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How to Take Portrait Photos: A Complete Guide

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 20 min read
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As a photographer, you are always looking for skills to develop. Learning how to professionally capture portrait photography is one of them.
Portrait photography can be used as a business idea or a way to capture your own personal and family life. Good portrait photographers are sought after and well respected.

What Is Portrait Photography?

Portrait photography is all about people. How to show them at their best is a challenge. No matter if it’s for business headshots or arranging a dozen family members for a group image.
Of course, if photography portraits were as simple as shouting ‘cheese!’, we’d all be doing it.
But it’s not; there are a ton of little intricacies to it. From choosing the right gear and location, to posing the model and adjusting your composition. Even after mastering light, there is the polishing stage in Photoshop.
Not only is the interaction with your subject difficult. But you also have to think about the equipment.
You have to know it all to master portraiture. That’s what we’re going to cover right here.
Outdoor portrait photo of a girl in a yellow coat

Portrait Photography Gear

How to Choose the Best Camera for Portrait Photography

Having the right camera is important. It will come down to what you will do with the images you capture.
You can capture good portraits using anything. From a simple smartphone to a pricey Hasselblad.
The majority of people reading this will be using a DSLR. This article takes you through the things you should be looking for in a DSLR. Especially for photography portraits.
It takes your level of experience and price sensitivity into consideration.
A Nikon DSLR for portrait photography

What Is the Best Lens for Portraits?

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 a few prime lenses? Or do you want a single zoom lens?
This comprehensive article runs you through key questions you should be asking yourself. It will help when you’re looking for an ideal portraiture lens.
You will find a roundup of the best Canon and Nikon lenses for portraits. Along with their specifications.
Black and white photo of a man in a black suit and bowtie

14 Recommended Lighting Setups

A big part of portrait photography involves manipulating lighting setups. Good portrait photographers know how to adjust every little detail.
They can control the quality, quantity, and direction of light. Adding and using lighting tools they have at their disposal. They can even adjust to fit situations where they have limited or no control over the ambient light.
14 Recommended Lighting Setups goes over a few of the things to think about when buying your lighting gear.
We cover some fundamental studio lighting patterns in the ‘Portrait Lighting’ section of this guide.
On top of this, we look at how to use natural and ambient light in non-studio situations. Either in tandem with portable flash units or without.
Portrait of a beautiful female model

How to Set Up a Home Portrait Photography Studio

Your studio is where all the gear comes together. This is your controlled environment.
It is where you set up your camera, lighting, and other accessories. So you can take portraits in the style and manner that suits you.
If you’re getting started with studio portraiture, you’ll want to set up a home portrait photography studio. This is a (somewhat) affordable way to begin practising.
Of course, setup isn’t everything. You will still need to work with the subjects in the studio. Especially to get the look, feel, and the effect that you want in the portrait.
But all that happens in this setting. The sooner you can get comfortable with working in the context of the studio, the better. You’ll improve your portraiture skills to no end.
Read our guide to set up your home studio.
Woman sitting in front of a pink backdrop in a home photo studio

How to Choose the Right Camera Settings for Portraits

Setting your camera up for portraiture is a straightforward process. As long as you remember this one key idea. Emphasise the subject of the portrait above all else.
This means that you want to expose in a correct way. This is to achieve the highest level of quality and clarity.
Your settings will vary depending on many factors. Whether you are photographing in a studio, what light is available and the aim of the shoot.
If you remember to expose your subject you can always balance your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO accordingly.
Here is our detailed article to choose the right camera settings for portraits.

Portrait photos of women in an indoor setting
Natalia Robert

Portrait Lighting

Of all the different niches of photography, photography portraits are the most demanding. Here, it is beneficial to have as much control over lighting situations as possible.
This is because the positioning and intensity of the light is the main factor. Especially in how you call attention to your subject in a portrait scenario.
The articles in this section cover the basics of working with light. Both natural and artificial sources.

10 Stunning Portrait Lighting Patterns Possible With Just One Light

Sometimes you only have a single flash to work with. This does limit the kinds of lighting setups you will be able to create.
But you are free to use the flash you do have in combination with natural and ambient light.
These combinations will help you produce many appealing effects.
Assuming that your camera is an off-camera flash that you can operate by remote.  Presuming you have access to a reflector, you can them both to achieve every light condition you need.
These range from a dramatic, high-contrast image to one that’s balanced and evenly-lit. Read our article for 10 stunning portrait lighting patterns, using one light.
Black and white portrait of a woman

How to Use Light Reflectors (Cheap Hack for Well-Lit Photos!)

