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6 Tips for Portrait Photography

Portrait photography is something I have been doing both professionally and personally for quite a while now. I have worked in several studios around Manchester and done countless shoots with models around the area. Through this, I have learnt a lot about this branch of photography and have developed my skills along the way. Now when I shoot I can do more creative work, experiment more and create some really beautiful images. This is because I have got the basics covered allowing me to push myself more and do some different things with each shoot. In this article, I will share with you some of the tips I have learnt along the way that will help you get started in portrait photography. These tips are aimed at a beginner portrait photography level however they are still useful to learn and practice no matter how experienced you are. By focussing and practising the basics whenever you can, you will develop a much greater understanding of the process and be able to branch out and experiment more. So without further ado, here are my 6 tips for portrait photography.

Choosing the Right Lens

As mentioned in a previous post, the lens you use has a massive impact on how the image will look. For portrait photography, the standards are normally 50mm and 85mm lenses although longer and shorter focal lengths are often used too, especially for more creative shots. The reason 50mm and 85mm lenses are so popular for portrait photography is because this is roughly the focal length our eyes see, this means there is minimal distortion of the features compared to how we would see the model's face naturally. Wider angle lenses can be used for getting wider shots and making the model look smaller in the scene, or have the model stand close to a wide angle lens to distort them and create some unique and creative images. Longer focal lengths create more background blur and greater image compression (this makes the background seem larger and closer to the subject). This can be useful for capturing dramatic scenes, especially outside, where you can get a sharp focus on the model with a large and imposing background and soft bokeh.

Another important aspect of portrait photography is the aperture of the lens, as I’ve mentioned before the wider the aperture of a lens (smaller f number), the shallower the depth of field will be. This is important as a shallow depth of field will give you a nice sharp focus on the model but a soft, blurry background. This helps create depth in the image, makes the model stand out more and hides distractions in the background that could draw the viewer's attention away from the model. Having a wide aperture is often used when shooting outside or in a set with lots of things going on, this will create a soft dreamy look around the image and really make the model pop. In studio photography however, whether it’s for beauty shots, e-commerce work or anything else, a narrower aperture is often used. This is to give the sharpest detail possible throughout the image and also to compensate for the bright flash. Often because of the speed of the flash, a fast shutter speed can’t be used so a tighter aperture is needed to stop the image from being overexposed. Learning what you need from your lens, when to use it and what the different numbers on it mean is an important part of photography in general and definitely in portrait photography where so many different styles can be incorporated.

Focussing for Portraits

Your point of focus is important in all aspects of photography as this is where the viewer's eyes will be drawn to. In portrait photography, you will almost always want this point to be the model's eyes. Having really sharp detailed eyes in a photograph creates a beautiful, striking and eye-catching image that will hold the viewer's gaze. Modern cameras often have eye-tracking autofocus which really helps nail your shots every time but if you shoot on a camera that doesn't have this feature you will need to pay close attention to where your autofocus point is set and make sure it lines up with the model's eyes.

Another aspect of focus is depth of field. I have mentioned this above in the lenses section but I will talk about it more here. The depth of your image is a creative choice and one you should play around with as you learn and experiment with portraits. Do you want a soft blurry background to make your model stand out? Do you want super sharp details for a close up of the model's face? These are decisions you need to make as you plan your shoot so you can create the sort of images you envisage.


Planning a photoshoot is one of the most important aspects of shooting, without it you are unlikely to create your best work and will not make the most of your time with the model. Personally, I like to create a Pinterest board for each shoot I do that I fill with ideas for outfits, poses, lighting, locations etc. I can then share this board with the model to get their input and allow them to pick outfits based on the vibe we are going for. Once you have got this together both you and the model know what you’re planning to do before you arrive so you can make the most of your time together. Having this mood board loaded up on your phone is also useful as it allows you to refer back to it throughout the shoot and select poses and ideas from the board to do next. It is also important to have backup plans for your shoot, if you plan to do a golden hour shoot outside and on the day it's chucking it down you will need to reconsider. Having different options already planned out allows you to switch up quickly should anything change on the day and still get some great work.

Working with your model

Unlike other types of photography where you are dealing with buildings or mountains or other inanimate objects, portrait photography requires you to work with another person. Making them feel comfortable, sharing ideas and working together to create the images you both want is an incredibly important part of the shoot and can really make or break the images. I would suggest chatting with the model before the shoot for a little bit, once you meet each other you don't want to jump straight into shooting. Spend a few minutes just getting to know each other, talk about what sort of images you’re looking for and just get comfortable around each other. This will make the model more relaxed and make both of you feel more comfortable talking and sharing ideas throughout the shoot resulting in much better work from you both. Throughout the shoot, you should take breaks and show the model how the images are looking, this way they know what they’re looking like in the scene and can adjust their poses or outfits accordingly. When working with models, especially less experienced ones, it is important to direct them as best you can as they can’t see what they look like on camera. It is also a good way to keep the shoot fun and interactive instead of sitting there silently clicking away while they move. Directing models is a skill in itself and is something you will learn as you progress with your photography, another benefit to planning and using a mood board is you can refer to it throughout the shoot and use this to direct. For example, you can take an image and compare the pose to something on your board, then ask the model to make some small adjustments to better fit your vision.


Lighting in portrait photography could be a whole blog post in itself so I will just cover a couple of basics here to get you started. This is part of the creative process and different styles of portrait work will use different styles of lighting. Normally soft, even light is your friend so shooting on overcast days, at golden hour or using reflectors and softboxes to even things out is a good place to start. In the studio there are loads of different ways to set up your lights depending on the type of image you're after, you might want even lighting across the whole body, bright light on the face to create a dark background or use light modifiers like snoots to create unique images. A few things to look into and try on your next shoot to help with your lighting: experiment with the position of the sun when shooting outside, stand near different objects and see how the light reflects onto the model, try different reflectors and research lighting styles such as Rembrandt lighting. Once you have planned your shoot and your location you can then better experiment with light and see how it affects your image, as you experiment you will learn how to create different lighting styles and find what works best for you.


The final step in portrait photography is normally editing, I will create a video tutorial soon showing how I edit my portraits but here I will give a quick overview. First off you will do general adjustments to the image such as white balance, contrast, colour grading etc. Next, you need to remove blemishes and retouch the skin to create a soft and professional look. How much you retouch the skin is a personal choice, some people prefer to keep it natural while others like to completely smooth the skin to create a flawless, if unrealistic, look. Finally, there is dodging and burning, this is used to create highlights and shadows on the face and can dramatically alter the way a model's face looks. This works similarly to makeup, by adding highlights on the cheekbones and shadows underneath the face will appear more angular. This can be used on the lips to make them look fuller and there is so much more. Play around with the technique to see how it affects the face and decide how far you want to take the edit. There are many more steps that can be added and I will cover them all in a later tutorial but these are the basics I normally start with before doing more creative work. As I said, editing is a personal and creative choice so as you learn you will develop your own style and find techniques that suit your needs.

Hopefully, these tips will help you on your photographic journey and have helped you understand a few of the aspects of portrait photography. This is only a quick photography guide but if you focus on these basics you will learn portrait photography in no time and start creating some beautiful work. If you are looking for any portrait photography ideas then I would suggest Pinterest, this is a great place to start planning a shoot. If you have any questions then leave them in the comments below and I will try my best to help. If you enjoyed this post or have any ideas for future posts then let me know, I’d love to hear from you!


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