How to Take Good People/Portrait Photographs

People are probably the most widely photographed subjects. However, people photography needs special treatment in terms of composition, lighting, depth of field and most importantly a “natural look”. It is a misconception that shooting people/portraits needs elaborate studio equipment. Contrary to the popular belief, people can be photographed successfully in natural light.

A traditional portrait is of a person sitting looking straight at the camera – in my opinion, far too boring. I like to get them to use hand gestures or else add a few props around them.

The essence of making an outstanding portrait lies in discovering the hidden personality and the mystic characteristics of the “sitter”. A realistic record shot of the person can hardly produce a good portrait. In other words, a portrait must tell everything or at least one characteristic feature of the sitter and it is possible only if one can discover in a few moments, the outstanding qualities of the sitter. This can be done by developing a keen sense of observation. However, the task is not easy. One can hardly temper with the animate features of the face of the person, unlike in still-life, flower study etc., where additions and subtractions, according to one’s tastes and likes are possible. As a matter of fact, a sitter need not necessarily be a beauty. A characteristic touch in the face offers enough scope for the portrait to exploit and create something worthwhile. One has, therefore, to be very alert in People/Portrait Photography.

Informal Pictures

It is a good idea to begin taking pictures of people who are friends and relatives for they would be more relaxed than outright strangers. An average person, except professional models, does not feel comfortable facing a camera. It is always advisable to avoid taking photographs of people with the sun behind the photographer as the sun’s glare will make them squint. Bright shade of a tree or besides a building is a vantage point. An overcast day is very suitable for outdoors portraits.


It is always better to keep talking things of mutual interest with the person being photographed. This will make the subject confident, helping him or her come up with a good expression.


instantShift - People Portrait Photography

This often leads to problems as the subject begins to feel a bit uncomfortable in front of a camera. He does not know what to do with his arms and legs. This awkward feeling can be avoided by making him sit in a chair or a bench or a stool. The important thing is that the pose should come naturally and the subject should look relaxed and not tensed up.

Distance of the subject from camera would depend on the type of portrait taken and the lens used. A normal lens of 50 mm is alright for a full-length picture, but for a head-and-shoulder portrait the focal length should be at least double the focal length of a normal lens. Here a plus point is the atmosphere of the house which allows the subject to relax and be in familiar settings. Fast films and an assortment of portable lights make the job easier. Most flashgun manufacturers offer portable kits that can solve all lighting problems very effectively.

Setting up the Shot

You need to be careful in your choice of setting, however. If it has too many features, for instance, you can lose the main purpose of the shot. Getting the lighting right is of paramount importance – too little, and your shot will be worthless, too much and you will end up with a bleached face.

Look for strong lines in the background, as these can ruin the effect of your portrait Look especially for vertical objects rising out of the top of the head. Trees, the edges of buildings, window frames and all manner of other structures can create composition difficulties.


Most people feel nervous in front of a camera. It is entirely normal to feel this way, but it can be hard work trying to get a subject to relax, especially if you are short of time for the shot. One of the worst contributors to this camera awkwardness is other people watching. Not only will the subject be nervous, but they will feel far more self-conscious, as well. If you can, it is best to clear the area, so you are left alone with your subject.

To get your subject into the right frame of mind, get them to go through a range of hand positions. No single pose will work for everyone, so take lots of shots and choose the best one.

It is important that you also project a feeling of confidence. If your subject thinks that you know what you are doing and that you are going to produce good results, it is a great help in putting them at ease. One of the ways to do this is to show them the particular pose you want by mimicking it yourself.

Shooting Portraits

The aim of any portrait photography is to capture the beauty, strength and character of the subject. The portrait photographer must have this ability, so as to give a true portrayal of model’s personality.

instantShift - People Portrait Photography

The model should be completely at ease, if the results are to appear natural. Interaction with the subject is vital in portrait photography.

People can be photographed in a variety of ways i.e. full length, up to waistline, head & shoulder shots, or close up of the face.

Directional light coming from the windows provides a good light source for natural looking portraits. A silver/white reflector can be used to provide fill-in light for shadow areas. (An exposure of about 1/30 sec at f5.6 may be required for portraits by the window light).

Normally, a medium telephoto lens (80-105 mm) is used in portrait photography. A wide-angle lens produces extreme distortions in the face, and even a standard lens is also not suitable for taking close-up photographs.

Wide apertures are used, which gives narrow depth of field and thus isolating the subject from the background. A soft focus filter can be used, especially while shooting pretty girls and children.

Outdoors, make sure that the objects like trees or lampposts are not immediately behind the camera; otherwise they will appear as if they are growing from the head! The background should be sub-ordinate in interest, as compared to the subject.

Posing Your Subject

Normally, everybody (expect the kids) is self conscious in front of the camera. So, it becomes the prime responsibility of the photographer to make the subject feel at ease. A god way to do this is to enter into some sort of conversation.

The model directly facing or looking into camera makes a dull composition (Leave this style for passport photographs only). Instead, ask the model to sit at an angle, and then turn his head slightly towards the camera.

A tilting head is an absolute no, unless you are taking an extreme close-up of the face, that too for an artistic effect.

Place the camera at slightly lower level then subject’s eyes. For shooting “models”, it is better to keep the camera at the naval-line to enhance the stature.

The focus should be set at model’s eyes, and depth of field should be just enough to keep other parts of the face reasonably sharp. In side poses, the eye closer to the camera should always be in focus.

The hands should be kept relaxed, and not stiff. The props used if any should be in harmony with the subject. Look at various portraits in magazines, and experiment. Your imagination is the only limit!

Studio Lighting for Portraits

instantShift - People Portrait Photography

For studio portraits, a wide variety of lighting can be used. Frontal lighting gives little or no modeling to the face. A soft box used to one side of the model, along with a large reflector to the opposite side, gives acceptable results in most cases. A light from the back (& to one side) is usually added, to separate the hairline from the background. In addition to the above, the background may be separately lit. In portrait photography, following types of lighting set-ups are widely used.

Short Lighting

The short lighting is used for round faces, as it has the effect of narrowing down the face. The key light is placed at the short side of the face (short side is one, which is turned away from the camera). Having the side of the face towards the camera in shadow causes the narrowing (or slimming) effect.

Broad Lighting

In this, the key light illuminate the near side of the face, which is turned towards the camera. This is used for narrow faces, as it has the broadening effect on the face.

Butterfly Lighting

This also called “Glamour Lighting”. The key light is placed slightly above and directly in front of the face. It casts a shadow under the subject’s nose, which looks like a butterfly. A reflector at the front (and below the model’s face) is usually used to throw some light back, so as to soften the shadows.

Rembrandt Lighting

This type of lighting is a combination of Short Lighting and Butterfly Lighting. The key light is kept to one side, and slightly above the model’s face. The light forms a triangle at the model’s cheek facing the camera, an effect similar to, as seen in Rembrandt’s Paintings.

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High Key & Low Key Portraits

A good distribution of tonal values, from the dark to light, in a single photograph is considered as a good starting point. However, real impact can be made by a shift from the above accepted rule.

A high key image consists of predominantly light tonal values, whereas a low-key image consists of predominantly dark and mid-gray tonal values. Whether an image will be a high key or low key depends upon the lighting quality, as well as the subject itself.

A portrait of pretty girl having blonde hair, with light background, in a soft light, will make a high key photograph. A high key image conveys sophistication, lightness, calm and spaciousness.

A candle lit close-up face, with a dark background, will result in a low key picture. Take meter reading from highlight areas, and under-expose by half a stop. Make sure that the light source is not very near to the face; otherwise it will give strong highlight at the nose tip. A low key image often conveys an atmosphere of mood, confinement, mystery and deep strength.

Candid Photographs

instantShift - People Portrait Photography

Candid photographs are those that are taken mostly and are preferred by the subjects without the subject being made conscious of being photographed. The photographer has to be more alert and take more pictures than what he would do in a formal session. This ensures a good choice to be made later on. A 35 mm camera with medium tele lens is ideal for candid photography, especially for taking pictures outdoors. By using a tele lens the photographer can remain unobtrusive and it makes the job easier.

But for good candid photography, where the element of surprise is essential, the camera has to be present and kept ready for instant action. The camera should be close to the chest and not in the camera bag. The cameraman should have determined what exposure/aperture to use and the shutter should be pressed without jerking the camera.

It is not necessary to have pinpoint sharpness in all portraits. Subjects like children and women often look much better with a soft look, which does not mean out of focus. Overall soft effect is very flattering and do get this effect, one has to use a special filter called ‘soft focus’ or ‘diffuser’. It does not affect the exposure but produces a pleasing effect. This happens as the light is scattered by the concentric rings or the small embossed elements on the filter. This effect also covers up minor flaws on the skin, like freckles and wrinkles, as these get camouflaged.

Lighting for Portraits

When flashguns had not taken over, a continuous light source was preferred but since most modern flashguns have a modeling lamp (which tells exactly how the flashlight will fall), the trend is to use flashguns only. They can be bounced or used directly. The scheme of lighting for a portrait is as follows:

  • Butterfly lighting is suitable for normal faces with the main light in front of and slightly higher than the face and in line with the nose.
  • Broad lighting means placing the main light to fully illuminate the side of the face nearest to the camera. This lighting tends to broaden the faces that are too thin.
  • Short lighting means placing the main light on the side of the face, farthest from the camera. This lighting tends to narrow a broad face.

Portraiture in the Studio

If a session has been pre-planned, then it helps if all the homework, like setting up right backdrop, loading of film, setting up of tripod and lighting arrangement, is done beforehand. Wasting time on these matters will bore the subject which may show up in the pictures.

It always helps to keep talking gently to the subject, or to play some music to keep his or her mood relaxed. Most people tend to get nervous before a camera. This camera-consciousness can be minimized considerably this way.

