10 Tips to Improve your Portrait Photography

A great expression makes for a great image!

A great expression makes for a great image!

People like my portrait work and the signature look I have created.Most photographers like portraits but shy away of creating them because they believe that you either need very expensive equipment, a big studio or they believe they just don't have the talent for it. 

Although it takes some basic understanding on how a camera works and some fundamental knowledge about light, when mastered creating beautiful portrait isn’t rocket science. 

Here are some tips to never shy away from taking a beautiful portrait. 

1. Subject

If there is one most important parts to a beautiful portrait it is the expression of your subject. A gaze that connects with the viewer and shows emotion.

An unnatural pose doesn’t have the same impact as as a natural real expression. 

2. Lens choice

200 mm Headshot of my Friend Larry - Look at the difference and how much more flatering this is!

200 mm Headshot of my Friend Larry - Look at the difference and how much more flatering this is!

Your lens choice has a big impact on how your portrait is going to look. Wide angle lenses tend to add a very unnatural distorted look while Longer Telephoto lenses give a more compressed and flattering look.  Short telephoto lenses like 85mm - 105mm and 135mm are a very popular choice amongst portrait and headshot photographers. Not surprising as these lensed produce a very natural flattering and distortion free image. When shopping around for a portrait lens I recommend a lens with a wide aperture, a fast lens, like my Nikon 85mm 1.4. It allows you to create very dreamy and smooth background and allows you to separate your subject from a messy background. When stopped down to say f2.8 they create incredible sharp images. 

14mm Super Wide Angle portrait of my Friend Larry - Look at the distortion 

14mm Super Wide Angle portrait of my Friend Larry - Look at the distortion 

Another favorite of mine is my 70-200mm f2.8. Although not as fast as my 85mm it gives me a lot of flexibility when shooting on location. The focal range between 70-200mm is ideal for portrait work and headshot and the f2.8 aperture still allows me to separate my subject from the back ground and create a beautiful blurred background. When I use both lenses in the studio my aperture value is around f7.2 - f8 which creates optimal sharpness in both lenses. Also because of the short distance between my subject and my camera it allows for critical depth of field to make sure both eyes are in focus. 

Both Nikon and Canon have a great selection of portrait lenses. Recently Sigma and Tamron have produced some amazing alternatives to the brand names. According to some test at DXO Mark even better. 

3. Composition

As for every image we want to portrait the most attractive (important) part of our photograph. Guide the view to that oh so important detail. For a portrait in 99 percent of the cases that would be the eyes. Applying the rules of third smart and playing with DOF (Depth of Field) can help us create a compelling photograph. 

For people that don’t know what the Rule of Thirds is, it is a basic but essential composing technique. Basically it breaks down the image into thirds, both on the horizontal axis as the vertical axis ending up with 9 equal parts and 4 intersect points in the mid part of the image. It is those intersecting points that are important. Placing your subject (or the most important part of your subject) close to one of those point will make a better photograph. 

The Rules of Third are a great start to get a pleasing composition.

The Rules of Third are a great start to get a pleasing composition.

However the Rule of Thirds is a rule of Thumb, meant to be broken and just a guideline to help you in the process of composing visual compelling imagery. 

The other important part in finding the right composition is Depth of Field. By carefully choosing our Aperture we will be able to bring more or less background in focus. Playing with DOF allows us to separate our subject from the background or to include the background in the photograph if it is a contributing aspect of the image, in case of an environmental portrait. If the background is not so interesting or it does not contribute anything to the photograph a shallow DOF allows us to distract the viewer from this background and focus on the our subject. 

4. Lighting

Much can be said about lighting as it is a complex topic. It deserve an article on its own. No matter if you photograph outdoors and use natural light or indoors and use strobes, the direction of light is one of the most important things to pay attention to. In nature, light comes from above. Depending on the season or time of year the sun is always above us, sometime higher sometimes lower, but always above.  

Shooting outdoors and putting your subject straight into the sun, will not give you the most flattering light, often harsh and direct when photographing on a midday with summer sun.

Better is to have the sun either at a 90 degree angle in relationship to your subject or behind the subject. Finding open shade is even a better choice. 

One rule that is rather important is shooting at the right time of day. Not all light has the same quality. The light quality of the sun varies quite a bit. Golden hour is called“Golden Hour” for a reason. Its the time of day were the natural light is at his best. The sun is angled perfectly about on hour before sunset and allows the entire sky to act as one big diffuser, a very giant soft box. Almost all the “WOW” images you see, wether it be a gorgeous landscape or portrait were the light is just beautiful are in 99 percent of the cases photograph around Golden Hour. So if you can plan your shoot accordingly. 

Having the sun behind the model and the reflector at 90 degrees high creates a beautiful and natural look

Having the sun behind the model and the reflector at 90 degrees high creates a beautiful and natural look

Adding a reflector to your bag is a cheap way to improve the lighting in your images. A reflector is a great tool to open up the shadows in your image. See it as an extra light source.When you don't have a reflector try to find a natural one or an existing one. When shooting in the city maybe you can find a light wall or one of those white delivery vans were you can shoot close to. Make sure that when you use walls are other object as reflectors they don't contain any cool, for example a red wall will cast a red tint on your subject that is very hard to remove in post. 

