How do you do portrait photography that has the wow factor?
Capturing stunning portraits often seems difficult, but it’s actually pretty easy once you know a few tips and tricks. Below, I share my 10 absolute favorite techniques for shooting portraits, including tips for lighting, composition, perspective, and much more.
I’ve also included plenty of portrait photography examples (to get you inspired as we go along). Hopefully, by the time you’re done, you’ll be a more confident portrait photographer – and you’ll be excited to get out your camera and take some beautiful images of your own.
Let’s dive right in.
1. Alter your perspective
Most portraits are taken on a level with your subject, where the camera lens aligns perfectly with the subject’s eyes.
And while this is a good idea in most situations, if you want to spice things up, I recommend completely changing the angle you shoot from.
For instance, you can get up high and shoot down on your subject from above:
Here, you have several different options. You can ask your subject to lie down on the ground and then simply point your camera downward (this works well when shooting in the studio or on clean ground, but it’s not something you can try when photographing in a lake!). You can also find a nice vantage point, like a balcony or even a roof, then ask your subject to look up. And if you’re really focused on getting that overhead shot, you can bring a step stool or ladder with you out into the field.
Another great angle for portrait photography:
Get down low and shoot up. You’ll make your subject appear strong and powerful (and you’ll make the viewer feel small):
Obviously, different angles are more appropriate for certain image types; business executives will appreciate the power of a low-angle portrait, but they probably won’t want to be shot lying in the grass. So pay careful attention to your subject and surroundings, then pick angles that complement the scene. Make sense?
It’s amazing how much the direction of your subject’s eyes can impact an image.
Now, when you’re just starting out with portraits, I highly recommend you work on attaining perfect eye contact (with the eye in sharp focus). This looks great, and it can create a real sense of connection between a subject and those viewing the image.
Once you become a more advanced portrait shooter, however, there are a few more techniques worth trying.
Ask your subject to focus on something outside the frame (a tree off to the left, a house off to the right, etc.). This can create a feeling of candidness, plus it can create a little intrigue and interest; the viewer of the shot will wonder what the subject is looking at, which will cause them to engage further with the image.
This intrigue is particularly strong when the subject is showing some kind of emotion. The viewer will ask, “What’s making them laugh?” and “What’s making them look surprised?” which can lead to interesting narratives and emotional connections.
But be careful; when you have a subject looking out of the frame, you’ll push the eye of the viewer to the edge of the image, and unless you’ve composed your shot carefully, you may take away from the main point of interest: your subject.
Looking within the frame
You might also ask your subject to look at something within the frame. A child looking at a ball, a woman looking at her new baby, or a man looking hungrily at a big plate of pasta; it can all work!
See, this technique creates a second point of interest, as well as a relationship between your subject and another key element in the scene, which in turn helps create a story. (And in photography, stories are pretty much always a good thing!)
Here, the mother is looking at her child, which highlights their relationship and emphasizes their emotional connection:
3. Use the rules of portrait composition, then break them
There are plenty of portrait photography composition rules (guidelines, really) out there, and I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with them. On the one hand, the rules are great for beginners; on the other hand, as you progress, the rules will start to hold you back. So in this section, I’ll start by offering a few useful rules, and then I’ll explain simple ways to break them.
So here are a few compositional guidelines that’ll help you as you compose your portrait shots:
- The rule of thirds urges you to position your subject a third of the way into the frame; it can often be helpful to put your portrait subject’s eyes along the top-third gridline of your image.
- The rule of space advises you to position your subject looking toward empty space, rather than away from it. In other words, your subject should look toward the more distant frame edge.
- Triangular composition theory suggests that elements positioned in a triangle tend to look great. So you can arrange three subjects with their heads at points of a triangle, or you can arrange the subject’s head and the shoulders or arms in a triangular fashion.
Then, as you advance in your skills, you’ll want to experiment with breaking these rules. For instance, placing your subject dead-center will violate the rule of thirds, but it can sometimes create a powerful image (especially when symmetry is involved):
And the rule of space, when broken, can create a level of mystery and tension:
So learn the photography rules, then learn to break them!
4. Experiment with lighting
In portrait photography, lighting is key, and there are literally thousands of blog posts and video courses devoted to portrait lighting.
But for now, I just recommend you learn the basics.
As for lighting direction: Front light is best avoided, because it tends to produce very flat, bland images. Instead, for good portraits, I’d recommend sidelight, which will add three dimensionality and create mood. I’d also recommend backlighting, which can create plenty of mystery.
Below is a fully sidelit subject. Notice the drama?
(For a more subtle sidelit image, you can use a reflector or fill light on the other side of your subject, or you can bring the light out in front of the subject, so it sits at a 45-degree angle to the face.)
