10 Crucial Things You Need to Think About for Portrait Photography

10 Crucial Things You Need to Think About for Portrait Photography


There are many pieces to doing a portrait – it’s not easy. You have to think about the technical stuff like exposure and focus, as well as the non-technical stuff like composition and working with a live subject. It can be daunting if you’re just starting out doing portrait photography so let’s break it down into all the pieces so you can work on one at a time, then put it all together.

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Here are the 10 crucial elements you need to think about when doing portrait photography:

  1. Lighting Pattern
  2. Lighting Ratio
  3. Quality of light
  4. Lens selection
  5. Background
  6. Exposure/metering
  7. Sharpness – getting it in focus
  8. How to position the subject (posing)
  9. Facial view and camera position
  10. Expression


#1 Lighting pattern

This is how the light falls on the subject’s face. How you set up the light will determine the mood of the final portrait and whether or not the subject is flattered. Lighting partner is a critical piece to get right. There are four main type of patterns and two styles, they are:

  • Split lighting
  • Loop lighting
  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Butterfly lighting
  • Short lighting
  • Broad lighting
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Left – Split lighting. Right – Loop lighting.

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Left: Broad lighting. Right: Short lighting. Notice how different she looks in each image, particularly her nose!

Knowing what each looks like and when to use them is very important. Read more here: 6 Portrait Lighting Patterns Every Photographer Should Know.

#2 Lighting ratio

A ratio is a comparison of one thing to another and in terms of lighting it is comparing the dark and light sides of the face. How much difference is there is from the shadow, to the highlight side? The greater the ratio, the more contrast the image will have, and the more moody the portrait will become. The lower the ratio, the less contrast, and the portrait will have a lighter, fresher feeling.

Look at the following examples:

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In the images above the ratio on the left is very strong, about 16:1 or four stops. The missing is about 4:1 or two stops, and the right is almost 1:1 or even. The only difference from one to the next is use of a reflector. Notice how the mood and feel of the portrait changes, as the contrast is adjusted.

For more detail on ratios read: Lighting Ratios to Make or Break your Portrait

#3 Quality of light

Another aspect of lighting you need to decide is whether you will use hard or soft light.

Hard light is produced by a small light source and is characterized by high contrast, enhanced texture of the subject, added drama, and harsh well edge-defined shadows. Examples of hard light sources are:

  • The sun (even though it is large, it is far away so its relative size is small)
  • A bare light bulb
  • The small built-in flash on your camera (including your speedlight without modifiers)

Here are two portraits done using hard light. Which is more appropriate use of this type of lighting for the subject?

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Soft light is produced by a very large light source. It is low contrast (or can even be quite flat), less textureenhancing, and is more forgiving and flattering for people photography. Examples of soft light sources are:

  • The sky on an overcast day
  • Large studio softboxes
  • A large reflector like 42” or 52”
  • An on-camera flash that has been bounced off a ceiling or wall

Here are two portraits done using soft light. Which is more appropriate use of this type of lighting for the subject?

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So along with the ratio, the quality of light will have a great affect on the mood and feeling of your portrait. Choose soft light for portraits that flatter the subject, and choose hard light for an edgier look with more grit and drama.

#4 Lens selection

The lens you select will change the appearance not only of the subject, but the background as well.

Using a wide angle lens will introduce distortion and cause the subject’s face to look abnormal, sort of stretched. It will also allow you to see a large sweeping view of the background behind them.

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Notice how the shape of her face and her features are distorted here with the 17mm lens (used on full frame)? This is not something most people will desire.

However, there may be instances where you want this look such as a humorous portrait, kids, or an editorial style portrait of a street vendor at a market where you want to see his environment.

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The wide angle view (17mm) adds to the comical nature of this portrait.

Telephoto lenses compress perspective – this does two things. First it is usually more flattering to the subject, their facial features look less distorted. Second, it simplifies the background by seeing less of it, and often it’s less in focus as well (dependant on distance to the background) putting more emphasis on the subject, which is what you want. Read more at: How to Achieve Blurred Backgrounds in Portraits.

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Shot at 70mm on full frame

Same girl as the portrait above. Compare her face in the two images, and take note of the background as well. See how much less of the room, and how it is more out of focus than the wide image above?

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24-105mm lens shot at 105mm (on full frame body)

The long lens used for this image has compressed the background and because it is so far away (across the river on the other side) it is really out of focus and provides a soft background to enhance the portrait, not take away from the girl.

#5 Background

One thing many of my students forget to control and think about is the background. It’s so easy to be focused on all the other stuff and working with your subject that you forget to even look at the background.

