Master the Art of Portrait Photography: A Beginner's Guide
Updated: Nov 27
You don’t need years of experience and expensive equipment to take stunning portraits. You just need some basic skills and a dash of creativity. How? That's what we are going to show you today.
In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to take your portraits to the next level. You’ll discover:
How to choose the best gear for your budget and style
Art of using natural light to create stunning effects
Composition and editing techniques to draw attention
And developing your own style and expressing your vision
This guide is for anyone who wants to take better portraits, whether you’re a beginner or a hobbyist. It’s packed with practical tips and examples that you can apply right away.
Ready to turn your portraits into masterpieces? Let’s get started.
Choose a DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual controls and interchangeable lenses for maximum creative flexibility.
Light subjects in open shade or golden hour for beautifully diffused, flattering illumination.
Direct subjects with tips for flattering poses and angles based on body type and personality.
Frame shots using compositional techniques like the rule of thirds and leading lines.
Skillfully edit RAW files to enhance skin tones, eyes, contrast, and other key portrait elements.
What Makes a Great Portrait?
A great portrait is one that gives viewers an insight into the subject's character and deeper self. As photographer Steve McCurry puts it:
"A good portrait is one that says something about the person. We usually see parts of ourselves in others, so a good portrait speaks to us. It tells us a story."
Rather than simply documenting how someone looks, exceptional portraits convey atmosphere, emotion, and human connection. They offer the viewer a window into the subject's inner self through subtle details like lighting, expression, and composition.
Portraiture is part art, part intuition, part empathy. The photographer's role is to observe and collaborate with the subject to coax out their untold narrative.
When you achieve this elusive atmosphere and connection in an image, you've succeeded in creating a compelling portrait that speaks to viewers on a profoundly human level.
Now let’s learn how to capture such portraits.
Gear You'll Need for Portrait Photography
The most important tool for great portraits is having the right camera and lens combination. While high-end equipment isn't essential, having a camera with manual controls and interchangeable lenses will give you the most flexibility. Here's an overview of the basic portrait photography gear:
DSLR or mirrorless: These interchangeable lens cameras allow you to have full control over exposure settings. Entry-level models from Canon, Nikon, Sony, or FujiFilm are great starter options.
Lens mount: Choose a camera with a common lens mount like Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, or FujiFilm X to access a wide variety of lenses.
Full frame vs crop sensor: Full frame offers the best image quality, but costs more. Crop sensor cameras are more affordable but have a narrower field of view.
Portrait prime lenses: Prime lenses with focal lengths from 85-135mm on full frame or 50-85mm on crop sensor are ideal for headshots and close-ups. They offer sharp detail and creamy bokeh.
Short telephoto zooms: Versatile zoom lenses like 70-200mm or 24-70mm allow you to quickly adjust composition and perspective.
Fast aperture: Look for lenses with wide maximum apertures around f/2.8 or wider to blur backgrounds.
Image stabilization: Vibration reduction or image stabilization lets you shoot at slower shutter speeds.
Reflectors: Collapsible reflectors start around $10 and allow you to bounce natural light onto your subject to fill in shadows.
LED panels: Continuous LED light panels provide constant, adjustable illumination for under $100.
Flash: Small shoe-mount flashes or speedlights give you portable off-camera lighting. You can use accessories like softboxes or gels to modify the light.
Triggers: Radio triggers let you fire flashes from a distance for complete control over lighting placement.
Tripod: A sturdy tripod keeps your camera stable, especially when using slow shutter speeds or heavy lenses. Look for load capacities of 5 lbs or more.
Remote trigger: A remote shutter release allows you to trigger the camera without any vibrations that could lead to blur. It's also useful for self-portraits.
Backdrops: Seamless paper, fabric, textured blankets, or weathered wood boards make clean, simple background textures.
With high-quality gear suited for portrait photography, you'll have the capability to produce professional-looking images. But understanding how to use that gear is just as important.
