7 quick tips for stunning portraits

First published:
October 30, 2020
February 12, 2024

7 quick tips for stunning portraits

First published:
October 30, 2020
February 12, 2024

Cover image by Kav Dadfar

Although a popular subject to photograph, taking a good portrait is often harder than it looks. Here are some tips to get you started

Even before the invention of cameras, artists were fascinating viewers with their portrait paintings. Some of the most famous images in history are simple portraits - and that simplicity is what makes them so engaging and powerful to the viewer.

Our fascination with portraiture has evolved from paintings to photography over the last 100 years. From Steve McCurry’s haunting image of the Afghan Girl to Alberto Korda’s symbolic Che Guevara photo - a great portrait photograph has the power to “wow” and inspire.

If you’re just getting started in the genre, capturing great portraits isn’t always easy. So here are 7 tips to help you get those stunning photos of people.

1 Get closer to your subject

“If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. These famous words by acclaimed photographer Robert Capa are one of the most common bits of feedback that I give to people on my workshops.

Whilst state-of-the-art zoom lenses can be beneficial for a variety of photography situations, portraiture requires you to build that connection with the subject. That is hard to do from across the street. By getting closer to your subject, you will be forced to engage with them, possibly get to know them or even share a joke to break the ice.

An old woman is smoking a traditional tobacco in a market at Hoian
An old woman is smoking a traditional tobacco in a market at Hoi An, the ancient town of Vietnam. Image from Duc Truc Nguyen

Getting close to your subject allows you to build a connection which can, in turn, manifest itself in the photo. Imagine if Steve McCurry had photographed the Afghan Girl from a distance - we wouldn’t have that steely haunted gaze that pulls us into the image.

Most photographers avoid getting closer to their subject because of shyness. But you needn’t worry as most people will be flattered that you want to take their photo. If they don’t want their picture taken, they will usually just wave a hand politely to tell you otherwise.

Photographer taking a picture of a reveler at Venice carnival
Getting close to your subject gives you a great opportunity to make a connection, which will be evident in your portrait. Don't be shy, just ask!

2 Shoot from the hip

There are of course times when you don’t want the person you are photographing to notice you are taking a picture of them. For example, they might be deep in thought or concentrating on what they are doing. In these situations, if you hold up a camera to your eye, the chances are they will notice.

So, you can use a technique called “shooting from the hip” whereby you take the photo quickly by merely pointing the camera and shooting without looking through the viewfinder. This can be hit and miss, and you need to ensure you have your settings correct (see tip 6). But if done well - you can photograph some great moments.

If you can take the photo by looking through the viewfinder without the person noticing, then do so. But the key here is that you are still close enough for the image to look intimate rather than you hiding in the shadows from across the road.

Shoot from the hip to capture intimate and unexpected moments without your subject looking at the camera

Focus on the right place

The most critical part of a head and shoulder portrait are the eyes, so this is where you need to focus.

Other aspects of the portrait, such as the background or even ears can be slightly blurred if the eyes are not sharp and the photo won’t work. If the person you are photographing is turning their face (i.e. one eye is closer to the camera than the other) focus on the eye nearest to you.

Typically for a head and shoulder portrait, you will be using a wide aperture so you will have a shallow depth of field. This makes the correct focus point even more vital. Learn more about the importance of depth of field with our dedicated tutorial.

Closeup portrait of an Afghan man
'The man from Afghanistan' by Chetna Chandra
Portrait of a vendor at a market
If you are photographing a wider portrait scene, for example, an environmental portrait of someone at a market stall, you have a bit more leeway on what to focus on. In these situations, you may even want to try to get a longer depth of field so that you can capture the surroundings. Again however, unless you have purposely composed the image for the focus to be somewhere else, you should ensure the person’s face is going to be sharp.

4 Think about your background

The best portraits will often have your subject as the main point of interest without distractions. This is one of the main reasons that photographers will usually use a wide aperture for portrait photography.

By blurring out all the distracting elements in the background, it will ensure your subject stands out. Ideally, you should try to photograph your subject in front of a plain background. For example, a brick wall or a hedge will work much better than a reflective surface.

