In this guide, I’ll be covering 16 ways to improve your portrait photography.
In fact, these are the same tips I’ve learned over the years that have helped me improve my own portrait photography, resulting in better images, more clients, and higher-paying images.
Let’s dive in.
Table of Contents
16 Ways to Improve Your Portrait Photography
1. Learn Manual Mode
The first way on this list is to learn manual mode on your camera. This is a must if you want to improve any style of photography, and not just portrait photography.
Manual mode gives you complete control over your camera settings, which means you can fine-tune them to get the exact results you want. This is especially important in portrait photography, as even small changes in exposure or white balance can make a big difference in the final image.
If you’re not sure how to use manual mode, there are plenty of resources out there to help you get started. Start with your camera’s manual, and then do a quick search online for tutorials specifically for your camera model.
Here’s the quick rundown on manual mode though. Exposure is controlled by ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture. ISO is how sensitive your camera sensor is to light, shutter speed is how long the shutter is open for (which affects how much light hits the sensor), and aperture is how wide open the lens is (affecting how much of the scene is in focus).
When you learn manual mode, you can experiment with different combinations of these three settings to get different results. For example, a higher ISO will make the image brighter but also introduce more noise ( graininess). A slower shutter speed will make the image darker but also allow you to capture movement. And a wider aperture will make the image sharper but also decrease the depth of field ( how much of the scene is in focus).
Instead of just clicking a button to take a portrait, you can create the desired images you envisioned in your head with manual mode.
2. Use a Tripod
This one is kind of a no-brainer when you really think about it, but I didn’t realize to think about using a tripod much until I kept getting blurry photos when I started editing the photos in post-production.
Take it from me, you may think you have a sharp photo when you look at the photo on the back of your camera screen, but when you put the photo in Lightroom or Photoshop and zoom in, it could be blurry, and that’s the worst.
If you want to take sharp, blur-free photos, then using a tripod is a must. A tripod will help to keep your camera steady, which is especially important when taking photos in low light or using a long focal length. Additionally, using a tripod will allow you to take longer exposures without worrying about camera shake.
3. Shoot Photos from the Right Height
The next tip is to make sure you’re shooting photos from the right height. This is especially important when taking photos of children or pets, as you don’t want to be shooting down at them from too high up.
Instead, get down on their level so you’re seeing them eye-to-eye. This will not only result in better photos, but it will also help you connect with your subject more.
If you can’t get down on the ground, then try using a step ladder or something similar to get you closer to eye level.
The most important thing to remember is that shooting eye level with your subject is often the best.
If you shoot up at them then this will give them an appearance of strength and confidence which may be the look you are going for.
If you shoot down at them this will give them the appearance that they are smaller and weak. It’s important to remember this if you are going for a stylistic shoot.
When photographing clients, I always just try to shoot at eye level to play it safe but if I’m doing a more artistic portrait photoshoot, I’ll experiment with different angles.
4. Know the Difference Between Hard and Soft Light
Lighting is one of the most important aspects of portrait photography, and it’s important to know the difference between hard and soft light.
Hard light is direct sunlight or any light that casts harsh shadows. Soft light is diffused light, like what you would find on an overcast day.
While both hard and soft light has their place in portrait photography, I prefer to use soft light whenever possible.
Soft light is more flattering and will help to minimize imperfections on your subject’s skin. If you’re shooting in direct sunlight, then try to position your subject so that the sun is behind them, or use a reflector to bounce some of the light back onto their face.
You can also use a diffuser to soften the light if you’re shooting with a flash.
Direct light is often used for the Vogue-type magazine cover photoshoots you see where a model is striking a pose.
If you’re taking portrait photos for a client, opt for soft light which means take photos of them in a shady area under a tree or behind a wall and make sure the day and time of your photoshoot is planned — which leads us to the next tip.
5. Plan Time and Weather Conditions in Advance
When shooting portraits outdoors, it’s important to plan ahead and take into account the time of day and weather conditions.
You don’t want to be shooting in direct sunlight, as this will create harsh shadows on your subject’s face. Instead, try to shoot in the early morning or evening when the light is softer.
If it’s a cloudy day, then that’s even better as the overcast skies will act as a giant diffuser and soften the light.
Of course, you can’t always control the weather, but it’s important to be aware of how the light will affect your photos.
Knowing this and starting to plan in advance improved the overall results of my portrait photography dramatically. It allowed me to be proactive to the elements instead of reactive.
6. Use a Fast Shutter Speed
When shooting portraits, you want to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action and avoid any blur.
I typically like to shoot at 1/250th of a second or faster. This will ensure that your photos are sharp and in focus.
