How To Take Great Portraits

 There are a few specific ways to learn how to take portraits of people, and I’m going to share some of those tips with you today. Lighting, composition, dslr settings and your lens are the correct places to start when you begin to take portraits of people. Lighting and your lens are the first two considerations.

Without good lighting and a specific portrait lens, your people photography can become less than stunning. It is best that you take note of this list I am about to give you so that your portrait photography lasts forever.

Photographing the eyes, skin tone and facial expression are the key elements that make up a good portrait of somebody. The beauty about portrait photography is that you can do it as a candid photo as opposed to a portrait photograph in a studio. Someone’s cheery facial expression combined with good quality lighting and a good lens can be a key ingredient in successful portrait shots.

You don’t always need a professional photography studio to take good portraiture. You can take portraits outside, or indoors even without a studio. I have taken many pictures of clients in many diverse situations. They have all been a little different portraiture shots but they are still portrait photography. A different locality doesn’t indicate they are not portraits.

So what are these different places and situations? I have taken photos of people on the stage, collecting their citizenship certificates from the mayor, relaxing under a tree in a park, celebrating their coming of age, getting married and smiling at their loved one when they didn’t think they were having their photograph taken. All these distinct situations make up portrait photography. So let’s get started…

Lighting for Portrait Photos

Let’s start with the most important thing in portrait photography. If you want to learn how to take good portraits then this is where you start. Lighting will either make or break your portrait shot. You need just the right amount of lighting to highlight the human being you’re creating photos of.

Lighting also has an effect on mood and emotional reaction. When you select lighting that is soft and dim this may possibly create a more romantic feeling. When you select lighting that is very brilliant and high in contrast, this is ideal for things like sports portrait photography. If you want to create a romantic sentiment in your shots then think about softening your lighting. Creating gentle light can make portrait photography more appealing.

Choose the lighting that is well-matched to the place. Wedding photography that has soft lighting can work perfectly. However if you are photographing some children in the park, then you might want to choose a brilliant and colourful lighting effect. Something that is vivid and colourful can symbolize joy and playfulness. A sense of enjoyment can be encouraged by the right lighting.

So what about situations where lighting is awful? I have been in many situations before where it has been dim lighting and I have not been able to use the speedlite. In this situation you may want to turn your ISO up to the maximum setting. If you can use your flash then go for it.

Don’t stand too close to the person you’re photographing and discharge the flash at the same time. Depending on what flash that is on your camera you may be able to have different intensities of flash light being fired. Or if you have flash built into the camera you may not be able to change the intensity of the light. This is dependent on the camera on the type of flash you have. If you stand too near to the person you are going to overexpose the skin tone on their face, create small, vivid areas of light on their cheeks and nose. No matter how much you try you may not be able to get rid of it in Photoshop.

If you are photographing someone at a party in the evening, and the flash is the only source of light you possess, then make sure you stand back from them. Any closer than 3 meters may overexpose the person. You also don’t want to blast them with an eye full of intense, dazzling light. I have a preference to use a long telephoto lens and use the flash simultaneously. I like to stand back and zoom in, and turn my flash up to the highest intensity. Whenever I’ve done this I have found that I have a nice light over the persons features.

Bouncing the flash is a skillful method for portrait photography.  When you bounce the flash you simply roll the head of the flash up to the ceiling, or towards a wall, and allow the light to reflect from that source back to the person. Bounced light is softer and a lot better for photos of people. It is a wonderful way to get better portraits at weddings, birthdays and celebrations.

Always remember that your lighting must be well balanced. You need soft lighting over your person’s face to create an interesting portrait photo. Even if you have the best lens and camera in the world, it will not help you at all unless you have the light spread evenly across the persons face. This accentuates the eyes and smile.

Colour Portrait Photography
Colour portrait photography covers many things. Wedding photography is a classic example of this. As I have spoken about your lighting and things that you can do with your lighting, I will now cover colour.

The strategies to colour portrait photography are of course your lighting but is also “colour matching”. For example, if you want to generate a stunning colour portrait then you would not only expose the light well, but you would make sure that the colours complement. This is a big secret that us  photographers have up our sleeve. Let me explain.

Colour portrait photography is successful when all the colours complement each other within the single shot. If you want to create a colour portrait that stands out then choose colours that suit the person’s skin tone. Let’s take the example of a woman with light-colored hair, light skin and green eyes. If you were to dress her in black it would not suit her at all. However earthy Greens, light pink, blue and purple, will suit her complexion.

Someone who has black hair, dark skin and brown eyes may be suited to other colours. They may look brilliant in white, black or other distinct tones. The secret that portrait photographers use when creating beautiful portraits are colour matching methods.

If you’re photographing numerous people in your portrait photography then it always looks nice to dress people in either the same or very similar colours. A family photographed on the seashore might look nice all dressed in white, blue and yellow. It doesn’t have to be the same white, blue and yellow, but if you keep with the same colour theme then you will begin to create stunning portraits.

Camera Settings for Portraits

The Correct Camera Settings For Portraits Relies upon On Your Lighting. It is pretty tough to inform you what the ideal camera settings for portraits really are. You see digital camera settings are the way they are because of the lighting that you have to work with. If I tell you that F-16 and a shutter speed of 125 is the best setting then your portrait shot could be grossly inaccurate if you are photographing people at night time with the flash for example.

However I can tell you that your f stop can be a big impact on your portrait photography. If you are photographing someone directly up close and want to blur the background then I would encourage you to look at a large f stop. F 4 might be a better place to start. When you move closer into someone’s face and you use a big f stop, you may notice that the background is completely blurry. This works very well when there are non relevant subjects in the background that you want to remove. It works very well when you just want to capture on the person’s eyes.

So what about shutter speed? Again it is dependent on the lighting you have to work with. It also depends on if you are taking candid portraits or whether you are taking posed portraits. The difference will be the amount of motion and movement. Candid portraiture can occasionally be complicated in almost no light and this can create trouble in getting the precise shutter speed. The camera may be telling you that it wants you to slow down the shutter speed. However, you know that if you do, you will completely blur the person. And that may not be best for the setting.

If you are taking your portrait photo in professional photography studio lighting then these types of things are not going to be a big problem. You will still still need to look at your shutter speed because even the smallest movement at a slow shutter speed can create blurry images. Choose the shutter speed that is quite fast so that you will not have to be anxious about blur from any motion.

So as you can see camera settings of portraits is not a black-and-white topic, excuse the pun. You need to work out the right camera settings to your portraits based on the lights but you have to work with. As I talked about portrait photography covers a broad range of areas and situations so it is best that everything is correctly exposed and that you have the right shutter speed to complement the movement.

Which Is the Right Lens for Portrait Photography?

Being a pro photographer means I have many lenses to choose from. I have many lenses because it gives me the freedom to be flexible in every situation. This does not mean that you have to rush out and purchase different lenses yourself. I recommend trying out portraits with one lens so that you get comfortable with how your lens works with people shots.

Different lenses give different effects. A 50 mm prime lens is a nice focal length for portrait photography. You can get up close to someone without making their nose look too huge as a wide angle can occasionally do. In fact I suggest staying away from wide-angle lenses for your portrait photography. You have to to be able to get a good head and shoulders shot, standard crop or nice vertical length shot. You can do this using a couple of lenses.

I think I would have to say that my favourite portrait lens is the 70 to 200 mm cannon telephoto lens. I am a Canon user however I have used Nikon in the past and found both of them first-rate. Nikon also has a 70 to 200 mm telephoto lens that I found superb. At this focal length you can take great candid photos of people and you can also use this lens to take beautiful studio shots as well. You probably don’t need a focal length that is so long if you are working in the studio. Your 50 to 70 mm range will probably do just right.

Why do I like 70 to 200 mm? Simply because it gives me the flexibility of zooming in quite close up to someone and it also gives me the flexibility to take candid shots in communal situations. I find the flexibility and adaptability of this focal range very clever indeed. I know photographers that take a couple of cameras to a wedding because they have numerous lenses that they want to make use of. I find the 70 to 200 mm scope does the job just fine.

These are expensive lenses. This is a specialized capability lens so I propose becoming very familiar with the lens you have before buying something like this. I also have a 24 to 105 mm lens that works very well for portrait photography too. I only prefer to use the 70 to 200 mm because many times I do candid portraiture. Having that additional focal length of 200 mm lets me to get a little bit closer than I could with a 105 mm.

I have also taken photos of people with the 50 mm lens that have worked superbly. However I can’t really do this in a candid setting. I simply can’t get in directly enough without being noticed. When I have done animal portraits and ordinary human portraits, I found that the 50 mm prime lens was a clear lens to use. If someone knows they’re going to be photographed then they will certainly sit still for you. The 50 mm prime lens is sharp and clear for posed portraits up close.

In a nutshell I guess I would have to say that it depends on the type of portrait photography that you are doing, as to what lens to use. Try and acquire a lens that works well for the type of portraits you photograph.

Creative Portrait Photography Ideas

There are lots of resourceful portrait photography ideas that you can use easily and quickly. Here are some ideas that you can use. I use these in my portrait photography so please feel free to use them as well.

Candid portraiture:

Two or more family and friends talking together and joking
Somebody playing their instrument
Playing with the dog, For example throwing the Frisbee
Sitting on the riverbank waiting for a fish
Doing something they adore, like perhaps drawing, playing their sport etc

Posed portrait photography:

Leaning up beside a beautiful old tree and looking at the camera
Sitting on a park bench with beautiful leaves behind them
Being photographed, tightly cropped, with nature on all sides of them
Relaxing on the beach with the water in the background


 Don’t forget too add black and white into the mix. Black and white portraits can provide a gorgeous, everlasting look to your photographs. And, in a fundamental sense, everybody looks lovely being photographed in black and white. When you come to your post processing, trim down a little of the mid tones, amplify your contrast and you will have a lovely black and white photo.

These are just some thoughts that you can use to form stunning inventive portraiture. You will find the more you do it the more imaginative ideas come. It really is just a matter of training and application. You will be successful in no time.

Just remember that the key to taking good portraits is good lighting, knowing how to use your digital camera, being aware of the camera settings for the light and being adept to work well with people. You do need to be a people person when you specialise in portrait photography. It really does help!




Amy Renfrey is a professional photography and photography teacher. She shows you how to take the most breathtaking, brilliant and incredibly stunning photos every single time you press the shutter button, even if you know nothing about photography and have never used a digital camera before. To discover how to take great portraits better than ever, visit her website today.

About the Author

Amy is an multi-award winning photographer from Australia. She teaches enthusiast photographers how to take beautiful, professional photos in easy, plain English. She has a monthly photography emagazine and ebooks to help you create stunning images every time.

Comments (3)

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  1. Nikkie says:

    Does this apply for landscapes?

  2. Henni says:

    What beautiful photos Amy! A big congratulations from Matthew and I. You are such an inspiration. :) Keep up the good work.

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