Portrait photography tips and techniques for beginners

When I got my first DSLR camera, I was interested in taking portraits of my family and friends. I didn’t know where to start, so I had to conduct research to find out the answers to my questions. Through my research, I was able to educate myself on some of the more common and useful portrait photography tips for beginners like me.

You don’t have to have a degree in photography to take stunning portraits. Below, are the different categories that I have found useful so I am including them on my list of portrait photography tips and techniques for beginners.If you take some time out to follow some of these tips, not only will you become more educated in the area of portrait photography, but you will also have more fun taking pictures since you will be better prepared.

For an in-depth tutorial, Gina Milicia (professional photographer) is offering some of her best portrait photography tips in her ebook available at Digital Photography School.


Camera Gear

Let’s talk about the minimum of camera gear that you want in order to be able to take good portraits.
First, you’ll need a camera, of course. In this digital age that we live in, most people opt for a DSLR camera. A resolution of at least 15 megapixels will be decent for portrait photography. This is not to say that a camera with lower resolution can’t be used, but if you are planning to blow up the photos to an 8×10 or 11×17 size, then you may experience some pixelation.

Make sure that you have enough storage cards and batteries in place. Next, it is good to get a tripod. This helps to get a sharper image with convenience.

Most cameras have built-in flashes, but depending on how far you are from the subject may make the built-in flash ineffective. I would recommend an external flash unit with a diffuser on top of it. It diffuses the harsh light coming from the flash and evens out the light falling on your subject’s face.

Flash Diffuser

Flash Diffuser

The kit lens (provided with the camera) is the best lens to start with. You can gradually start stocking up on a wide array of lenses that have different focal lengths to ensure that you will have the right lens on hand no matter how far you are from the subject.

It is safe to stay above 50 mm focal length while taking portraits. Wider focal lengths add distortion to the image and will stretch your subject’s face, if not used properly.

Wide and telephoto portrait comparison

Image credit – wide and telephoto                                                                             (attribution)

Camera settings

While camera models vary, there are settings that are pretty universal. As beginners, it may be best to put your camera’s settings on AUTO or PORTRAIT mode. Check that your camera stabilization is ON. Zoom in a bit and you should be ready.

If you are more advanced, then you can go into the settings and adjust exposure, and manual focus options to have more versatility. For shooting tack, sharp portraits with that soft background (or Bokeh), check out my post on how to blur the background of a photo, in camera.

Most cameras that have built-in flashes will have settings to turn the flash on or off, which could prove useful when using an external flash or when a flash is not needed.

It’s all about Light

Lighting conditions are very important when it comes to the overall quality of the finished portrait. If you are outside and in well-lit surroundings, then most of the work is taken care of.

Try to position your subjects such that they face away from the sun or even better if they are in open shade (edge of tree’s shadow or inside doorways). This will save them from squinting and also produce a much more softer light on their face. Adjust the exposure settings so that your subject does not look too washed out.

Harsh and soft light portrait comparison

Take portraits out on the street where buildings or apartments block out the Sun. Go out and shoot on an overcast day or during sunset, to get that natural soft and flattering light.

For indoors or low light conditions, it is a good idea to use a flash. Otherwise, the ISO will increase to compensate for low light and introduce grain (or noise) in the image.

Composition basics

If you are going for an intimate portrait, try to fill the frame with the subject as much as possible. Typically, trying to zoom in to crop a photo after it is being taken ends up lowering the resolution. Try to make sure that you are keeping the subject’s eyes in the topmost third of the image. This will help to give the portrait balance. Focus on the eye closest to the camera.

Always check the entire frame before you click. Avoid clutter or other distractions in the background. You can make your subject stand out of the image by choosing a darker background.

Example of cluttered background  (credit)

Don’t chop off your subject’s limbs (hands or feet) at their joints. It’s not a good practice. If you have to chop, then do so in between joints. Position your camera and subject in such a way that the horizon in the background is not cutting through their head. Place the horizon above or below the subject’s head.

Use angles, the environment, and focal lengths to your advantage. Shooting from a lower angle makes the subject seem taller in the frame. Shooting down on someone’s face by placing the camera just above their eye-line opens up the eyes and also hides those extra chins.

Experiment or conduct some research prior to a shoot, look at photos from other artists that you like and pay attention to how everything in the picture is placed.

Simple Posing

Posing is equally as important as composition and there are a few basic tips to direct your subject into a great pose.

It is a good idea to have the subject pull their chin forward, and not up when taking a shot. This will allow for better symmetry of the subject’s face and bring forth a strong jawline. Position them so that their shoulders are not square at the camera. Twisting a little bit gives better shape and dynamics to the body.

You got the point, right :-)

You got the point 🙂

Good expression and that perfect moment make a portrait timeless. The more you’ll spend time with your subject with your camera in hand, the more they will open up. Don’t just take one image and be done. Talk to them, walk with them, bring them at ease. And, their inherent expressions will begin to flow naturally. Watch out for those moments.

Also, pose the subject’s hair in an appropriate manner if they have long hair. Typically, it is not a good idea to have a long hair hanging over both shoulders.

handling long hair with shoulder tilt

handling long hair with that shoulder tilt

Your turn now

By taking these portrait photography tips and techniques and using them in your portrait sessions, you can start to gain valuable experience when it comes to becoming a better portrait photographer.

If you wish to make a comprehensive study, I would recommend the PORTRAITS: MAKING THE SHOT ebook available at Digital Photography School. The author shares an easy-to-follow way to help you fast-track your journey to capturing beautiful portraits.

As you gain more experience and the quality of your images improve, then you can pass on your portrait photography tips to less experienced photographers that you meet.
Please share your knowledge on taking better portraits, and leave your comments and thoughts below.

6 thoughts on “Portrait photography tips and techniques for beginners

  1. Wow, such a comprehensive guide for newbies like me. I’ve been taking some amazing shots with my action camera, but wish to get more into this “portrait photography”.

    I agree that it’s all about light, as I’ve found out first hand! I’ve snapped a lot of good pictures only to find out later on that it was simply too dark and not good enough to keep.

    Thanks for all these wonderful tips. I’ve learned a lot already.

  2. Great article!

    Definitely a lot of info here to help out beginners like myself. So far I do all my own photography for my website, but like I said pretty fresh when it comes to photography. I will be sure to bookmark your site and look into some other articles on topics I may need help with.


  3. Very informative post! Photography does not require lots of money to produce great results, however, it does require some knowledge and skillset. I think you have outlined those steps to great results very nicely and provided a great resource for beginners or hobbyists to consider. There is so much you can cover, from different editing programs, to camera reviews, etc.!


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