5 Tips for Improving Your Portrait Photography

5 Tips for Improving Your Portrait Photography

Here are some techniques that you may not be aware of if you’re new to portrait photography. It takes practice, but being aware of these ideas can get you experimenting, and inspire you to try shots you might not have otherwise tried.

1. Frame Tight

Next time you’re watching a movie, pay attention to the close-up shots. See the top of anyone’s head? Probably not very often.

Tightly framed natural light portrait

Tightly framed natural light portrait

Leaving too much space above the head is a common mistake in portrait photography. For a close-up portrait, just cut off the top of the head. You don’t need it. I know it feels weird at first, and to be honest, I would never have tried this if someone hadn’t told me to. But it works because we connect to faces, not the tops of people’s heads. Also cropping out the top of the head (either in camera or in post) brings the eyes higher in the frame and helps you achieve rule of thirds or golden section placement of the face in the frame.

Tight portrait with golden-section crop overlay to show composition.

Tight portrait with golden-section crop overlay to show composition.

2. The eyes have it

The eyes often look best when the iris is centered in the eye. Direct the subject’s gaze to position her eyes such that the iris is about centered. By centered, I mean centered from the camera’s point of view, not the subject’s point of view.

Natural light portrait

Natural light portrait with good eye position and catchlights

I do this one of two ways, depending on the situation. If possible, I raise my left hand and have the subject follow my hand with her eyes until her eyes are positioned favorably. If this isn’t possible, I give directions like “keep your head still and just move your eyes a tiny bit to the left.”

In addition to directing your subject’s gaze to position the eyes, also take note of the catchlights in the eyes. A large, soft light source will create the most attractive catchlight. Windows without direct sunlight shining through them work great, as well as clear open sky.

3. Let the kids run wild!

You’ve heard this before but I’ll mention it again. When photographing children, one of the best ways to get natural smiles and fun photos is to shoot them in their natural habitat, which probably isn’t a photo studio.

Boy on a swing

And he only kicked me once.

Aside from a great portrait tip, this is also good all around practice to improve your photography skills. Kids at play are fast and unpredictable. Learning to frame, focus, and shoot before the moment has passed takes practice and patience.

4. Watch the hands

When it comes to portrait photography, hands are rarely neutral. Usually they are either adding to your photo, or taking from it. Make it a point to pay attention to your subject’s hands.

When photographing women, showing the hand in profile with the fingers curled works well. Often this looks more feminine and alluring than showing the back of the hand. Consider this example:

Natural light portrait

For portraits of women, showing the hand in profile with the fingers curled often works well.

Have you ever heard a subject complain “I don’t know what to do with my hands?” If you’ve ever stood in front of a large group of people to give a speech, then you know this feeling. When we’re put on the spot, it’s hard to do know what to do with our hands.

If idle hands are messing with your portrait, then put them to work. Sometimes solving the hand problem is as simple as handing the hands something to handle. Think creatively about using a prop to give your subject something to do with her hands.

Woman trying on an earring

Woman trying on an earring

Woman playing with a classic Konica

Woman playing with a classic Konica

5. Shoot into the sun

Morning and evening are great times for backlit portraits. When the sun is low in the sky, you can use it as a rim light to highlight the subject’s hair. This works best if you can position your subject against a darker background, like a shaded area, without loosing the light on the subject’s head.

Backlit portrait using the sun as a rim light

Backlit portrait using the sun as a rim light

I hope I’ve given you a few new ideas to try next time you set out to shoot a portrait. Let me know your thoughts on this article by commenting below or reaching out to me on my Facebook page. I do my best to respond to questions and comments.

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Jason Weddington is passionate photographer and the creator of PhotoQueue.com, a service that helps photographers maintain their online presence by scheduling uploads to Flickr and 500px. PhotoQueue will soon add support for Facebook, and Tumblr. Jason is also an Associate member of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP).

