As a photographer, learning how to professionally capture portrait photography is one of the most important skills you can develop. Not only are good portrait photographers highly sought after and well respected, but it’s a great way for a budding amateur to turn a hobby into a career.
Of course, if portrait photography was as simple as picking up a camera and shouting ‘say cheese!’, we’d all be doing it. But it’s not; there’s a ton of little intricacies to it.
From choosing the right gear and finding the perfect location, to posing the model and adjusting your composition, to mastering light and polishing photos in Photoshop—you have to know it all to master portraiture, and that’s what we’re going to cover right here…
Portrait Photography Gear
Although a good carpenter never blames his tools, he’ll also tell you the importance of having the right tool for the job. This guide focuses primarily on how to capture good portraits, and a part of that is having the right gear—lenses, lighting, reflectors, backdrops, camera, and more—for the task.
If you’re just getting started, you don’t have to worry too much about buying too much gear all at once.
That said, below you’ll find a few articles which will help you get the very basics that you’ll need to start taking portrait photos.
Will you be shooting groups of people often? How much available space do you have? Do you want to take outdoor portraits with plenty of bokeh? Do you plan on carrying multiple prime lenses or do you want a single zoom lens?
This comprehensive article runs you through key questions you should be asking yourself when looking for an ideal portraiture lens and provides a roundup of the best Canon and Nikon lenses for portraits, along with their specifications.
A big part of portrait photography involves manipulating lighting setups. Good portrait photographers know how to adjust the quality, quantity, and direction of light with lighting tools they have at their disposal and can even adjust to situations when they have limited or no control over the lighting conditions.
‘14 Recommended Lighting Setups’ goes over a few of the things to think about when buying your lighting gear, such as recycling time, type of bulb, type of power source, etc., and provides a list of recommended setups based on those factors.
We cover some fundamental studio lighting patterns in the ‘Portrait Lighting’ section of this guide, as well as how to use natural and ambient light in non-studio situations in tandem with portable flash units.
Your studio is where all the gear comes together. This is your controlled environment, where you set up you camera, lighting, and other accessories so that you can take portraits in the style and manner that suits you.
If you’re just getting started with studio portraiture, you’ll most likely want to set up a home portrait photography studio as that is the most affordable way to begin practising.
Of course, setup isn’t everything—you will still need to work with the subjects in the studio to get the look, feel, and effect that you want in the portrait—but all of that happens in this setting. The sooner you can get comfortable with working in the context of the studio, the sooner you’ll be able to improve your portraiture skills.
Setting your camera up for portraiture is a fairly straightforward process, as long as you remember this one key idea: emphasise the subject of the portrait above all else.
Classically, this means that you want to expose to achieve the highest level of clarity (no motion blur, as little grain as possible, depth-of-field, and white balance that are appropriate to the scenario, etc.) around the person or people in your portrait.
Your settings will vary depending on whether or not you are photographing in a studio, but if you remember to expose for your subject you can always balance your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO accordingly.
Image credit: User ‘tubb’ on Flickr
Of all the different niches of photography, portrait photography is perhaps the one that demands the most control over lighting situations.
This is because the positioning and intensity of the light is the main factor in how you call attention to your subject in a portrait. Light accentuates characteristics of your subjects’ faces and bodies, and the lighting setup that you choose can make or break a portrait.
How you light your subject can alter the mood of the image, emphasise or downplay physical features, include or exclude a setting, and more.
As a result for the need for precision and control over light, there are lot of different types of flashes and lighting setups available for photographers to use, as well as several key patterns that they should be aware of.
The articles in this section cover the basics of working with natural and artificial light sources.
Sometimes you only have a single flash to work with. While this does limit the kinds of lighting setups you will be able to create, you can still use the flash you do have in combination with natural and ambient light to produce a number of appealing effects.
Assuming that your camera is an off-camera flash that you can operate by remote and that you have access to a reflector or nearby reflective surfaces, you can use these techniques to achieve everything from a dramatic, high-contrast image of your subject to one that’s balanced and evenly-lit.
Because you won’t be able to move the natural or ambient light, you’ll need to be aware of how you’re positioning your subject in relation to that light before you select the placement and direction of your flash.
While entire books have been written on the many lighting patterns that photographers can use in different scenarios (in portraiture and otherwise), there is a set of very basic lighting patterns that the beginning portrait photographer can use as guidelines. These are:
These patterns are among the most useful and easy to create with basic lighting gear. Many more advanced lighting setups are, in fact, variations or elaborations on these basic ones.
Memorise these and you’ll have a solid foundation of lighting choices when you need to take a portrait. With these basics mastered you’ll be better prepared to assess more advanced facets of lighting such as light quality, direction, and ratio.
Using the natural light which shines in through a window is a great way to get soft light onto an indoor subject which costs nothing and is often overlooked.
The effect of the window on the outdoor light is essentially the same as that of a softbox on a flash, ie. the intensity of the light is lessened and the light itself is
Done right, the effect can be very impressive and professional-looking, but since this is exclusively a natural light source dependent on the time of day and weather, you’ll need to pay close attention to the quality of the light as well as how you are positioning your subject in relation to the window light.
Studio lighting is vast topic unto itself and there is a large amount of terminology that you’ll encounter when dealing with it. Becoming familiar with the vocabulary of lighting will help you become better at knowing the types of light sources, patterns, and tools that you’ll need when you make portraits.
This short glossary is a handy reference that you can refer to when assembling your lighting kit and manipulating your lighting setup while working in the studio.
Taking a good low-light portrait outdoors is potentially a tricky proposition and, as you might have guessed, there is a little bit more involved than just showing up with a flash setup.
You will need to assess your surroundings to see what kind of ambient light will be in your composition, then adjust your settings and position your model accordingly.
Twilight is a great time to take portrait photos outdoors as you’ll still have the faintest of light in the sky after the sun has gone below the horizon line. This article walks you through six steps that will get help you to take great-looking photos during this time of day.
Portrait Posing and Composition
Once you’ve set up your shooting environment for your portrait, you’re ready to compose the actual image.
Because portraits are all about the person or people you are photographing, composition will involve working with them on poses that will highlight what you are trying to achieve in your portrait.
Posing your subject can be one of the tougher aspects of portraiture because of the fact that it requires a separate competency from the rest of your photographer skill set; guiding a model through poses demands at least a basic understanding of the human form and nonverbal communication.
Moreover, posing men and women are quite different undertakings, and you will need to know what kinds of poses are attractive and impactful for both.
Establishing a good rapport with your subject is invaluable here and without strong communication, frankly, you won’t be able to produce great images with your model.
Ultimately, achieving fluency at posing requires as much practice and observation as mastering your camera, but here we’ve provided a few starting points for you to learn how to pose your subjects effectively.
When shooting models, it’s your responsibility as the photographer to give them the guidance they need to look their best in front of the camera. This applies regardless of whether you’re shooting professional models or family members.
These 10 steps, while generally geared towards the former (you wouldn’t likely be asking for fashion poses during a family portrait shoot, unless perhaps you were shooting a family of models!), are some good basic rules of thumb that you can follow when giving directions from behind the camera.
Posing men traditionally involves highlighting angles and emphasising the implied power of strong and sharply-defined lines, such as those of the V-shaped torso and the jawline, while downplaying round shapes and non-dominant body language.
The prominence of these lines as well features of the subject’s physique can be controlled by adjusting how the subject is positioned in relation to the camera, and, to a certain extent, through lens selection.
The overall effect of the pose should be to show broad, stable shapes with a clear structure—this gives the composition a visual strength which communicates the idea that the subject himself is strong.
Women’s poses in portraits traditionally have stressed the curves of the female form and, in contrast with men’s poses, avoid straight lines and hard angles.
The key thing to remember when posing women is that the eye should move easily around the portrait, guided by the curves that you introduce throughout the pose. Subtle curves can be created by bending the wrists, elbows, and knees, in ways that are harmonious with the model’s form.
The ‘S Curve’ is a classic pose that guides the viewer’s eye down the frame from the face, to the arms and hands, following on to the model’s legs.
At its most basic, the family portrait is a group photo in which the subject is comprised of members of the same family. It’s essentially a record of who’s part of the family and highlights the relationship between the people in it.
The classic family portrait usually shows the family in a studio, posed as a group, facing the camera. However, recent years have seen a trend towards creative family portraits which highlight the personality of a family or which present the family members posed unconventionally in some funny or visually interesting setting.
The important thing to remember is to keep the composition balanced, since you’re working with multiple people in a single image.
This article presents some ideas that will help you create poses that break the mould of the traditional family portraits to show the unique family dynamic of your subject.
Once you have grasped the basics of shooting portraits and have gained some experience shooting them in a conventional way, you will likely want to start experimenting with the form to make them more visually interesting and different.
These suggestions will give you some ideas of what aspects of portraiture you can play around with and how to do that. The key is to challenge some conventions of portrait composition, lighting, posing, etc., while retaining others so that your image is still recognisable as a portrait, but with a ‘twist’.
This is portrait photographer Peter Hurley discussing the impact that a properly posed jawline can make on a headshot. It’s a bit of a long video, but it’s worth watching all the way through to see how some subtle adjustments can be the difference between a well-defined jawline and the dreaded double chin in your portrait.
Deciding where to crop your subject isn’t always an intuitive process, especially if you’re new to portraiture. This handy cheatsheet is a visual guide to places where it’s ‘ok’ to crop a subject in a portrait, and places you should avoid cropping. Refer to this if you’re not sure where to crop when composing your photo.
Taking self portraits is easier in that you’re directing yourself and not another person or group of people, but it’s not without its own challenges.
You will need to consider the location where you want to take your self portrait and prepare that location for shooting, which includes setting up your camera and any lighting you may be using.
Depending on the location, you may or may not have a mirror with you that you can use. Having one makes adjusting your pose a bit easier, but in the case that you don’t have one, you should still know how to pose yourself so that the portrait is a flattering one rather than an awkward or bad-looking one.
Shooting in black and white can give your portraits a classic, timeless look. When colour is removed, details of texture, shape, and positioning stand out even more.
The emphasis on the person is heightened as you see previously unnoticed subtleties; I find that the textures that you see in black and white portraits really reveal the character of a person’s face.
While everything you’ve learned about portraiture does still apply, black and white portrait photography is special in that it forces you to think even more about light and shadow in your compositions, and about capturing the emotions and expressions without the distraction that colour sometimes can bring.
In contrast to our earlier section on how to get inventive and creative poses from families you’re photographing, this article talks more about the basics of how to do traditional family portrait photography.
You will learn about what to consider when choosing a location, how to arrange the people in the photos, taking smaller group photos with different family members, how to light the group, highlighting relationships, working with kids, and of course, what camera settings you’ll want to use.
The aim of post-processing portraits is—you guessed it—to make sure that the subject of your image is the central focus of the image, and that they look attractive and appealing.
This amounts to you adjusting image values to accentuate certain physical features, such as eyes, hair, and skin tone and eliminating distracting things such as blemishes and noisy background elements.
Adobe Lightroom can be used for the majority of your portraiture post-processing. It affords you a slightly smaller toolset than Photoshop, but enables an easier workflow and archiving process through its organisational features.
For global changes to an image as well as cropping, Lightroom has all your bases covered. Plus, if you are working with a large batch of files which need to be edited, tagged, and organised, then Lightroom will likely be more useful to you, because of its ability to apply presets to multiple photos and add metadata and notes to your files.
This guide gives you a solid overview of how to organise your portrait files and perform the major corrections and edits that portraits usually need.
When you think of removing bags under your subject’s eyes, getting rid of unflattering marks and stray hairs, and warming up flat skin tones, you’re thinking of what’s known as ‘retouching’.
Retouching portraits is an essential skill and Adobe Photoshop is your go-to tool for these kinds of edits. It’s usually the final stage of portrait photography before you have a finished product.
This article has tutorials on some of the most commonly used retouching techniques including spot healing, frequency separation, and dodging & burning.
Image credit: Dani Diamond
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