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5 Tips For Better Portrait Photography

by Hillary Grigonis
featured, photo & video

Taking pictures of people isn’t the same thing as taking a portrait. Sure, the subjects are the same, but there’s a subtle shift, a fine line between a quick snapshot of a friend and a portrait. A great portrait will capture the essence of a person — maybe it’s they way their laughter always lights up their eyes, or the subtle dimple that’s only noticeable with an intense focus — but a portrait captures both a person and a personality. But what can newbies do to learn better portrait photography?

Coming from a photojournalism background, I’m no stranger to taking pictures of people. But, as I shifted my focus to portrait photography, I learned several different techniques and concepts that helped me cross that line, to move from photojournalist to portrait photographer. Here are some tips for better portrait photography that made the biggest impact.

better portrait photography

Photo by Hillary K Photography

Emphasize the eyes.

Focusing on the subject’s eyes using single point autofocus is part of portrait 101 — but don’t stop at just getting the eyes in focus. The subject’s eyes can direct the mood of the photo and play up that personality. Part of that is getting a great expression — but a big part is light.

Light plays a big role in how much those eyes pop. Catchlights, or the reflection in the subject’s eyes, bring that out. A low-powered flash with a diffusion panel or small softbox works great to add just a subtle sparkle in the eyes. Natural light can also make eyes pop (just make sure the light is soft enough not to create a squint. For example, I find blue eyes appear a much brighter shade of blue when the subject is lit by window light. Watching the eyes — and how the light enhances them — leads to better portrait photography.

better portrait photography


Looking to take your portraiture to the next level? Check out Portrait Photography Fundamentals with Scott Robert Lim. 

 Step out of your comfort zone to get a genuine smile.

I tell the corniest jokes when I take portraits. I’m the photographer that gets a large group together and then warns them not to fart in such close quarters. I ask my engaged couples to get close together — and then ask them to whisper in each other’s ears who’s going to clean the toilets once they are married. But this was never instinct for me — I’m quiet by nature and getting people comfortable in front of my camera has always been a personal challenge of mine.

Standing in front of a camera while someone takes your photo without saying anything is awkward — you’ll get awkward smiles. Start a conversation. Ask questions about them. Compliment something about them. Tell jokes. If you’re terribly shy, write down some questions or jokes ahead of time. Exactly how you help couples relax will depend on your personality, but find a way to help subjects relax in front of the camera, whether that’s doing flips in between shots like this guy or telling corny jokes.

better portrait photography

Photo by Hillary K Photography

Stop fearing posing.

New portrait photographers often fear posing, not wanting to take the authenticity from the photo — but the truth is, most subjects would much prefer some direction rather than standing awkwardly in front of the camera. And, you can keep posing casual by first following the subject’s direction and then making a few small changes.

Start with a few simple concepts. First, recognize that whatever is closest to the camera is going to look larger — by changing your position or having your subject lean towards the camera, the pose changes significantly. Avoid flat feet and have them bend a knee, turn one foot out or put one foot slightly forward. Make sure no limbs are pointing towards the camera, or they’ll look a bit shorter, a concept called foreshortening. Don’t crop the shot at any joints.

Learning posing can help your subjects feel more confident during the shoot — and after when they see the results. Tuning in on a posing class, followed by picking up a Lindsay Adler book on posing, made a significant difference in my portrait work.

better portrait photography

Photo by Hillary K Photography


Looking to take your portraiture to the next level? Check out Portrait Photography Fundamentals with Scott Robert Lim. 

Learn better portrait photography through lighting.

You can have a great expression, great pose and perfect camera settings — but the resulting portrait will still be boring without an understanding of light. Light will add contrast, interest and creativity to the shot.

A great place to start for new portrait photographers is to work in full shade or on a cloudy day because the lighting is even and easy to work with. But, remember you’ll want some light for those catchlights, so use a flash on the lowest setting with a diffuser to avoid a boring shot and get more pop.

Another easy time to shoot is about an hour before sunset. Called Golden Hour, this is my absolute favorite time to shoot. With the sun low in the sky, it’s easy to create directional lighting just by adjusting the position of the subject for front, side and backlighting. Once I gained a better understanding of light, I could place the sun behind the subject and use a large reflector to bounce light back on the scene, or a low-powered flash if I can’t get the light to bounce just right from the reflector.

Lighting can be tricky but well worth the challenge — try a class or tutorial, then head out with a friend and practice, watching how different positions of the light and different lighting modifiers change the final result.

better portrait photography

Photo by Hillary K Photography

Interact with the environment.

Portraits include, by definition, a person — but what else is in the photograph with them? The location for the portrait shoot can offer insight into that person, with the greens of a park getting an entirely different mood than shooting against the peeling brick in an urban alleyway. Choose a location that speaks to the person in your photographs.

While shooting, asking the subject to interact with their surroundings can create a cohesive feel to the image — even something as simple as leaning against a wall or using a prop.

What’s not in the photo is just as important as what is in the photo. Watch the background for distractions. Use a wide aperture (a low f-number) to blur them out, adjust the subject’s position, or move your own position to keep distractions out of the shot. Noticing the backgrounds as you shoot can save you hours of Photoshop later.

Like any craft, learning better portrait photography takes time and practice. Try picking one area at a time — such as posing or lighting — and digging in with classes or tutorials. Then, head out with a friend and put those techniques into hands-on practice. Once you have a grasp on that, move on to another area. By focusing on one concept at a time, you can build your portrait skills without feeling overwhelmed — all while leaving casual snapshots in the dust.

Looking to take your portraiture to the next level? Check out Portrait Photography Fundamentals with Scott Robert Lim. 

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Hillary Grigonis

Hillary K. Grigonis is a web content writer and lifestyle photographer from Michigan. After working as a photojournalist for several years, she made the leap and started her own business and now enjoys sharing tips and tricks with emerging photographers.