portrait photography - girl in red hat

Shooting portraits – one of those photographic techniques that sounds a lot easier than it is. It’s not so much a case of point and shoot, as your subject needs to feel comfortable to have their photo taken.

To take the best portraits there are a variety of techniques to consider, a combination of which will assist in making your best possible photographs. Wide apertures, standard lenses, soft lighting and available light all have different impact to the way you can shoot portraits, so here’s how to harness the best for your people photography:

Shoot better portraits: Use soft light


Nikon, 85mm f/1.8 lens, 1/500sec at f/4.

When shooting portraits outdoors, harsh directional sunlight can cause areas of deep shadow that spoil the mood of a portrait. Instead, try shooting in the soft light of open shade to create diffusely lit images, which will often prove more flattering to your subject.

In the shade, the mild, almost shadowless quality of light is gentle on skin tones and textures and gives a similar effect to using a huge overhead softbox in a studio set-up. Professional studio photographers frequently try to emulate this type of lighting, but this natural source of daylight is the real thing and, better than that, it’s free.

This image proves that you don’t need expensive lighting to shoot eye-catching people images. Just natural daylight with its wide, soft palette of colour, contrast and tones will often be enough to capture arresting shots.

Placing large reflectors below a model’s face will bounce light into shadowed areas, add catchlights to the eyes and soften the light even further – for a very flattering portrait.

Shoot better portraits: Use a wider lens to show the environment


Canon, 24-105mm f/4 lens at 28mm, 1/60sec at f/16, ISO 100

Wideangle lenses can be used to great effect in certain types of portraits. Due to their inherent optical characteristics they tend to exaggerate perspective by emphasising the foreground and creating a strong sense of depth. This is useful for ‘environmental’ portraits when you want to show both the subject and the location, to tell a story about the sitter.

Wideangles do need to be used with some caution, though. While great for dramatic images, they aren’t good if used close-up, as they can create unwanted distortion, such as an alien-shaped head or a bulbous nose; something your sitter will not thank you for.

This portrait of a reed cutter with his wooden scythe uses a 28mm focal length to dramatically enlarge the sharp blade of his handmade tool. The strong perspective effect runs from the blade edge in the immediate foreground to the distant reed beds, which sweep around the back of the subject creating a strong sense of place and revealing the environment he works in.

Shoot better portraits: Use window light

shooting better portraits window light

Canon, 50mm f/1.2 lens, 1/160sec at f/2, ISO 200

The subtle and delicate quality of light that a window can transmit is perfect for many types of portraits. On an overcast day, window light is wonderfully diffuse and has 
a very flattering effect on skin tones and textures. The resulting images will have a natural and timeless quality about them that no other kind of indoor portrait can match.Best of all, window light is free and when the conditions are right absolutely no additional equipment is needed.

However, on a bright sunny day you need to take care, as window light can be somewhat high contrast, and it can be difficult to balance the dark shadows of an interior with the bright highlights of the window.

Always review the image on the LCD screen and tweak the exposure to obtain the best results, remembering to hold detail in the highlights of your subject’s face.

Don’t include the actual window in the image as it will more than likely burn out and ruin the shot. Instead, go for a closer crop of the head and shoulders. If you find the contrast is still too great, try using a small reflector to bounce light back into the shadows.

Shoot better portraits: Blurring the background by using a large aperture

wide aperture shallow depth of field - girl

Nikon, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm, 1/500sec at f/4, ISO 100

When the background behind your subject is a little distracting, why not blur it to make your subject stand out? This can be achieved in-camera in several ways, including shooting with a long lens of about 200-300mm and/or shooting at wide apertures such as f/2.0-5.6. In addition, the closer the subject is to the camera, the more the background will blur.

By combining all three techniques, you’ll be surprised by how easily a distracting background can be turned into a smooth transition of colours and tones – creating a perfect backdrop for portraits with impact.