Overcast days are also very good to shoot in. The clouds act as a giant soft box and will eliminate any harsh shadows. When shooting on overcast days you often create very smooth milky shadows. When mastering exposure and having the correct white balance these images are often really good and very pleasing for the eye. 

5. Location

Using the background smart can contribute the the overall quality of the photograph

Using the background smart can contribute the the overall quality of the photograph

Location, location, location! Location does matter and can contribute to the wow factor of your portrait. When you don't own a fast lens and have a lens with for example a widest aperture of f5.6, Bluring out the background can be a challenge. So choosing a stunning location can help improve the overall look of your portrait. 

But even then we need the Watch the Background. It may seem very logical that a road sign or post directly behind your subjects head is distracting, when looking trough the viewfinder we often forget to pay attention to these important details. Scanning the frame when looking in the viewfinder can help you seeing that telephone pool that is destroying your image. Try to look for interesting background. Walls can have some great textures that can turn these into an excellent backdrop. Think of very old buildings etc. 

5. Focus

When you have a the right subject, The right lens choice, the right location, great composition and great light we now need to nail our focus. When we look at someone and / or have a conversation with someone the eye contact is very important. It creates engagement between us. When photographing people the eyes are in most cases the most important feature. It is the ideal focal point. When you look at various portraits and the eyes are out of focus, no matter how good the other elements of the photograph are, that image suddenly is mediocre or even bad. 

5.1 Focal point and Focus Re-compose

A good practice is when you find your composition is to try to select your cameras focal point on the eye closest to camera. We always want to eye closest to camera to be tack sharp. If for any reason your composition does not allow you to select a focal point, using the center focal point and using the “Focus Recompose” technique might be a good way to go. 

5.2 Back Button Focusing

When focussing I like to use back button focus. When we use are camera in most cases pressing the shutter button half way allows the camera’s auto focus system to focus. When we then press the shutter button completely the shutter mechanism is activated and a picture is taken. With back button focus the camera does not focus when the shutter release is pressed half. The focus system and shutter mechanism are now on completely separate buttons which allows for much more control. The best use for back button focus is for the focus recompose technique. Another example to use back button focus is for wildlife photograph or when we need to track our subject. 

Here is a link on how to find the back button Focus Function for both Canon and Nikon cameras


6. Colors

One of the most forgotten aspect in all photography is Color theory. Complementary colors are key in creating a compelling photograph, wether it be a landscape or portrait. Choosing the right background and clothing can make a huge difference in how an image looks. Also applying post process color grading can either improve or when done wrong destroy an image. 

Since I started using a color wheel I made huge steps forward in my image quality. By paying attention to closing that complements skin color and backgrounds that complement both will make your images harmonic and balanced and your subject stand out. 

Choosing complementary colors will enhance your photograph

Choosing complementary colors will enhance your photograph

Adobe has a free Color tool that I use almost in every image.. You can find it here:


7. Camera Settings

To often I have people ask me what were your camera settings? What was your light ratio in case I am using strobes? What was the power setting on your flash? Those questions are ridiculous and anyone that dares to answer you with these are the perfect settings talks utter nonsense. Settings will vary from day to day, from one scene to the other. Yes here are some basic guidelines and rules of thumb but even then most of the time those rules don't apply. 

For example when I photograph a model in the studio in most cases my shutter speed is 1/125 of second as determined by the maximum sync speed of my studio strobes. My aperture value is in most cases around f8 and my ISO set to 64. When people ask me the power settings of my strobes they also need to know the exact power capacity of those strobes and the exact modifier used and the exact distance between that strobe and the subject. If you don't know one of these variables asking that question is utter nonsense. 

The same when photographing outdoors. The tip that I have for people starting in portrait work is not to focus on a technically perfect portrait but rather an interesting and compelling photograph. Most of us are not interesting is a technically perfect photograph as many of them I find actually very boring! 

As a rule of thumb to set our shutter speed we can inverse the focal length of our lens and use that as our minimum shutter speed. For example, when shooting with a 85mm lens I would choose a shutter speed of 1/85s or the closest to that. In this case either 1/80s or /100s. Of course with today’s modern lens technology with Vibration Reduction we can use slower shutter speed. As I said this is a rule of thumb.

7.1 Sunny f16 Rule, the loony f11 rule, the shady f8 rule and the open shade at sunset f4 rule

In photography there are many rules, rules of thumb that can help us finding answers in a particular problem. The Sunny f16 rule, the loony f11 rule (wen shoot, the shade f8 rule and the open shade f4 rule are all methods to finding the right daylight exposure without the use of a light meter. 

These rules are based on incident light and not on reflected light. The reflected light measurement method is used by most of our camera’s light metering system, which is based on an average correct meter reading of 18% grey. In the incident metering system very bright and very dark subjects are compensated for. 

