10 Tips for Taking Better Portraits on Any Camera

Paulo Makalinao
Sep 15, 2020 · 11 min read

You’re starting to dive into the realm of portrait photography, or maybe you just find yourself taking more pictures of your friends with your smartphone when you go out. Regardless, here are 10 tips for taking better portraits, whether you use your phone, a point and shoot, a mirrorless camera, or a DSLR.

#1. Optimize Your Gear

Make sure you are using the best settings and best available tools in order to capture your portrait. On a smartphone, this might mean simply putting your camera into portrait mode in order to get a blurred background. It’s an artificial blur but still produces pretty nice results and better ones than the default camera. However, if you do want that wide angle portrait look, you can leave your camera in its default mode instead since portrait modes are tighter and more telephoto.

On a DSLR, mirrorless, or point and shoot camera, this can be different depending on what you have. If you don’t have a whole lot of gear yet (maybe just the kit zoom or a permanently attached lens), zoom in that lens a little bit into the more telephoto range (for a more traditional portrait look)and crank the aperture as wide as it goes to get the most blur in the background. As with your phone, you can leave the lens on wider focal length if that’s the look you’re going for. Regardless, I recommend getting used to the manual modes of your camera to achieve this rather than relying on something more automatic. The ideal mode for those still learning their camera is aperture priority.

If you have the pleasure of using a prime lens like a 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm, slap that right on your camera body, and again, widen that aperture either as wide as it goes or one-stop darker (usually for better image quality, less vignetting, and better focusing). With primes, you can usually open your aperture all the way to f/1.8 or f/1.4, giving you an incredibly blurred and bokeh filled background for an absolutely creamy portrait.

#2. Find and or Make a Clean Background

No one likes a cluttered and distracting background. A bright orange cone, for example, can really take away from your subject and instead direct the viewer’s attention away from what you want them to see. Make sure your background doesn’t have anything that sticks out too much or would be an eyesore to see like a trash can. In addition, make sure that it doesn’t look like anything is popping out of your subject’s head either (a pole is a good example of this). But you don’t have to get super involved with cleaning up the background, and it doesn’t need to be overdone. A few cars or a few trees is totally fine, but taking the time to remove the water bottle behind your subject is definitely worth the 30 seconds it takes, especially if you’re a perfectionist like myself.

#3. Find the Right Lighting

The most important aspect of photography is lighting. After all, the word photo derives itself from the word photon (not necessarily but the two are related). The key to getting good lighting when you’re beginning to take portraits is evenness. That’s why shooting in shaded areas or during a slightly overcast day is always highly recommended. But shooting around half an hour before sunset or after sunrise, the period right around golden hour, is the most ideal as the light is usually very even in many different places. I try to plan all my shoots during this time period.

But don’t be discouraged from trying other things in finding the right lighting. Shooting at golden hour or in shade is a good rule of thumb, but don’t limit yourself. Getting photos in direct sunlight can also yield amazing results as long as the light from the sun falls evenly again on your subject’s face. Usually, this means having them almost directly face the sun as long as they can avoid squinting for a second or two. You can also shoot at night! Just make sure to find a nice bright street lamp to nicely illuminate your subject. But whether using a street lamp or in direct sunlight, the keyword here is still evenness, making sure your subject is void of harsh shadows.

And sometimes, lighting doesn’t always have to be even either. You can intentionally have your subject turn 90 degrees from the light source, giving a dramatic half-lit, half-shadow type of look. But the keyword here with having non-even lighting is intention. Non-traditional lighting is something you really have to commit to the idea of in order to get it right.

#4. Add Depth

This is a problem I see that a lot of people have, especially with walls. Despite an open aperture, there are other physical ways to add depth to the shot. For example, do not have your subject’s back right up against a wall (unless very, very intentional) as it makes it more difficult to discern your subject from the background and makes the photo flatter. Instead, have your subject take a couple of steps away from the wall or intended background in order to create of layer of separation. One of the best things to do with a wall is to actually have your subject turn perpendicular to the wall and have them lean on it with their shoulder as opposed to their back. As the photographer, you should also be shooting parallel to your subject and perpendicular to the wall instead of straight on. Now, instead of the wall being in a single plane of focus, you can see how the focus shifts along the wall itself from in focus to blurred.

An example of shooting a wall at a semi-perpendicular angle

#5. Play with Levels and Angles

You don’t both have to stand. Getting an interesting portrait can be achieved when you and your subject both play around with the different heights that you attack the photo with.

Have your subject stand for a few photos. Have them sit on a chair. Have them squat or sit on the ground. Maybe even tell them to stand on a table. This adds a lot of variety to your portrait work and, again, makes it feel less flat.

At the same time, you can also change your angles as well. Shoot your subject a few times at eye level. Then get low. If your subject is standing, you can crouch. This is actually a really great tool for making somebody look taller. A lot of photographers use low angles themselves to make photos more dramatic, but what people fail to do is consider the opposite, using high angles. I do not recommend this for a regular, standing, full-body shot, but a nice shoulders-up portrait from a high angle as your subject looks up at you can be truly amazing.

#6. Play with the Foreground

As much as it is important to keep a clean looking background, intentionally playing around with the foreground in front of your subject is another great way to keep your portraits looking saucy.

The typical way I usually manipulate my foreground in order to spice up my portraits is to have a few leaves cover up a small part of my subject’s face and body. Other great ways to add foreground are to use flowers, railings, and some accessory objects (like a watch your subject can hold in front of themselves) while you keep focus on their face.

