Stunning Portrait Photography: The Ultimate Guide (in 2019)

Do you want to do incredible portrait photography?

While creating amazing portrait photos may seem difficult, it doesn’t have to be.

And in this article, we explain exactly how you can take gorgeous portraits–every time you get out your camera!

portrait photography of girl in field
We’ll teach you how to capture gorgeous portraits!

Are you ready to take your portrait photography to the next level?

Then let’s get started.

1. Portrait Photography Equipment: Choose DSLRs or Mirrorless Cameras

Despite the emergence of powerful smartphone cameras, traditional cameras still rule the field when it comes to portrait photography work.

By this, I mean DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.

These cameras create high-quality photos…

…and you can do powerful editing to these photos afterward.

This is much more difficult to pull off with mobile cameras. Small mobile sensors result in lower-quality images. And phone photos offer a lot less post-processing power.

Plus, DSLRs and mirrorless systems give you far more focal length options. After all, you can change your lens. You may want to have a look at some of the best lenses for portrait photography.

DSLR lenses for portraits
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras let you change lenses (e.g. between a 35mm or a 50mm prime lens).

One moment, you can shoot a tight portrait. And the next? You can create a wider environmental shot.

Related Article: Mirrorless vs DSLR for Beginners (Which one is better?)

2. Shoot at Golden Hour for the Best Light (Or Bring a Reflector)

If you want to capture incredible portraits, shoot during golden hour.

(Golden hour is the hour just after sunrise and the hour just before sunset. During golden hour, the light is soft and beautiful–and it’ll make your pictures soft and beautiful, too.)

girl in golden hour backlight
This photo was taken just before sunset, which created a gorgeous light!

Golden hour light is extremely flattering. Unfortunately, it’s not always practical to shoot during these times.

So what do you do if you find yourself needing to take portraits with non-optimal light?

Here’s what I suggest:

Bring a reflector and a diffuser.

Let’s start with the reflector: The number one reason why non-golden hour light is bad…is because it creates harsh shadows.

A reflector will make the harsh shadows vanish. And your portrait subjects will immediately look far better.

I often carry along a foldable 5-in-1 reflector . It has a black surface, a gold surface, a plain white surface, and a silver surface.

I use a different surface depending on the kind of look that I want.

But sometimes a reflector isn’t enough. What if you require soft light, but the only light available is hard, midday sun?

That’s when the diffuser comes in handy. I’d ask an assistant to hold the diffuser over the head of my model. This will magically transform the harsh outdoor light into a smooth, soft light.

Related Article: Portrait Photography Lighting Basics

3. Use a Telephoto Lens for the Most Flattering Portraits

The best portrait photography lenses create flattering photos.

That is, they capture the right proportions of the face.

You see, different lenses distort photos in different ways. Wide lenses, for instance, magnify features that are up close (and compress features that are farther away). So you have to be careful.

Longer (telephoto) lenses provide the right focal length for capturing facial features. The ears and the nose will not be distorted–which will happen if you shoot with a wide-angle lens.

Hands down, the best portrait photography lenses are longer than 70mm. But then it comes down to personal preference.

Some photographers like an 85mm lens for their portrait photography–whereas others prefer 105mm or 135mm. All of these are good choices.

Why?

It depends on your style.

  • If you’re frequently shooting ultra-tight headshots, a longer focal length will probably work best.
  • But for those photographers who like to take some wider shots, a more mid-range focal length (e.g., 85mm) will do the job.

Related Article: The Best Portrait Photography Lenses in 2019 [Ultimate Guide]

4. Shoot the Subject at a Slight Downward Angle for the Most Flattering Portraits

Most people don’t know this. But the angle of a portrait shot can make a huge difference.

If you shoot on a level with your portrait subject, you’ll get a very neutral image. The model’s features will be portrayed exactly as they are. While this can work for some portraits, it’s not always ideal.

Why?

Because shooting on a level can result in a double chin–which most subjects wish to avoid. That’s why it’s best to shoot your subjects at a slight downward angle.

I recommend you do this in two ways:

  • First, get a bit higher than your model. Use a small stool if you have to.
  • Second, have your model tilt their chin downward.

Together, these two methods will prevent any problems with unflattering portraits.

It can also pay to have your model stand at a slight sideways angle, so that their shoulder is pointed toward the camera. This has the effect of slimming down the model.

5. Use a Shallow Depth of Field to Emphasize Your Subject

The wider your aperture, the shallower your depth of field. Which means that wide apertures (f/1.2 to f/5.6) result in very blurry backgrounds.

And portrait photographers love blurry backgrounds.

Specifically, a nice blurry background helps to isolate the subject. Instead of bringing the viewer’s eye all around the frame, it points the viewer right at the subject.

woman with blurry background
Notice how the blurry background helps fix attention on the subject.