Once you get down the lighting basics, start to experiment. You can use rim lighting to capture subtle silhouettes, and you can even have fun with long-exposure light painting, which will give you portrait photos like this:
5. Move your subject out of their comfort zone
Unless you’re photographing professional models, your subjects will likely be a bit (or a lot!) uncomfortable in front of the camera. And an uncomfortable subject makes for uncomfortable photos.
To get your subject more relaxed, start out with some “softball” shots. Photograph your subject just standing or sitting, use simple light setups, and don’t ask for anything out of the ordinary. Praise them after every few shots (even if the shots are bad).
Then, as your subject begins to warm up and as you complete all the basic shots, ask them if you can create more interesting images. Don’t push them, of course – you don’t want to send them back to square one – but gently suggest that they mix things up a bit. For instance, you might ask them to jump, you might ask them to run, dance, make faces, climb trees, and more.
By the way, don’t feel like these more experimental shots need to fit the tone of the shoot. Once you’ve nailed your standard shots, it’s okay to get a little creative. You can ask a family to make silly faces, or even ask a businessperson to jump off rocks, for example:
6. Shoot candidly
Sometimes, posed shots can look somewhat…stiff. Bland. And while there’s nothing wrong with a posed photo, especially if it’s for a corporate flyer, if your subject seems lifeless when posed, why not try a candid approach?
Ask your subject if you can shoot them at work, with family, or doing something that they love. This will put them more at ease, and you may end up capturing some extra-special shots where your subject reacts naturally to the situation.
(Pro tip: If the candid approach is working and you want to get yourself completely out of the way, try grabbing a 70-200mm lens to give your subject lots of space.)
I find that the candid approach can work particularly well when photographing children, but even when photographing adults, it’s worth a shot!
7. Introduce a prop
Portrait photographers love props – and for good reason. Props can add a sense of story and place to an image, they can help your subject feel more at ease, they can add interest, color, and texture…the list goes on.
So don’t be afraid to bring a handful of props to your portrait photoshoot. Then give your subjects the ones that seem to fit with the scene and/or their personality, and get photographing!
A warning, however: Don’t let the props overwhelm your main subject. The goal is to photograph the model with the props as an accent, not the other way around. If you use too many props, or your props become distracting (either visually or more generally), it’s time to toss the props and get back to basics.
8. Focus on one body part (and get close up!)
Here’s a fun way to create unique portrait photos:
Use a long lens (anything in the 100mm+ range should work), then zoom in to capture some detail shots.
I’m talking about images of your subject’s hands, eyes, mouth, shoes, or clothing, all of which can tell an interesting story, plus the results will be far more eye-catching than your standard head-and-shoulders portrait.
Here’s an image of a subject’s hand; it has an element of artistry and intrigue that you rarely find in conventional portrait photography:
Of course, feel free to go even more abstract than that; with a macro lens, you can focus on tiny details, such as the curl of your subject’s hand or the light on their hair.
9. Obscure part of your subject
Throughout this article, I’ve emphasized the value of storytelling, mystery, and intrigue in portrait photography.
Well, here’s yet another way to add mystery, and it’s extremely simple to pull off:
Cover your subject.
For instance, you can cover the face with clothes or hair, or you can use hats or scarves to cover the head. Usually, it’s a good idea to leave some recognizable features exposed, but if you want to make things really interesting, you might cover your subject completely (e.g., you could wrap the subject’s entire face in their hair!).
A lens with close-focusing or macro capabilities will be a big help here, because the closer you can focus, the more you can cut out of the frame and the more you can isolate certain features. In the image below, close focusing was essential (plus, it created a lovely shallow depth of field effect that really emphasized the subject’s eyes):
10. Take a series of shots to capture the action
Whenever you’re photographing active portrait subjects – runners in motion, as in the image below, owners playing with their pets, or even children just having fun – I highly recommend you use burst mode, also known as continuous shooting mode.
You see, burst mode allows you to capture a series of shots in quick succession (the specifics depend on your camera, but these days, 10 frames per second or more is not uncommon). And this does two things for your portrait photography:
- It allows you to nail those once-in-a-lifetime moments and expressions, like a couple looking longingly at one another, or a child throwing leaves in the air.
- It allows you to take a series of images that can be presented together, as a unique story.
I don’t suggest using burst mode all the time, unless you have a huge amount of storage space and don’t mind sifting through thousands of images after each photoshoot.
But when you expect action, switch to burst mode. And have fun getting those split-second images!
10 ways to take stunning portraits: final words
Capturing stunning portraits is easy – as long as you remember a few of these simple tips!
So start thinking about compositional rules (and start learning to break them). Start thinking about lighting. Start thinking about angles.
And practice your portrait photography!
Now over to you:
Which of these portrait photography tips is your favorite? Do you plan to use any in your next shoot? Share your thoughts in the comments below!