What to Know About Portrait Photography

What to Know About Portrait Photography

Portrait photography is often considered one of the most difficult of all of the forms of photography because you’re trying to show the subject’s personality. At the same time, you want portrait photography to seem natural and not too stiff.

Commercially, there are a lot of instances of portrait photography being used. For example, wedding photos are portrait photography, as are baby photos, and photos for things like business and marketing materials.

Portrait photographers have the challenging of trying to make every photo they take unique, which it should be since every subject’s personality is unique. There are also technical considerations such as knowing which camera lens is going to work best for portrait photography.

The following are some of the general things to know about this type of photography.

The Lens

The importance of a portrait lens was already briefly touched on above, so it’s a good starting point. According to the Shotkit blog, if you go with a lens that’s over 85mm, subjects start to feel detached. This can make it difficult to capture the subject because they don’t feel as if they’re part of the photography moment when a lens is over 85mm.

Usually, lenses longer than 50mm can be best portrait photography, and other considerations with the lens, in particular, include maximum aperture, AF capabilities, and size and weight if you’re going to be shooting all day.


Portrait photography is actually a broad umbrella term. There are different styles that fall within the classification of portrait photography. For example, with traditional portrait photography, the face is the primary component of the photograph. This can also be described as a head-shot, and the person would be looking right at the camera for this kind of portrait photography.

Environmental portrait refers to a situation where there is a subject and along with that person being a focus of the image, so are their surroundings. A candid portrait is one where either the subject doesn’t know their photo is being taken or a person isn’t acknowledging that a photographer is taking their picture.

Another type is what’s called the lifestyle portrait. This is what you see with things like family and wedding portraits.

These are only a sample of the different types of portrait photography styles, each with its own unique elements.

Working with Your Subject

Doing portrait photography introduces something that you might not have to think about with other types of photography, which is working with your subject. You need them to feel comfortable and to feel a sense of relaxation. There is really no way to get a great portrait photo otherwise. Even if you have top-of-the-line equipment, if you can’t get your subject to relax and let their personality shine through, your photo’s not going to be as good as it could be.

You want to start building a relationship with them, but you at the same time should provide them with instructions because unless they’re a professional, your subject probably isn’t inherently going to know how to pose. Your requests shouldn’t be overwhelming or too complex, however.

Lighting When you’re taking portrait photos, the recommendation is to use natural light whenever possible. This could mean that if you’re indoors, you’re near a window that lets plenty of light flood in. Make sure the sun isn’t flowing directly into the window. Your subject’s face should be toward the light so that it’s not in a shadow.

Don’t shoot in direct midday sunlight either. Your subject is not going to be happy with the unflattering results of doing so. Very harsh sunlight is going to create shadows across your subject’s face.

Opt for a cloudy day or pick a time when the sun is low rather than being high in the sky.

If you do have to shoot under the sun and you don’t have another option, you can use a diffuser.

Finally, when you’re taking portrait photos make sure you’re far enough away that the image is going to be flattering and appealing. A good rule of thumb is to try and move as far back as you can with the lens you’re using. Then, once you’ve reached that point, you can zoom in on the subject.

The further back you can get, then the less distorted the face of your subject will be and vice versa—the closer you get, the more distorted their face will be. Sometimes portrait photographers will even use a telephoto lens when possible.

What to Know About Portrait Photography

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