Some Older Comments

  • portrait photography September 28, 2013 04:54 pm

    My brother recommended I would possibly like this website. He was totally right. This publish truly made my day. You can not consider just how so much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

  • Eileen June 18, 2013 09:22 am

    Only received my camera last month so i'm at the very beginning of my journey.
    Awesome tips. Looking thru thehundreds of portrait shots i've taken of my family, i find i've cropped off the top off their heads in the photos i enjoy the most...
    Positioning of the iris is something i've not even considered, and is my next project.
    Hopefully i'll improve to the point of adding an image to my comment ;)

  • Christopher Prins June 14, 2013 10:51 am

    Great tips Jason. Certainly need to work on my portraiture.

  • Debbie April 24, 2013 07:52 am

    Hi, I was just reading your tips on portrait photography & I have a question with photographing kids. My partner's grandson is only 2 yrs old & he is hard to photograph whilst on the go, I have found using the sports setting on my camera works to a degree, but sometimes the photos can look a little grainy.
    If I use the portrait setting how can you get a good photo if they are constantly on the move?

  • Photography by James March 27, 2013 06:21 pm

    I have been following the comments on this thread and am particularly intrigued by those on composition and the reaction to Jason's suggestion to crop the top of the head. They just go to prove that photography is an art and, as such, much of it is a matter of subjective opinion. What looks pleasing to one person may not necessarily be so to the next. If there were empirically right and wrong answers to such questions then photography would be a science.

  • Mike McPhee March 27, 2013 10:31 am

    I find tight framing taking off the top of head quite ok but on long shots but cutting legs off at the ankles less acceptable.

  • Jayanta Ray March 25, 2013 02:48 pm

    Great tip !! I will try them especially, the head, and hands...

  • Mark March 24, 2013 02:25 pm

    Great tips Jason! I especially like the top of the head and hands tips. Hands are just plain awkward when there not doing something at the best of times (why pockets were invented if you ask me) and cropping out the top of the head will be something I'll try. It all makes sense. cheers BTW, beautiful shot of your daughter!

  • Brian March 24, 2013 10:24 am

    Hi Jason,
    I enjoyed you're article. I've read and used some of your advice. I've also read and used another tidbit of advice concerning the lens used for the shot. Close in shots with wider angle lenses make certain facial features look bigger, meaning it distorts what the person actually looks like in real life. i.e. using a lens at 70 mm shooting at a further distance from the subject, compared to using a 24-35 mm lens shooting closer to the subject.

  • shashijavali March 24, 2013 03:18 am

    Thanks Jason. I am very much interested in portrait photography and I was great going thru your article with great pics. I will definitely take your points while taking photos.

  • Elston March 24, 2013 12:11 am

    Cutting off the top of people's heads just looks amateurish. It's not arty. It does nothing for the subject. Look at Picasso's portraits - he sometimes put both the front & the side of the face in the same painting. That is arty.

  • Jason Weddington March 23, 2013 01:25 pm

    Hari - if you're just getting into portraits, I'd start with a prime lens. Assuming you don't have a full frame DSLR, I'd start with the 50mm. On a Canon DSLR with a 1.6 crop factor that lens has 35mm equivalent focal length of 80mm, which is great for portraits.

    Simon - no flash for that shot in #5, as I mentioned in the comments above there's a white wall behind me that acted as a natural reflector. My advice is to find an area where the background is in shadow, and there's something light in the front of the subject to act as a reflector.

  • Ed Barry March 23, 2013 01:27 am

    Thank you for sharing your gift, Jason. As an enthusiast, I find I still have a lot to learn and you are helping!

  • Simon March 22, 2013 01:31 pm

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks for an interesting article and fantastic images to go with it.
    With regards to #5 and shooting into the sun, did you use a fill flash for this shot?
    If a reading is taken from the subject's face it will overexpose the background?
    What is your advice to capturing a beautiful shot like that?

    Ohh by the way I have been taking your advice and chopping off heads....er um... I mean I have been composing my portrait shots a lot more tightly and not including the tops of my subjects head. I can already see the vastly improved results with my portrait photography.