Two things you want to make sure about for the background are: it makes sense with the portrait, and doesn’t distract the viewer from the subject. There are four things that can do that, watch for them in your background and adjust your camera position or composition accordingly if they show up:

  • Contrast
  • Bright colours (warm tones are the worse for distraction like red and yellow)
  • Sharpness
  • Bright areas
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See how the bright areas, which are also high contrast, in the background draw your attention away from the wedding couple?

Any or all of those can draw the eye away from the subject if they are in your background. The eye is attracted to the brightest area of an image, as well as the sharpest. So get your portrait subject away from the background far enough to get it out of focus, and watch for hot spots that grab the eye. Sometimes simply moving your camera a foot or two to the left or right can eliminate trouble areas and give you a cleaner background – allowing the subject to be the star.

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Use of multiple techniques here have drastically improved this portrait over the one above. The background is now solid, out of focus, and it does not take your eye away from the couple but rather compliments the overall portrait.

#6 Exposure and metering

For a portrait where the subject is not moving, I almost always use the following camera settings:

  • Manual shooting mode
  • Single shot drive mode (when I press the button it takes one image only)
  • Single point focus (not multi or zone)
  • One-shot or AF-S focus mode to focus and lock (not continuous)
  • Shade White Balance preset (as I am usually working in the shade, if you’re in the bright sun choose that – but pick one that matches your lighting condition and leave it, anything but AWB!)
  • Shoot in RAW

That gives me the most control over doing one very important thing – having a consistent exposure from one frame to the next. That may not seem like a bit deal but if you ever decide to do portraits for a friend or have real paying clients – you want to be able to show them the images on the back of the camera and not worry about the one in the middle that was black cause you forgot to adjust the exposure.

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The other thing it does is makes editing in the post-production stage much faster.

So basically set your exposure, do a test shot (review it for exposure using the histogram), then don’t touch it unless you either move to a new location, or the light changes.

#7 Sharpness – getting it in focus

I already mentioned the settings I use for focus above. Back button focus is something I highly recommend as well. It allows me to lock focus on the subject, precisely on their eye if I’m in close enough, and then recompose my portrait and shoot away. Unless the subject or I move, changing the distance between us, there is no need to refocus.

Here are a few more focus tips from a past article I did: 5 Tips for Getting Sharper Images. Obviously if you’re shooting a moving target, like kids in action, you’ll want to choose different focus settings. Try Continuous focus (Servo or AF-C) and burst mode (continuous shooting mode or drive).


#8 Posing the subject

Getting your subject or model into a comfortable, yet flattering pose can be tricky. People are generally nervous when being photographed and will look to you for guidance on how to stand, hold their body, turn their head, and adjust their hands. So you need to have a few ideas ready for them, making sure they can hold it comfortably and they look good at the same time.

Here are a few tips:

  • You’ve likely heard this before, but if it bends – bend it. Meaning get them out of a stiff body position bending one leg slightly, and bending elbows and wrists.
  • Get them to shift their weight away from the camera (hip away) it will be more flattering that way.
  • Add a slight head tilt for ladies to add a touch of femininity.
  • To get people to turn their body when standing – tell them to turn and point their feet, the body will follow naturally.
  • Turn shoulders slightly to narrow the body width, which is more flattering for most people.
  • Let them pose naturally and just make slight tweaks or adjustments. Watch how they move on their own so it still looks like them.
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Left – stiff and boring. Right – bend the parts that bend and make a more dynamic pose, it’s also more flattering, and in this case feminine.

For more tips on posing read these dPS articles:

#9 Facial view and camera position

How you position the subject’s face is another factor that determines how flattering the portrait will be, and the mood. Some people look really great in full face view (facing the camera directly) while most benefit from turning slightly to one side, thus narrowing the face a little.

Profile view is something people cannot see in the mirror, so many have never seen theirs, and have no idea what they look like from the side. Only by trying it out will you see and know if it’s flattering for them.

The key to choosing the right angle for their face is to observe them. Do they tend to turn slightly when talking to you? Take note – that is probably the side the subconsciously prefer.

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Three different views of the same girl’s face (above). She has a really gorgeous profile and a square jaw. I think the profile and last image (¾ face view) are the most flattering for her but she looks great in any image. Not all your portrait subjects will have that, so you have to help them look their best by making choices like this. If in doubt, shoot all three and choose later, or let them pick. You’ll learn from the subject what they like and what they think looks flattering.

Tip: for people who have a bump on their nose that do not want it to show – try photographing them facing both ways. One way will show the bump, the other it will be hidden. How you do that is shoot one way with the light say off to camera right. Then trade places with them so the light is coming from the other way and do a second shot. See which shows, and which hides the bump – then you’re ready to go.

