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A Professional Guide to Portrait Photography

Last Updated 29th January 2019

Portrait photography is a beautiful form of capturing a subject’s personality and essence in a single image. In order for your photo to present the individual in the best light, it’s important to understand the intricacies and skills necessary to succeed. Producing professional quality portraits take more work as a photographer than one might think. To advance your abilities in portrait photography, you need to understand the appropriate lighting techniques and equipment, camera angles, background and location, effective communication with your subject, editing and presentation.

Portrait Photography Tips: How to Get a Better Picture of your Subject


Portrait photography aims to capture the personality and characteristics of a subject. No matter the type of portrait, the image should give the audience an insight into the story of the subject. If a picture tells a thousand words, what would the person in yours say?

It should be your intent to reflect the best version of the person you’re capturing, it’s all about them.

Here are some portrait photography tips to help you take a better picture of your subject:

  • Get closer to your subject
  • Crop your photo
  • Choose better photo backgrounds
  • Pick the proper orientation
  • Use point of view
  • Frame your subject
  • Experiment with abstract photography
  • Hold your DSLR right
  • Experiment with lighting
  • Connect with eye contact

When shooting portraits, it is recommended to set a large aperture (~ f/2.8 - f/4) to create a shallow depth of field, which will blur the background while keeping your subject perfectly in focus.  For portraits with a studio set-up, we suggest shooting them with a medium aperture (~ f/8 - f/11). This will create a shallow depth of field to have some degree of separation between the subject and the background while being more lenient on your camera’s focus.

READ MORE: How to get a better picture of your subject


Mastering Lighting Techniques with Portrait Photography Lighting Equipment 

 Lighting is everything in portrait photography. Matching the subject’s facial features to an appropriate lighting scheme can bring out the best of the captured individual. Common techniques can be achieved with effective portrait photography lighting equipment. These essential lighting patterns include:

Butterfly lighting: The light is placed above and centred to the subject’s face, creating a shadow under the nose. This lighting pattern is often used with a reflector under the chin to soften the shadows.

Loop lighting: The individual’s face is mostly highlighted with lights at 45 degrees above and in front, creating a loop-shaped shadow around and under the nose without connecting to the shadow of the cheek.

Split lighting: The subject’s face is split into two sides of light and shadow to create a dramatic effect. This can be created with a single light source placed at 90 degrees to the right or left of the individual.

Rembrandt lighting: A light is placed 45 degrees offset and above eye level of the subject to highlight the farthest side of the face. This method is also known as closed loop lighting which creates a triangle of light beneath the eye, highlighting the cheekbone of the subject.

READ MORE: Tips to obtain the best photography lighting

Our Top 5 Recommended Products for Portrait Photographers: 

LED Continuous Light Setup for Portrait (Light + Softbox)

Flash Light Setup for Portrait (Light + Softbox)

1. The Aputure Light Dome II for light storm

3. Hypop Collapsible Beauty Dish

2. The Aputure Light Storm C120D II

4. Godox AD600Pro Witstro All-In-One Outdoor Flash

5. Godox AD400Pro 400W Witstro All-In-One Outdoor Flash

Reflectors: An Essential Tool for Any Portrait Photographer 


When shooting outdoors or in low light, the humble reflector is your best friend. Reflectors are designed to bounce light in a certain direction to give your subject a softer look, to get a better quality of light, or to redirect light back at the subject. By controlling the direction of light, you can change the angle of shadows and fill them in, giving you a fair amount of control over the contrasts you are creating for your portrait shot.

Using reflectors is an easy, cost-effective way to take professional quality portraits when there is less-than-ideal lighting. Reflectors are lightweight, portable, and versatile tools that are used to serve even the most basic of studio lighting setups for portraits, either as a fill light to fix harsh shadows or as a key light to create a soft glow. As unassuming as they may appear, reflectors make a big difference in your photos, serving well to photographers of all levels.


How to Choose a Reflector

Reflectors come in many variations, which can be very confusing when you are first starting out. When choosing a reflector, you will need to consider:

  • Size: The larger your subject, the larger your reflector needs to be. For portrait shots, we recommend a reflector that is around 42 - 43 inches. This size will give you a large enough reflector to assist in headshots and ¾ portraits without being too bulky.
  • Colour: Reflectors comes in white, gold, silver, translucent, and black, with each colour creating a different effect on your lighting.
  • Shape: Reflectors generally come in a disc or rectangular shape. Round reflectors are best suited when you have a tight studio space, while rectangular reflectors are easier to handle when shooting outdoors. 

If you are new to using reflectors and still not sure which one to start out with, investing in a 5-in-1 collapsible reflector would be your best option. This way, you can learn how to use different reflector colours in a variety of situations.


How to choose a reflector


READ MORE: Reflectors: An Essential to Basic Studio Lighting Setups for Portraits


Test Your Ability with Black and White Portrait

Shooting in black and white will test your ability as a portrait photographer, as it forces you to focus on what is essential and make conscious decisions to create a well-composed photo. With colour no longer in the picture, you will need to think about your shots in terms of shadows and highlights as well as contrast to produce a powerful portrait.

Our advice? Keep it simple. With the absence of colour, every detail of your subject will stand out. Your top priority is to focus on particular elements of your subject to reveal their character. Remove any distracting elements in the shot and shoot in a very large aperture (~f/1.8 - f/2.8) to blur the background while keeping your subject in tack sharp focus. Take advantage of negative space and experiment with contrasting textures to enhance your composition and make your portrait more striking.

When shooting in black and white, the type of lighting you should work depends on what kind of story you want to tell. If you want your portrait to be feel intimate yet natural, stick to working with soft lighting. If you are aiming for a more intense portrait, consider using harsh, directional lighting – whether it be the sun at midday or artificial light – to cast definitive shadows on your subject and bring out the detail in their skin texture.

READ MORE: Tips for taking the best black and white photos


Create a Comfortable Environment for Your Subject 

Some people can tense up and feel uncomfortable in front of a camera, and it’s your job to get the best out of your subject. This is why it’s important that you create a welcoming space and work with the personality of the person and energy they present with effective portrait photography ideas.

You can bring out the best in people by sparking up a conversation that they’re passionate about, this will help to put them at ease and let them show their true selves. Give them your complete attention and help them pose! Suggestions are always welcomed and the best shoots are done in collaboration with the model and photographer.

Have a chat with your subject before you start so they know what to expect and what you’d like them to do. Compliments go a long way in improving an individual’s confidence, so let them know when they’re doing something right.

READ MORE: How photographers can make photographer less awkward for the model


How to Present Different Types of Portrait Photography 

A great portrait photograph deserves a great presentation, something that matches its personality and pulls the piece together as a work of art.

In today’s digital age, everything’s online. If you want your photography to get noticed, it might be a good idea to create an online portfolio, where you can display all your work, however you like.

Picture frames will never go out of style, but you should choose a frame to match the tone of the portrait. Will it suit a minimalistic black or white style, a wooden frame or metal? Also, consider whether you’d like your photos to be hanging or tabletop, this will help when considering appropriate sizing. You can present your work as one individual piece or as a series, you decide whether it’s a series of four or a creating gallery wall to unify your portraits.

READ MORE: Different ways to present your best photographs

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