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Portrait Photography

What is Portrait Photography?

Portrait photography is often considered an art form that involves capturing facial expressions, personality, or mood of your subject or group using composition, lighting, and backgrounds. Portraiture is seen by some photographers as an artistic representation of a subject’s attitude. Portraiture is by far the most common form of photography and creating compelling portraits requires in part the ability to connect with people.

You can easily distinguish famous portrait photographers work based on their distinct style and the deep connection they have with their subjects. When it comes to techniques used in portrait photography and photographing people, you’ll find they fall into one of two categories: Candid and Portraits. Each category requires a slightly different approach.

portrait photography - beautiful woman brunette

Before you take your first shot, take some time and build a rapport with your subject. Get to know a little about them, their likes and dislikes, favorite foods, music, or anything to help you make a connection.


Adorama Photography TV has an excellent video tutorial on How To Photograph Small Groups and Families by renowned professional photographer Tamara Lackey. Tamara shows you how to photograph a mother and her two adorable children using reflector (and without an assistant!!!).

This portrait was made using standard studio lighting except I used “umbrella” lighting (the flash is aimed into a silverized umbrella which is pointed at the subject. The main light came from my right, while the fill was at my left.

If you like the “hair light” effect and don’t have studio lights, then just make sure your subject is seated next to a lamp. Here the light source is from the ceiling lamp. Notice how it highlights my daughter’s hair and puts a nice sheen on my grand-daughter Ivy.

If I had used flash it would have overpowered the 75 watt bulb and you would see nothing in the background but harsh shadows. Thus, even though the color balance is “off” this is a very warm, pleasing portrait of two warm and pleasant family members.

Generally our “eye” feels most comfortable with a portrait if the subject’s eyes are NOT centered in the photo. Try to frame the subject so that their eyes are above center. Also, make sure that you do not crop off the top of the head. Unless you are deliberately cropping just on the eyes (for impact) you should leave a little space on the top.

Here are two acceptable exceptions to the rule:

The long reason for why these two portraits are acceptable would take volumes in explanation. The short reason is … they work. They are pleasing and interesting.

I love candid (un-posed) portraits but have, on occasion had to pose folks and use studio lighting. There are volumes of pages on studio lighting which I don’t have room or time for. Here is the basic, standard lighting used in a studio. (Pardon the crude illustration but it is accurate and does get the job done). Notice that the subject (in the center) is facing the lens but the shoulders are turned. This is to reduce the shoulder width a tad.

The main light is at the bottom left, with the fill light at the right. The fill light should be one to two stops less bright, it’s purpose is just to fill in the shadow created by the main light.

The hair light (upper left) is elevated above the subjects head, shining downward so as not to cast any light on the subjects face, just the hair. Fact is, it takes a good studio photographer years to become accomplished. If you wish to pursue studio lighting I would suggest you head out to a good library or book store.

child sitting at table eyes widened and mouth opened in amazement

Personally, I think most studio portraits are rather wooden and “posed” and they only work when they offer a real insight into the person’s true nature.

What Makes a Portrait Special?

When shooting a portrait, it is more than pointing and shooting so that your subject is in the right part of the picture. You want to create a portrait that goes beyond a picture. What would make you stop in front of portrait of a complete stranger and study it beyond a mere perusal?

The Mona Lisa is a famous portrait that continues to draw people to it in order to try and glean its secrets. There needs to be something deeper, something that pulls a viewer to the picture and captivates them, an ambiance that can be felt rather than just seen. You want people to stop in front of the portrait and contemplate the story exuding from the subject and the background.

A great way to delve further into a portrait than the surface is to look at how you can reveal the personality of the individual you are shooting. Whether you are showcasing an endearing quirk or telling a story that shaped their life, it needs to shine through. Every part of your portrait, including the background and ‘props’, take a role in telling that story. This does not mean you should be stuffing your background and foreground with props.

Use an artistic eye to figure out what could enhance and accentuate what you are wanting to be seen from that individual. That means you can always change where you place your props so that you know you got the best shot possible.