Now, it’s not always necessary to choose a wide aperture.

Some portraits are best with a blurry background. But other portraits need to show off the environment.

In that case, you should choose a narrower aperture, one in the f/5.6 to f/11 range. That way, you’ll capture a photo that’s sharp throughout–and shows the subject in their environment.

6. Use the Rule of Thirds for the Best Portrait Photography Compositions

The best portrait photography requires gorgeous compositions.

That is, you have to carefully position your portrait photography subject in the frame.

What’s the best way to do that?

Use the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds states that the best composition is the one that places the subject a third of the way into the frame. In fact, it comes with some helpful gridlines:

rule of thirds grid on portrait
The rule of thirds gridlines are very useful for composition.

Position your subject along the gridlines, and your compositions will immediately improve.

I like to place the face of my subject where the gridlines intersect. This creates an especially pleasing composition–and I suggest you try it yourself!

7. Carefully Choose the Best Background for Stunning Portrait Photography

If you want gorgeous portraits, you have to select the perfect background. A great background adds to the mood of the image–and gives the viewer a sense of the broader scene.

Try to choose the background based on the purpose of your shoot. If you’re aiming to capture natural, beautiful photos, put some trees or water in the background. But if you want to do a portrait for an executive, shoot in a formal environment.

The best backgrounds tend to be simple and non-distracting. They emphasize the main subject. They don’t call attention to themselves.

portrait with light background
Note how this photo has a simple, light-colored background.

If you’re shooting with a narrow aperture (f/5.6 to f/11), your background becomes a lot more important. You have to work to minimize distractions.

So be careful when choosing your background. Make sure that it adds to the photo!

8. Include a Large Subject-to-Background Distance for the Best Bokeh

You’ve already discovered how to emphasize your subject using a shallow depth of field.

But if you want to enhance the background, and if you want to really make your subject stand out…

…you need to have a large subject-to-background distance.

Let me explain:

The farther the subject is from the background, the more background blur (also known as bokeh) your lens will create.

So for the best background blur, you want a large distance between your subject and the background. That way, you’ll get gorgeous, creamy bokeh.

Increasing the subject to background distance is also useful when you’re using a smaller aperture–but want some degree of background blur in your images.

9. Carefully Choose Your Lighting When Shooting Indoors

Natural (outdoor) lighting creates beautiful portrait photography. But what if you want to shoot indoors?

First of all, indoor areas are generally a bit too dark for portrait work–unless you have artificial lighting on hand.

There are two major types of artificial lighting. One is continuous lighting; the other is strobe lighting.

Continuous lighting, as the name suggests, is always on. It’s like shining a light directly on your subject–it doesn’t go off until the power is cut.

On the other hand, strobes are fired when you take a photo. They are connected to the camera itself or are triggered using a wireless trigger.

A two-light setup is the bare minimum to start working with artificial lights. One light can function as the ‘key’ light and the other will work as the ‘fill’ light.

Place the key light in front of your subject’s face (but at an angle, so that your subject is lit from the side).

And place the fill light on the other side of your subject’s face–to fill the shadows created by the key light.

That way, you’ll be able to illuminate your model in a flattering way.

Related Article: The Magic of External Lights

10. Focus on the Eye for Sharp Portrait Photos

Your portrait photos have to be sharp–there’s no way around it. But how do you ensure that you make them sharp, consistently?

Here’s what you do:

You focus on your subject’s eye.

portrait with sharp eye showing through flowers
The eye must be sharp in every portrait.

(The eye that is closest to the camera.)

You see, photos with a sharp eye come across as sharp (no matter how narrow your depth of field). Whereas photos that miss focus on the eye simply won’t work, no matter what you do.

I’d suggest you use single point autofocus. (If you’re struggling to find this, your camera manual should have detailed instructions.) Then use the autofocus to get the eye completely sharp.

11. Include a Catchlight for Compelling Portrait Photography

One trick for gorgeous portrait photos…

…is to include a catchlight in the subject’s eyes.

(A catchlight is a tiny white reflection in the eye of your subject.)

Why is this so important?

Because dark eyes will make your images appear lifeless.

One way to create a catchlight is to use a silver reflector. Simply hold it up in front of the subject and–voila!–you’ve got a catchlight.

However, you can also create a catchlight by making sure your subject’s face is properly illuminated. As long as there is a light source near your model, your photos will have perfect catchlights (and look very lively!).

Stunning Portrait Photography: Next Steps

Now you know how to take stunning portrait photos.

You’ve discovered how to find the best backgrounds, the best lighting, and the best compositions.

You’ve also discovered the secrets to creating sharp, lively portrait photography.

The only thing left to do…

…is to get out and shoot!


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