10 tips to take successful portrait photographs.

Oct 31, 2018 by Phoebe Cook
13 MIN

The art of ‘portrait’ is a very difficult exercise for not only the photographer, but also for the model. Photography can sometimes make both the photographer and the subject feel uncomfortable, or it can appear unnatural or overly-posed. The best scenes to photograph are the most spontaneous ones, but when it comes to actually taking the photo you just can’t capture what you see in reality - it’s frustrating. Here are some tips on how to finally conquer the portrait that you have always dreamed of taking to stop you getting disheartened!

1 - All about the light

Taking portraits at different times of the day helps to keep your portraits fresh and original. Learning to play with light and shadows is the secret to captivating portraits. The perfect brightness is when the scene is in a shady but bright environment. Shadows help bring body and support to your portrait. They emphasise the facial expressions, the features and the intensity of the look. However, avoid taking portraits in full sun because they tend to harden the face. Facing a light that is too strong will inevitably make the subject frown, which creates wrinkles.

Having said this, don’t be afraid to experiment. Try shooting harsh evening light, embrace capturing shadows and use the sun’s rays to warm your photos. We are often afraid of the backlight. However, if used appropriately it can give your portraits a singular and warm luminosity.

Shooting against the light create a halo or halo of light surrounding your subject, giving the impression of purity and innocence:

child portrait photography

Image Credit: Ello

If light effects don’t scare you and you want to take an original portrait, you can use against-daylight or ‘contre-jour’ in your portraits. This technique is ideal for highlighting the shape of the face or contours of your subject's body. If your model is intimidated by the lens, a contrast portrait is best, as it transforms the subject into a shadow and looks almost like a sketch, without revealing all of their features.

albert watson smoking woman

Image Credit: Albert Watson

2 - How to create a successful composition

Have you ever tried focusing on an object or tiny detail you’re drawn to in a photo, instead of the model’s eyes? This is the a simple trick to create a different perspective on the person you’re capturing without too much effort! It adds both dimension and character to the portrait, creating an artsy effect. Taking a photo of the same composition and at the same angles easily becomes mundane and will begin to bore your viewers. Finding the best viewing angle takes time, so feel free to move around your model to capture light from different angles.

If you want to focus on a distinctive detail of your subject's face, try the extreme close-up. It’s perfect for highlighting the eyes, mouth, or skin texture.

black and white portrait

black and white portrait

Image Credit: Evasee

Conversely, if you want to capture an overall portrait, choose the close up, which includes just above the bust of the subject and your model’s head. The close-up is effective, it’s a classic, simple style, different to that of a distance shot, which allows the integration of interesting environmental elements.

jessica chastain portrait photography

Image Credit: Joey L.

The most important thing is to make you happy and that is by letting your creativity work. Framing and composition do not have to meet strict rules. An unusual portrait always evokes more emotion than a simple one.

lonely woman portrait black and white

Image Credit: One by One

The composition of this portrait of a woman evokes emotion in the viewer. Looking at it, you could imagine several stories behind this photograph. Is this woman alone, and does the darkness around her and the closed window represent her isolation? Is the woman preparing a meal for her family, in the warm and protective atmosphere of her house? One thing is certain: it creates intrigue.

3 - Help your model help you

Let's be honest, it's quite unlikely that you'll take portraits of Kate Moss or Cara Delevigne. In general, you’ll be taking photos of amateur models, such as your relatives. Faced with expectation, it’s difficult for the subject to remain natural and spontaneous. Keep in mind that they may be affected by the objective.

If they aren’t your relative, take a moment to get to know your model, but not in a formal way. Ask funny questions and tell your own funny anecdotes to get them to relax and open up, this will subconsciously open up their body language too, allowing you to capture an honest side.

Make them laugh! By allowing your models to smile and laugh, this creates an exciting challenge for you as a photographer, but also means the photo takes a different turn.

Reassure them! Before starting the photo shoot, put your model at ease, talk to them, try to earn their trust by complimenting them, make them forget the presence of the camera.

cara delevigne kate moss portraits burberry

Image Credit: Burberry

If you feel your subject isn’t fulfilling their full potential, don’t hesitate to guide them by getting them to try different poses. Don’t force them to focus on the lens because it will stiffen their features. To maintain the spontaneity of their expressions, you can also ask the model to look away for a few seconds, then turn to you just in time for the shot.

