This ultimate guide about portrait photography is constantly updated with new tips, ideas, and techniques. It is also long (2000+ words) so get ready for a massive amount of information.
Portrait photography is considered by most to be the purest type of photography. Not only were the photos created in the early days of photography mostly portraits, but it also deals with things closest to us: other people and, when done right, their emotions.
Unfortunately, it’s one of the most difficult genres to get right as well.
So many things have to be considered when creating a portrait: Gear, lighting, posing, emotions, composition, location, colors, post-production,…
That’s where this guide comes in. After going through it you’ll have a solid grasp of everything related to portrait photography and picked up a couple of tips, ideas, and techniques along the way that you’ll be able to use forever.
Let’s get started!
Portrait Photography, The Ultimate Guide
Here’s everything we’ll cover in detail. Click a link below to jump to a particular section, and check back often for updates.
You Do You
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants
Masterpieces are hardly ever created out of thin air.
Most of them require years of practice and dedication.
Luckily there are many photographers who have done the work and created some incredible work for you to study and learn from. They probably tried out many techniques and styles before they became the giants they now are.
This means you now have access to more inspiration than ever before.
So take this opportunity to surround you with their images and dissect their work.
- Go buy their books and put them on your coffee table or nightstand to go through now and then.
- Visit their website to see what they are working on now.
- Look up some behind the scenes videos on Youtube.
- Follow them on Instagram.
- Look for new talent on sites like 500px and Flickr.
- Visit museums or galleries with interesting exhibitions.
Try to find out how they light their portraits, interact with their subjects and what their workflow is.
Of course, there are many great photographers so look for those that speak to you and create the kind of work you would like to make yourself. But never limit yourself, inspiration can be found even in different types of photography.
Here are some great portrait photographers to get you started:
Don’t get caught up too much with gear.
Although it can make life easier, many photographers have created incredible portraits with just the most basic of gear. So focus on improving your photography technique and developing your style.
Not easy if you suffer from GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) like most of us photographers.
That said, it’s still important to have the right gear so you can execute your vision.
So below we’ll go over some important gear for portrait photography, and more importantly, the consequences of each choice. This way you can decide what you need (and don’t need) to create your own unique photos.
Together with lenses, cameras are the only gear that’s actually essential.
What is less essential is which camera you use to create your portraits.
The main differences between the very expensive camera’s and affordable ones are only important in demanding situations. Things like weather sealing, frames per second and high ISO capabilities are irrelevant for most portrait sessions.
Most modern cameras from the main brands like Nikon, Canon or Sony also have plenty of megapixels. Unless you’ll be printing them in huge sizes, anything around 24MP (or even 12MP) should be fine, especially if you’re just starting out.
The biggest question currently is if you should get a DSLR or a mirrorless camera.
Although some people create portraits with a point and shoot camera or even their smartphone, this is generally not recommended. The quality is often not enough and you won’t be able to take advantage of the many different lenses available.
Analog Or Digital?
Whether shooting analog with a film is better than digital or not, it’s probably not the best way to practice.
As digital images cost nothing and provide you with instant feedback you’ll be able to experiment and try as much as you like.
Also, even when you know what you’re doing there are some advantages:
- People blink. Taking more images just increases chances that you’ll capture them with their eyes open.
- When creating group portraits you’ll be able to create a composite if needed.
- Subjects that aren’t used to posing often relax a bit more when they hear the shutter often.
- You can show the results immediately to communicate with your model of the client.
Don’t let this discourage you from shooting analog though. There are many wonderful aspects about working that way and I really encourage you to at least try it when you have the opportunity.
Even professional portraits photographers like Martin Schoeller and Ryan Pfluger still create a lot of their work on film.
First of all, the lenses don’t take pictures. Cameras don’t take pictures either.
That said, lenses play a big part in the end result of your portraits.
Weirdly enough most people call 85mm and 105mm lenses “the best portrait lenses.”
What they actually mean is that these focal lengths are generally the most flattering for faces. We’ll see more about this below.
But depending on what you are trying to achieve, a totally different lens might be more suited:
- Are you creating a headshot or shooting a whole person standing?
- Do you want everything to be sharp or create a shallow depth of field?
- Is the portrait meant to be flattering or more artistic?
For example, famous portrait photographer Platon often uses a wide angle lens to create more dramatic effects.
Fixed Prime Lenses vs Zoom Lenses
In general, fixed lenses tend to take better pictures.
They are generally cheaper, smaller, lighter and sharper.
And as most of them also have a larger maximum aperture than zooms they let in more light and create a shallower depth of field. This lets you blur out the foreground and background into a beautiful bokeh, keeping the focus on your subject.
Of course, for wider shots, you could also create this with a long focal length, but if you want for example those popular “only the eyes are sharp” images you’ll need a large aperture.
Zoom lenses are easier and faster when you want to change focal length with a simple turn of the zoom ring. But for portraiture, you generally have plenty of time and control of the situation.
In this case, it’s almost always better to go for a prime lens and move around to change composition.
Which Focal Lengths?
The suggestions below are just that, suggestions. Just follow your artistic vision and know what you want to achieve. Of course, 35mm can just as well be 24mm. And everything that’s true for 85mm is about the same for 200mm.
35mm (Wide Angle)
“Best” for: Environmental portraits with a lot of context and where everything is sharp, or creative artistic portraits.
Beware of: Using it too close, or everything will get distorted. Noses will become huge and ears will disappear.
“Best” for: Cropped body shots and full-length portrait.
85mm and up (Tele)
“Best” for: As said above, focal lengths of about 85-105mm are most flattering for faces, so ideal for headshots. Also great for creating “eyes sharp only” images or just creating a beautiful bokeh.
- Nikon 85mm f1.4 (f1.8) / Nikon 105mm f1.4
- Canon 85mm f1.2 (f1.8) / Canon 135mm f2
- Sony 85mm f1.4 (f1.8)
How Many Lenses Do You Need?
As much as you can master.
I’m a big advocate of starting out with just one lens and only buying a new one when you totally know then ins and outs of the previous lens. Or unless the new lens gives you many options you didn’t have before.
Also, I always suggest you buy full frame (FX) lenses, even if you own a cropped sensor (DX) camera. Your lenses often outlive your camera, so when you upgrade you can still use all your lenses.
Portrait photographers can probably do 90% of their work with only 2 or 3 lenses (The Holy Trinity):
- A 35mm and 85mm
- A 24mm, 50mm, and 105mm
Getting The Lighting Right
Use The Golden Hour
These small periods of time just after sunrise and before sunset each day are known for their flattering light.
Especially when you are a natural light portrait photographer or create nature images, you can dramatically improve your photos by shooting during the golden hour.
So make sure to figure out what time the golden hour is for your location.
Master Single Light Portraits
No need to complicate things unnecessarily, especially when you’re just starting out.
Incredible portraits can be created with just one light.
You’ll have plenty of time later to add fill lights, rim lights, hair lights, and all those other things. Better to be a master of one thing than knowing a little bit of everything.
Even all the classic lighting setups of photography can be achieved while using just one light. So make sure you learn about the butterfly, Rembrandt, loop en split lighting setups.