A Basic Guide to Portrait Photography

What are portraits?

Actress and Dancer Ginger Rogers ca. 1935 A classic portrait of actress and dancer Gina Rogers, uploaded by danceonair1986.

First and foremost, portraits exist to capture the personality, soul or emotions of a subject. They have been around for a long time, even before photography was born, in the form of painted portraits. The subject, in portraits, is of the utmost importance, their most prominent features (most often the face) being the gravitational centre of the image. Most portraits are headshots or focus on the subject’s face and upper body. The art is definitely not limited to traditional portraits – environmental and lifestyle portraits take into account the subject’s background and environment to reveal details about the subject’s personality.


A  Good Portrait

A good portrait represents a properly lit and composed subject, at the very least. Sometimes, like in instances of corporate photography, these two check-points are enough. In other cases, a more creative approach may be required. Following are some tips on lighting, composition, posing and gear to make a good portrait.



Very often, in portraiture, the need to isolate the subject can arise. Wide aperture lenses work best for this purpose, since they isolate the subject and keep distracting elements in the background out of focus. Wide apertures also help with lack of light in most indoor situations.

Apart from large aperture, lenses with long focal length should be used, which produce a flattering effect by compressing the subject’s features. Wide angle lenses should be avoided as they distort lines and features.

12536661264_4958a20c87_z The Canon EF 85mm f1.2 L II, with its long focal length and wide aperture, is considered a good portrait lens. Image by The Parasite
13692268553_265d8f7921_z Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 is also considered to good for portrait photography. Image by The Parasite

Remote shutter releases may be used to reduce camera shake in low light situations. Strobes and light boxes can be used for adequate lighting.


Making the portrait

It’s a universal thought that the subject should be well-lit and properly placed in the frame. This makes for a very basic portrait, but learning lighting, framing and posing techniques can always help in the long run of taking creative portraits.



In a studio

5594741878_f0a260da79_z High key portrait by Mikhail Chekmezov
8699956877_63d6e606fd_z Low key portrait by Gary Randall

The subject’s face should be well-lit, with the eyes in focus. There are a number of lighting setups, like Rembrandt, split, butterfly, loop, broad, low-key and high-key. They involve the use of strobes, soft boxes, light stands, loops, reflectors, etc. to highlight facial features of the subject. It is important to remember that all types of setups may not work for everyone, and that it is your job, the photographer’s job, to find the best fit for the subject.


11271157324_8f0edec3a6_z Outdoor portraits do not require extensive knowledge of light, but some amount practical knowledge is always needed. Image by Alva Chien

Taking a portrait outdoors on in natural light is a lot less challenging than working in a studio. There are no daunting lighting setups to le learnt; lighting gear is most often not required. But the above mentioned points are still valid: the subject should be well-lit, the closest eye should be in focus and the photo should look balanced.

Different times of the day have different type and colour of light. For example, early morning light is cool, midday light is yellow, golden hour light is warm and orange. Front, back and side-lit portraits can be taken during these times.

The location and background can matter when shooting outdoors by adding to the mood and personality of the photograph.



The rule of thirds can be followed in portraiture, especially when dealing with top half/full body portraits. Place the subject on one of the two lines dividing the frame into thirds. It draws more attention to the person in the photograph and looks balanced to the eye.

7058899789_603aa8af13_z Following the rule of thirds. Image by Ivana

If there is little room to move the subject in the frame, like in headshots, just place the subject slightly off-centre. This will help in a manner similar to the rule of thirds.

Portrait or landscape orientation: usually, when headshots and formal portraits are taken, the portrait orientation is preferred, which allows for the subject to fill the frame. Environmental portraits are taken in landscape orientation, which allows the surroundings to come into the picture too. However, these norms can always be changed to suit your purpose.



Posing the subject can draw attention to the important, flattering features, and away from the unwanted features.
Posing the subject with shoulders at an angle to the frame can help make them look smaller. This way, the subject’s head will also be at an angle, creating a slimmer profile.
Also ask the subject to lower their head instead of holding it up high. The angle of the head produced in this way looks unattractive in a photograph.


Creative Portraits

As a photographer, your artistic needs may prompt you to step away from traditional, repetitive photography and try a different approach to portraits. Creative portraits give you more control as a storyteller and allow you to carve a niche for your unique style of photography.


Environmental Portraits

Sometimes, the subject’s activities and surroundings add more to their portrait than any facial expression could. A portrait with the subject and their environment both in focus is called an environmental portrait.

There is room to get very creative in environmental portraits. They can also be taken in formal settings for clients willing to stray from the traditional path, as shown below.

21082841260_77e1551024_z Avionics by Blake Lewis. This photo is staged in a professional setting, and is yet a very good environmental portrait.
14295598261_947e0aaa68_z Image by Gvahim. Another example of an environmental portrait in a formal setting.
2961909958_1cf13e9e1b_z Image by Jochen Siegle/TechShowNetwork. This image is yet another example of how an environmental portrait reveals details about the subject's life.


Artistic Portraits

9184519631_1241457ae9_z Artistic self portrait by martinak15

For creative portraits, there is only one rule to abide by: follow the above mentioned rules if they suit your purpose, otherwise don’t. It’s possible to fire blinding flash at a subject placed in the dead centre of the frame, and still get a fantastic portrait.

8673552779_fa203bd9e1_z Image by Chris Becker