  • Hari Kishan March 22, 2013 12:24 pm

    My question is, "I have a Canon DSLR and want to be into potraiture. which of the following two lenses helps most? 50 mm prime (f1.8) or 70 - 300 mm (f2.8)?"

    Please guide, I want to purchase one.

  • Jason Weddington March 22, 2013 09:43 am

    Nicole, George, Larry, Richard - thanks!

    Eca - Yes, the white wall is at my back. The darker background is some houses in the distance. Since the sun is low in the sky, and I was shooting into the sun, the side of the houses is in shadow, and makes a darker background.

    Matthew - I've found that talking to the model and explaining what you're trying to achieve helps with nervousness on both sides of the lens. If you can turn it into a great conversation where there just happens to be a camera present, you can get some great natural looks.

    Rick - Care to give specific examples and a link to images that illustrate your point?

  • Rick March 22, 2013 06:45 am

    Several of these portraits would have been helped shooting vertical and following their own advice.

  • Jason Weddington March 22, 2013 05:18 am

    jerrymat - I'm not saying that every portrait should be framed tight any more than I'm saying every portrait should be shot into the sun. I'm saying this is a technique that can be used in some situations.

    Your comment about wide screen movies got me thinking. The presentation medium does influence compositional choices. I'm sure that more images are viewed on a screen than in print form these days, and the current trend in screens in 16:9. A head and shoulders portrait that is going to be printed 8in x10in should be composed differently than a portrait that is going to be viewed primarily on a 16:9 screen.

    jong longmire - love the car-as-reflector tip, thanks!

  • Vico Ughetto March 22, 2013 04:14 am

    @sherri and jerrymat - It's funny to read Sherri remark about not being comfortable at cropping people's head and in their avatar picture her head is.... cropped... you guessed it. And Jerry most of the rules aren't to be followed religious. They are starting points. If you tight your frame in a subject it's impossible to not cut the head otherwise the frame needs to be loose. In video/film is more pertinent because we use 2:35 aspect ratio that is very horizontal and we don't have portrait mode so when tight on the face we need to cut the head period. Pay attention that we shouldn't just crop the top (it looks strange) and avoid cutting the chin, specially when filming because we don't see the mouth clear when talking. Of course we shouldn't start cropping all our portraits. Some needs to follow the rule Jerrymat is talking, but make something different and try it...

  • Richard March 22, 2013 04:01 am

    Great tips, Aloha

  • eca March 22, 2013 03:41 am

    hi! i've always admired photography but now i am actually studying more on the topic. i like your ideas a lot. i was a bit confused by #5. i love the concept but did not understand the execution. Particularly "This works best if you can position your subject against a darker background, like a shaded area, without loosing the light on the subject’s head."

    I did read the comments so far... so in this picture, the sun is behind your daughter, there's a white wall (natural reflector) in front of her (at your back)?? What is the darker background??

    I took a picture (test run with my camera) of a child but I think I got the reverse. (However, I wasn't posing her, I just snapped it as she was walking around.) It was a profile shot of her holding a bunny, but the sun was at the left, she was facing right - so her face was in shadow. =(

  • John Longmire March 22, 2013 03:37 am

    Close ups with the top of the head lopped off are fine when you want intimate portraits. If you are going for the professional headshot for an actor or yearbook photos, DMV, mug shots, etc... then you must adhere to the situational requirements.
    I personally like the close-up partial face/lopped off top look for its intimacy. The article was awesome. The recommendation about the hands is probably the best part. Giving someone a prop to fiddle with makes them look relaxed... and relaxation translates to better photos.
    I like cars as light reflectors to aid in the loop lighting when you rim light somebody... they are always around and movable.
    Good job.

  • Larry McMahon March 22, 2013 03:18 am

    I have to say that your tutorials and tips are worth their weight in gold! I am completely self taught so, i am constantly scouring the Internet looking for how tos'. It's very nice to have some of them like your emails find their way to me.

