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5 Basic But Essential Top Portrait Photography Tips

Perfect your portrait skills with these top tips and techniques that are perfect for beginners or the more experienced photographer wanting to brush-up on the basics.

|  Portraits and People
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Photo by Joshua Waller

1. Start With The Basics

Once you get your camera out of its bag it's easy to keep clicking the shutter button and forget you need to check backgrounds, subject position etc. Always look for shooting locations where the background isn't full of distracting objects that clutter the scene and where possible, put some distance between your subject and the background. This will not only add depth but it'll also make it easier to throw the background out of focus. If you're using a compact this can be done via Portrait mode. For those with more advanced cameras, this means choosing a wider aperture. It's also important to focus on your subject's eyes and even if you're shooting a friend or family member, don't forget to keep giving direction.

2. Natural Light Is Free

Where possible it's best to avoid using your camera's built-in flash for portraits as most of the time, the results won't be very professional-looking. Instead, make the most of window light which will help you create portraits to be proud of. North facing windows are perfect but you can use any that aren't in the direct path of the sun. Overcast days are great for this as light is naturally diffused but you can get a similar effect by hanging voile or something similar. 

If your house lights are on, switch them off and do clean the window before you begin!

A reflector will come in handy for adding light to the side of your model's face not next to the window, balancing the exposure in the process. You can buy reflectors but they can just as easily be created from a piece of white card, foil etc.

Try spot metering off your model's face then have fun experimenting with composition. Tight crops on the face work well but do try using the window to help frame a couple of your shots. 

3. Want More Impact?

Full-length portraits work well but for something that has more 'Pow' behind it, move in close. If your subject and yourself are comfortable doing so this could mean physically moving closer together or reach for a longer zoom lens if your model feels more comfortable with a wider working distance. Something around the 85-135mm mark is a popular choice for headshots but do be careful with your shutter speeds when using longer lenses if working hand-held.


Photo by Joshua Waller

4. Don't Want To Give So Much Direction?

The simple answer is to try a candid approach and shoot often so you don't miss any moments.

Try using a wider lens when working outdoors or at busy events such as a wedding as people won't think you're taking their photo if the lens isn't directly pointed at them so will stay relaxed. Longer lenses will allow you to stay out of sight but still give you the chance to focus on one or two individuals. For compact users, why not switch to P mode so you can focus on getting the shot rather than on what settings you need.

If you're working with children you could give them a task to do such as build a tower with bricks or kick a ball around outside to give you the opportunity to shoot some fun, in-the-moment photos which they won't even notice you're doing as they'll be too distracted with the task in-hand.

5. Get Creative

Whether it's adding fun props, creating interesting backgrounds with bokeh or using art filter and frames, there's plenty of ways to get creative with your portraits. Many cameras feature Art Filters which will give your portraits a twist. This could be adding a vignette, changing the images to black and white or simply adding a sepia tone and grain to give it a vintage feel. 

To have fun with bokeh you can head out at night or use some colourful stringed lights (the type you dig out of the loft at Christmas) and drape them over a dark background. You then need to put a few meters between the background and your subject to increase the bokeh effect.


You need to use your lens at its widest aperture and focus on your subject. A small portable light is handy for illuminating the front of your subject but do be careful with the positioning of the light as you don't want any light to shine on the background. Watch your white balance then experiment with framing to change the pattern created by the lights in the background. 

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