How To Take Great Portrait Photos

How To Take Great Portrait Photos

2010’s coming to a close and everyone’s in a rush to get their picture taken for holiday cards, albums or even their brand new Facebook profiles. Here’s how to use any camera you’ve got and some DIY tricks to take awesome portraits.

Portrait photography can be tough at first because the human face changes from moment to moment. Capturing the best moment requires some persistence and skill, but the learning the basics isn’t too difficult and can improve the quality of your portraits significantly. Here’s a quick overview of what we’re going to cover:

  • Use shallow depth of field to keep your subject in focus and your background out of focus. If you have a DSLR, certain lenses (like a 50mm or 85mm prime lens) will be more effective.
  • Compose your photo well, drawing the eye to the right places and using an interesting setting for a more interesting portrait.
  • Consider colour regardless of whether or not the final photo will be in colour.
  • Make sure you have good lighting, whether you’re relying on available light or using an artificial setup.
  • Keep your subjects having fun, engaged and smiling as much as possible (unless a smile isn’t your goal.)

Camera and Lenses

A nicer camera will give you more options and help you achieve a better portrait, but if all you’ve got is a cheap point-and-shoot, you can still take some really nice photos. DSLRs, however, do offer you several additional options. Let’s take a look at what works best for portraits with both types of digital cameras.

Point and Shoots


There are generally only two kinds of sensors in a DSLR: APS-C and full frame. Full-frame sensors are pretty much the equivalent of 35mm film, so if you put a 50mm lens on a full-frame sensor camera it’s truly going to be a 50mm lens. A DSLR with an APS-C sensors — which is the most popular and probably what you’ve got if you’re not sure or spend under $US2500 — is a bit smaller than full-frame and magnifies the lens’ image by a factor of 1.6. This means that if you use a 50mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera, it’s basically the equivalent of an 80mm lens. If you want to get closer to an actual 50mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera, you’ll need a 28mm lens (which magnifies to 44.8mm) or a 35mm lens (which magnifies to 56mm). Anything around or over 50mm with a wide aperture (of at least f/2.8, but preferably f/1.8 or lower) will do just fine. More often I like to use 50mm lenses for portraits, but many portrait photographers prefer 85mm or more. You’ll have to see what works best for you and for your situation, as one type of lens won’t be perfect for every kind of portrait. That said, if you have to pick one and you’re on a budget a 50mm lens is your best bet. A 50mm prime lens — prime meaning it’s fixed at 50mm and can’t zoom in or it—is almost always the cheapest lens you can buy for your DSLR. Oddly, it also produces some of the most beautiful results despite easily costing you under $US100.

If you really want to save some money, consider using an old lens. Sometimes they result in interesting imperfects in focus and colour (as seen above).

A Quick Note on Shallow Depth of Field

Shallow depth of field is very attractive and isolates your subject effectively, but you don’t want to go too shallow and risk having part of your subject look out of focus. Autofocus systems tend to focus on the closest part of the face first, which is the nose. While the face will appear to be in focus through the viewfinder or on your LCD screen, when you look at the photo on your computer you’ll often find the eyes are slightly out of focus. Focusing manually can help to ensure you focus on the part of the face that will look the best, but if you’re having trouble just use a slightly slower aperture. Setting your aperture to f/2.8 will generally ensure a nice and blurry background while still keeping your subject’s face entirely in focus.

Composition and Technique

Composing a standard portrait, which is basically just a picture of a person’s face, is fairly self-explanatory. Nonetheless, there are a few rules of photography that can help you out, tips that will make your job easier, and choices you’ll need to make to get the look you want.

The Rule of Thirds

The first thing you’re going to hear about in a beginner’s photography class is the rule of thirds, and it’s a pretty simple idea. You basically split up your frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. These lines will create nine boxes and intersect in four places, as you can see from the example on the left. Our eye is generally drawn to the points where these lines intersect, so you want use this as a guide when choosing where you put your subject’s eye line. The upper points of intersection are generally best used to cross at the bridge of the nose (where the gold star is in the example). This draws the viewer’s eyes to the centre of the face. If you can manage, try to use the point of intersection beneath the one crossing the bridge of the noise to cross at the subject’s lips to help keep the eyes on all the key parts of the face. While the rule of thirds isn’t a rule you must follow for effective portraits, it is an easy way to keep a person’s attention on the parts of your portrait that you want them to see.

Think About Colour, Even if You’re Shooting for Black and White

getting the best colour out of your photos

Be Creative with Angles, Location, Clothing, Etc

It’s easy to aim to take photos with the camera pointed directly at your subject’s face, straight on, with no variation. This can make for some elegant, standard portraits, but it also has the opportunity to create some pretty boring ones as well. Instead, you want to consider different options. For example, consider having your subject look up at the camera:

Depending on the portrait, you don’t necessarily want to have your subject looking directly at the camera:

If you want to make things a little more interesting you can start using props…

or unusual situations…

to make your photos more interesting. Be creative with what you choose and you can turn out some very interesting, unique portraits.

Basic Lighting

Lighting your subject for a portrait is generally pretty easy. Unless you’re aiming to create artistic shadows on the face, your goal is just to spread even light and eliminate harsh, unpleasant shadows. In certain situations you’d have to worry about the harsh shadows your lights will cause your subject to cast on the rest of the scene, but because your subject will be far from your background to aid in that background being out of focus, you don’t need to worry about this too much. That said, you don’t want to just blast a light directly into your subject’s face. Not only will this often create on flattering shadows from — at least — the nose, but your subject will have trouble seeing and therefore have difficulty looking nice for the picture. Let’s take a look at one simple lighting setup that works well for portraits:

This setup is great because it only takes one powerful light to light the subject and uses a fill to handle the rest. One light in the back is, aptly named, the backlight. It doesn’t have to be terribly powerful and illuminates the edges of the subject to help separate them from the background. OK, so what does all of this mean? Let’s take a look at each item individually.

Your Main Light

white umbrella

notAn important note: lights are hot, so be careful when handling them. Use works gloves if you can. Don’t burn yourself, and don’t handle bulbs until they’ve had a chance to cool!

Your Fill

Your Back Light

There’s plenty more to cover with portraits, but this should get you started. If you’re already an expert and have some more great tips, share ’em in the comments!


  • This is really good information. I’m a professional photographer and people often say I get better photos because I have more/theright equipment. Its crap – anyone with a halfway decent compact can take good photos.

    The lighting information presented here is a bit complex, but the fundamentals are right. For example, if you don’t want to by a specialised photography light (eg 36″ hexagonal softbox) simply put your subject next to a window with the sun coming in at an angle. Their left or right shoulder should face the glass. You then shoot at them along the wall making sure the window isn’t in the frame of the photo. Without any special props you have a beautiful sidelight chiarascuro photo. For women, try angle their face slightly towards the light. Turn your flash off for this.

    Even better, use a window that has venetian blinds. I prefer it when the subject isn’t looking directly at the camera. By turning the head slightly and then looking back at the camera it decentres the eyes and gets rid of nasty eye effects (crossed eyes/widened eyes).

    I think the best portrait though is the candid portrait. There is nothing worse than a person looking at the camera smiling. It tells no story and has no context. The pros spend all their time trying to make a staged photo look like a spontaneous photo.

    Finally, don’t be afraid to break rules. Use the rule of thirds and decentre eyes an so on, if it works. But if you can break the rules and still get a good shot – who cares!

    Rule breaking examples
    Front lit with no thirds –

    -my beautiful daughter, completely centred –

    -my beautiful daughter, eyes closed (usually the focus of an image) –

    Terence Boylen.

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