Camera Settings for Portrait Photography
Choosing the right camera settings allows you to control the look and mood of your portraits. Follow these guidelines when getting started:
Shoot in Manual Mode
Manual mode gives you control over shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. This allows you to balance the exposure triangle for your desired effect.
Use the lowest native ISO setting on your camera (typically ISO 100 or 200) for maximum image quality and minimum noise. Increase ISO as needed in lower-light situations.
Shoot with the widest aperture available on your lens (typically around f/2.8 to f/5.6) to blur backgrounds and draw attention to your subject.
Faster Shutter Speed
A shutter speed of at least 1/125 sec will freeze subtle facial expressions and avoid motion blur. Increase the shutter speed if your subject is moving.
Spot or partial metering focuses exposure on your subject rather than the entire scene. This prevents backgrounds from influencing exposure.
Adjust White Balance
Set a custom white balance with a gray card so colors are natural. Or choose white balance presets like Cloudy or Shade based on lighting conditions.
With practice, adjusting these key settings will become second nature. You'll be able to instantly identify and create the look you want for every portrait situation.
Directing and Posing Your Subjects
Posing is an art that relies on making a human connection with your subject. Here are fundamental tips for flattering poses:
Have the subject angle the face slightly away from the camera.
Make them lean their torso/shoulders towards the camera for depth.
Lift the chin slightly to elongate the neck.
Have arms gently bend to avoid tension.
Place weight on the back foot, bringing the front foot forward.
Use these foundations to craft authentic poses that suit your subject's personality. Find angles, expressions, and gestures that represent their essence.
Posing Different Body Types
Adapt general pose principles to flatter different bodies:
Slim figure: Use horizontal lines and wider-angle lenses to add fullness. Shoot closer.
Fuller figure: Use vertical lines and longer lenses for a slimming effect. Shoot from farther away.
Masculine: Emphasize strong jaw, intensity in eyes, and straightened shoulders.
Feminine: Highlight graceful neck, soft eyes, tilted head, curved back.
Child: Get on their level. Engage with toys and activities. Be playful and encouraging.
Group: Form triangles and diagonals for a pleasing composition.
Connecting With Subjects
Connecting with people is just as important as lighting when it comes to portraits. Putting your subjects at ease through clear direction and flattering poses brings out their authentic personality. Here are a few tips to get the best portrait:
Connect personally before the shoot to help them feel at ease with you.
Set clear expectations by describing the overall mood, look, and poses you aim to capture. Provide examples if needed.
Focus on their best angles tailored to their face shape, body type, and features.
Offer feedback and direction when you get great expressions or poses so they know to repeat them.
Provide guidance between shots on refreshing gestures and trying new poses to keep things lively.
Your leadership sets the tone for the shoot. A calm, friendly demeanor produces the best results.
Portrait Lighting Techniques
Lighting can make or break a portrait. Paying close attention to the quality, direction, and ratio of light illuminating your subject is crucial. Here are some common lighting approaches:
Shoot in Open Shade for Diffused Daylight
Position your subject facing open shade on the north side of a building or underneath a porch or tree canopy. The soft, indirect light minimizes shadows and texture for a flawless look.
Capture Golden Hour Glow
Schedule outdoor portrait sessions during the hour before sunset when the light is warm, diffuse, and flattering. Position your subject so the sun backlights their hair for a radiant look.
Use Reflectors to Fill Shadows
Open shade can produce flat lighting. Bounce sunlight back onto your subject with a folding reflector to fill in shadows for added dimension.
Add Subtle Fill Flash for Sparkle
Mix a touch of fill flash from your speedlight or LED panel to add catchlights to your subject's eyes while retaining natural light. Start at -1 to -2 stops below ambient.
Create Drama with Rim Lighting
Position a small strobe or flash behind your subject to accent their silhouette. Combine with a reflector or fill flash facing the front of your subject to illuminate their features.