Photographer taking a portrait picture
A clean background easy on the eye is ideal for head and shoulder portraits
Author tip:

If you find that the person posing for you isn’t in the right place (because there is something behind them), don’t be shy about moving them left or right, or even to another location.

Even if you don’t speak their language, a simple hand movement and a smile usually do the trick. The most important thing is that nothing distracts the viewer from the person in the shot.

Portrait of reveler at Venice carnival
When approaching this Carnevale participant in Venice, they were standing in front of the metal window at first. I asked them to move to the left to take my shot - to ensure they would stand out against the background and also offered some balance to the scene.

5 Learn how to use a flash

The best light for portraiture is the natural light that you would get outdoors on a cloudy day. Cloud cover will act as a natural diffuser and ensure that your subject will have an even light across their face without harsh shadows. But of course, sometimes you might not have the ideal conditions and so you need to use artificial light for your portrait photo. Low light conditions are often where people use a direct flash to light the face of their model. Unfortunately - this is possibly the worst way to use your flash in these conditions.

The harsh light will wash out the details and give you a flat looking image. If you have no choice but to use a flash, point your flash somewhere so that it bounces off a surface like a wall rather than directly onto your subject. I must confess that over the last few years I have pretty much never used my flash and instead I use an LED light. Not only can I adjust the brightness, but I can position the small LED on a gorilla pod anywhere without the need for sensors and triggers.

Whatever you decide to use, whether it's a flash or an LED light - make sure you learn how best to use it for your portrait shots.

Environmental portrait of a worker
I needed to brighten up the right side (left side of the image) of this man’s face. So, I positioned my LED light out of shot to the left of the frame. This helped balance the light in the scene without washing out any details.

6 Get your settings right

One of the significant challenges in portrait photography is knowing what settings to use for what scenario. While there isn’t a one-stop solution, generally there are two types of portrait photos. The standard head and shoulder portrait which as mentioned earlier, you will be aiming to use a fairly wide aperture (i.e. f/4 or wider).

Remember to make sure you have focused on the right part of the image when using wide apertures. For an environmental portrait, you will want to show more of the surroundings of your subject, so you will want a slightly greater depth of field (i.e. f/5.6 or greater). For further reading on depth of field in photography, read our guide here.

Portrait of two men in India
Make sure you shoot with a shutter speed of at least 1/100 sec in order to capture a sharp portrait

When it comes to shutter speeds - aim for around 1/100 sec as a minimum just to be sure of a sharp photo. However, you'll be able to capture a sharp image at 1/80 sec and possibly slightly slower depending on how steady you can hold the camera.

'The Broom Maker' from Trương Hải Sơn
Author tip:

I would also advise shooting in burst mode. This is where your camera shoots several frames when you have the shutter pressed down. This is essential to avoid situations where the person in the photograph has their eyes closed because they blinked. By shooting in burst mode, you can then select the best image from the set you have taken in post-production.

Portrait of a ThaNaKa Girl, Mandalay, Myanmar
'Portrait of a ThaNaKa Girl' from Quach Tung Duong

7 Don’t forget to edit your photo

Some people prefer minimal editing in post-production on an image. Others happily edit more extensively. The one sure thing is that every photo will benefit from some level of editing. Even if that is simply straightening or cropping it. But if you do nothing else with your editing, just make sure that your white balance is correct. This is imperative to avoid unwanted hue and colour casts appearing in your image, which can give an unnatural tone to skin colours.

Shooting in RAW files is the best way to edit white balance using editing software such as Lightroom. You can try to get the right white balance out in the field when taking a photo. Still, sometimes in fast-moving situations like street photography, it isn’t possible. If you have time and are using a model, a grey card can help you ensure your balance is correct both when taking a photo or in post-production.

Screenshot showing a portrait photo being edited in Adobe Lightroom
Just some small adjustments like tweaking the white balance can make the difference to a photo

A great portrait photograph has the power to captivate the viewer. But it can also tell even more of a story with a subject's face, expression, or actions.

The great thing about portrait photography is that no matter where you live - you will likely have people around you that you can photograph. So, get out there and use the tips above to capture your own stunning portrait shots!

Ready to start your own photography store?

Video tutorial

To enhance and bring out the details in portraits, you can use the dodge and burn tool in Photoshop. Here's our tutorial on editing portraits:

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