What camera position you choose will decide what you’re emphasizing on the subject. A low camera angle can show height (especially if shooting full body) and make someone look taller, but it also emphasizes the body more. Not a good choice if someone wants to appear slimmer. Getting low down near kids level puts you closer to the action and makes them appear less small.

A slightly above eye level camera angle will emphasize the face and minimize the body, a good choice for most people. It also makes kids look smaller and can be effective if that’s the look you want. A really high angle will make the forehead prominentant (perhaps not the best choice for a receding hairline).

Just be conscious that where you place your camera will affect the final look of the portrait.

#10 Expression

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Even though my Spanish is limited I was able to talk to this little girl and got this reaction and expression. She is holding a photo of her auntie’s ultrasound and her new baby cousin to be that she was really excited about. I just asked her to show me her baby primo (cousin) and she did this.

Okay, this is the ultimate thing you need to get right for great portraits. You can nail all nine points above, but if the subject has a bad expression, they will not like the image. There is one big tip I have for getting the best expressions in your portraits – talk to the subject and interact with them. There is one huge barrier to doing that which I see happen all the time.

There is a big black thing in between you and the real person sitting in front of you!

Yes, I mean the camera. Try this exercise if you dare:

Get a friend, or one of your kids or grandkids, to pose for you. Now put the camera up to your eye and take a few shots. How did it feel to you? Did you feel connected to your subject? Ask them how they felt?

Now put the camera on a tripod – yes the dreaded beast we all hate but it a necessary evil – and take a few shots using a remote trigger to fire the camera. How did you feel then? What about your subject? Were you able to make them laugh or smile? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you both had a better experience the second time and you got better expressions in the photos.

The key to expression is eye contact and you cannot do that with a camera between you.

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I’ve photographed Bob many times. He is a volunteer at an old coal mine where I do a workshop twice a year. He was a miner way back in the day and is as spry in his 70s as many people who are 40! He loves telling stories about the mine and ghosts so I just get him talking and let him go. We have fun, he loves being a “model” for a day, and it shows in the images.

Try it and see if it doesn’t make a difference. The tripod will also make you slow down and think about your camera, settings, and everything. Your tripod is not evil, it is your friend. Make friends with your tripod and use it.

Putting it all together

Whew! See I told you doing portraits is a lot to think about. But you can do this, you got this. Just take it one step at a time. If you aren’t at the stage of getting all 10 of these things yet, just pick one at a time and work on that. Choose patient models that will help you and practice. The only way to get better is by doing.

My students often ask me, “How do you make it look so easy?” – then answer – I’ve been doing this a really long time and it becomes instinct and subconscious after so many hours. Put in your 10,000 hours and we’ll talk!

If you have any questions or want to share your images – please do so in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Darlene Hildebrandt is an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through articles on her site Digital Photo Mentor, online photography classes, and travel tours to exotic places like Morocco and India. To help you at whatever level you're at she has two email mini-courses. Sign up for her free beginner OR portrait photography email mini-course here. Or get both, no charge!

  • John

    Good article, but I must take issue with the part on lens selection. It’s NOT the lens that causes the distortion/compression, it’s the photographer’s DISTANCE from the subject that causes this effect. The lens only affects the framing of the shot. So many photography sites are spreading this misleading information.

  • Thanks for the article! It is really helpful and a go to when refreshing my memory on portrait photography!

  • Well yes and no, I’ll have to disagree. Lens optics on a wide lens do distort things, especially on the edges. That you are referring to has to do with depth of field which is true, but optics and how the image is rendered IS different from a wide to long lens. Look at a wide angle landscape image some time – there is distortion. That’s why there is a term called “barrel distortion” and a correction for it in LR and PS.

  • John

    I was referring to the perspective effect. Of course, you do get wide angle distortion at edges (of some wide lenses, where straight lines appear curved)) but the exaggerated perspective is due to photographers’ distance to the subject. The lens’ focal length simply allows you to get everything in.

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  • jakecoded

    Great article. Favorite part “Put in your 10,000 hours and we’ll talk!” I say the same thing with video editing.

  • Rob

    Great article. a LOT of really useful information.

  • Ajit Manuel

    Good article. Covers just about everything a serious amateur photographer needs to know about portrait photography.

  • Emmee

    Thank you so much! I wish I had read this about 2 weeks ago when I had a family of 10 to shoot. The session was successful but had I had this information I think I would have felt much more confident. I will next time! Amazing advice!

  • Thanks!

