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11 Portrait Photography Ideas to Inspire You

11 portrait photography ideas to inspire you

Coming up with fresh portrait photography ideas is challenging for many photographers. Whether you take a lot of portraits or are a beginner, it’s always best to have a few good ideas up your sleeve.

So here are 11 portrait photography ideas to create great images of whoever is in front of your camera, starting with…

1. Communicate well

Let your portrait subjects know what you want from them. Talk to them about what you are doing with the lighting, props, and background. This will build their confidence in you and show them you are serious about taking some great portraits.

Don’t be shy. Be interested in who they are and how they are feeling. Ask them questions. Show an interest in what they want.

Woman in a field
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/3.2 | 1/2000s | ISO 200
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

2. Light based on the mood

Style your lighting to suit the mood of the portrait you are creating. If you want a soft, gentle portrait, use soft lighting and add lights or reflectors to reduce strong shadows. 

Alternatively, embrace the darkness and generate a sullen atmosphere by creating a shadowy, dark effect. Purposely underexpose so you create a sense of mystery.

portrait of a woman in the market
Nikon D800 | 50mm | f/2.2 | 1/250s | ISO 200
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

3. Make use of the environment or isolate your subject

Wherever you are, look around and think about how you can incorporate elements of the environment into your portrait photos. Think about whether showing some of the location will add to the portraits you are making. 

If there’s nothing suitable to include in the photo, then isolate your subject. Blur the background by using a shallow depth of field, or find a plain, blank background to position your subject in front of.

a monk sweeping leaves portrait photography idea
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/4 | 1/400s | ISO 200
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

4. Ask your subject what they want

Even if you have some good portrait photography ideas of your own, ask your subject what they want. You may be surprised at what they have to offer. 

The young lady in the photo below told me to include ice cream in our planned portrait session. So I bought ice cream. We were challenged by the weather. Even indoors with the air conditioning on full, the ice cream melted too quickly. So we made the most of it!

a young woman with an ice cream
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/6.3 | 1/200s | ISO 100
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

5. Use many lighting and background setups

Think outside the box and use different lighting setups and backgrounds during the portrait session. By controlling the lighting and backgrounds, you can create a strikingly diverse set of portraits.

portrait photography idea a young woman with an ice cream
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/9 | 1/200s | ISO 100
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

6. Take a series of portraits

Take a series of portraits with the aim of displaying them together. Keep the lighting and background the same for each shot and capture a range of expressions and poses from your model.

If you isolate your model on a plain background, you can print the entire series as a single image. Or you can frame each shot on its own but hang the series together.

Three portraits of a girl in a green scarf
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/8 | 1/160s | ISO 400
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

7. Photograph your subject’s hands

Hands bring a fresh dynamic and can help add more story to your pictures. You can have the hands holding something, or you can just arrange them nicely.

Giving your subject something to do with their hands will often help them relax. People can feel uneasy when they don’t know how to place their hands. So guiding the hands with some directions or suggestions will help your subject feel more comfortable.

portrait photography idea of a woman with a snake
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/11 | 1/200s | ISO 400
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

8. Go with the flow

Sometimes, your subject may have some great ideas that are quite different from yours. Go with the flow and include these. Take the photos they want because they will always be enthusiastic and more expressive when trying out their own ideas.

Even if the ideas your subject suggests are not so stellar, take the photos anyway. This will help your subject build confidence and strengthen the relationship between the two of you.

Then, once you’ve spent some time capturing the photos they want, move on to your own portrait photography ideas.

two kids acting out a scene
Nikon D800 | 55mm | f/5.6 | 1/200s | ISO 200
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

9. Capture the moment

Be prepared to capture special moments as they happen. Don’t be peering down at your camera and fiddling with the settings. Instead, engage with your subject. Be constantly aware of what they are doing and how they are looking. You want to be ready when they smile (and even when they grimace).

When your subject is engaged in an activity, getting your timing right can be more challenging. For the street portrait below, I had to move to keep up with my subject. He was demonstrating the quality of the wallets he had for sale. He poured lighter fluid on one and set it alight to show that it was not made of plastic. It all happened very quickly!

Man with a wallet on fire
Nikon D800 | 20mm | f/4 | 1/125s | ISO 400
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

10. Incorporate some movement

Portraits do not need to be still. Movement can help add liveliness to a photo.

Have your subject walk or jump. You can also get them to turn their head quickly, like I did for this photo:

portrait photography idea a woman spinning around
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/2.8 | 1/160s | ISO 200
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Head movement works best when a person has long hair, but it can be a good idea even for shorter-haired subjects.

Any movement can make way for spontaneity, so don’t forget about the importance of capturing the moment (as I discussed in the previous section). Be ready for anything that might happen.

11. Expose for good skin tones

I’ll add one technical idea:

Set your exposure so your subject’s skin tone is well exposed. This is especially important when there’s a lot of contrast in your composition. 

For instance, wedding portraits of a bride and groom can be challenging. A stunning bride in a white dress and a groom looking handsome in his dark suit can make it difficult for you to find a balanced exposure setting. So spot meter off their faces; this will ensure you end up with a good exposure.

Two Akha woman having a laugh portrait photography idea
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/5.6 | 1/200s | ISO 400
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Bonus tip: Show your subject the portrait

Here’s a bonus portrait photography tip:

As soon as you have a few good photos, show your subject. Until you do this, they may not have a clear idea of what you are doing or how you are framing them. But once you show them how good you are making them look in the portraits, they will feel better about themselves. This boosted confidence will only lead to more great portraits.

portrait photography idea a woman with an elephant
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/11 | 1/100s | ISO 400
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Portrait photography ideas: final words

It can be challenging to come up with good portrait photography ideas, so I hope this list was helpful.

The next time you have a person in front of your camera, remember these ideas – and use them!

Do you have any portrait photography ideas? Share them (and your portrait photos) in the comments below!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his e-books and his website.

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