Reflectors are a cheap and easy way to add more light to your photography portraits.
They are affordable, lightweight and easy to use objects. They don’t need batteries, meaning they can go anywhere.
There are many different types you can buy. Most will come with combined styles, such as gold, silver and diffused.
They all have a different effect on the added light hitting your subject. Use them to bounce the available light back into the scene. A little extra light makes all the difference. Read on here to learn more about using reflectors.

Photo of two reflectors in front of a brick wall

Must-Know Portrait Lighting Patterns and Tips

Entire books have been written on the many lighting patterns available. These are what photographers use in different scenarios.
They can be very specific to fields, for example, in product or portrait photography.
Here is a set of very basic lighting patterns. Perfect guidelines for the beginning portrait photographer.
These are:

These patterns are among the most useful and easy to create with basic lighting gear. Many more advanced lighting setups are variations on these basic ones.
Memorise these and you’ll have a solid foundation of lighting choices. Perfect for any portrait session.
With these basics mastered you’ll be better prepared. Learn more about the portrait lighting patterns here.
 Self-portrait of the photographer illustrating butterfly light on 3/4 profile view

How to Use Window Light for Portraits

One of the best portrait photography tips we can give you is to use natural light.
Using natural light which enters through a window is a great way to get soft light to an indoor subject. This lighting costs nothing. And is often overlooked as a viable source.
The effect of the window on the outdoor light is the same as that of a softbox on a flash.
Done right, the effect can be very impressive and professional-looking. But since this is a natural light source, you’ll need to pay close attention to its quality.
The quality and intensity are dependent on the time of day and weather. On top of that, it comes down to how you position your subject in relation to the natural light.
Read this article to know how to use window light for portraits.
A candid portrait of two friends sitting on a sofa indoors

Portraiture Lighting Terms

Studio lighting for photography portraits is a vast topic unto itself. 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 understand light better.
This, in turn, helps your knowledge of the types of light sources, patterns, and tools grow. These are all very important areas when you come to capture portraits.
This short glossary is a handy reference that you can refer to when assembling your lighting kit.
Portrait of a beautiful girl holding a keyboard

How to Use Butterfly Lighting for Portraits

One of the best things about the butterfly lighting setup is its simplicity. You need very little gear to pull it off.
The least you’ll need is one off-camera flash and a set of triggers. A reflector can also help direct the light towards the subject.
It is a simple lighting technique. The key light sits above the camera and points directly at your subject.
Read our article on how and when to use this technique.
Vintage Hollywood portrait of a woman

How To Use Ambient Lighting For Atmospheric Portraits

If you are looking to capture some interesting portraits, try manipulating the light.
Light, as you can imagine is the most important aspect of photography. Without it, every image would be unusable.
By using simple props and situations, you can create some interesting patterns. Use these to add atmosphere into your images.
Check out this article to learn how to use ambient light to enhance your portraits.

Atmospheric self-portrait using direct side light

How to Capture Great Portrait Photography

How To Use Photography Props for Great Portraits

Props help you boost the idea behind the portrait, making it more realistic and believable.
On top of this, it helps to create an easier environment to capture the person in front of the camera. It also gives the hands something to do.
They can be serious, or add some humour to the image. Read our article on how to add props successfully.

A beautiful female model poses behind a red umbrella
Kevin Landwer-Johan

How to Create Cinematic Looking Portraits

With the film industry producing countless hits, it is no wonder we look towards them for inspiration.
A cinematic portrait has many attributes. The main one being the difference in the aspect ratio.
Cinematic scenes have a 16:9 ratio, whereas most digital camera images use 3:2.
On top of this, there are color grades you can add and simple rules of compositions. Read here for all the information you’ll need.

Photo of a woman outdoors with cows and mountains in the background
Kevin Landwer-Johan

The 10 Different Types of Portrait Photography You Should Know

If you were wondering what kind of portrait photography that might interest you, we have the help you need. It might motivate you in the right direction.
There are 10 different types of portrait photography. Each one needs different tips, techniques, and approaches.
You might already a successful portrait photographer. But knowing about other possibilities can help you break into new markets.
Read our article for more information.

Portrait photo of a red-haired woman lying in the grass
Image by maximilianmair

Shooting During Twilight

Taking a good low-light photo portrait outdoors is a tricky proposition.
As you might have guessed, there is a little bit more involved than 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, you’ll have to adjust your settings and position your model to fit.
Twilight is a great time to take portrait pictures outdoors. 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 very important steps. These will help you to take great-looking photos during this time of day.
A female model posing outdoors in low light

How To Shoot Atmospheric Night Portrait Photography

Night portrait photography is challenging due to the lack of light. But don’t let that stop you from being creative.
The best images are well exposed with a little imagination thrown in for good measure.
Creating something atmospheric will come down to a few things.
Namely the Mise-en-scène of your setting. This means the clothing, hair, and makeup of your subject.
On top of those, the location in which you shoot and how it looks are as important. They should come together to create an image of harmony or juxtaposition.
Learn how to capture atmospheric night portraits.
A male model posing for an atmospheric night portrait photography shot