The general sunny f16 rules says that when you set your aperture value of your camera to f16 the shutter speed will be the inverse of you ISO setting. 

I.e. ISO is 100 - Aperture is set to f16, the inverse of 100 is 1/100 so our shutter speed will be 1/100s. 

the same rule applies for all other. The loony f11 used when its slightly overcast. 

I.e. ISO is 100 - Aperture is set to f11, the inverse of 100 is 1/100 so our shutter speed will be 1/100s. 

Example for the Shady f8 rule. When we are in Overcast conditions we can apply this rule

I.e. ISO is 200 - Aperture is set to f8, the inverse of 200 is 1/200 so our shutter speed will be 1/200s

And the same for the Open Shade at Sunset rule f4

 Example for thef4 rule. When we are in Open Shade Sunset conditions we can apply this rule

I.e. ISO is 400 - Aperture is set to f4, the inverse of 400 is 1/400 so our shutter speed will be 1/400s.

As with all rules, rule don't determine our creativity. What is the mood of our image? Do we want a shallow DOF or do we want to include our background into the image. Remember that your camera is a technical instrument and can not make that creative decision for you!

8. Use a grey card or Color Card

XRITE Color Checker Passport Grey Card

XRITE Color Checker Passport Grey Card

With changing lighting conditions the color of the light is also changing. Having the correct white balance will dramatically improve the correct color reproduction in your images. Of course we could use the camera’s build in auto white balance but I find to more then often working against me then for me. When I shoot outdoor and in the studio the first shot I take is my grey card and color card. I use a xrite color checker passport. With this I can easily fix the white balance and color in post production if I shoot in RAW. 


I can however set a custom white balance in camera. I am a Nikon shooter and the steps that I am describing now will only work on Nikon camera’s. I know Canon and other manufactures have the same possibility, please check your user manual on how to to that. 

8.1 Setting Custom White Balance for Nikon

  • Press the MENU button
  • Highlight White Balance in the shooting menu and press the multi selector button to the right to display the White Balance options. 
  • Highlight Preset Manual and press the multi selector to the right
  • Highlight MEASURE and press the multi selector to the right
  • A menu will pop up now
  • Press YES and then press OK
  • The camera will now enter preset measurement mode
  • PRE will now be flashing in the view finder
  • Now frame the white card in the view finder and press the shutter half way
  • No need to take a photo. The camera is able to measure for white balance. If the process was done ok “Gd” will appear in the view finder. Your all set now
  • If the camera was not able to take a reading “no Gd” will appear. Try again..

9. Shoot in RAW

This is probably the best and most general applicable tip for ALL photography! SHOOT RAW!!!

Shooting raw is the same as shooting a film camera with film. See the RAW file as your negative. When you have your negative available you can make a decision how to develop it. There are many different ways in developing a negative in the film world, there are even more possibilities in the digital realm. .When you shoot JPG the allow your camera the make all the development decisions for you. Also you just halved the image quality. My Nikon D810 is capable of photographing 14.7 bit RAW files and allows me to process it as a 16bit image in Adobe Camera RAW, a JPG can maximum contain 8 bit of information. And that is a big difference! 

9.1 8 bit versus 16 bit versus 32 bit

What does that mean? And what is a bit? In the digital world 1 bit has a value of 2. When you go beyond 1 bit we can find the value with a simple mathematical equation of 2 to the exponent. 

For example 

4 bit would be 2 to the exponent of 4 = 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 which equals 16

8 bit would be 2 to the exponent of 8 = 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 which equals 256

You may have heard about 256 shades of grey. Well this comes from a black and white jpg image which is a 8 bit image. 

Our camera sensors captures and image in RGB. 3 separate channels RED GREEN and BLUE. An image is made up form multiple shade of Red Green and Blue. The more shades of each color the have to work with the better the color representation and the more colors you can create. 

So in an 8 bit file we have 256 shades of RED, 256 shades of Green and 256 shades of Blue which equals 16.8 million colors. WOW that is a lot you may think but is actually very limited.

A 16 bit files gives us 65.536 shades for each color. 

That is 65,536 shades of Red X 65,536 shades of Green X 65,536 shades of Blue equals 281 TRILLION possible colors. 

So when it comes to developing your negatives you want as many shades as possible. 

Sometime I bracket my images and blend 2 or 3 exposures together. The reason why I do that is not that my camera is unable to photograph a scene but to allow me to capture more detail and color information. It allows me to work in Photoshop in 32 bit. 

A 32 bit file give us 4,294,967,296 shades of RED, 4,294,967,296 shades of GREEN and 4,294,967,296 shades of BLUE which equals a number so great I can't even pronounce it! 

Did you ever see color banding in some images, that is because those images were either captured in 8 bit or processed in 8 bit and JPG’s are 8 bit. So if you want to improve your image quality start shooting in RAW in the highest BIT rate your camera system allows. 

10 Practice

The last tip is easy! Practice, practice, practice! They say practice makes perfect but it true! The more you do it, the better you will become.