Exposure should be short, using electronic flashguns preferably with reflectors to diffuse the light. It is better to take a few shots in rapid succession because ‘nobody likes to spend much time with a dentist or a photographer’!

Portraits in Morning and Evening Lights

Light in the morning and evening is relatively weak and low-angled. This makes the light directional but produces strong shadows which can be taken care of by a large reflector. The reflector should be kept at a slight distance to maintain a feeling of light and shade.

The light of the low-angled sun in the evenings has a slight orange tinge which can be a plus point, depending on one’s personal likes and dislikes.

Light Through the Window

For centuries the window light has been a favourite source of illumination for portrait painters and is still rightly so. It offers interplay of light and shadow which is the heart and soul of good portrait lighting. When using the window light, a reflector made from a white card or improvised with a newspaper may be positioned to catch the light and throw it back into the shadow areas. Today, however, things are not so, because advancements in lighting techniques make it possible to create the effect of window lighting by using huge banks of lights.

Umbrella Lighting in Studios

instantShift - People Portrait Photography

Although umbrella lighting is mostly used by professional photographers in commercial studios but due to their great advantage and convenience in use, they are increasingly being used by keen amateurs as well.

Basically it is a one-light source wherein a flashgun is placed in the centre of the reflecting umbrella and the light is bounced back on the subject. It provides an effect in which the light falls around the subject. It gives a directional effect with softness combined, from the same source. As the umbrella fills round the subject, a fill-in-light is not necessary. But, in case still more even and soft light is required (no shadow whatsoever) then one more umbrella from the other side can also be used.

When used at very close range, umbrella lighting is the main light as well as a fill-in. the farther away the umbrella is, the more directional and higher contrast is the overall effect.

The umbrella can be a large one (1.8 meter diameter) or a smaller one (1.2 meter diameter). A great advantage of umbrella lighting is that it produces a constant level of light without any variation. Exposure can be taken by a flash meter but, if one is not available, then a series of exposures can be made at different apertures and the best one determined. The umbrella can be of silver color inside, when a bit of contrast is needed. Some gold colored umbrellas are also made to impart a warm effect to the skin tones.

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  1. And you use stock photos for this?

  2. Thanks for these tips and examples!
    I just bought a new camera :)

  3. You’re totally right about this: “The model directly facing or looking into camera makes a dull composition (Leave this style for passport photographs only)” LOL! A lot of people do not realize this!

    Thanks for your article!

  4. simply helping a lot for me as newbie photographer.

  5. Very nice tips, this is would gonna help me to get more better photos, btw i do like photography most! thanks for this article

  6. its very helpful for me thank you

  7. Nice source of information. While I personally believe lighting is the key in almost every situation, I like the fact that this goes into so much detail on this subject. This would be a great resource for educators as well to use in photography classes.

  8. That was really helpful, Great Post!

  9. What a blog! Finally I have found a blog which has succeeded in answering all my queries. I am sure all the amateur photographer like me as well as the professionals will like this blog! It was so illustrative and so helpful that I am looking forward for some more blogs like this from you! Thanks a lot pal!

  10. Seems so simple… But mine are always a mess. Never giving up, one day I will be there.

  11. Hikz… I’m not a photographer, But love to be….
    Thanx it’s interesting

  12. Useful tips… good work…

  13. We pretty much appreciate your blog post. You can find a multitude of techniques we could put it to decent use with a minimum of effort on time and hard earned cash.

  14. You add perfect main things that are useful for any type of photography. Thanks for this useful post. I never read such a useful points before and now after reading these points i will keep them in my mind so that to use them whenever i need.

  15. Thanks for these tips and examples

  16. Simply great information.Its realy helpful for photographers.Thanks!

  17. simply helping a lot for me as newbie photographer

  18. Nice source of information. While I personally believe lighting is the key in almost every situation, I like the fact that this goes into so much detail on this subject. This would be a great resource for educators as well to use in photography classes.

  19. you are so professional, under your guidance, I believe I can do well.

  20. simply helping a lot for me as newbie photographer.

  21. Very nice, gives me a lot of inspiration being right in the midst of a redesign. It’s all in the details and comment forms are definitely overlooked more often than not. Time well spent on this post. This is a very good idea! Just want to say thank you for the information, you have to share. Just continue to write such a position. I will be your faithful reader. Thank you again.

  22. Shoot, who would have thguoht that it was that easy?

  23. i really love to be a good photographer,but not for working on a studio just only take natural photos

  24. What a blog! Finally I have found a blog which has succeeded in answering all my queries. I am sure all the amateur photographer like me as well as the professionals will like this blog! It was so illustrative and so helpful that I am looking forward for some more blogs like this from you! Thanks a lot pal!

  25. I like to take photos of people. But I do not have a studio and I have to depend on available lights and natural lights. I used daylight and some home made reflectors and those are very helpful.
    Thanks for posting such a wonderful post.

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