8 Tips for Mastering Your Portrait Photography

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Becoming a master of portrait photography takes lots of patience and practice. It’s likely there are a few mistakes you are making with your portraits that hold them back from excellence. In this article, I will walk through eight tips to instantly boost your portrait photography game and take it to the next level.

#1 Adapt to the available light

Light is one of the most important elements to keep in mind when taking portraits – specifically how the light looks on your subject’s face. Proper lighting, or lack thereof, can make or break your image. Direct the person you are photographing to turn their head towards the main light source, whether it’s a street lamp or the sun. If you’re having them look towards the sun, tell them to look in a direction that won’t cause them to squint or be unpleasant for them. You don’t want people going blind on your shoot, right?

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While the golden hour is a fabulous time to photograph portraits, you won’t always have the luxury of perfect lighting thanks to the whims of Mother Nature. In these situations, you need to adapt to the available light to maximize your portrait opportunities.

Keep in mind, there is no such thing as bad light. It can all be used to your advantage if you know what you’re doing. Here are some basic tips for different natural lighting scenarios:

  • Harsh sunlight – have your subject stand in the shade to provide even lighting across their face.
  • Golden hour – have your subject face the sun to give a nice glow on their face or put the sun behind them to get some halo lighting.
  • Cloudy day – you will pretty much be good to shoot anywhere since the clouds will naturally diffuse the sun and provide flattering, even light on your subject’s face.
  • Night time/low light – look for a street light or other light source that can provide good lighting on your subject’s face.
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#2 Give directions to your subject

Let’s face it, most people are not confident or even comfortable being in front of the camera. Providing gentle directions to the person you are photographing can help them relax. Keep your directions simple and positive. If you don’t know any poses, focus on one thing to improve each shoot. Perhaps you ask your subject to lift their chin to provide a more flattering view of their face. A little positive direction goes a long way.

#3 Find a clean background that contrasts with the subject

Backgrounds are extremely important in creating pleasing portraits. The key role of the background is to provide context to the environment the person is occupying and make them stand out. Finding a clean background that provides contrast with your subject is crucial.

Some things to be mindful of:

  • Branches, poles or other objects may look like they are growing out of your subject’s head, depending on where they are in the image. Try to frame the shot so that your subject’s head is distanced from distracting elements.
  • Try to find colors or tones that either complement or contrast your subject’s skin tones and clothing.

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#4 Focus on the dominant eye

This is particularly important if you’re shooting with shallow depth of field. Be sure to focus on the dominant eye of your subject, the one that is closest to the lens. If the dominant eye is out of focus, your photo will end up looking slightly off. This can ruin an otherwise good portrait.

#5 Keep your lines straight

Crooked horizon lines can give your portraits a weird look, so make sure to keep those lines straight. The same goes for environmental elements like doors and the edges of buildings. If these types of lines aren’t straight, it can give your portraits a tilted look that isn’t flattering. Of course, you can straighten important lines in post-production, but this will involve cropping, which may ruin the composition. Focus on getting it right in camera.

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#6 Be careful where you crop extremities

Hey, I get it. Sometimes you don’t want to frame up a full body shot of your subject. Maybe you want to pull in closer for an upper body profile or headshot. In these cases you will be cropping a portion of your subject’s body out of the frame, so be very careful where you crop their extremities.

Some tips about cropping:

  • Don’t crop body parts at the joint: Cropping your subject at the elbows, knees, or wrists can make them look like they have lost a limb. Try cropping halfway between joints instead. For instance, if you are cropping out part of the arm crop halfway up the wrist or bicep rather than at the elbow.
  • If your subject’s hands/feet are in the frame make sure they are all the way in: Don’t accidentally lop off fingers or toes at the edge of the frame. This can ruin your portrait.
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Look at the hand here, it appears somewhat cut-off or missing.

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This is better, it includes her while arms and hands.

#7 Pay attention to the edges of the frame

If you’re shooting portraits on the street, get that trash can out of the corner of your frame! Or at the very least, make sure it’s out of focus and blends into the background.

When you’re photographing a person, it’s easy to have all your focus on them to the point where you lose track of the outside of the image. But having distracting elements on the edges of the frame can ruin your portrait. Make the proper adjustments in framing before you press that shutter and keep those edges tidy.

#8 Incorporate something interesting

If you really want to take your portrait photography game to the next level, it’s important to think outside the box and get creative. A lot of portraits can be boring and look the same; properly exposed pictures of people just standing there.

To spice up your portraits, try incorporating some interesting props or environmental elements. Now, you don’t need to grab onto Instagram trends, like wrapping your subject in LED lights, but including props can help your portraits stand out from the crowd. Get creative and start mastering your portrait photography game.

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Conclusion

Follow these eight tips and see how your portrait photography improves. Please share any comments or questions you have in the section below, as well as your images.

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Dan Bullman

is a photographer and Youtuber based in Boston. Photographing people is his passion: Portraits Over Everything. He helps photographers take their portrait game to the next level with educational Youtube videos. Interested in taking your portrait photography to the next level? Get the FREE Portrait Photographer’s Ultimate Resource Guide when you join Dan’s email list.

  • Prasad Dalal (PD)

    thank you Dan for this useful article, this will definitely help me take good pictures.

  • Dan Bullman

    You’re welcome Prasad! Glad you enjoyed the article 🙂

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  • Khaled Eid

    Thank you Mr. Bullman for taking the time to post this well written article.

  • pizzamanpete

    Great article Dan, Well done!

  • Dan Bullman

    Thank you!! 🙂

  • Dan Bullman

    Thank you for the kind words and thank you for reading my article, Khaled 🙂

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  • Dan Bullman

    For inspiration, yeah I think tear sheets can be good. I sometimes lay out PDF mood boards in Photoshop with images that I use for inspiration. I think it’s a good way to get ideas.

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  • KC

    Great, handy article – thanks!

  • I would like to add something to the list – spend time studding your subject (if possible). This is one of the most important thing I do when shooting my Creative Portrait photography at
    mirchevphotography.com/gallery/creative-portrait-photography/

    And obviously, after adapting to the available light and if there isn’t a good one, like here in London (most of the time) – will be time to take out your strobes, which I guess could be an entire topic for a new blog post 😉

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