Tips for Taking Better Portraits

How to take portraits like the professionals

Portrait of young adult woman
Portraits capture the essence of a person along with their features. Yagi-Studio/Getty Images

Taking great portraits of people is never easy. Ask someone to pose and they will inevitably force a strangled smile while looking extremely uncomfortable!

Fortunately, there are some simple tips you can employ to capture beautiful pictures of your family and friends. As a specialist in portrait photography, these are the things that I have found help my photos the most.

01
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Make Them Comfortable During the Shoot

A family portrait.
A family portrait. Portra Images/Getty Images

This probably sounds as though I am stating the obvious, but the key to a good photograph is to engage with your subject. Almost everyone gets camera shy and you can quickly take care of that by having fun.

  • Build a repertoire of bad jokes (and silly faces for the kids) to help relax your subjects!
  • Forget "cheese" and use something more lively for the kids to say if you need something to get their attention. "Pepperoni pizza" is fun for the stubborn ones.
  • Don't make your subjects hold a rigid pose to start with, as they will just be tense.
  • Give them something to do with their hands. Let kids hold a toy and give adults something to lean on if they seem a little too stiff.
  • Have a conversation with them, make them laugh, and snap away when they are least expecting it.

Hopefully, after a while they will forget that the camera is there!

02
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Avoid Harsh Lighting When Possible

Two Brazilian young women having fun at Rio de Janeiro
Watch the light!. Cokada/Getty Images

You are better off shooting your photographs on an overcast day, as direct sunlight is very unflattering and leaves too many shadows.

If you live in a part of the world that is blessed with year-round sunshine, then find some shade.

Try to photograph with the sun off to one side of the subjects. This avoids them squinting into the sun, and the light will hit one side of their faces, creating softer shadows.

If you are shooting indoors, try to combine ambient light from outside with a flashgun or studio lights to reduce harsh shadows caused by the flash. And use a Sto-fen on your flashgun to further reduce the shadows.

03
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Check Your Focus Before the Shot

Time to move on
Focus in the right place. FluxFactory/Getty Images

To end up with really accurate focusing on your portraits, switch your camera to single point autofocus and position this point over the eye of your subject.

If your subject is sitting at an angle, then focus on whichever eye is closer, as depth of field extends behind the focal point.

Always focus immediately before taking the picture. The slightest movement can throw off the focus because you should be using a small f/stop.

04
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Use Your Apertures to Remove Clutter

15 month Fraternal Twin Boys Play Together with Leaves on an Autumn Day
Use the right apertures to get a sharp shot. Jill Lehmann Photography/Getty Images

A good portrait usually uses a small depth of field so the background will blur and the viewer's attention is drawn to the face.

This also has the effect of bringing your subject out of the photograph and cuts out any distracting clutter.

Set your camera on its maximum aperture to get a small depth of field. For single portraits, f/2.8 to f/4 works perfectly. When photographing families you will need to move to f/8 or so to ensure that everyone in the group is in focus.

05
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Portrait Composition is Critical

Mother on beach with toddler
Find your subject's best side. Chris Tobin/Getty Images

Composition deserves an entirely separate article, but here are a few tips to get more flattering photos.

  • Never photograph a person straight on to the camera. It creates a very flat image and does not flatter the subject. Instead, ask your subject to tilt his or her head slightly or to turn sideways to the camera and twist the upper body back towards the lens. The key is to create interesting angles and curves that flatter a person's body shape.
  • Don't forget to ask the subject to stand up straight! It's amazing how many people slouch in a photo, which only serves to make them look bigger than they are.
  • When shooting standing poses, have the subject put their weight on their back foot. This creates that angle mentioned above and makes them look more relaxed. It also fixes any posture issues.
  • And remember, every person has a good side. It's up to you as a photographer to be able to spot it. (Don't worry, it's usually pretty obvious!)
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