In this video, the photographers of Mango Street explain how to succeed in posing non-professional models:

Video Credit: Chaîne YouTube Mango Street

4 - Let your model move

No one likes stiff, obviously posed portraits, they make even the viewer uncomfortable. Let your model move around to capture the most natural movements and real moments. This may include extravagant, out-of-the-ordinary poses if that’s something your model normally does.

woman portrait photography

Image Credit: EyeEm

5 - Less is more

Don’t underestimate the power of clothes and accessories. Pay attention to patterns, colours, clothing cuts and textures so that every aspect of the photo compliments the model and creates a nice aesthetic.

black and white portrait

Image Credit: EyeEm

Equally important is the attention to detail regarding unwanted accessories - no festival wristbands, no hair ties and no blingy watches is usually a good place to start. There’s no point putting in so much effort for it to be ruined by a year old shredded wristband!

6 - There’s no shadow without light

As discussed above, shade is essential for successful portraits. But without light, shadows don’t exist. However, don’t get carried away, remember taming the light is as important as controlling the shadow. When shooting indoors, try maximising the natural light through a window. If your scene is too dark, feel free to use additional lighting, such as professional reflectors, white sheets or an aluminum surface (like a silver tray for example).

softbox photography

Image Credit: Rush to deal

reflectors photography

Image Credit : Aliexpress

In this video by Mango Street, Daniel DeArco explains how to optimise light when shooting a portrait indoors:

Video Credit: Youtube

7 - The ¾ angle shot

If you want to create a nice portrait, avoid taking your subject completely front-on. You’re not taking a passport photo! The main aim is to find the right “three-quarters" of the subject that shows off their best profile. In fact, the ¾ angle makes your subject look slimmer and showcases the oval of their face and the lines of their body.

annie leibovitz black and white  portrait woman

Image Credit: Annie Leibovitz

However, to make your model’s look more intense, make them tilt their chin down. This will strengthen your image because it gives the illusion that the model is staring at the viewer.

Hair is another element that hugely influences your model’s face and appearance. Try using various hair styles for setting one, two and three. It’s important to create diverse portraits to choose from. If both you and your model aren’t good at manipulating hair and make-up, consider hiring a professional stylist.

woman portrait

Image Credit: EyeEm

8 - Do not forget the background: it is essential

The background will make your portraits unique, because it gives a setting and story to your photos. By putting a model in a particular setting, it reveals more about the personality of the model. Annette Zer suggests shooting in the model’s apartment, putting them in a personal setting, letting the model relax. This is called the contextual shot, or the environmental shot. Experimentation is key; choose different backdrops with different wall textures, houses and settings.

If the contextual shot seems too wide, opt for a tighter framing that still highlights the background:  

elmut newton portrait black and white woman

Image Credit: Helmut Newton

With more background, comes different types of framing.

The middle shot, shows from the waist up. The lesser known three-quarter shot goes from the knees up, although it does show more visual variety.  

A full shot frames a person from head to toe. Also called the full-length portrait, it is used either to establish or follow a character. With the background blur, the subject will stand out much more.

elmut newton portrait black and white woman

Image Credit: Helmut Newton

9 - The look: the most important element in a portrait

When taking a portrait, you must focus on your subject’s eye closest to the camera. Don’t go too close to the model! Leave room for their gaze to carry, let your model pierce the lens. Avoid shooting too close up and take a focal length of 50mm minimum to avoid motion blur. To bring out the details of the face, choose a macro lens (90mm focal length).

steve mccurry afghan girl

Image Credit: Steve McCurry

10 - Work that button until it hurts!

To get the perfect shot, don’t be afraid to trigger the camera 10 - 20 times more than photographers usually do. Annette Zer would rather “have more material to choose from than being upset about having missed than one natural graceful moment”. Don’t be afraid to shoot continuously on automatic mode in priority aperture.

Think of it as the cinema: the director needs to redo several shots before being satisfied with the result!

Brian Igram black and white portrait

Image Credit: Brian Ingram

You see, taking a nice portrait isn’t that complicated. You just have to understand the framing and the development, to heal the composition and to establish a climate of confidence with your model. Not that bad right? Oh and obviously….you must also remain patient!

Stay updated

Get the latest photographic news and inspiration