Try Butterfly Lighting for Sculpted Looks
Aim a key light source down at a 45-degree angle above your subject's face to produce a sculpted, butterfly-wing lighting pattern.
Don't be afraid to experiment with lighting angles and mixes. Observe how the light falls on your subject and adjust as needed to create the look you want.
Compositional Techniques for Portraits
Applying some basic compositional techniques when framing your subject helps take your portraits to the next level.
Follow the Rule of Thirds: Position your subject so their eyes, nose, or other key feature aligns with the gridlines or intersections in the rule of thirds.
Use Leading Lines: Use diagonal lines in the scene to create dynamic movement towards your subject. Try foreground elements like pathways.
Frame Within the Setting: Use elements in the setting like arches, trees, or structures to frame your subject and connect them to the location.
Leave Negative Space: Keep adequate blank space in the composition around or behind your subjects so they stand out.
Set the Horizon: Keep the horizon line above or below your subject to minimize distractions and keep the focus on them.
Balance Elements: Balance out distracting elements like bright spots or competing lines by composing symmetrically or asymmetrically around your subject.
Take time to scan for distracting elements and adjust your framing and position to best highlight your subject through composition techniques.
Post-Processing Your Portraits
Post-processing is one of the most important steps for breathing life into your portraits and adding your creative touch. Follow this in-depth post-processing workflow:
Start with a RAW File
Always shoot portraits in RAW format rather than JPG to preserve full image data for the most flexible editing options. The wide dynamic range in RAW files allows you to recover details from shadows and highlights.
Adjust Overall Tone and Exposure
First, assess the overall tone of your portrait. Adjust the brightness, contrast, whites, blacks, shadows, and highlights sliders to get your base exposure looking balanced before moving on to color and details.
Color Correct Skin Tones
Pay special attention to skin tones when color correcting. Adjust temperature and tint sliders to neutralize any color casts. Use the HSL panel to target skin tones. Desaturate for a classic look or boost vibrance subtly.
Remove Blemishes Gently
Use the healing brush and clone stamp sparingly to minimize temporary skin blemishes. Avoid oversoftening skin texture and tones.
Add Contrast with Dodging and Burning
Using a soft round brush, paint over brighter areas like hair, eyes, nose, cheeks, and lips to lighten and enhance shape and form. Burn darker areas like jawline and shadows to increase contrast.
Sharpen Eyes and Lashes
Add a subtle sharpening layer and use a brush to selectively add sharpness only to the eyes and eyelashes. This draws the viewer in.
Enhance Lips and Saturate Color
Finish by using a Color Range selection to isolate and selectively saturate the reds in the lips. You can also dodge the lips and desaturate the surrounding skin for added pop.
Don't go overboard with editing. Stick to enhancements that look realistic and let your subject's natural beauty shine through. Finessed post-processing takes portraits to the next level.
Tips for Shooting Technique
Use these handy tips to further polish your portrait prowess:
Get on the eye level of your subjects for a direct, engaging perspective.
Fill the frame with close-up portraits for intimate shots focused just on the face.
Simplify the backdrop to avoid distracting backgrounds. Negative space keeps the emphasis on the subject.
Fire a quick burst of shots and review on the screen to catch moments between blinks and facial fluctuations.
Change up angles and perspectives, alternating close crops and full-length views.
Add props like hats, instruments, or even furniture to convey the subject's personality or interests.
With practice, you'll gain intuition for flattering, personalized, and storytelling portrait techniques.
Mastering portrait photography takes practice, patience, and perseverance. But armed with an understanding of proper technique, gear, and creative vision, any photographer can develop their skills - one portrait at a time.
Use this guide as your roadmap to creating evocative portraits that capture the essence of your subjects. And keep challenging yourself by participating in photography contests. Getting feedback from judges helps you improve your technical and creative skills.
The Artist Gallery runs monthly contests with prizes for top photographers. Themes range from wildlife to portraits and travel to landscapes. Enter your best images for a chance to win cash prizes. It's a great way to build your skills.