How to be a great portrait photographer, for beginners

Photo by Monica Linzmeier

Classically, portrait photography was done in a studio - think high school photos. But with the democratization of high-quality photography and the rise of online profiles, portrait photography includes a lot more than just your typical studio shot. In today’s portraits, you’ll find natural light coming to play more often, as well as a setting that matches the tone. You may even have heard these photos called ‘people pictures.’ 

It takes a certain amount of technique just to get the photo the way you like, but it’s just as important to get your subject to feel comfortable and confident in front of the camera.  That’s why we’re breaking it down step by step into two parts for beginner photographers: how to get the best portrait technically and then how to manage working with people. 

1. Getting set up


2. How to direct your models, whether they are professional or not


Getting set up 

What will you need? 

If you want to really take control of your portrait photos you are going to want to avoid a point and shoot because you’re going to want to be shooting in manual. If you really want to explore the different types of portrait photography, here’s what I’d suggest: 

A reflex camera

A lens with a wide aperture (2.8f ideally) 

A tripod

A flash and reflector 

A gray card 

A model

What lens to chose 

Different lenses are going to give you different effects, for example, a longer focal length will help flatten a face, which is sometimes preferable. However, with a longer lens (think 200) you’ll have to compensate for stability and you’ll have to shoot with a longer shutter speed. (If you are just beginning photography and this doesn’t make a lot of sense, check out this article about the basics of shooting in manual and then come back!) 

I personally love shooting with my fixed 50mm 1.4f lens. The aperture can open so wide that it allows me to shoot beautiful photos even in low lighting. Ideally, you want a lens that can open as wide as 2.8f so that the subject’s full face in focus, while creating a bokeh effect. (Think about the ‘portrait mode’ on newer smartphones, they add a digital blur all around the person, but it is done digitally in an attempt to replicate the real effect that you can get with the right lens.) You can see a quick example between different apertures here: 

Aperture Difference

Photos by Monica Linzmeier

What camera settings to shoot on? 

This question always comes up, and the answer always depends on what you are looking for!  To answer, we are going to focus on a classic headshot portrait that includes the shoulders and natural lighting. When starting out you want the aperture to be around 2.8f to highlight the subject’s face in a flattering and professional way and create that soft background while keeping your subject's eyes in focus.

If you want a stunning portrait, the most important thing is the eyes. 

2.8f will allow you to practice getting the subject’s eyes in focus while softening the background. Any wider and you risk focusing on the wrong thing as you can see in the photo below. 

Photo by Monica Linzmeier

This photo was shot at 1.4f. Maybe at first glance, both photos look good. Maybe you could post both on Instagram because its hard to tell the difference. But if she were to want to print out her photo, the difference would become evident. On the left, her eyes are sharp and in focus. On the right, the focus was slightly off, and I ended up focusing on her nose. I've zoomed on the two photos below to really show the difference. 

Finally, moving on to shutter speed and ISO... 

You’ll have to adjust your shutter speed depending on your lens and the lighting available. If conditions allow you to shoot around at least 200, that’s ideal. A rule of thumb is you want your shutter speed to be at least twice the mm of your lens. For example, when shooting with a 50mm lens, you need to be shooting at least 100 in order to avoid motion blur, unless you've got a reliable tripod.  

The last thing to set is your ISO. You want it to be as low as possible to avoid grainy photos. Personally, I set my ISO last to compensate for the other elements in order to balance out the exposure triangle.


Getting the lighting right 

Like all other types of photography, lighting is incredibly, super, extra, ultra important. However, there are plenty of ways to achieve the right lighting, and each has its benefits. One classic and natural way to get the right lighting is to shoot at golden hour, which we cover in detail here. Other options include shooting in a studio where you can control your light source, and which is one of the best ways to get to understanding lighting quickly. 

Some other ideas? You can try shooting near a window to get that soft natural light in to highlight your subject from one side. Add a reflector for extra points. 

There was a heatwave in Paris when we shot this photo, so we decided to stay inside and set up right next to the window to get that soft light. We left the window in frame just slightly on the right. 

Photo by Monica Linzmeier

Or if you have a nice overcast day you can simply go outside.

Sometimes, though, you find yourself in a bad setup, for example, your client or subject is only available at noon on a bright and sunny day. This creates unflattering shadows under the eyes and nose and should be avoided, but in a pinch, a good trick to try out is to find a shaded area, just outside of the sun’s reach. 

Where to shoot? Finding the right location 

If the goal is just to get a headshot without showing the background, opt for a location that will allow you the maximum amount of control over the lighting. But if you plan on including hints of the location, be sure to choose a location that matches the ‘theme.’

While the forest and the beach are beautiful, they are a little out of place if the headshot is for a LinkedIn photo and your subject is wearing a work blazer. Similarly, family portraits in an office are going to feel a little impersonal. 

How to direct your models, whether they are professional or not 

Let’s say you’ve mastered all of the above, you’re probably going to end up with a photo that makes you happy. But unless you are able to put your subject at ease, your client may end up still being unhappy with the results! 

Portraits that are done for the person in the portrait are tricky, as we as humans see ourselves differently than everyone else. The best way to combat this is to put your subject at ease. Those who are ‘photogenic’ are typically just those who are the most comfortable in front of the camera. 

How can you put them at ease? 

Talk them through what you are doing. Sometimes when we are behind the lens we get so absorbed in what we are doing that we forget there is a person behind the lens. Reassure them that they are in good hands. 

You can suggest some poses that put people at ease: Hands in the pockets, leaning against a tree, sitting on the stairs. These poses allow people to redistribute their weight and that way they won’t think ‘I don’t know what to do with my hands!’  

Directing them will not only give you more control but it will help them feel like you know what you are doing and therefore that they can trust what you are doing. In turn, their body language will start to relax, and then you can finally get them to open up. 

I find that the best photos always end up being at the end of the session since they’ve warmed up to the camera and gotten used to that noisy ‘click.’

Shoot their best angle

Once they are comfortable, it’s time to think about how to highlight the person’s best features. 

There is no one angle that works for everyone. Sometimes people have a ‘good side,’ sometimes they are the best shot from straight on, sometimes they look great from every angle! Just keep in mind that the angle that you shoot from will exaggerate the thing closest to the camera. 

If you shoot looking down at someone, their eyes and forehead will appear larger, if you shoot looking up at someone, they will appear taller and more imposing. That’s why for a classic portrait, you want to be sure to get down on their level. This applies to kids too! 

Once you have gotten things the way you like them, you can suggest that every time they hear your shutter ‘click’ that they move the angle of their chin just a little bit, which will give them more choices to choose from in the end. With digital photography, it’s ok to give them a few extra options. 

So that’s it. We’ve covered a lot here, but at the end of the day, if you take your time to correctly focus, get the right lighting, and put your subject at ease you are bound to come out with a great photo. After that comes the fun part where you can start testing out different photographic methods, and defining your unique style. 

How to be a great portrait photographer

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