© Gary Goldberg

5 Tips to make you a better portrait photographer

Portrait Photography

Portrait photography can be one of the most difficult genres to master. It’s not as simple as just pointing your camera at someone, pressing the shutter and moving on to the next shot. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into capturing a truly great portrait so we put together a list of 5 important things you’ll need to know in order to take your portraiture to the next level.

Research your subject prior to the shoot as it can help you to establish a connection with them.

The reality is that most people (professional models and narcissists aside) just aren’t comfortable being in front of a camera, so asking them to pose for a portrait is something that they most likely don’t want to do.

Making an effort to connect with your subject can go a long way towards putting them at ease during the process and one way to do this is through research. When you have your subject booked for a shoot, try to find out what you can about them prior to the shoot.

There are many ways you can do this, but the easiest way in today’s age is to do a quick google search to familiarize yourself with your subject as best you can. This can often include finding information on their interests, what they are passionate about to specific things, like their favorite music to play in the studio during your shoot with them.

Knowing all of this beforehand can go a long way to helping them to feel at ease with the whole process.


Colin Firth © Steve Carty
Colin Firth © Steve Carty

At a recent event at Vistek, photographer Steve Carty shared the story behind his shot of Colin Firth. Having only 15 minutes with the movie star to capture the shots he needed, Steve didn’t rush in and start to take shots, but instead, after noticing that Mr. Firth had the same newly released iPhone 4 as he did, talked about the phone, compared apps and wound up showing Mr. Firth how to use a couple of features on it that had been giving him trouble.

Their conversation went on for almost all of the time that had been allotted for the shoot, but it had totally put his subject at ease and Steve was able to capture the fantastic shot you see here.


If you have the opportunity to speak to them in advance, ask a few detailed questions, such as their favourite color or if they have a favourite outfit they would like to bring. If they’ve posed for portraits before, there’s a good chance that they know what facial angle or pose that they know works for them. It’s also a good chance to find out if the portrait you’re shooting for them has a specific purpose and if there are any production specs you need to know about.


Outdoor Model Photo
Shot using an Elinchrom Quadra HS Head and a beauty dish © 2015 Gary Goldberg

Lighting needs & environment

One of the most important parts of a successful shoot is to make sure you have a solid pre- shoot plan in place for both your lighting and camera needs.

This should include a pre-shoot location visit to assess the existing lighting and background set-up so that you will be able to figure out exactly what equipment you’ll need on the big day.

For interior or studio shoots, find out what your options are for backgrounds and lighting within the space. Is there natural light source available? Will you need need to bring artificial lighting with you? In terms of backgrounds, does the shooting area have clean walls or other interesting features that might enhance the look of the photos? These are all things it’s good to know prior to you showing up on the day of your session.

For outdoor shots, you’ll be most likely be making use of natural light, so you’ll want to pre-scout the location at the time of day that you’ll be shooting to assess the direction that the light will be falling on your subject and thus the way that you’ll be positioning them relative to the sun. It’s also a good chance to determine if you’ll need to bring any additional lighting to complement the natural light.


Pro Tip: The best outdoor lighting happens early morning or late afternoon, not at mid-day when the sun and shadows are at their harshest. Also, remember to monitor the weather for the day of the shoot, overcast weather, can create beautiful consistent lighting, and softer shadows.

When you’re ready to shoot, position your subject so that they are facing the sun, or at an oblique angle with their face lit and features defined. This positioning will also help to minimize unwanted shadowing.

One of the things that many photographers forget to do when composing their portraits is to look beyond their subject and check/double check/triple check their composition for any distracting issues that may appear in the background. Remember, things that might appear insignificant through the viewfinder or camera LCD can appear large and distract the viewer away from the subject in the finished photo.


Camera settings & lenses

Wide Angle Portrait @ Woodrow Walden
Wide Angle Portrait © Woodrow Walden

How do you plan on shooting your subject? Will you be close in? Further away? Perhaps, you’ll want to try shooting from a different angle and not straight on…

You should be asking yourself all of these questions prior to your shoot…

If you’re shooting an environmental portrait, you’ll need a different set of lenses than you would if you are shooting a headshot or beauty portrait. Using a long lens such as a 70–200mm f/2.8 can produce an image that will look flatter and more compressed whereas a shooting up close with a wide-angle lens will make features appear much larger than they do in real life as seen in this image.

White balance is another important factor in taking a great portrait. The tonality and appearance of your subject’s skin can make or break the end result so you want to make sure it’s as close to perfect as it can be. Relying solely on your eye, or using the auto white balance feature of your camera can be tempting, but remember, your eyes aren’t perfect, and the auto white balance feature can be fooled by various environmental factors such a light reflecting from other surfaces, the colour of the clothes the subject is wearing or the colour casts from your surroundings.

To combat this, there is a wide assortment of tools you can purchase that will help you create custom white balances for any lighting situation under the sun (pardon the pun).

Another option for bad lighting situations is a collapsible reflector. You’ve probably seen photographers using these to reflect light back towards their subjects to create a more even light. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colours the most common being white, silver and gold. Essentially a lightweight hoop covered with fabric, they create a soft fill light and help to neutralize colour casts and unwanted shadows when directed at your subject.

Whichever method you choose to use, a white balancing tool should be an essential piece of gear for your kit bag.


Their eyes say it all…

Eye contact is way more intimate than words will ever be — Faraaz Kazi
Source: National Geographic @ Steve McCurry
Source: National Geographic © Steve McCurry

Eyes are a powerful tool in portraiture. A simple look can portray a wide range of emotions, and it’s arguably the essential component in the difference between an OK portrait of someone and a great one.

An outstanding example of this is Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of an Afghan Girl.

What’s the first thing you notice when you see that image? Sure, it might be her red cowl, but more than likely, it’s her piercing green eyes as they stare at you from the photo. Without her making eye contact with the photographer, it more than likely wouldn’t have made the cover of National Geographic and become what is considered to be one of the world’s most famous images.

So, that being said, the one thing you almost always want to focus on is your subjects eyes. It doesn’t matter how perfect your composition or exposure it if the eyes aren’t in sharp focus, the entire image can suffer for it.


Pro Tip: Some mirrorless cameras (Sony, Fuji) come with a setting that will detect a person’s eyes and auto focus on them specifically. Alternatively, you can use your camera’s AF point system to manually set the focus point on your subjects eyes.

Don’t be afraid to get down and dirty…

While your subject might be in a fixed position, it doesn’t mean that you as the photographer has to be. It’s ok to move around the subject, closer, farther away, up and down. Remember, we live in a 3-dimensional world, with all the freedom of movement that it allows us. Don’t be afraid to move around, go in as close or as far as the focal range of your lens will allow.

If your subject is a child or an adult sitting or laying down, don’t be afraid to get down to their level to take the shot, you might be happily surprised with the results if you do.

In conclusion

As with all types of photography, practice makes perfect, and even the best portrait photographers in the world have made mistakes so don’t beat yourself up if it happens to you too.

Remember to treat each portrait shoot as a learning experience, don’t be afraid to try out new things, and have lots of fun in the process!


Originally published at Pro Photo Blog.