  • Matthew March 22, 2013 03:01 am

    I am nervous when it comes to portraits. Something about trying to direct the model gets my knees knocking, but this post helps to make a good natural shot. Thank you.

  • Jerrymat March 22, 2013 02:34 am

    I strongly disagree with your opinion about not showing the top of the head in portraits. I am old enough to have read advice on portraiture that debated how much space should be left above the head. It was not until the development of very wide screen movies that the cut-off-the-top-of-the-head abomination came into portrait photography. That does not mean that an occasional image cannot be of just the face, but should not be used often. Just look at the long history of painted portraits and see how many closeup faces are shown. Look at wedding portraits, family albums. There is a tradition there that should not be abandoned.

  • John March 22, 2013 01:58 am

    I love these little tips! But find them so difficult to remember them all...
    Photography is certainly an art, but so hard to master!

  • George March 19, 2013 07:55 pm

    Great tips Jason. I found the one about the iris most interesting.

    Thank you,
    George S.

  • Jay March 19, 2013 11:45 am

    Thanks Jason.I wonder if the close cropping work for a small-group photo? Gotta try it.

  • Ron March 19, 2013 06:03 am

    It's the hands, that tip is very helpful.

  • Nicole March 18, 2013 11:37 pm

    Hey Jason!
    Another great article! I will admit that I was always a bit hesitant to crop so tightly (it doesn't seem natural to nick the top off someone's head like that). But in thinking about it and observing, it really does work better for those closeup intimate shots.

    Great point about the use of props. Props are also a great addition to any portrait and also they can sometimes help to relax the subject. I find giving the person something that they identify with, shifts their focus away from the lens.

    Thanks for these tips! They should help with my portraits project! :) All the best , my friend!

    - Nicky

  • Jon March 18, 2013 08:48 pm

    Need to try...;)

  • Michal France March 18, 2013 09:36 am

    Great tips and nicely written! I'm a very beginner in portraits. Your article summed up the very essence for me! Thank you!

    Until now I was taking picture of people only from my hitch-hiking trips. I have few time to take it so they are not well framed or in great light. But they genuine:


  • Karen Penroz March 18, 2013 07:35 am

    Really usefull advices, thank you very much. I didn't know many of them

  • Jason Weddington March 17, 2013 06:43 am

    Mridula - photographing family members is great practice. The "models" in this article are my wife, son, and daughter.

    James, Sherri - you're welcome!

    Cornell - different people have different tastes, a style that doesn't work for you may work fine for others.

  • Jason Weddington March 17, 2013 06:37 am

    Ryan - you need some kind of light source to create a catchlight, but allowing sunlight to spill onto the face usually doesn't work very well because it creates blown highlights. You don't need a "proper" reflector, but something light colored that is catching the sun and bouncing it back toward the subject will work.

    In the picture of my daughter in #5, there's a white wall in front of her that is catching the light. I often look for natural reflectors like this.

  • Ryan March 16, 2013 10:03 pm

    For #5, how can you get the catchlights with using a reflector or flash? Maybe turn them so they're not facing completed opposite of the sun?

  • Cornell March 16, 2013 03:32 pm

    Tight framing is one thing, but cutting off as much as shown for numbers 1 and 4 are a real turn-off.

    I know that this is the rage right now; but, if a photographer took photos of me with that much cut off, I would reject them without the slightest hesitation.

  • Sherri Stone March 16, 2013 09:53 am

    I confess that cutting off the top of heads makes me nervous but I will try it. Loved all of the suggestions and will try them. Thanks!

  • James March 16, 2013 05:29 am

    Great advice Jason. For me the tip about hands will be the most useful. Thanks.

  • John Martindale March 16, 2013 05:23 am

    This was really good article. The beautiful support images proved the points.

  • Mridula March 16, 2013 04:17 am

    I am weakest at portraits! But after reading this article I am going to try. Family members beware!