3 steps to improving your portraiture

3 steps to improving your portraiture

A good portrait engages us with its subject – makes us respond emotionally to the person depicted within the frame.

We’re used to interacting with people, so as viewers, we’re already predisposed to respond to photographs of people.

It’s not hard to take a good portrait. On the other hand, it’s also easy to take bad portraits.

Try the following tips to improve your portrait photography:

1. The EYES have it

The next time you speak with someone face-to-face, try and think consciously about where you’re looking. Nine times out of ten, I bet you’ll be making eye contact. And, primarily, with their eye that is closest to you.

This should give you a big clue as to where you should always focus when taking a portrait – the eye of the subject closest to you. Make sure it’s pin-sharp, even if you’re shooting on a very shallow depth of field.

If your subject is facing you front on, then focus on either of their eyes. Don’t worry if the tip of their nose drops out of the zone of sharpness; similarly, don’t fret if their ears also fall slightly out of focus. It’s the eyes that will grab the person looking at the portrait.

If your digital compact camera or DSLR allows you to change the focus areas to a single focus point in the centre of the frame, then set it to this. This will give you absolute control over your focus – simply focus on the eye, focus lock (press the shutter button halfway down to lock the focus — usually a beep or green light will indicate focus lock), and then recompose and take the shot.

Similarly, make sure that there are catchlights in the eyes. Catchlights are reflected highlights from light sources in the environment in the subject’s eyes. They make eyes gleam; come alive.  Better yet, if you can position the subject so that the catchlights are in top left (roughly 10.00 or 11.00 position) or top right (roughly 1.00 or 2.00 position) on their eyes.

Anna's Eyes

Anna's eyes - lit by window light from the left.

Sometimes, the subject’s eyes can speak volumes — much more than a smile or some other facial expression. After all, there must have been some truth to the old adage about the eyes being windows to the soul.


The person in the portrait is the centre of attention. When composing a portrait shot, be aware of elements in the background that may distract viewers or detract from the subject.

Keep an eye out for parts of the background which show strong contrasts, for example, a large patch of bright sky showing through trees, as the strong highlights can distract the viewer’s attention. Similarly, watch out for strong colours in the background that can also distract.

If the background is particularly busy – for example, if there are plenty of trees and people in the background, narrow the zone of focus (use a shallow depth of field) to throw the background into soft and fuzzy out-of-focus goodness. You can attain this by shooting with a wide aperture (eg. f3.2, f4.0, f5.6) and reducing the distance between the lens and the camera (the closer the lens/camera is to the subject, the shallowed the depth of field). You’d be surprised what you can blur in the background if you’re shooting shallow depth of field.

Similarly, watch out for odd background elements that may affect your portrait. Ever seen photos taken by others where someone looks as if they have a pole sticking out of the top of their head, or tree branches growing out of their ears?

Keep an eye out for such background elements that may spoil the shot. Move your subject to a different location, or change your angle to remove these distractions. Put more distance between your subject and the background as this can help push the background distracting elements out of focus. The branch  growing out of your subject’s ears may then appear nothing more than a green and brown smudge.

Julie at Hyde Park - Lit to separate her from the background

Having said that, don’t discount what the background can add to your portrait. Have a look at the portrait below, taken in Fremantle. The shape of the phone booth helps centralise the subject and draw our attention to him.

Scott in Freo - an example of how background elements can contribute to the portrait.

3. Create DEPTH with lighting

The best portraits create a sense of three-dimensional depth with good use of directional lighting on the subject to form areas of light and shadow on the face you’re photographing. Front-lit subjects tend to look flat (and, to be honest, a bit boring). Look at where the light is coming from and place your subject so that the light source is slightly to the side, and slightly above. This creates a great balance of light and shadow on the subject’s face and form, as well as contributing to the catchlights in the eyes mentioned above.

If you’re indoors, look for a large window that’s letting in natural light. Have your subject sit or stand next to the window. If you’re outdoors, look for where the strongest light is coming and place your subject in a similar position.

Sophie, lit by window light

If you’re using a speedlight (camera flash), don’t front-flash your subject as this flattens them out in the most boring manner. Instead, take the speedlight off camera and light them from the side and slightly from above. Or if you can’t trigger your flash off camera, then bounce the light off a white wall next to the subject (or a white/silver reflector, if you have one). (Note: if you bounce a flash off a coloured wall, the light will take on the colour of the wall and you may end up having a red/green/blue/orange subject.)

Dave, lit with strobes.

If you think about it, you can really get quite creative with directional lighting!

To learn more about portraiture and photography with your flash or studio lights, have a look at the Practical Portraiture Photography Workshops.

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