How To Shoot Neon Portrait Photography the Easy Way

One portrait photography trend of recent years has been to use ambient nighttime light. Neon lights from shop windows are one area you can find them.
More and more photographers use them as they are still interesting and unusual. They give off that electric and futuristic feel that fits our era and idea of technology.
You can use the neon lights in any number of ways. You only need to get outside when the sun is down. Check out here how to shoot neon portrait photography.
An atmospheric pink neon photography portrait of a female model

How to Shoot Long Exposure Portraits

If you want to make your portrait photography more creative, you need to try long exposure portraits. You can create dreamy photos by using this technique.
Long exposure means that the camera shutter stays open for a longer time. Like for several second or even minutes. This blurs the motion and results in surrealistic effects.
Read our step-by-step guide to learn how to shoot long exposure portraits.
Creative long exposure portrait of a man sitting on the ground

Portrait Posing and Composition

Once you’ve set up your shooting environment for your portrait, you’re ready to compose the actual image.
Portraits are all about the person or people you are photographing.
Composition, thus, will involve working with them on poses. They need to highlight what you are trying to achieve in your portrait.
Posing your subject can be one of the tougher aspects of portraiture. It requires a separate competency from the rest of your photographer skill set.
Here we’ve provided a few starting points for you to learn how to pose your subjects effectively.
Portrait photo of a woman in a colorful decorative hat

Posing People in Photographs

When shooting models, it’s your responsibility to give them the guidance they need. After all, it is your aim to help them look their best in front of the camera.
This applies regardless of whether you’re shooting professional models or family members.
Follow these tips when giving directions from behind the camera.
A couple with two young kids holding hands outdoors

How to Pose Men In Photography Portraits

Posing men involves highlighting angles and emphasizing implied power. Strength and sharp, defined lines are key.
This means emphasizing the V-shaped torso and the jawline. Downplaying round shapes and non-dominant body language is also important.
The prominence of these lines is easily controlled. So are the features of the subject’s physique. It all comes down to the subject’s position.
A pose should show broad, stable shapes with a clear structure. This gives the composition a visual strength that communicates the idea that the subject himself is strong. Read our guide on how to pose men in portraits.

A portrait photo of a male model indoors

How to Pose Women In Photography Portraits

Women’s poses in portraits highlight the curves of the female form. In contrast with men’s poses, women’s avoid straight lines and hard angles.
The key thing to remember when posing women is that the eye should move easily around the portrait.
You guide it along with the curves that you introduce throughout the pose.
Subtle curves can be created by bending the wrists, elbows, and knees. You are looking for positions that are harmonious with the model’s form.
The ‘S Curve’ is a classic pose. It guides the viewer’s eye down the frame from the face, to the arms and hands, following on to the model’s legs.
Check out this article for more advice on posing women.
Female model posing sensually for a portrait

How to Pose for Family Portraits

At its most basic, the family portrait is a group photo. Here, the subject comprises of members of the same family.
It’s a record of who’s part of the family. It will also highlight the relationship between the people in it.
The classic family photography portrait often shows the family in a studio. Posing as a group, in a line, and facing the camera.
The important thing to remember is to keep the composition balanced. You’re working with many people in a single image.
This article presents some ideas that will help you create poses for the family.

A large family posing in a kitchen

10 Classic Tips For More Interesting Portraits

So you have grasped the basics of shooting portraits.
Now you will likely want to start experimenting with the form of your images. Your aim is 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. Once you learn this, you can find out how to do it.
The key is to challenge some conventions of portrait photography.  This includes, yet not exclusive to composition, lighting, and posing.
You’ll want to do this while retaining others. Your image will still be recognisable as a portrait, but with a ‘twist’.
A candid portrait photo of friends chatting in a garden

How to Crop Portrait Photography Photos: Easy Guide

Deciding where to crop your subject isn’t always an intuitive process. This is especially true if you’re new to portraiture.
This handy cheat sheet is a visual guide to places where it’s ‘OK’ to crop a subject in a portrait photo. You’ll see the areas you should avoid cropping.
Refer to this if you’re not sure where to crop when composing your photo.
cropped photo of curly haired brunette in a brown dress and boots looking back while walking down a dirt path in a park

Self Portraiture

21 Creative Self Portrait Ideas for Photographers

Self- Portraiture is where you turn the camera on to the person who is usually behind it. You!
Here, you photograph yourself. You may find this a little daunting. But since you gave so much direction to others, you know what you need to do.
If you don’t know where to start, you’ve come to the right place.
The tips and tricks in this article will teach you how to find inspiration. It will also help you know how to invest in the right equipment.
Get ready to transform yourself into someone different.