Inside Portraiture

As the photographer you are the one creating the portrait. It falls to you to look beyond the smile and posture to look deeper and draw out what treasures and unique qualities your subject has. This may require you to have a conversation or two with them before you start the photo shoot. Get to know the person you are taking portraits of. Ask them random questions, see what makes them laugh, what makes them cry, what causes them to get that far off look in their eyes.  The more you know about them the better able you will be to establish a meaningful shot.

Questions You Might Ask:

  • What do you like to do when you are bored?
  • What do people compliment you the most on?
  • What’s an embarrassing story you like to tell others?
  • What’s your favorite color?
  • Who is your hero and why?
  • If married, How did you meet?
  • What do you do for work?
  • What hobbies do you have?
  • What’s your favorite thing to do in your spare time?
  • Favorite music, food, place to go, vacation, etc?
  • What would you like me to capture?
  • What’s your best funny face? (Capture it and then the true smile that comes afterwards)
  • What one word would you use to describe yourself?

Do not be afraid to evoke emotions through a funny joke or an honest truth to capture and bring to life the feelings you want to present. You shouldn’t settle for a fake smile or tears, because true emotions can change their entire face into a beauty you don’t want to miss. If you’ve taken the time to lay your groundwork you will know what needs to be done to catch the image you are wanting to convey.  If successful, you can portray more than just a good picture with a pretty person being showcased.

Create a visual story instead of picture. Show more than a reflected image on paper. Shoot a portrait worth keeping, cherishing, and displaying.

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  1. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find
    this matter to be really one thing which I believe I might never understand.
    It sort of feels too complicated and very vast for me.
    I am having a look forward in your next post, I will try to get the cling of it!

  2. I got a lot of help from this website.My father was a photographer, so I knew the terms like aperture, shutter speed, ISO etc, but that’s was all I knew about a camera. I am going to buy Nikon D7000 with a normal lens and with AFS DX 18-105mm lens very soon. I am willing to start learning photography as much as I can able to.I am 45 now. Let’s see how much I can get into this subject. Thank you very much for your brilliant website. One question I wd like to ask you Sir.Do I need to have some other lens apart from the two I mentioned right now?
    Please do not stop continuing this site.

  3. You people are amazing. Giving all this info away for free!!!! Im so glad I found this site. In high school I dreamed of being a photographer and even did a stint as a yearbook staff photographer. My instructor said I have a great eye. Never knew why, but now im starting to understand what she was seeing. Thanks so much for all you have done!

  4. Karsh is one of my favourite photographers because, as you point out, he knew his subjects and had already pictured the portrait he wanted before he began the photography session.

  5. Hi,
    I just wanted to say how much I love this site. To me it is very informative. Do you critique or give tips?

  6. Just happened upon this site as I was a photographer in a former life in California. Didn’t loose interest so much as my own business wasn’t successful. Got into technology and we relocated to MA where I was involved as an inside sales rep for software solutions. Make long story short, dot com bubbl burst, software not selling well for few years now, and since technology advancing at a rabbit’s pace, looking to get back into photography from the digital end. Taking these classes to see how much I remember. Surprisingly, and thankfully, it’s quite a bit.

  7. I just found your website. I’m a hobbyist that would like to progress further. I have to ask, was the photo of the totem pole taken in Ketchikan, Alaska. I just returned from a cruise there and saw one exactly like that in the Saxman Totem Village in Ketchikan. I took over 1200 photos on the week long trip and am anxious to present them in the best manner possible.

  8. “umbrella” lighting is good to have. Skip says, “This portrait was made using standard studio lighting except I used “umbrella” lighting (the flash is aimed into a silverized umbrella which is pointed at the subject.” So I think he endorsed using it. I would say that’s not always the best lighting but in a studio doing portraits it’s almost a must.

  9. So you are saying that having the umbrellas with the automatice flash that flashes with the camera is not really good? I was told that it was. I am confused Please help?

  10. 1) Photography is an art. Experiment with the lighting as much as you like.
    2) The lighting from a flash is incredibly bright and therefore the lights cannot stay on constantly. Keeping them at the peak brightness at all times would require a high draw of current and could result in high heat or fire, very high energy bills, and photographers and models would probably go blind working with so much light!
    If you have to shoot few pictures you may consider renting nice equipment rather than buying as professional equipment does help you get professional results.

  11. i have two questions to ask.
    1. can a portrait photo be taken with focus lights positioned like where the main light, fill light etc were placed?
    2. i have seen that the fill lights, main light,barn lights are connected to a camera….and when the photographer shoots or clicks, these lights fires for a fraction of second, when the camera’s click button is pressed.why cant those lights be on permanently till the whole photo session is over.what does it do. i can buy the same watts more cheaper if this becomes possible. i joined short courses on photography and i dont understand this.can you please help explain for this ameture?
    if i have to shoot few pictures, do i need this whole expensive set of equipment?
    my friends say that i have a good sense of capturing pictures.but the problem is i dont have money to invest. so please help understand this lighting arrangement?

  12. I don’t agree with the karsh thing since Stieglitz did the same thing only earlier with J.P. Morgan and had less time to do it. If in fact, karsh had any photo history in him, he would have known this as well. There are a few good tips in here, but the idea of photographing the native american man with the nickel shows without a doubt that he is not the model for the coin. If you were a sketch artist you would see this with only a cursory inspection. Your lighting is perfect, for your preferences and there are many others. I would have also included the rule of thirds in this lesson. Although Kate above may have a superiority complex, which I see a lot of in beginning photographers (and I mean those who have finally grasped exposure as a second nature) I don’t fee the need to be derogatory, but I will say that this article is very basic and quite necessary for anyone who does not know how to set up lighting.

  13. Thanks to all of your free photography lessons.

    Being a beginner, bought a Bridge cam a couple of days back, i now know what is Exposure, Aperture, Shutter speed, ISO… All because of photographycourse.net.

    Thanks, once again.

    I will surely try out all of your prescriptions and tips.


  14. Hey! I can’t believe I’ve discovered a site that offers FREE photography lessons and information etc. Still waiting for the catch! Anyway, like many here, I’m very new to photography and I’m currently constrained to a low budget (I echo Steven Roche’s difficulty in the UK at the moment!) so this site is amazing.
    If I had one critism, then it’s purely just a request for more excercises! Aside from that, it’s brilliant.
    Thank you to the admins and contributors.

  15. I really dont understand guys, what is good in these photos, and what you trying to teach people. To push the button on camera?? No imagination, no exposition, no meaning. And you call it Portrait!

    Hehe, hope you not gonna delete my comment just because it’s negative and i’m honest.

  16. Steven, Thanks for your nice comments! Have you tried all the advanced lessons out? What other areas of photography are you interested in learning more about? Without knowing your skill level it’s hard to recommend a book that you’d find helpful. The “Digital Photography Book” by Scott Kelby, is a good one for helping with composition, and some useful photography tips.

  17. Thankyou for your help. I have dreamt since a child of being a photographer, i used to picture myself sat behind the goal at Old Trafford getting the prize shot of the winning goal. However after leaving school i became a bricklayer! I am 30 now and due to the credit crunch in the UK work is shy so I am taking the chance and going to persue my dream to become a photographer. I am buying my first camera at the weekend. I have found your site extremely interesting and informative. I think you should be very proud of the FREE advice you are giving, as i am sure many people like myself are very grateful of it. Is there a continuation of this site? Or are there any other sites or books you can recommend to aid me in my future career?

    Thanks again

    Steven Roche

  18. I am very thankful to have found this site. This is only the first article I have read, and it has already helped. I have been photographing for almost 6 years now. It kind of just happend. I always loved art, but didn’t know my place, till now. I photograph many weddings, portraits, familys, nature, just about anything. I want to open a studio in the next 1-2 years and have no clue about lighting and such. I need the education behind photography. I want to learn more about shooting raw, and learn more of the fundamentals of my camera. Thanks so much for the time you put into this site to help people like myself.

  19. Johan, Glad to hear you enjoy the photography course. Currently the only way to view the course offline is to go to “File” and then “Print” in your web browser to print the course.

    We’ve considered putting our material in a book but would rather keep the courses free so that anybody regardless of income can learn how to be a great photographer.

  20. Thank you for the wonderful oppertunity, I am new in this, it started as a hobby and is busy escalating into more, hopefully there is some natural talent an knack involved. I do however love to read and follow the advise from people who is doing this for years.

    Thanks again

    Johan Knoetze

    NS: Is there a way that I can print the articles to study in detail.


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