  • Sorry I wasn’t earlier! Yes use it next time. 😉

  • Thanks Ajit

  • Michael

    Very useful article, thank you! The Exposure and Metering steps exactly match mine I use when I am shooting stationary objects. The only thing I have to admit is it takes some time to go through all the right steps in order to come up with right portrait. I am not professional photographer but an advanced hobbyist and usually my subjects are my friends and family members who never have enough patient to wait even few seconds while I make sure that all my settings are correct and forget about test shots either. Next is the background subject – yes I am totally agree with the author to make background darker and blur so the main subjects stand out. However, there were so many times when my subjects wanted to pose against memorable backgrounds being on sightseeing vacation and they expected to see them and background clearly at the same time. So it’s very controversial.

  • Talon Humphrey


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  • PixByPeter

    Great article, especially the illustrative images, but regarding your settings… if you shoot Raw why not use auto white balance? Modern cameras generally get it right and it makes no difference since you can change it in post processing anyway. If you’re not post processing, might as well shoot JPEGs.

  • We’ll have to agree to disagree then as I grab a wide angle just to distort things. You cannot make the same look with an 85mm lens as you can with a 15mm. Not possible.

  • Thanks, glad you liked it.

  • Thanks LOL. Applies to anything.

  • Hi Michael. I’m not sure about controversial but open for debate for sure! As for getting inpatient subjects – if you want to learn and grow as a photographer, try and find a friend who will sit for you and have patience. The amount of time spent getting things right will directly affect the outcome. Meaning – take your time and do it right – get a much better portrait. If you can just just ONE friend to do that for you, show it to your other friends and family and explain how long it takes to make a great portrait.

    It’s like anything – want it fast – don’t expect quality. If you are hungry and just want a quick bit a fast food joint and a burger may do the trick. But if it’s a special occasion, maybe a birthday or anniversary – you want a nice meal. AND you know it’s going to both cost more AND take more time to get your food. It’s all about setting expectations.

  • For a couple of reasons Peter:

    #1 – when I go to show it to my subjects, which for me most times are paying customers – I want to show them how it looks as close as possible. If I show them an image that’s off color, or rotating through them and the color changes from one to the next image (Auto WB will do that) it looks less professional.

    #2 – I want to batch process my images and get them to the proofing stage as quickly, with the least amount of work, as possible. If I nail the exposure, and the WB in camera that’s two less things to fuss with later. I may tweak any final images selected to get printed – but for proof quality my goal is to get back, download, cull and have them ready to proof – all in 30 minutes. If it takes longer than that it’s too long.

    Does that help explain it?

  • John

    That’s unfortunate as you also disagree with the laws of physics and optics then:


    Read paragraph three in particular.

  • The stuff you are using that is very useful and helpful. Thanks for sharing a very informative article.

  • Jeff Beer

    This is likely the best article I’ve seen on this site, and on any site for that matter. Very well done! It brings all these issues into clear focus (sorry for the pun).

  • JR

    Agree with you John. Though I respect and appreciate Darlene. If you take a nice portrait with an 85mm at the right distance for the 85, then set up a 15mm at the same spot and take the pic and crop it to the same four borders as the 85, the shots are about identical. Less pixels of course from the 15mm because of the drastic crop, but no diff in distortion. Distortion is in fact due to the distance not the lens. Here it is explained. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TTXY1Se0eg

  • JR

    Darlene. First, thank you for a great article. But I have to side with John on this one. You grab the wide angle so you can get in closer and still get the composition you want. Once you’ve gotten in closer, you’ve introduced the distortion but it’s due to distance, not the lens. If you grab an 85 and stand at the same spot, you’ll have the same distortion….granted it will be a shot of only a nose rather than a head but the two shots will be equally distorted. See the youtube above. The closer you are to a subject, the more distorted the subject’s parts that lie closer to your lens. At a close distance, a nose is many times closer to your lens than the ear, so it is way bigger. At 50 feet, the nose and ear are almost in the same relative plane so for all intents, they have the same perspective. Again, thank you for all you do at DPS. Joe

  • again yes and no. You’d never stand 20 feet away from your subject with a 15mm lens and crop it to 1/10th of the shot. And the lenses are NOT made equal. The 15mm has a wider angle of view and the closer you get it will distort more than a long lens. Try standing 12″ from your subject with an 85mm lens? Not even possible you’ll get nose hairs and that’s it. As for dPS I’m no longer the editor here, just FYI, this is a really old article of mine from over 5 years ago.

  • @disqus_bjqvAmhOeA:disqus thanks just for reference, I no longer work for dPS.

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