Tips for Taking Better Portrait Photographs

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For a lot of photography enthusiasts achieving the perfect portrait photograph is one of the biggest challenges. Many will have been asked by family and friends to take photos because of their interest in photography but portraits can be daunting – even for seasoned professionals, let alone an enthusiastic hobbyist.

Getting the lighting right, having your focal points correct and the composition of the shot are all things that need to be taken into account.

Then there is the model.

This could be a friend or family member and you may be worried about getting their pose and smile in a particular way – or that they will not follow your direction.

Photography should not be stressful, it should be something that is enjoyable and express your creativity and feelings. It is a very personal form of art for both the subject and the photographer and portraits are an important part of showing this.

Good portrait photos are something that the subject will treasure for years to come and are shoe-ins for a photographer’s portfolio.

Below are 5 useful tips for you to help practice and perfect your portrait photography.


The biggest aspect of any photograph that can make the difference between it being an average or superb shot is the lighting. In portraits, the lighting is arguably the most important factor to consider.

Poor lighting can cast unappealing shadows over the model’s face or completely wash out the detail of the subject. Good lighting highlights the model in an appealing manner and brings some personality and depth to the photo.

Obviously a professional portrait photographer has various tools in their inventory to achieve a consistent result, these include a studio, various lights and lighting accessories, props and years of experience.

For the average enthusiast, the kit used in professional photoshoots are often unobtainable, however, you can achieve good results without these.

With a bit of imagination, you can use natural light to create a beautiful looking and evenly lit portrait. The best time of day to shoot outside is the hour running up to sunset – the fabled golden hour (useful: golden hour calculator). At this time the sun is at a nice level and the light is not as harsh as in the middle of the day.

Using this time of the day will see your photos benefit from a softer natural light, akin to using a softbox in a studio. Having the light available is one aspect, the other is knowing what to do with it.

In the height of the day, or when there is a harsh light source, it is very hard to get the right exposure on the subject’s face, placing the light behind the subject and over-exposing the background can create a good looking shot with a well-exposed face.

The best thing to do is play around with the exposure settings until you find a combination that you like.


Composing your portrait makes the difference between a good looking standard shot and something a little more interesting. The use of windows and door frames not only help you with lighting, they add a certain depth to the image and provide a nice frame for the subject.

These frames do not need to be square, in fact having a subject looking out of a window can produce a nice natural picture.

The most important thing in composing an image is to use the rule of thirds. Offsetting your subject from the centre adds more of a story to the image and can be used to express some of the personality of the subject.


As your lens collection grows, so can the headache in knowing which one to use for which shot. For portraits a good option can be fixed focal length lenses, they usually come in 50mm or 85mm with an aperture of f1.8-2.8.

Using these prime lenses offers you a lens that is wide enough to capture some of the background and one that is fast and can create a clear depth of field. This means the focus is on the eyes and the background blurs away – what some will see as the essence of a stylish portrait.


As with most things in photography, getting the chance to practice and experiment with different settings is what will develop your skills.

Most people will see aperture as the most important aspect in a portrait with f1.8-2.8 being the preferable option for a lot of people. Using the aperture priority mode will let you set the aperture and the ISO whilst the camera calculates the best shutter speed for you. This can be useful for learning about the relationship between all the different aspects, however, it can often result in an under or over-exposed subject.

For difficult lighting situations, the use of exposure compensation can help you in making sure that the subject remains well exposed, an example of when you would use this is when the lighting is either very dark or very bright and harsh.

The second big setting to get right is the focus. Autofocus is a fantastic tool but you need to ensure that you get it correct when using such a shallow depth of field.

The best thing to do is use single spot autofocus and align it with the eyes of the subject before composing the shot. This should then allow you to keep the subject sharp and in focus, rather than one side being sharp and then softening the further away from the focal point you get.


Using your imagination is key to all photography, just because you are photographing a portrait does not mean this creativity should vanish.

There are certain ‘rules’ in photography but they are there to be broken and innovated upon.

Using your instinct should be a big driver for any photoshoot you do and if you think a particular prop will bring something to a photo then use it.

People are all looking for something new and exciting in photography, so you do not have to follow the tried and tested methods, you can experiment and try and find a style that suits both your and your subject’s personality.

Photography is a fantastic form of art and portrait photography is a great example of what you can achieve with a camera and a little bit of thought. Even if you have not been asked to do a portrait, practice taking pictures of people outside and at different times of day.

Just through taking photos you will start to sharpen both your skills and your eye, ending up with a creative portfolio and great satisfaction. As the old adage goes, ‘practice makes perfect’ – although in photography defining perfect is up to the photographer…