Portrait photography isn’t easy, and in fact, there are many elements that go into a great portrait. 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.
If you’re just starting out with portrait shooting, all this can be pretty daunting. That’s why I’ve broken it down, piece by piece, into the 10 crucial elements you need to think about when doing portraits.
Starting with number one:
1. Lighting pattern
The lighting pattern refers to how the light falls on your subject’s face. Note that your lighting pattern will determine the mood of the final portrait and whether or not the subject is flattered. Therefore, it’s a critical piece of the portrait photography puzzle, one you must get right for impactful results.
There are four main types of lighting patterns:
- Split lighting
- Loop lighting
- Rembrandt lighting
- Butterfly lighting
And there are two lighting pattern styles:
- Short lighting
- Broad lighting
For a sense of what lighting can do, check out these examples:
So study different patterns. Test out different options. And note what works best in different situations!
2. Lighting ratio
A ratio is a comparison of one thing to another; here, the ratio compares the dark and light sides of your subject’s face. How much difference is there from the shadow to the highlight side?
Higher lighting ratios lead to greater contrast and increased moodiness. On the other hand, lower ratios lead to less contrast and will give your portraits a lighter, fresher feeling.
Look at the following examples:
The ratio on the leftmost image is very strong, about 16:1 (four stops). The middle image ratio is about 4:1 (two stops), and the rightmost image ratio is almost 1:1 (even).
Note that, as I took these photos, the only difference from one to the next was a reflector (the more even the ratio, the more I included the reflector). And note how the mood and feel of the portrait changes as the contrast is adjusted.
3. Quality of light
Another aspect of lighting you need to think about when shooting? Whether you want your light to be hard or soft.
Hard light is produced by a small source and is characterized by high contrast, enhanced subject texture, added drama, and harsh, well-defined shadow edges. Examples of hard light sources are:
- The sun (yes, it’s large, but it’s far enough way to be relatively small)
- A bare light bulb
- The small built-in flash on your camera
- An unmodified speedlight
Here are two portraits with hard light. Which use of hard light is more appropriate for the subject?
Soft light is produced by a very large light source. It is low contrast (i.e., flat), less texture-enhancing, 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
- An on-camera flash that has been bounced off a ceiling or wall
Here are two portraits done using soft light. Which use of soft light is more appropriate for the subject?
Along with the lighting ratio, the quality of light will have a major affect on the mood and feeling of your portrait. Choose soft light for flattering, beautiful portraits, and choose hard light for an edgier look with more grit and drama.
4. Lens selection
Your lens will change the appearance of both the subject and the background.
A wide-angle lens will introduce distortion and cause the subject’s face to look abnormal and stretched. It will also give you a large, sweeping view of the background.
Take a look at the example above. Notice how the shape of my subject’s face and her features are distorted by a 17mm lens? This is not an effect most folks will appreciate!
However, there may be instances when you want this look: a humorous portrait, kids having fun, or an editorial-style portrait of a street vendor at a market where you want to see both the subject and the environment.
Telephoto lenses, on the other hand, compress perspective, which does two things:
First, it is usually more flattering to the subject because their facial features look less distorted.
Second, it simplifies the background – both by showing less and by defocusing background elements. This, in turn, puts more emphasis on the subject, which is what you want.
The image below was shot at 70mm. Compare it to the portrait at the start of this section, which portrays the same subject in the same setting but at 17mm. Do you see how the face is less distorted and the background is both out of focus and more compressed?
Here’s another portrait, this one shot at 105mm:
The long lens has compressed the background, and because it is so far away (on the other side of a river), the grass is really out of focus and provides a soft background that makes the subject stand out.
One thing many photographers fail to think about is the background. It’s so easy to be focused on all the other stuff that you forget to even look at the background, which then ruins an otherwise great image.
Two questions you should ask yourself:
- Does the background make sense with the portrait?
- Does the background distract the viewer from the subject?
There are four background elements that can distract the viewer:
- Bright colors (warm tones are the worst, like red and yellow)
- Bright areas
Watch for these in your viewfinder and adjust your camera position and composition accordingly. After all, the eye is attracted to the brightest and sharpest area of an image – so if you can keep the background dark, blurry, and low contrast, your subject will take center stage.
In other words: Get your portrait subject away from the background (far enough to get trees and grass 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 that lets the subject shine:
6. Exposure and metering
For a portrait of a still subject, I almost always use the following camera settings:
- Manual mode
- Single-shot drive mode (that is, I press the button to take a single image)
- Single Point AF
- One-Shot AF (i.e., AF-S focus mode) to focus and lock
- Shade white balance (I am usually working in the shade, but if you’re in the bright sun, you might choose Direct Sunlight instead. Just pick one that matches your lighting condition and leave it.)
- RAW format
Why do I like these settings? They give me the most control over one important thing: capturing a consistent exposure from one frame to the next. If you ever decide to do portraits for a friend or have paying clients, you want to be able to show images on the back of your camera without worrying about that random shot in the middle that was black because you forgot to adjust the exposure.
(These settings also make editing much faster.)
So set your exposure, do a test shot (review it using the histogram), then don’t make adjustments unless you move to a new location or the light changes.
I already mentioned my focusing settings above, but I’d like to recommend one more option:
Back-button focus, which lets you engage your camera’s focusing mechanism by pressing a button on the back of your camera, rather than the shutter button.
That way, you can lock focus on the subject – on their eye, if you’re close enough – then recompose the portrait and shoot away. Unless you or the subject move, there is no need to refocus.
Of course, if you’re shooting a moving target, like kids in action, you’ll want to choose different focus settings. Try continuous focusing (AI Servo/AF-C) plus your camera’s fastest burst mode.
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 posing ideas at the ready.
Here are some tips:
- If it bends, bend it. In other words: Get your subject out of a stiff body position by bending one leg slightly, bend the elbows, and bend the wrists.
- Ask your subject to shift their weight away from the camera for a more flattering pose.
- Ask your subject to turn their body when standing. You can tell them to turn and point their feet (the body will follow naturally).
- Turn your subject’s shoulders slightly to narrow the body width; this is flattering for most people.
- Let your subject pose naturally at first, then make slight tweaks or adjustments. Watch how they move on their own so the final pose looks like them.
9. Facial view and camera angle
How you position the subject’s face is another factor that determines the portrait’s beauty and mood. Some people look really great in full face view (facing the camera directly), but most benefit from turning slightly to one side, thus narrowing the face a little.
People cannot see their profile view in the mirror, so most subjects have no idea what they look like from the side. Only by trying it out can you determine whether it’s flattering for them.
The key to choosing the right face angle is to observe your subject. Do they tend to turn slightly when talking to you? Take note; that is probably the side they subconsciously prefer.
The images above show three different views of the same woman’s face. She has a really gorgeous profile and a square jaw. I think the profile and last image (¾ face view) are the most flattering, but she looks great in any image.
You must help your subject look their best by doing comparisons and making choices, and if you’re in doubt, just shoot various poses and choose later (or let them pick).
As for the camera angle: This will determine what you emphasize on the subject. A low camera angle can show height and make someone look taller, but it also emphasizes the body more, which is not a good choice if someone wants to appear slimmer.
On the other hand, a slightly-above-eye-level 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’re after. A really high angle will make the forehead more prominent (perhaps not the best choice for subjects with a receding hairline).
Just know that where you place your camera will affect the final look of the portrait.
Okay, this is the 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.
Here’s my big tip for getting the best expressions:
Talk to the subject and interact with them. That’s how I got this shot:
I’ve photographed Bob (below) 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 in their 40s! 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 my model for a day, and it shows in the images.
Pro tip: Instead of putting your camera to your eye, try talking to your subject with your camera on a tripod, then shoot with a remote trigger. That way, you can have eye contact, which will significantly enhance your subject’s expression!
Portrait photography essentials: putting it all together
Whew! See, I told you doing portraits comes with a lot to think about. But you can do it. 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 right, just pick one and work on it. Choose patient models that will help you practice. The only way to get better is by doing!
Now over to you:
Which of these portrait photography essentials do you struggle with the most? Do you have any tips for improving portraits? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- 10 Crucial Things You Need to Think About for Portrait Photography
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES