Portrait Photography Basics

One of the most common requests you’ll receive as a photographer is to take a friend or family member’s photo. Heck, even if you aren’t a photographer, you’ll get this request. You may find that you’re quite a natural with regard to taking portraits. However, if you’re not, we’ve got some great tips for you. 


1. Eyes

The key to a successful portrait, whether you’re photographing an individual or a group, is that the eyes of your subject are in focus. If you’re struggling with focusing, be sure to read Focusing and Focal Points.

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Try to capture CATCHLIGHTS whenever possible. Catchlights are those beautiful reflections of light that you often see in a person’s eyes. Catchlights make a portrait come alive. The easiest way to capture light in your subject’s eyes is to have your subject face the sun (assuming that it’s not too overbearing), which means that your back will be to the sun. You can also capture them by having your subject look up towards the light.

2. Consider the height of your subject.

Ideally, you want to photograph your subject straight on or have them look up to you. Therefore, if he or she is taller, have them sit down or kneel for the photo so that your camera is not shooting directly at their neck or chin. You can also stand on a chair or ladder to give yourself some additional height. Shooting from above is the most flattering angle for most people.

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3. Background

Before shooting, remove anything from the background that could detract from your subject. While you can always remove tree limbs, toys and other distractions from your photos in post-processing, it’s much easier to remove them or avoid them before ever taking a photo. In fact, simple backgrounds are often best for portraits. When shooting outdoors, look for natural elements that can provide a neutral background for your photos such as barns, old warehouses, brick walls, grassy fields, or trees.  Then use a wide aperture (low f/stop number or portrait mode) to turn that neutral background into beautiful bokeh.

4. Aperture

For individuals or pairs, use the lowest aperture available to your lens. If you want to take your photography to the next level, we recommend the 50mm/1.8 lens for Canon or Nikon (also labeled the “nifty fifty”), or better, the 50mm/1.4 lens. With any of these lenses, you can use an aperture of f/2.8 or lower.


If you’re photographing adults, be sure to have a few good jokes in your back pocket to break up any tension. We even like to pretend that we’re adjusting our settings while allowing adults to interact naturally. At some point during this “warm-up” period, you’ll capture your subjects being completely natural and beautiful. You can use a zoom to capture these moments from afar. Once they get used to you being there, encourage interaction such as hugging, kissing or just walking. The less they are aware of you, the more natural your photos will be. 

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If you’re photographing children, remember that they have incredibly short attention spans and aren’t always willing to cooperate with your photo shoot ideas. If you can get over that, then it can be a lot of fun. Therefore, try your best to work quickly. Get your camera settings right first, then organize the child or group of children, get their attention and shoot. The fewer people trying to get their attention, the better.

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If you need some ideas for getting their attention or for setting up a successful shoot, be sure to check out our posts: 10 Tips for Photographing Small Children and 10 Tips for Photographing Your Toddler.


Group portrait photography can be challenging, but it can also be a lot of fun. However, never assume that taking just one photo will be enough. When photographing groups, take the same number of photos as there are people in the group. For example, if you are photographing six people, take six photos. Granted, if you are working with a group of 50 or more people, it doesn’t make sense to take 50 or more photos, but the more photos you take, the more chances you have to get at least one shot of everyone looking at the camera with eyes open.

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For very large groups, choose a location where everyone will be visible in the photo. Give your subjects something to do such as waving at the camera or acting goofy. Keep the mood light and move as quickly as possible. Even though adults are a little more cooperative than kids, no one likes to pose for a photo for very long. Also, make sure to use a higher f/stop (try at least f/8) when photographing a group to ensure that everyone will be in focus.


Considering everything we now know about portrait photography (and recognizing that there’s a lot more to learn), what do you believe makes for a good portrait?

Portrait Photography Basics

Think about that, then go out and practice some portrait photography. If you have young children, photograph them. If you know a couple that you’d like to capture, go for it. Whatever the case, pick up your camera and use it!

Portrait photography is one area of photography that will likely get a lot of practice over the course of your life. Don’t forget to get in front of the camera and have your portrait taken in the midst of all your practice.

For more lessons on getting to know your camera, check out our post on 7 Basic Photography Rules.

Photo Credit: Ashley Sisk



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Ashley Sisk
Ashley Siskhttp://ashleysisk.com
Ashley lives in North Carolina with her husband, two kids and Kitty Paw. She’s a work-from-home mom with a natural light photography business and a passion for sharing everything she knows. Since leaving the corporate world, she now spends her time trying to get through elementary school with her daughter, chasing her firefighter loving little boy, writing and finding ways to enjoy life. You can find her on Facebook, Google + or on her website.