Of course, there are times when you may want to intentionally use a slower shutter speed to create a blur effect. But for the most part, you’ll want to use a fast shutter speed when shooting portraits.
If you’re using a flash, then you can get away with a slower shutter speed, but I would still recommend staying above 1/200th of a second.
Using a faster shutter speed will also help to reduce any camera shake, especially if you’re handholding your camera.
If you’re shooting in low light conditions, then you may need to bump up your ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed. Just be aware that this will also introduce more noise into your photos.
7. Use a Wide Aperture
When shooting portraits, you’ll want to use a wide aperture to achieve a shallow depth of field.
This means that your subject will be in focus while the background is blurred. This is often referred to as “bokeh” and it’s a popular look in portrait photography.
A shallow depth of field helps to isolate your subject and make them stand out from the background.
To achieve this, you’ll want to use a wide aperture such as f/2.8 or wider. Of course, the exact aperture will depend on your lens and how close you are to your subject.
If you’re using a kit lens, then you may need to get in close to your subject to achieve a wide aperture. But if you have a prime lens with a large maximum aperture, then you can shoot at a distance and still get a shallow depth of field.
Just remember that the wider the aperture, the less light you’ll have coming in. So, you may need to bump up your ISO or use a slower shutter speed if you’re shooting in low light conditions.
8. Experiment with Different Lenses
One of the best ways to improve your portrait photography is to experiment with different lenses.
I’ve tried lenses from the 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 24-70mm zoom lenses, etc. By trying out these different lenses, I’ve been able to find that the lens for me is the 50mm prime lens. I love this lens because it takes beautiful bokeh and it allows me to be the right distance from the subject where I’m close enough to them to communicate with them without being too close to make them feel uncomfortable.
Each lens has its own unique characteristics and it can make a big difference in the look and feel of your photos.
For example, shooting with a 35mm lens will give you a wider field of view and more of the background in your photo. Whereas, shooting with an 85mm lens will allow you to get close to your subject and isolate them from the background.
It’s important to experiment with different lenses to find the one that works best for you and your style of photography.
9. Use Image Stabilization
If you’re shooting portraits with a handheld camera, then you’ll want to use image stabilization.
This will help to reduce any camera shake and produce sharper photos.
Most modern lenses have some form of image stabilization built-in. But if you’re using an older lens, then you may need to buy a lens with image stabilization or use a tripod.
Image stabilization can be a great help when shooting portraits, especially if you’re using a longer focal length lens.
Just be aware that image stabilization can’t completely eliminate camera shake. So, if you’re shooting in low light conditions or using a long shutter speed, then you may still need to use a tripod.
10. Choose the Right Background
The background of your portrait can make or break the photo.
A busy and cluttered background will distract from your subject and ruin the photo. Whereas, a simple and uncluttered background will help to make your subject stand out and look their best.
When choosing a background for your portraits, look for something that is simple and uncluttered. A plain wall or a solid color background are both good options.
You may be thinking, well my wide aperture will blur the background anyways so it doesn’t matter. But you will be incorrect.
While a wide aperture will help to blur the background, it won’t completely eliminate it. There will still be some detail and shape visible in the background.
So, it’s important to choose a background that is complimentary to your subject and doesn’t take away from the photo.
Another “pro tip” when choosing a background — pay attention to the color of the background and the color of your subject’s clothing. You can play around with analogous or complementary colors if you have this in mind.
11. Take Multiple Images at One Angle
When you’re taking a portrait of someone, it’s important to take multiple images from one angle.
The reason for this is that people tend to blink or move around when you’re taking their photo. By taking multiple images at one angle, you’ll increase your chances of getting at least one sharp photo where the subject’s eyes are open and they’re not blinking.
I typically take around 3-5 images of the same pose before moving on. This way, I know that I have at least one good photo that I’m happy with.
I started doing this after one session where I took (what I thought at the time) was the best portrait I had yet taken. When I got home and put it in post-production, I realized that it was just slightly blurry. If I had taken multiple photos at this same angle, I could have had extra copies to play around with as a backup.
You don’t have to go crazy with it and take like 8-10 images per angle, but just a few.
And if you’re using a continuous shooting mode, then you don’t even have to worry about taking multiple shots — the camera will do it for you!
12. Learn to Communicate With Your Subject
One of the most important aspects of portrait photography is learning how to communicate with your subject.
If you’re uncomfortable with talking to people, then this may be a difficult thing for you to do. But it’s so important in order to get natural-looking photos.
Your subjects need to feel comfortable around you in order for them to let their guard down and be themselves.
If you’re able to build a rapport with your subjects and make them feel comfortable, they’ll be more likely to loosen up and you’ll be able to capture more natural-looking photos.