This almost candid shot (above) was taken on a beach in early autumn. The bright pink hat contrasts well against the muted yellows of the sand and the pale blue of the sky. Using a long telephoto lens, with a wide aperture, the background has blurred to create a strong, clean composition.

Shoot better portraits: Shapes and lines for strong compositions

shapes and lines better portrait photography stairs

Kodak, 17-35mm f/2.8 lens, 4sec at f/5.6, ISO 160

While portraiture is about portraying the character of your subject, think about the design too.

To produce visually compellng images you need to understand the basic rules of composition. This includes the ‘Rule of Thirds,’ strong shapes and symmetry, lines to lead the eye around the picture, and diagonals to add drama and tension to your shot.

Good design skills can be learned and, once mastered, effective composition will become more intuitive. This shot of fellow photographer Tom Mackie uses shapes, light and strong lines to lead the viewer’s eye around the image toward the subject posed on a spiral staircase.

Owing to the very low levels of light, I needed a long exposure, so this is one of the rare instances where I used a tripod. The subject is also positioned within a large triangular shape, which adds dynamism and frames him perfectly.

Shoot better portraits: Be more creative in your use of strong colour

better portrait photography tips woman over shoulder

Nikon 70-200mm, f/2.8 lens at 200mm, 1/250sec at f/4, ISO 100

The use of strong colours can be a powerful way of composing visually compelling images. Juxtaposing bold shades such as reds, blues and greens can create concordance or discordance in a shot, thereby generating a certain mood or tension. Alternatively, by using colour a little more cautiously – perhaps a single accent shade or tone – it’s possible to emphasise your subject just as effectively.

The subtle use of muted colours in an image with a splash of discordant colour can be an equally successful way of creating a photograph with a strong and vivid composition. This technique can be just as useful when working in black & white. Rather than using bright primary colours, try placing contrasting tones together, such as black against a white background or highlights against a midtone grey.

This model portfolio shot is a colour image with almost monochrome tones. I could have added a bright red hat or other primary colour, but that seemed just a little too obvious, so instead I chose to use a black hat against the pale-coloured wall and spiral staircase.

Shoot better portraits: Keep your subject’s hands busy

better portraits - sailor man

Mamiya, 55mm f/2.8 lens, 1/30sec at f/5.6

How to shoot better portraits – keep subjects hands busyWhen photographing non-professional models, you’ll often find that your sitter will feel uncomfortable about being in front of the camera.

In order for your subjects to look natural in your photographs they must feel relaxed, and it’s your job to try to achieve this.

One aspect of people photography that is of frequent concern is what do with your subject’s hands. If your sitter is feeling anxious, you’ll be able to read this in their body language and this in turn will be translated to your photographs.

To remedy this, try to keep your sitter’s hands busy and pose their body in a way that they feel comfortable with. This can sometimes mean giving your subject something to hold on to or perhaps even getting them to slip their hands into their pockets. By doing this, your subject will feel more at ease and the resulting images will look far more genuine.

This photograph of a sea fisherman standing in his old wooden boat is a fine example of this technique in action. He felt awkward about having his picture taken and took considerable persuading to allow me to photograph him, but the weathered character in his face was too appealing to resist capturing.

After a few minutes of conversation to break the ice, I positioned him inside his boat and got him to rest his hands on the side. This gave him a far more relaxed demeanour and his almost heroic stance rewarded me with a definitive character study.

Shoot better portraits: Use a standard lens for a natural look

standard lens portrait natural - boy horse

Canon, 50mm f/1.2 lens, 1/400sec at f/5.6, ISO 100

Lenses in the range of 35-75mm (approx 24-50mm on a cropped image sensor) are great for creating images with a far more natural look than a wideangle or long telephoto lens.

Standard lenses don’t exaggerate perspective, nor do they compress it, and the field of view they produce is very similar to our own eyes – meaning that what you see through the viewfinder is largely what you’ll get in the final image.

Images shot on a standard lens of around 50mm produce a field of view that largely approximates that of the human eye, and has little perspective distortion.