How To Shoot Portraits

by Clive Branson

What’s so difficult about making a portrait? Just aim a camera and click. Simple, right? But how do you accomplish a great portrait? An image that breathes life. As a photographer, all our problems would be solved if we could simply ask, “Please move into a wonderful light and do something beautiful, meaningful and original,” but things just don’t work that way. In order to deal with real-life scenarios, I have listed below some tips that I believe will help making your portraiture a much easier task.

Tips on Portraiture


Body language plays a key element in the mood of the subject. The worst thing you can do is expect a person to just stand there while you fire away – provide a chair, table or banister to lean on. When seated, avoid shooting your subject head-on since this will produce a flat, static look. Instead, position the chair at a 45-degree angle and ask the subject to turn their head to face the camera. An alternative is to angle the camera which gives a more action-like perspective.

Choose the most effective viewpoint

The most important aspect when shooting portraits is deciding what viewpoint to take. A ground-up shot, particularly with soaring skyscrapers behind, gives the impression of power and superiority. An aerial view down, gives a passive or submissive air. Other advantages to a view downshot are reducing a long nose and/or hiding a weak or double chin.

Focus on the eyes

Find a strong focal point. With portraiture, this is normally achieved by ensuring your subject provides eye contact by looking directly into the lens. I say this because direct eye contact is an important aspect of everyday communication between people. If you are using a multi-point autofocus on your camera, a good method is to engage the central point only, focus lock the autofocus on the eye and recompose the frame before fully depressing the shutter button.

Focus on the hands

Hands are so expressive, yet in many cases, are not the prettiest features. Pay close attention as to the use of hands. Avoid making the hands look larger than the head by having them too close to the camera, unless it is intended. Alternatively, hands can be used to frame the face. They can also be interesting subjects themselves: for example, the hands of a boxer, painter, or sculpture. The same can be applied to feet, such as the worn feet and toes of a ballet dancer. These elements can say as much as a facial shot.

Place the hands out front and spread the fingers like a director framing a scene. Position a hand out flat as if to give or receive. Have a hand gripping a barb-wired fence to represent strength and defiance. Have a string or rope tied around a clinched fist. Show hands clasped together at the back of a head.

Create a mood

With somber tones and expressions accompanied by reflective poses, a portrait can provoke powerful and complex emotions. Looking downwards implies a deep and pensive mood. Looking skyward or to the distance, an air of determination is projected. Make sure the subject is the center of attention and the surrounding scenery is complimentary rather than a distraction. To capture a mood, create a story. For example, a humorous shot could be of a man in a tuxedo, standing in water with a leash, apparently walking his pet fish.

Empty spaces can provide ideal compositions between weight and balance. Shoot a graffiti-sprayed wall on one side of the subject juxtaposed to the model leaning on a plain wall. When shooting an image in this style, look for something that separates the main subject from the rest of the scene while still connecting all the elements.

Geometric angles of architecture make striking frames around the subject, but make sure not to lose the main objective of the shoot. Is there an association between the subject and the building? Is there a high contrast between the moment (i.e. high fashion with an ancient ruin)? Does the subject blend with the environment?


Backlighting creates a desirable halo-like effect of the subject’s hair and body to separate the subject from the background. Make sure the background isn’t in focus. Since the person has their back to the sun, their face will be in shade. Use a white or silver reflector positioned in such a way to reflect light back to illuminate the model’s face in a warm tone. To avoid lens flare, position your camera so that the sun cannot directly reach it, either by shooting from a shaded area or by having the subject block the sun from view.

Use fill-in flash if reflectors are impractical. Flash is regularly used by portrait, wedding and glamour photographers to highlight their subject when shooting against the rule of thumb; set the fill-in flash to two stops under the ambient exposure to retain a natural effect.

Natural sunlight through a window provides an attractive side-lit effect that reveals half the face and partially conceals the other half. This is also known as “Rembrandt” lighting. If you want more even illumination, place a white reflector board opposite the window to bounce stray light into the shadows or ask your subject to face the window so the light strikes them head-on.

For the best results, shoot in bright but slightly overcast weather. If the light is too harsh, tape a sheet of tracing paper or muslin over the window to diffuse the light even further. Alternatively, to get that soft glow, schedule your shoot for early in the day or towards dusk.

Only your own imagination can limit you to the range of studio techniques – whether you use studio flash units or tungsten continuous lighting. If you use flash, you will need a flash meter to measure the exposure required. Tungsten lamps also produce a lot of heat which can become uncomfortable for your model.

A single light fitted with a softbox and placed at 90 degrees to the subject creates a dramatic side-lighting achievement. An added second light on the background completes a perfectly balanced image. A large white reflector placed on the opposite side of the subject helps to fill in shadows for a more flattering profile. For very clean, even lighting, place large white reflectors on either side of your subject and bounce light onto them from two flash units. Add soft lighting from behind to enhance a halo-effect around the hair.


It all boils down to communication. If you hide behind the camera and only speak in monosyllables, the end result will be disappointing for both parties. Don’t forget, your reputation will be reflected by the final outcome. Be relaxed. Talk about what you would like to achieve in the shoot. Suggest some ideas for their feedback. Their explanations could lead to interesting conversations. Keep talking to them, offering suggestions for facial expressions and bolster their confidence by paying them regular compliments.

By following these tips, you should have satisfaction in experimenting until you develop your own personal style. It is intended to help you gain the control you need, to be properly prepared and to function with confidence in order to make good portraits.


One Response to “How To Shoot Portraits”

  1. As a blog reader, I am always on the lookout for content that are both appealing and pleasing to read and I must say your blog passed with high honors. Thank you so much for the enlightening information you have shared! Will be coming back soon!

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