Here are a few tips for communicating with your portrait subjects:
- Make sure you introduce yourself and let them know your name
- Be friendly and approachable
- Ask them questions about themselves — this will help to break the ice
- Tell jokes or make small talk
- Put them at ease by letting them know that it’s okay to make mistakes
- Encourage them to be themselves and have fun with it
By following these tips, you’ll be able to build a better rapport with your subjects and take more natural-looking portraits.
I’m a believer that portrait photography is 50% photography skills and 50% communication skills. Without these two, you will not produce an effective portrait.
13. Learn the Basics of Color Theory
If you want to take your portrait photography to the next level, then it’s important to learn the basics of color theory.
Color theory is the study of colors and how they interact with each other. It’s a complex topic, but there are some basic principles that you can apply to your photography.
Learning about color theory will help you to understand how colors can impact the overall look and feel of your photos.
For example, did you know that using warm colors (like yellow, orange, and red) can make your subjects look more vibrant and alive? And using cool colors (like blue and purple) can create a more calming effect.
You can also use color to create a specific mood in your photos.
For example, if you’re trying to capture a feeling of happiness, then you would want to use colors that are associated with happiness, like yellow and green.
If you’re trying to capture a feeling of sadness, then you would want to use colors that are associated with sadness, like blue and purple.
Of course, you don’t have to use colors to create a specific mood — you can also use them to add visual interest to your photos.
For example, if you have a portrait with a lot of white space, you can add a pop of color by using brightly colored clothing or accessories.
Or if you have a portrait with a lot of dark shadows, you can add a bit of lightness by using pale colors.
There are endless possibilities when it comes to using color in your portraits. So experiment and see what works best for you! From there, you can develop your own personal style and start color-grading your photos to have a similar theme.
14. Try Off-Camera Flash Portrait Photography
If you really want to take your portrait photography to the next level, then you should try using off-camera flash.
There’s a joke within the photography community that photographers will claim they are just “natural light” photographers. But in reality that is because they are afraid of using off-camera flash.
I was like that at first, but I’ve pushed myself to learn off-camera flash. I still prefer natural light, but off-camera flash does produce beautiful, magazine-grade photos.
Off-camera flash is when you use a separate flash unit that’s not attached to your camera. This allows you to get more creative with your lighting and produce some truly stunning results.
Here are a few tips for using off-camera flash:
- Invest in a good-quality flash unit. This will make a big difference in the quality of your photos.
- Experiment with different lighting techniques. There are endless possibilities when it comes to off-camera flash, so don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things.
- Use a light stand or tripod to help keep your flash unit in place. This will allow you to position your flash unit wherever you want it, without having to hold it in place yourself.
- Use a diffuser to soften the light from your flash unit. This will help to create a more natural-looking light and prevent harsh shadows.
Off-camera flash can be a bit daunting at first, but it’s definitely worth the effort. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to produce some amazing results!
Here’s an example portrait I took using off-camera flash in an otherwise dark setting (you see the light on the left side of her face):
15. Learn Post-Production for Portrait Photos
Post-production is an important part of the portrait photography process.
This is where you take your photos and edit them to perfection. You can use post-production to fix minor imperfections, enhance colors, and even change the overall mood of your photo.
If you’re new to post-production, then start with some basic edits like cropping, straightening, and exposure adjustment.
Once you’re comfortable with those basics, then you can start experimenting with more advanced edits, like color grading and retouching.
There are endless possibilities when it comes to post-production, so don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things.
I highly recommend learning how to retouch skin as this will greatly enhance not only your skills but can serve as an additional selling point with clients. Professional skin retouchers are often a profession in their own so if you learn both how to use the camera and retouch skin, then you will become a “double threat” as they call it.
16. Keep These Photography Tips in Mind
Portrait photography is a fun and rewarding genre of photography. But like with any type of photography, it takes time and practice to perfect.
Keep these tips in mind as you continue your journey as a portrait photographer:
- Always be learning. There’s always something new to learn, so never stop pushing yourself to improve.
- Be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a great portfolio of portraits.
- Shoot often. The more you shoot, the better you’ll get.
- Be open to constructive criticism. It can be tough to hear that your photos aren’t perfect, but it’s important to listen to critiques and use them to improve your work.
- Embrace imperfections. Imperfections are what make us human, and they can also add character to your photos.
Have fun! Portrait photography should be enjoyable, so make sure to have a good time while you’re doing it.
Nate Torres is a portrait photographer based in Southern California. Outside of photography, Nate specializes in SEO, content marketing, and entrepreneurship. He is also the founder of Imaginated.com, a platform for creator education.