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10 Portrait Photography Tips and Rules for Better Photos

Last updated: September 22, 2023 - 8 min read
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There are many different “rules” for portrait photography, but these are my top 10. If you can follow these portrait photography tips, you will see a big improvement in your portraiture.

Sure, there are actually no rules of photography. That’s why I used quotation marks around the word. Break the rules as much as you want. In fact, I encourage you to experiment. Just know that these tips are very popular and widely followed for a reason. They work!

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10 Portrait Photography Tips

We delve into 10 essential rules for portrait photography. They ensure every shot is the best portrait picture you can take. But feel free to color outside the lines.

1. Use an Aperture of f/8 to f/16

If you’re not familiar with aperture, allow me to briefly sum it up for you. The wider the camera’s aperture, the lower the f-number, and the shallower the depth of field.

The opposite is true for narrow apertures. It’s widely agreed that around two to four stops wider than your narrowest aperture (f/22) is where your lens will be at its sharpest. That’s why we often use f/8 to f/16 when taking portraits.

It’s very sharp, and the depth of field is deep enough to keep the whole face in focus. But it is not so deep that there’s no blur at all in the background. You want a slight blur to help separate the background from the subject.

Shooting in Manual or Aperture Priority mode is common because you can easily select the aperture that best suits your photo.

Portrait of a person smoking in a car
Shot with a Nikon D3400. 46mm, f/10, 1/500 s, ISO 1400. Photo by Zyanya Citlalli (Unsplash)

2. Ensure Correct Eye Direction

There are two rules that I ask models to follow here. You either look straight into the camera, or your eyes follow the direction of your nose. Anything in between has no place in portraiture, in my opinion.

When you look away in an ambiguous direction, you give the photo an ambiguous feel. It’s like there’s something more than the viewer should be looking for when, in reality, there’s not.

Try to keep it simple. We try to direct eye-lines when we see them veer off. We shouldn’t send the viewer off in the wrong direction. Keep the viewer’s attention on the subject.

Portrait of a person in a parka outdoors in winter looking at the camera
Portrait of a person in a parka outdoors in winter looking off to the side

3. Use a Longer Focal Length (70mm to 135mm)

Using a longer focal length isn’t some magic trick that makes your subject look better. It’s all about your distance from a subject.

The longer the focal length, the further away I have to move and the more compressed the image looks. This compression is flattering for your subject because it appears to compress facial features slightly and makes us look thinner. And that never hurts.

Have a look at the photos below. It was taken at 103mm. An 85mm prime portrait lens is a great choice for portrait photography.

Black-and-white portrait of a man in dress clothes looking down and leaning against a wall
Shot with a Canon EOS R. 103mm, f/2.8, 1/5000 s, ISO 100. Photo by Robert Arnar (Unsplash)

4. Shoot in Timeless Black and White

There’s just something about black-and-white portraiture. The texture really stands out when you’re shooting in black and white, and it’s in these small details of texture that you find the character of a person’s face.

It also removes any distracting colors and strips to focus back on the person rather than anything else that may be appearing in the scene.

Some of the most inspiring portraits in the world are in black and white. That could come down to technological restrictions (initially, at least) in the case of Irving Penn or choice in the case of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Black-and-white portrait of a man in a T-shirt outside laughing
Shot with a Canon EOS 600D. 50mm, 1/3000 s, ISO 200. Photo by HLS 44 (Unsplash)

5. Use Off-Camera Lighting

This is a very important rule because lighting is half the battle when taking portraits. When a light source comes from the same angle as the camera, you completely flatten the image because no shadows are left.

When you move the light source just slightly away from the camera, it immediately adds depth. Using off-camera lighting is great, preferably with a beauty dish or softbox. But if you don’t have these at your disposal, don’t worry.

I often use window light, as it acts a lot like a lightbox. In fact, this is what studios used to use back in the day. And you can simply move your subject rather than trying to manipulate the light.

Close-up portrait of a person adjusting their collar
Window light. Shot with a Sony a7 III. 90mm, f/2.8, 1/250 s, ISO 100. Photo by Alireza Pandkhahi (Unsplash)

6. Have Your Model Pose at a Slight Angle to the Camera

The camera adds ten pounds. It’s your job as the photographer to try to remove them again. You can be the best photographer in the world and have the best lighting. But you still have weak photos if you can’t direct your models correctly.

We’re at our widest when we face straight at a camera, producing a block in the photo. If the photo is of our head and shoulders, then we’re now the full width of the image. Not good.

Conversely, when a model turns into the camera, ideally with the shoulders at slightly different heights, they seem to shrink in the frame slightly. This is great for making them look both slimmer and more interesting.

Portrait of a woman in a jacket with her body slightly turned
Shot with a Sony a 7 III. 55mm, f/1.8, 1/125 s, ISO 100. Photo by Musa Ortaç (Unsplash)

7. Avoid Bright Clothing

Remember, a portrait is about the subject, not the clothes they’re wearing. When a subject wears really bright and colorful clothing, it distracts the viewer, who is automatically drawn to it.

This is often overlooked because it concerns the client (subject) rather than the photographer. But you must pay close attention to what they wear for the best results. But this rule goes out of the window if you’re taking fashion photos.

A full-body portrait of a man standing outside in ligh-colored plain shorts and T-shirt
Shot with a Sony a6000. 28mm, f/2.8, 1/4000 s, ISO 400. Photo by Artem Balashevsky (Unsplash)

8. Direct Proper Head and Jaw Positions

No one likes to see their double chin in a photo, and it’s not that hard to ensure that your subject isn’t flashing theirs.
It’s all about the jaw. It’s pretty simple. You want to ensure that your subject brings their head forward slightly and then tilts their jaw down and out.

A simple, double-chin removal process is complete. Well, as much as possible at least. And don’t worry about it feeling unnatural, as I’m sure you’re all sitting at your computers craning your necks.

Remember what I said about compressing images by using longer focal lengths? You won’t notice the neck.


9. Remove Background Clutter to Reduce Distractions

There’s a reason that portraits are often taken on a very boring background. It can be anything from a white screen to a textured wall and anything in between. Just so long as it’s fairly uniform and not distracting.

“Distracting” is the keyword here. Like bright clothing, you don’t want to distract the view away from the subject.

You may be tempted to take a portrait against the backdrop of a sunset. But that doesn’t really have a place in portrait photography. That’s more of an extension of landscape photography. Portraits focus on the person. Keep it simple.

Portrait of a chef clapping his hands with flour
Shot with a Sony a7 IV. 64mm, f/5.6, 1/250 s, ISO 200. Photo by Venti Views (Unsplash)

10. Pay Attention to the Nose or Cheek Line

If you haven’t noticed this before, I can guarantee this will start to stand out like a sore thumb after reading this. When we take portraits, we usually take them straight on, with maybe the model turning slightly to one side.

But their nose goes with it as they turn their heads even more. And there is a point where they are turned too far.

I’m referring to the nose or cheek line when the nose points past the cheek. This makes the person’s nose stand out and look large. It also ruins the flow of the face, in my opinion. Have a look at my comparison below.

Side-view portrait of a woman squatting
Front-view portrait of a woman sitting in grass

Conclusion: Portrait Photography Tips

Applying these 10 rules for portrait photography means you’re on your way to creating captivating portraits. Remember to master the technical aspects and infuse your unique creativity. Both are key to unlocking the true potential of portrait photography.

For even more useful portrait photography tips, check out our complete guide to portrait photography. Or, look at one of our many eBooks and courses to learn more about portrait photography in-depth from professionals!

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