6 Tips for First-Time Portrait Shoots


Portrait photography can be a daunting task. Although one might assume its as easy as pie, after all, it’s all about taking photos of other living, breathing, moving creatures that look vaguely like yourself, right? It means that you can communicate with each other and have that understanding that humans have with one another. What’s more, you take photos of people all the time – just check your phone and you’ll probably have a photo gallery filled with images of your friends and family. But although the subject is the common ground, that’s where the similarity ends. Your social snaps are to document events that happened; a portrait is about setting a scene.

If this is your first time doing a portrait shoot, there are some basic things that you should prepare yourself with.

1.Start with a lens with a large aperture.

It sounds expensive, but a large aperture lens does not necessarily equate to great expense. One of the best and most affordable options is a 50mm F/1.8 (Canon and Nikon both have one). If you are using a camera body with an APS-C sensor it crops the effective field-of-view pretty perfectly, at a 75mm or 80mm equivalent, it’s a very typical focal length for traditional portraits.

Shooting at a large aperture allows you to have a shallower depth-of-field in your photos, putting all the focus squarely on the model and selectively blurring out the background with some beautiful bokeh. The eyes of the person looking at the photo are thus drawn to the subject, with the blurred background emphasising the subject more. You can always opt fo an inexpensive 85mm f/1.8 that compresses things more and will give your photos blurrier backgrounds.

2. Communication is Key

Most human faces are asymmetrical. It doesn’t matter if you’re Adrian from the street or Adriana Lima, everyone has their better side. The thing with professional models is that they know their best side, whether it be the left side of their face or right. Working models will most likely have spent time working out what angles flatter them the most, so simply ask them, and they will surely be happy to let you know. Portraits are all about the skills, knowledge and ability of the model and you working together in unison.

The simplest but most useful skill to have in a portrait shoot is knowing how to communicate with your model. It’s not just about you, although it is about your vision. You have the ideas but you have to be able to talk to your model, make her feel comfortable and not seem at all patronising. She might be getting paid but that doesn’t mean that she’ll feel good doing what you ask her to do when she feels like awkward.

If you’re working with an amateur model, the communication is even more important because you have to take charge, to look for the angles that look good and help create the scene together.

3.Pay attention to how light is falling onto your model’s face.

Lighting 101: avoid light sources that are directly above the head of your subject. Try going out in the midday sun and look at how harsh the shadows are, how unflattering the light is and of course your model squinting like mad.

For a beginner, one of the easiest ways to do a portrait would be to ask the model to turn his or her face towards the primary light source. This will literally lighten your subject and will make for a pleasant portrait. However, it’s not flattering for all types of faces because it might have a flattening effect.

Perhaps the easiest way to figure out what light is flattering would be to use natural light, as what-you-see-is-what-you-get, so you find out quite easily and quickly how to position your model.

4. Choose a background that is in contrast with the clothing of your subject

The background doesn’t have to be a white background in a studio. Make things more interesting by shooting out on location, your backdrops could be anything from buildings in the distance or the blackness of night or an overexposed sky that is overblown to an almost white, ethereal look. There are no rules, so this is where you get creative.

Contrast doesn’t mean that the background has to be a vastly different to what the model is wearing. It doesn’t have to be a model dressed in an evening dress, stood in the middle of a football field. We’re talking about contrast not comedy. The tones can match, the clothes and background can relate to each other, to make the scene more complete but don’t make the background shouldn’t overwhelm the subject but rather compliment.

5. Props for New Models

If you are working with a non-professional model, poses can be a problem. They might be a bit awkward and uncomfortable with the poses. Using props can be a way of shifting the focus of the model onto something else, thus preventing them from over-thinking things. A lot of the posing problems with new models are that they overcook things a bit, too self-conscious, so the prop will help to get them thinking about something else. Try to think about a prop that is appropriate to the setting. Something like a book for the model to read, while sat under a tree in the evening sun.

6. Retouching is Important but not Everything

Portrait photography benefits hugely from retouching. Commercially you would find it almost impossible to find any portrait work that has not been retouched in some way. If you look at the cover a fashion magazine, those images have usually been retouched quite extensively. The key thing is that they Photoshopping that doesn’t look like photoshopping; retouching a photo that completely and tidily hides the truth.

Learning post-processing skills is arguably as important for your portrait photography as the shooting process itself. Knowing at least some core basics such as removing blemishes is the minimum requirement. But of course don’t overdo things or don’t try to make an inherently bad shot good, don’t try to completely bend the truth in an extreme way.

Thankfully for those who aren’t too familiar with these processes there are a ton of resources available on the internet to give you a handy guide on how to process your photos best.

Do remember that all these are just general guidelines for beginners not rules. There aren’t necessarily rules. Once you have built up enough confidence, feel free to experiment and break the rules. Your imagination is the limit.