint over the whites of the eyes and you will see them brighten up to the levels you set.
If we wish to boost or change the colour of the iris we can use a similar technique.
Go to Layer - New Adjustment Layer - Color Balance.
With tone set to Midtones, adjust the color sliders until the eye is the color you desire. Again the entire image will take on the same color.
Now go to Image - Adjustments - Invert and this time paint out the iris area using the brush tool.
EXTRA TIP: Eyes and skin are the two most important elements in any portrait. The eyes are what will pull the viewer into the image whilst any blemishes in the skin will detract from those eyes. Using the techniques above, you can simply and quickly edit your portraits to a professional standard in either Lightroom or Photoshop.
Tips for Awesome Self-Portrait Photography
Self-portrait photography has become really popular nowadays due to Instagram and other apps, but it’s really important to make a distinction between ’’selfies’’ and self portraits. These two are not interchangeable terms, nor do they measure up to the same level in photography.
Self portraits, unlike selfies, follow the same rules that apply to standard portraiture.
Most people, especially when starting out in photography, find self-portraits to be a nerve-wracking venture. Sometimes it’s hard to get in front of the camera when we’re so accustomed to being behind it.
Using the following tips can help you take better self-portraits:
Choose Proper Gear
Use Unique Compositions
Enhance The Mood In Post-Processing
The Most Popular Portrait Photography Styles
Portrait photography can be broken down into various categories or styles. As photographers, we should be able to understand these different styles and compose the photograph to portray what we wish to show to the viewer.
Some of the most popular styles of portrait photography are:
Besides the above, the general styles of portraits are, single, couple, family and group portraits that are taken to suit the individual subjects’ needs. There are also few other styles like abstract portraits which is an art form and not necessarily a representation of the individual subject. These could be manipulated portraits that are used to deliver an idea or concept, just like conceptual portraits.
Newborn, baby photography and family photography
Newborn and baby photography
Newborn photography is popular and attractive for many reasons. The subject is amazing, proud moms are glad to have you, and the cuteness factor is practically immeasurable. There are two types of newborn photography – posed (studio) and lifestyle and they are a little bit different when it comes to equipment and other requirements.
Posed/studio sessions: These sessions are typically done within the first 2 weeks of birth when the baby is very sleepy and fragile. Studio sessions tend to be demanding because they usually include many props and accessories, such as bean bags, blankets, wraps, hats and headbands. Such sessions can last up to 4 hours and editing can also take quite a bit of time.
Lifestyle sessions: This kind of session offers a more casual and spontaneous approach to newborn photography. Lifestyle sessions can be done with babies up to 6 weeks old and they typically last 1 or 2 hours. These sessions focus on capturing emotions of love, wonder and amazement between the family members and the newborn.
No matter if you’re shooting a posed or a lifestyle newborn session, the following five tips can help you achieve better photos:
Have a consistent shot sequence
Encourage the baby to sleep
Keep it safe
Photograph siblings too
Offer in-studio clothing options
Family portraits matter a lot because they are treasured memories! While family portraiture can be an incredibly rewarding area of photography, it can be a little daunting as well, especially for new photographers.
The following 4 tips can help you take great family portraits that even the most demanding clients will be satisfied with: