7 Crucial Tips to Make Sure Your Portrait Shoot Goes Well

7 Crucial Tips to Make Sure Your Portrait Shoot Goes Well

There are a deceptive number of moving parts in a portrait shoot, and it's easy to get overwhelmed and let some slip through the net before you have many shoots under your belt. Here are seven crucial tips to remind yourself of the key areas that need your attention.

I remember my first few portrait shoots vividly. I had spent days researching images I liked and tips for how to shoot effectively, I went over the settings in my mind constantly, and oscillated between confidence and imposter syndrome. I drove to the shoots with so much held in my mind that any new piece of information could have caused everything I know to come cascading out of every orifice — exactly how I felt went sitting exams, come to think of it.

It's easy to overcomplicate things, however. There are principles that if you keep to hand and remind yourself of, you can stay balanced and avoid simple mistakes. To that end, I've compiled a list of simple tips to keep in mind when shooting portraits to ensure you're getting the most out of each image.

1. Focus on the Eyes

Model: Rachel Wilkinson, HMUA: Holly Carter

Your subject's eyes are crucial to your portrait and you're going to want to make sure they are tack sharp. The difficulty comes when you use a very narrow depth of field (something we'll discuss later), and your autofocus doesn't aim for the eyes. When I first started taking portraits with a 50mm f/1.8, I learned the hard way that the tip of a subject's nose will want to be primary focus unless you override it. Of course, many modern cameras have Eye AF, which detects eyes for you. If that's the case, make sure it's turned on. If it's not, zoom in on your shots and check that the point of focus is on an eye and the eye you want it to be on!

2. What You Blur out Is as Important as What's in Focus

What is out of focus in your frame can often take up a large portion of the final image. Nevertheless, as it's not the subject of your photo, many will neglect it completely. You may get lucky and the background is pleasing, but most of the time, without forethought, you won't be lucky. The best case scenario then is that your background offers nothing to the image and is dull. The worst case scenario is that it's highly distracting and can even ruin an otherwise great shot. Experiment with different backgrounds until you find one that complements your image the best.

3. The Sun Ought to Be Behind Your Subject

Model: Hanna Hughes

You don't always have complete control over light if you're shooting portraits outdoors for whatever reason. In portrait shoots like the above, it was based on when all involved could meet, but in events and weddings, you have even less control than that. This means you may be creating images during the worst hours of light for a photographer: when the sun is at its highest. If this is the case or the light is strong and not necessarily being used in the portrait to creative effect, ensure the sun is above or preferably behind your subject. This way they won't be squinting and you have better creative control. Bonus tip: you can use a reflector to reflect that sunlight back onto your subject's face which is what I did in the image above.

4. Experiment With Angles

Some of the most engaging portraits are close up and straight on with the subject; I gravitate towards these in particular and every shoot I do, whether for a magazine or a private client, will include one or two like that. But once you're up and running and comfortable, experiment with different angles. Get up high or on the floor, move behind something which obstructs part of the frame, move where the subject is in the composition, and so on. Sometimes, by just messing around, you end up with images you otherwise wouldn't have thought to take.

5. Wide Open Isn't the Only Aperture Worth Using

Musician, Ryan Beatty

This tip is crucial and a bit of a pet peeve of mine. If you read photography forums, you could be tricked into thinking that f/2.8 and faster (or having the lens wide open) and around f/8 to f/11 are the only apertures worth using. Either everything has to be in focus, front to back, or just the specific focal point and then everything else must be buttery bokeh. There are so many occasions where that is not true I can barely list them all. In my portraiture, I will regularly shoot fairly low key images, but also quite close up. This means that if I use f/1.4 to f/2.8 I'll lose a lot of my carefully crafted scene, but if I use f/8 to f/11 I'll lose all depth and many of stops of light. A good number of my portraits are shot at f/4.5 to f/6.3 — I urge you to experiment with the middle apertures. I have a full article on this coming soon.

6. Create a Moodboard of Poses You Like

This is absolutely fundamental to the way I work. Before any shoot, big or small, I spend time collating a Pinterest board full of images I like or photographs with elements I think could work. I have many Pinterest boards, some generalized and some for specific shoots, and whether I'm in the zone and looking for more ideas mid-shoot, or we've ground to a bit of a halt, I'll always lean on prior research.

7. Longer Focal Lengths Are Often Better

Musician, Afrojack

Longer focal lengths (typically upwards of 85mm on a full frame sensor, or 50mm on a crop sensor) will often reward you with more flattering and pleasing images. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, there is the distortion of wide angle lenses, which can stretch and magnify features in a way you wouldn't ordinarily want. With longer focal lengths, a person's face and body is generally closer to what the subject looks like and sometimes even a touch more flattering! Secondly, longer focal lengths create better subject separation from the background which can result in a pleasing and cinematic, distraction-free final image.

There are seven crucial tips to ensure a portrait shoot goes well. What are your best tips that could help someone inexperienced in shooting portraiture to get the most out of their photoshoot?

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5 Comments

I regularly shoot sports with a 400mm f2.8 and find that makes a great portrait lens, especially with the great blurred-out backgrounds. An important skill for a sports photographer is learning how to manually expose a backlit situation.

I've seen some great pictures of late in the game, into the light, touchdown receptions, or not. It helps when the defender is wearing white because your 'reflector' is moving stride for stride with the receiver.

Robert, this is a great article that presents great advice. I'd never thought to use Pinterest to make a story board before a shoot. I'm going to try it soon. (Even an old photog can learn new tricks.)

Jenny Rich's picture

I've never thought of using Pinterest either, thanks! The sun behind is a tricky one for me because I'm not very good at choosing the right light and usually have to correct it later in photodiva but guess I'll learn one day

Timothy Gasper's picture

Very good choices, but numer 1 is excellent. Focusing on the eyes is paramount and MUST be number 1. Good