Portrait photography

Essential ideas, tips and techniques to transform your portrait photography

Portrait is the kind of photography that keeps on giving, as there are always new skills to learn, new faces to photograph and new looks to achieve.

If you’re new to portrait photography or you’re lacking inspiration, our essential guide has plenty of portrait photography ideas for you to try. It walks you through setting up your camera, lighting for indoor and outdoor portraits, editing, and more.

1. Master the headshot

Head portrait

From the neck down, one person can be indistinguishable from another. It’s what’s at the top that sets us all apart as individuals. Our faces are our most expressive feature; a good headshot should celebrate that.

Compared to some types of portraits, the humble headshot can seem a bit rudimentary. But there is an art to getting it right, and it is an important feather in the arc of any portrait photographer.

In some ways, a portrait is a simple thing – you don’t need to think too much about the composition or the background, because the head dominates the frame. But simplicity comes with its own challenges, because it means you have to have a good grasp of the basics of lighting, depth of field, and focal length. There’s nowhere to hide with a shot in the head.

However, the techniques are secondary here. Most importantly, we need to extract something interesting from our topic …

Headshots: depth of field

Depth of field portrait

The difference between f / 2 (left) and f / 5.6 (right) is just enough to blur the annoying background

Large apertures restrict depth of field and lead to blurry backgrounds, but how far do you have to go? You might think that f / 5.6 – the typical maximum aperture of a standard kit zoom – is wide enough, but for a nice blur it’s often not wide enough. As such, a fixed focal length lens with a wide maximum aperture like f / 2 can prove useful for portraits.

Headshots: lighting

Lighting head

If you are using natural light, a window or a shady spot is ideal for headshots. However, a flash kit will give pro results. A home studio kit is ideal, with a plain wall or white foil for the background. For a simple and attractive lighting design, place a light (ideally equipped with a softbox or umbrella) above the face and the camera, with a reflector held under the chin to reflect the light back towards the top. If you are using a second light, aim it at the bottom.

Headshots: exposure settings

When the subject is moving (as people almost always do), you’re limited to faster shutter speeds. Here’s a good stock setting for shooting outdoors: set manual mode, ISO auto with a shutter speed of 1/250 sec, and aperture at its widest setting, like f / 4. With the flash, use a similar setting but at ISO 100. Take test shots to determine the best association between aperture and flash output.

Headshots: Lay the head

Even small adjustments can have a big impact on the appearance of the face. All subjects are different, but in general, a slightly sideways position works well. As you can see here, asking the subject to pull the shoulders back and push the head forward slightly will tighten the skin and reduce the double chin. The height of the camera is also important: having the camera at eye level creates a strong connection. As with any portrait, putting the subject at ease is essential, so chat with them while shooting, maybe put on some music to help them relax, and most importantly, give them lots of fun. encouragement.


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