But the key to using foreground is to make sure that certain aspects of your subject’s face do not get covered and that most of your frame is still your subject. It is especially important to make sure that there is at least one eye fully visible in order to make sure that the foreground elements you are putting in are additive and not subtractive. Eyes are arguably the most important facial element in a portrait.

#7. Leading Lines and Environmental Framing

Leading lines is an idea that comes straight from art practice and is a staple in getting good portraits. An alleyway is a really great example of leading lines. The lines of a brick wall when your subject is leaning on it with their shoulder is an example of how to create leading lines too. Shooting in train stations is also a great way to find leading lines. The trick is to make sure that the leading lines converge seamlessly on your subject, which will cause your viewers to naturally be drawn to the subject at the convergent point. Usually, it takes playing around with your angles and your subject’s levels to get the leading lines just right. But when done correctly, leading lines can take your portrait to the next level.

Environment framing or natural framing, like leading lines, can also make your subject pop. Find naturally framing elements for your portraits. This might be a door frame, or maybe it’s a couple of trees whose leaves connect to hang over your subject. This might also be pillars on either side of your subject. My favorite way to do this was actually to have a subject make a square with their hands and to shoot through their fingers. Environmental framing can be done using objects in the foreground, midground, and background, so be creative!

#8. Add Movement

Your subject certainly does not need to do anything standing still, and movement is a great way to give a sense of action into your portrait. The easiest way to achieve this is to have your subject walk towards you, having them start further back than what your ideal framing is. Since I primarily work on a college campus, a lot of people ride their bikes for a sense of motion as well. But my favorite thing to do is have my subject just spin around.

Adding any kind of movement makes your portrait feel much more fluid and also gives your subject something to do that isn’t just standing in place, providing a much more intimate level of involvement in the creative process. Someone’s walk, for example, is also a keen way to allow someone’s personality to shine through in a portrait.

#9. Smile Less

A lot of people come onto my shoots, and the first thing they think they have to do is smile. In all honesty, not everyone’s best look is a one hundred percent smile. It’s certainly not my best look either. Not every photo calls for a huge smile or should have one for its intended end use. And this is one of the keys to getting good portraits no matter if you shoot with a trained model or your friend who’s a bit uncomfortable in front of the camera.

So play around and ask questions. Ask your client to smile for a few test shots and then give a straight face. Ask your client if they are naturally a smile-type of a person or not. And not everyone’s best smile is the same huge, teeth showing, ear to ear grin either. Some people are best with a smile with a closed mouth. Some other people are good with a tiny smirk. Others are able to pull off a smile from ear to ear because that’s natural for them. And there’s going to be people whose straight face actually works best for them. Portraits are a reflection of the person we capture, and it’s important that how they look with their face is something comfortable and both natural feeling and looking.

But one great tip if you’re going to have people smile is to tell them to “Smile with their eyes” if you feel like something is not clicking fully. You’d be surprised how much of a difference saying this can be because people’s eye expressions in a smile are just as important as their mouth ones.

Also, your subject does not always have to face the camera either. Tell your subject to look left, look right, or look up (or maybe some combination of to the side and up), which does three things. First, it allows your subject to stare at something that isn’t the dead center of a camera lens, which can be awkward for some. Second, it adds some variety the shots you take, and third, sometimes looking a bit up and to the side can actually allow your subject to catch the light better, helping with the earlier point of finding better lighting.

#10. Get Candid and Get to Know Your Subject

Playing off the whole smile less idea, get casual with your shoot. By this, I mean to get to know who you’re shooting, what they’re interested in, what they like to do, listen to, or watch. If they’re your friend, ask them about their day or how something is going. On the one hand, this makes your subject feel a lot more comfortable and at home, which is essential as not everyone is comfortable in front of a camera. And on the other hand, this makes an excellent opportunity for some genuinely candid shots of someone talking about their life. When a person has to think about something other than the camera in their face, this allows them to show their inner and true self a bit more, which should usually be the intended goal for an exceptional portrait.

Also, I find that although I do give a lot of direction like telling people to stand up a bit straighter, tilt their head, or to angle their foot this way, you’d be surprised what good poses people just do naturally. When you’re taking a short break, maybe to see how your last burst of photos came out, look at how your portrait subject naturally positions themselves. You’ll actually find a lot of really great, casual, and comfortable poses from a person when they’re not thinking about being in front of a camera.

At the end of the day, a good portrait does two things. First, it makes the subject the clear point of interest in the picture. Using angles, natural framing, adding depth, and cleaning up a background are tools to make sure your subject pops. Second, the portrait should be reflective of the subject. Good portraits feel natural, and they represent who is standing in them (hence my emphasis on getting to know who your shooting and finding the facial expressions that work for them). Of course, to both general rules, there are exceptions. Remember, there are many, many good ways to shoot a portrait, and I sincerely hope that this list will help you find your own unique portrait style.

Example of the “Framing with hands”
Watch in the foreground
The end of a spin motion

Originally published at https://www.photoparadox.com on September 15, 2020.

Photo Paradox

Helping you become a better content creator, photographer, and videographer one article at a time.

Paulo Makalinao

Written by

An avid portrait photographer and media content creator. Currently attending Stanford University. Originally from Matawan, NJ.

Photo Paradox

At Photo Paradox, we discuss cameras, lens, technique, and workflow. We also talk about overused or underused gear, gear recommendations, and gear reviews so you know what to buy next.

Paulo Makalinao

Written by

An avid portrait photographer and media content creator. Currently attending Stanford University. Originally from Matawan, NJ.

Photo Paradox

At Photo Paradox, we discuss cameras, lens, technique, and workflow. We also talk about overused or underused gear, gear recommendations, and gear reviews so you know what to buy next.

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