Creative portrait photography can yield some very interesting results

How To Get Creative With Fairy Light Photography

The simple straight forward portrait photography shot works for professional headshots. But what if you are looking for something more creative?
Adding props and interesting lighting ideas can help to make your images special. Fairy lights are only one idea.
If you feel creative, and you have some fairy lights – use them to your advantage. They might provide that kick you’ve been looking for. Check out here how to use them.

A girl poses for portrait photography with fairy lights out of focus

7 Fun and Creative Self Portrait Locations

Finding locations for your self-portraiture can be difficult. The setting and background are as important as your subject.
Anywhere can be a location. But does it give you inspiration and fill your image with something interesting?
Look at your setting as a continuation of your mood and feeling. Use negative space to place a stronger focus on the subject.
Color also has an impact, whether juxtaposed or otherwise.
Read our article here to become inspired. You’ll find better locations for your self-portrait photography.

A female model posing for a portrait photography shoot in a greenhouse

Styles of Portraits

A Guide to Black and White Portrait Photography

Shooting in black and white can give your portraits a classic, timeless look. When you remove color, details of texture, shape, and positioning stand out even more.
It also helps to place an emphasis on the person. The textures that you see in black and white portraits reveal the character of a person’s face.
Everything you’ve learned about portraiture still applies. Black and white photography portraits are special.
It forces you to think even more about light and shadow in your compositions. And about capturing without the distraction that color sometimes can bring.
Read our guide to black and white portrait photography.

Black and white portrait photography of a couple with a view over the ocean in the background.

How to Take Fun and Natural Family Portraits

This article talks more about the basics of capturing traditional family portrait photography.
You will learn about what to consider when choosing a location. Also, how to arrange the people in the photos.
How to light the group and highlight relationships are some examples of what you need to be aware of. Also, experience working with kids may be necessary.
And of course, there is the question of what camera settings you’ll want to use.

Photograph of father and son for portrait photography
Anabel DFlux

10 Things Your Photography Contract Must Include

A photography contract for portrait photography is to ensure both parties retain their rights.
It makes sure that neither side can do anything with the images that were not pre-discussed and agreed upon.
One rule for photographing people is to get a model release. This is a contract between both parties, allowing the use of the model’s image.
Most stock photography requires this if you wish to sell the images online.
Read here for the other nine tips on what your portrait photo contract needs to have.

Portrait photo of a woman sitting in a parking lot

Post-Processing & Sharing Portraits

The aim of post-processing portraits is to strengthen your images. They allow you to keep the subject of your photograph in the central focus.
On top of that, post-processing can help fix the areas you missed during the shoot.  Here, you have another chance to ensure your subjects look attractive and appealing.
Here, you can cut distracting things such as blemishes and noisy background elements.

Pixieset – An Image Sharing Platform 

As a professional photographer, delivering quality images on time is crucial.
That’s where Pixieset comes in. This is a platform that allows you to share large files with your clients. This all comes at a monthly fee.
The website holds your images, issuing a URL ad password for your clients. They use this to view and select the images they want.
Not only does it save you time. Your clients will be happy, satisfied, and likely to work with you again! It’s definitely one of the top options for file sharing.
For the full review, and information on how to get started, read our article here.
Screenshot of pixieset

Processing Portraits in Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom is great for the majority of your portraiture post-processing. It affords you a smaller toolset than Photoshop.
But it enables an easier workflow and archiving process through its organisational features.
For global changes to an image, Lightroom has all your bases covered.
Plus, if you are working with a batch of files that need editing, Lightroom will often be more useful to you.
It has the ability to apply presets to many photos and adds metadata and notes to your files.
This guide gives you a solid overview of how to organize your portrait files. And how to perform the major corrections and edits that portraits often need.
Editing Portrait photography in Lightroom

How to Photoshop Portrait Photography

When you think of removing bags under your subject’s eyes, or removing unflattering marks and stray hairs. Perhaps even warming up flat skin tones – you’re thinking of ‘retouching’.
Retouching portraits is an essential skill. Adobe Photoshop is your go-to tool for these kinds of edits.
It’s often 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. These include spot healing, frequency separation, and dodging & burning, et al.
Screenshot of opening the RAW file with photoshop portrait editing


Portrait photography is an exciting and always-evolving photography genre. You need time and practice to master it. But seeing the surprise and excitement in clients’ eyes when they see the portrait of themselves is worth the effort.
Also, you keep meeting clients and building relationships, so it’s not a lonely job like product or landscape photography. Use our complete guide to learn everything you need to know about portrait photography.