Portrait Photography Ideas

Hello and welcome to my post on Portrait Photography.  In this post we will discuss some basics of portrait photography and the lenses that may help you achieve desirable results.  Hopefully this post will inspire some portrait photography ideas.  The aim of portrait photography is to express personality and emotions of the subject by using various photographic methods.  

These methods may include lighting, backdrops or certain angles and poses.  Portrait photography can be a challenge since it needs to capture so many facets of your subject.  Knowing  some basic concepts like planning, lighting, composition, and depth of filed will help you achieve better results.

A Little History

Portrait photography became more popular in the mid-19th century.   But most of the work was done in studios because the photographic equipment in those days was massive and not portable.  Prior to 19th century portrait paintings were very common.  Daguerreotype was a form of photo processing technique which gave rise to portrait photography over painted portraiture. 

This form of photo processing reduced exposure time consequently reducing the sitting time of the subject compared with painted portraits.  The exposure time was still long compared to modern technology.  It would take anywhere from 10 seconds to several minutes to complete an exposure.

Long exposure times posed problems to photograph children who were intimidated by the studio equipment.  Hidden mother photography is a genre of photography that evolved to solve this problem. Children were photographed with their mother present but hidden in a cloak or disguised as a chair to keep them still and calm.

As photographic equipment advanced, it gave photographers the ability to even further reduce the sitting times of their subjects.  With continued technical advancements photography became portable and fast.  Today it comes in many forms including phones, pens, and compact cameras that can easily fit in our pocket.
(Toddler Portrait courtesy wiki commons)

Planning for a Photo-Shoot

As with every activity, planning for a portrait photography is fundamental to your success.  The first thing you should think is what you need from the shot.  Portraits seem very simple but in fact they are extremely complicated.  You are trying to express an immense amount of nature and emotions in a still photograph.  It is good idea to get to know your model.  This develops a relationship that can lead to better understanding of each other.  By talking to them you will become more conscious of their personality.

Talk to your model about what they would like to portray in a photograph.  Our personalities are immensely complex with many parts and often difficult to understand.  Ask them if they like to portray happiness, sadness, suspense or joy.  This relationship can have a striking effect in understating your subject.

Setting up a location for you photo-shoot is another part of planning.  A carefully planned location will further add to the emotion of your subject and enhance your story.  The idea of choosing a good location is that it should embed itself with the theme of your photo.  Your model must be feel comfortable to perform in you chosen location.  Unwanted flaws can be seen in the final photos if your model is not comfortable with the location.  Lack of comfort will lead to disconnected or bored feel in the photos.


Understanding light is extremely important to create great photographs.  Working with natural light is a great way for beginners to learn portrait photography. Natural light can produce hard or soft intensities.  The difference of these intensities is known as contrast. Hard or harsh light is the high level of light that is present.  It is characterized by long and sharp dark shadows.  High level of light will intensify the level of color.  Bright colors will stand out vividly while soft colors will appear even softer. Hard light is generally available at noon when sun is at its peak. 

Photo by Clarisse Meyer

As a beginner you may want to avoid hard light because the challenges it presents.  Shooting in harsh light can lead to loss of detail as the image may become too bright or too dark. This problem cannot be corrected by changing the ISO, shutter speed or aperture.  You will end up spending unnecessary time in post processing to correct the problem with not so favorable results. It’s better to avoid harsh light until you begin to understand how to use it in the favor of you theme. 

Soft light is characterized by low level of light that creates diffused shadows.  A source of soft light is generally larger than the subject.  Larger area of light provides greater angle and as a result fills in more of shadow areas.  In photographic terms this effect is known as wrap around lighting which creates soft shadows.  Finding a source of natural soft light depends on location and time of the day.  Cloudy or overcast skies, sunsets, and sunrises are generally  great conditions for soft light.

Although soft light is easier to work with than harsh light but it still poses some challenges.  One issue is that the low level of light may not be enough to correctly expose your image.  So it’s important to take your shutter speed into consideration.  Having a low shutter speed can cause a blurry image.


Composing a successful scene requires attention to visual elements.  These elements may include lines, shapes, colors, and texture.  People make the most interesting subject in portrait photography.  Physically and emotionally we are immensely diverse.  Capturing this level of diversity is not as easy as it may seem.  Following a few rules will get you started thinking in terms of composing a successful shot.

  • Rule of Thirds
    • Imagine your frame divided into 3 columns and 3 rows giving you a total grid of 9 parts.  When you view this grid in mind or through you camera screen, there are four area where the line intersect. Our eyes naturally tend to focus on one of these areas when viewing an image.  According to the theory these four intersections will result in a well-balanced photograph
  • Headroom
      • Headroom is the space between the top frame and the head of your subject.  Pay careful attention to the length of headroom.  Too much or too little space can have a distracting effect on your image.  The image may seem squished if it is too close to the top of the frame.  There are no set rules but use your judgment to see if the image looks proportionate.
  • Eyes
    • Eyes are considered the pathway to our soul.  We naturally look at the eyes first even when meeting a stranger.  Ideally the focus point should be the eyes of the subject and positioned about one third down from the top of the frame.  As a beginner the rule of thirds is a pretty good place to start for eye position.
  • Depth of Field
      • Depth of field is the area around the focus point.  Blurry backgrounds are the result of shallow depth of field.  This is also known as the bokeh effect.  Softer depth of field will separate your subject from the background and make it stand out.
      • Aperture values determine the how the depth of field will behave.  Lower f/stops (f/1.8) result in shallow depth of field.  Practice with different aperture values.  There may be time when your background needs some detail.  In these situations use higher f/stops (f/4).

    Photo of little girl by Janko Ferlič

Lenses Useful for portrait photography

There are a variety of lenses available for portrait photography.  Macro lens, prime lens, and zoom lens can all be used for portraits. As a beginner it can be often confusing where to start.  Although there is no right or wrong lens for portraits but some lenses may be more helpful for beginners.

Prime Lens is a fixed focal length lens which is great for portraits photography.  It has a wider maximum aperture that can be extremely helpful in low light conditions.  The optical design of prime lenses produce extremely sharp and detailed images.  Most portrait photographers choose large aperture because it creates a shallow depth of field.

Zoom lenses also work surprisingly well for portraits.   With a zoom lens you can fill your camera frame to your likings.  One disadvantage of zoom lens is its smaller maximum aperture.  Smaller aperture means the lens will need more light and may not create a blurry background you may desire.  But most of these issues can be dealt in post processing.   A good photo editing software like Photoshop can resolve some of these issues.


There are no hard set rules or laws on how you should plan and compose your portraits.  Internet is filled with enormous amounts of tips and ideas on portrait photography.  It can be often difficult to know where to start. These are basic guidelines that provide some direction for a beginners.  Rules are meant to be broken but its good idea to know the rules first before you break them.  Reading about photography will give you some insight but nothing beats practice.  So get your camera out and take some photos.  I hope this article has given you some foundation knowledge on portrait photography.  Please feel free to leave and comments or questions.

Feature image by Tanja Heffner

Photo By Chris Zerbes
Photo By Chris Zerbes


  1. Hi, thanks for this detailed explanation. I was planning to get my portrait done by a professional photographer, but I was looking for one that I would be comfortable with. 

    I loved your explanation about the right lighting. I have very white skin so I was thinking that I shouldn’t get my portrait done in the sunlight. I just had the feeling that I would look even whiter and then it wouldn’t look like me. 

    Do you think it really matters or it’s just a false impression?

    1. Author

      harsh light can intensify the colors.  Sunlight may make you portrait more vivid. It also depends on your back ground.  A dark back ground with white subject may give you better contrast.

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