12 Simple Tips for Capturing Beautiful Portraits

Portrait photography is fun, but it can also be difficult to capture what you or your client has in mind. If you are a young photographer or are new to portrait photography, some of the more basic and underlying principles of portrait photography might not be obvious to you. These 12 tips will serve as an introduction to some of the principles that create a beautiful portrait, and a reminder for the more seasoned visual veterans.

1. Get To Know Your Subject

Portrait photography involves the interaction between two people: you, and your model. Establishing a connection with your model allows you to understand who they are on the inside, something that will help you translate their personality into a photograph. Knowing your subject can also help create a more positive and efficient working environment, and can help you comfort your subject who might not be the most comfortable in front of a camera.

 

Start with a conversation!

 

2. Create a Comfortable Environment

Getting your picture taken can be stressful! Create an environment of comfort to help alleviate some of the stress involved with a portrait photo-shoot. Alleviating your model's stress will lead to more natural looking photos, and can make the overall photo-shoot process much more enjoyable. You can make the environment more comfortable by engaging your model in conversation, laughing and smiling often, making jokes, complimenting your model, and being generally casual about taking photos of them (e.g don’t be too serious). It also helps to not be prepared to shoot when your model arrives. Ask them to help you set-up, or ask them about their day. Let them adjust to the environment before you start taking picutres, the shoot will go much smoother!

 

Tell me this dude doesn't look comfortable!

 

3. Make Your Model Laugh!

A fake smile looks terrible in photos, and yet we still see them on Facebook every day! Cracking jokes can help your subject flash their true smile, a smile that looks genuine and results in visually and emotionally engaging portraits. You can experiment with other ways to make your model smile, such as having them stick their tongue out as far as they can (and doing it yourself to show them how its done). This one always works!

 

Now THAT is a genuine smile. Look at those pearly whites!

 

4. Frame your subject

Using the environment around your subject to frame them helps direct your viewer’s eyes onto your model. Luckily, there are natural frames almost everywhere you look. Windows, doorways, and trees all present good framing options. Try having your subject look through a small gap and capture a close-up shot of their eyes for some extra emotion.

 
The doorway acts as a natural frame for this beautiful couple.

The doorway acts as a natural frame for this beautiful couple.

 

5.     Experiment With Different lenses

You don’t have to shoot with an 85mm f/1.4 lens for a good portrait. In fact, almost any lens can create an interesting portrait. Wide angle lenses are great for incorporating the background into the frame, and their lens distortion can add some cool effects to your photos. Wider apertures are great for achieving beautiful bokeh (background blur), and longer lenses are good for filling your frame with your model. In short, try different lenses and be creative!

 

Shooting at longer focal lengths with low aperture creates some beautiful background blur (bokeh). 

 

6. Use Interesting Backgrounds

While your model is the main focus of your photo, the background is also very important. Move your model around and experiment with different backgrounds. Place them close to the background at first, then have them walk forward and see how it changes. Move yourself as well, as your positioning greatly effects the background. Changing your aperture also helps control how much of the background you want in focus.

 

So much interest in the background, yet our focus stays on our subject. 

 

7. Experiment with focus

Focus is one of the most important aspects of a good portrait (or photograph for that matter). A portrait with the model in focus and soft/blurred background is perhaps most conventional, and is achieved by using a wide aperture/long focal length and keeping the focus on the subject. However, focusing on objects other than your subject can create quite a bit of visual interest. If you aren’t into that, try putting something in the foreground of your frame and keep the focus on your subject. This will result in some beautiful foreground bokeh, and can also act as a natural frame for your subject.

 

Here is an example of blurring objects in the foreground of your photo. It keeps the focus on your subjects, and adds a nice artistic touch!

 

8. Establish a Theme For The Shoot

If you shoot a professional business portrait in front of a wall of graffiti, it might not turn out so great. Establish a general theme for the shoot before you begin. What will the photos be used for? Who will be viewing them? What is your model hoping for with these photos, or what are you hoping for? Discuss clothing and locations ahead of time, and make sure they complement each other. Nothing can make a photo look more amateur than poorly chosen clothing and locations.

 

The coffee, notebook, sunglasses, and pose help keep this photo casual. Her clothes also match the scene. 

 

9. Experiment With Model Expressions

You don’t want your model to be smiling in every photo, just as you don’t want them to be frowning either. There are many different expressions we use on a daily basis, and many of them look good! Experiment with your subject’s expressions and keep taking pictures. Ask them a question and observe how their face changes, or tell them an interesting story and wait for their reaction. There are many different ways to change your models facial expressions, and it starts with engaging them.

 

Her expression gives the photo a natural or candid feel. 

 

10.  Alter Your Perspective

Remember how I said to move yourself in order to change the background? Moving yourself around also helps change your perspective and can lead to some interesting photos. Move around your model and snap pictures in different places. Move up and down, side to side, position yourself behind them, in front of them, close to them and far. You will be amazed at how different the photos turn out. Changing your perspective not only alters the background of the image, but also the way your model looks and the emotions the photo might elicit. 

 

Moving yourself below the subjects give your subject an authoritative look.

 

11. Experiment With Lighting

Lighting is the most important aspect of a photograph, and it can be used and manipulated for some incredibly stunning and creative portraits. Contrary to belief, there are no conventional lighting techniques that must be followed for good portraiture. If you are shooting with natural light, try moving your subject to see how the light hits their face. Use props to block light, and use reflectors to re-direct it. If you are using flashes, try to use an off-camera flash. This will let you move your flashes around, resulting in different lighting effects. Try placing your flash behind your subject, this will help light the back of your subject and separate them more from the background.

 

The light in this photo is harsh despite coming through a window, but it adds tons of visual interest and makes for a great photo!

 

12. Be Creative!

At the end of the day, it’s up to the photographer to create a beautiful portrait. There are techniques that are generally accepted by the photographic community, but with photography being an artistic medium, you are free to experiment in any way you like. Think outside the box and try different things, don't be shy. Some of the best photos out there exist because the photographer wanted to try something new. There is endless possibility when it comes to creating beautiful portraits, so go out there and exercise that brain!