Capturing standard portraits might seem easy, but taking your portraits to the next level – that is, doing creative portrait photography – can feel much harder.
Fortunately, capturing stunning creative portraits doesn’t have to be difficult. And in this guide, I share a step-by-step plan so you can take outstanding shots, no matter your experience level and no matter your gear. I also include plenty of examples; hopefully, they’ll help you generate some creative portrait ideas of your very own.
Ready to elevate your portraits? Then let’s get started.
Step 1: Know your equipment
You can capture beautiful creative portraits with any camera, any lens, and any lighting. You can use a fancy medium format camera; you can use a little point and shoot or even a smartphone.
However, if you want your portraits to look outstanding…
…then you must understand your gear.
You should know its ins and outs. You should know every setting and how it affects your images. That way, you’ll be prepared to get creative, to utilize your portrait camera, lens, and lighting to the fullest extent.
So before you get started with a serious portrait, take some time and just play with your equipment. Learn how it all works. Learn what it can do. (If you’re up to it, read your camera manual! It’ll teach you a lot even if it feels like a slog.)
Here’s an example of a creative portrait, and it required extensive gear knowledge to capture:
I used a single exposure and zero Photoshop alterations; instead, I understood my camera, I understood my lighting system, and I was able to get a ghostly effect with a combination of continuous lighting and flash.
Bottom line: The more you understand your gear, the easier it’ll be to bring your creative ideas to fruition.
Step 2: Pick the right subject
Every creative portrait requires a subject, but you shouldn’t use just anyone. Instead, you should take one of two approaches:
- Come up with your creative idea, then pick a subject who perfectly complements the scene.
- Choose a subject with lots of character, then build a creative scene around their persona.
When it comes to finding subjects, I don’t always use professional models. I see people out in the world with great character and features, and I invite them for a creative studio portrait session. You should do the same. Approach with a business card, tell them they look great and that you’d love to photograph them, and leave it at that. If they decline, that’s okay; there are plenty of interesting people to shoot – you just have to keep an eye out!
Once you locate a subject who is willing to come in for a shoot, be patient. Keep in mind that, although the person looks great, they may not feel comfortable sitting and posing for you, at least at first. You’ll need to work hard to bring a good vibe to the set, to break the ice, and to help the subject get comfortable. Only then will you capture the best creative shots.
The subject below started off quite nervous and shy. It took him four hours to reach a point where he was part of his own creative universe, feeling free and expressing himself:
Step 3: Select your lighting
Lighting is the essence of a creative studio portrait, so you must understand everything about it: how it spreads, how it bounces, how it reflects. And then, once you have your creative idea, you should choose the light carefully – so it produces the precise effect you’re after.
If you’ve never worked with artificial lighting before, then start by considering the light quality. Light ranges from hard (i.e., contrasty with sharp transitions) to soft (i.e., diffused and low contrast with subtle gradations). Light also varies in color temperature from warm (yellow) to cold (blue). By carefully choosing your light sources, you can create wildly different results.
But what sources of light are best?
Most studio photographers work with strobes – either small flashes (i.e., speedlights) or larger studio strobes, also known as monolights. Either can work, and both offer complete control over lighting quality, color, and shape. These days, continuous lighting is also popular, though it’s more limiting than strobes due to the low power output.
(If you prefer to work without a studio, you can stick to ambient lighting. You’ll need to carefully choose the location and the time of day, though. You might also consider modifying the light with a diffuser.)
Here’s my studio, which primarily features studio strobes:
Note that you don’t need to go wild when starting out with artificial lighting. You can capture many stunning images with just one light, two lights, or one light plus a reflector. If you understand your lighting, you’ll be able to create plenty of effects with only a few sources and some basic lighting patterns. I shot this next image with two strobes: one at 45 degrees to camera right, and one positioned in the back left.
That said, as you gain experience, you may wish to enhance your lighting setups with three lights, four lights, and more. In my experience, some characters require complex lighting to capture their personalities – and in such cases, an elaborate lighting kit can be helpful. This image used a whopping six light sources:
Step 4: Position your lights and add modifiers
Once you decide on the number and type of lights, it’s time to position them for a flattering effect. This is where you can get really creative because simple lighting adjustments can make a big difference.
When you’re just starting out, I’d recommend working off of the standard lighting patterns. Use Rembrandt lighting to show character, split lighting to add drama, and loop lighting for more even – but still three-dimensional! – portraits.
But then, as you gain confidence, break away from these molds. Experiment with additional lights or different positions.
You’ll also need to modify your lights. A bare light tends to be very hard and unflattering, and unless your goal is to capture intense, contrasty portraits, it’s a good idea to work with a simple modifier or two. Your options include:
- Beauty dishes
It might seem like a lot to choose from, and it kind of is. So if you’re just starting out, let me make a recommendation: Grab an umbrella and a softbox. They won’t cost a whole lot, but they will allow you to create wonderfully diffused, flattering lighting.
Note that modifiers, in addition to adjusting the light hardness, will shape the light. By using a softbox with a grid, for instance, you can prevent light from spilling off to the sides. It’s an easy way to create dramatic effects:
Step 5: Add to the surrounding set
The best portraits tend to emphasize the subject – but they also include complementary backgrounds. So you shouldn’t just think about your subject; think about the background, too!
Even portraits with tight compositions still show some background, and attention needs to be given to the smallest details. So think about your subject and what could complement their look. Might you add a pure white background? A dark black background? A colorful, spotlit background?
In my experience, a simple approach can work great:
But once you get serious about creative portraits, you might consider building background sets (or adding in complex backgrounds via Photoshop). Both these options take time and major effort, but the results will be truly outstanding.
By the way, look carefully at the portrait displayed above. Do you notice the colored lighting? By adding gels to your strobes and projecting them on the subject and the surroundings, you can create an extra bit of oomph that’ll really set your portraits apart.
Step 6 (Optional): Add props, do makeup, and style hair
At this point, you know how to prepare a beautiful creative portrait photo by selecting a subject, adding lighting, and thinking about the surrounding set. And it’s okay to stop there, especially if you’re a beginner.
But you’ll eventually want to add a few extra touches to your portraits.
For instance, by including props that play off your subject’s personality, you can tell an interesting story:
You might also learn to do makeup and hair or even hire a professional stylist. At this point, you’ll be seeing beyond the ordinary qualities of your subject and will be looking to reach a deeper dimension: a state of creative vision.
If you’re not quite there yet, however, don’t worry. You can still capture great creative photos simply by working with your subject as they are – no styling necessary!
Step 7: Do editing and retouching
Editing is always an integral part of the creative process. While it’s great to nail your photos in camera, the best results come from a combination of camera technique and post-processing.
Think of portrait editing as the process that helps you enhance the high-quality photographs you have already captured and lets you fully realize your creative vision.
I’m not necessarily talking about elaborate adjustments. I’d simply encourage you to work on the exposure and colors, add some dodging and burning, remove blemishes, and so on. Basic stuff that’ll give you a refined final image.
Check out this unprocessed shot:
And compare it with this next image, which has been subtly processed to add shape, boost texture, and bring out character:
In the end, I used very few edits, but the results make a huge difference.
Creative portrait photography: final words
Capturing creative portraits isn’t hard! As you can see, by taking advantage of your existing gear, by thinking about your subject and the background, and by learning to work with light, you can easily create stunning masterpieces.
So start dreaming up some portrait ideas. Work to understand your camera and lighting. And get some amazing results!
Now over to you:
What creative portrait photography ideas do you plan to pursue? Share them in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- Tips for Planning and Capturing a Creative Portrait
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES