If you're looking to get started with portrait photography, you're in the right place. This is the crash course I wish existed when getting ready for my very first portrait session. In this article, we’ll cover the basics: the essential gear needed, the different types of portrait photography genres, and the foundational skills required to take great portraits. I'll also provide a few important tips to help you prepare for your first portrait shoot as you start to build your confidence behind the camera. So grab a pen and paper, take a deep breath, and let's dive into the amazing world of portrait photography.
Before we get started, let’s define what portrait photography is first. Portrait photography is the photographic art of capturing the likeness and personality of a person, family, or group of people. The main goal of portrait photography is to create a lasting memory of that person, family, or group that encapsulates their unique characteristics, tells their story, and visually communicates a specific message.
Like any art form, portrait photography is a genre that offers endless opportunities and approaches for creative expression and storytelling. With the right creative mindset and some key technical and interpersonal skills, anyone can create beautiful portraits that capture the essence of the subject and tell their story.
Before anyone tackles a new photography genre, the question of “what gear do I need” is bound to come up. While it's important to have high-quality equipment that you’re comfortable creating with, it's important to remember that the gear alone doesn't make the photographer. You can take stunning portraits with basic equipment (even with a mobile phone camera) if you have the right skills and knowledge to execute your creative vision. Ultimately, the type of gear you need will depend on your style, preferences, and approach to portrait photography. And while none of the following items are required, they have become staples in my portrait photography kit that I’d recommend to any budding portrait photographer.
While any camera will suffice, you need a camera nonetheless. If you’re a beginner in the market for a new camera geared toward portrait photography, I would recommend a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) or mirrorless camera that has manual controls and the ability to shoot in the RAW file format – for the flexibility for you to control various creative aspects of the portrait, such as depth of field, focus, color grading, or post-processing. A digital photography workflow allows you to preview your photos, iterate your process, and learn quickly without much time delay. But if you don’t have access to a DSLR or mirrorless camera, don’t fret, mobile phone portraiture and film cameras are equally amazing tools to learn on.
Lenses play a crucial role in portrait photography. The lens you choose directly impacts the framing, the working distance between you and your subject(s), and how their physical features are rendered in the photograph. A prime lens with a wide aperture (f/1.8 or f/1.4) tends to be ideal for portraits because it can create a shallow depth of field, which blurs the background and makes the subject stand out. It also opens up the doors for low-light portrait photography. The most popular choices for portrait photographers are the 85mm or 50mm prime lenses. With that said, I always recommend experimenting with taking portraits with lenses outside of this focal range, as wide-angle lenses like a 24mm prime or telephoto lenses like 70-200mm zoom are also popular.
Lighting is essential in portrait photography. A change in lighting can accentuate different features of your subject, evoke different moods, and render different photographic qualities overall. There are various types of lighting equipment you can use, such as studio lights, speedlights, and continuous lights. Studio lights are the most powerful and versatile, while speedlights are portable and easy to use. Continuous lights are ideal for video or low-light situations. And let’s not forget the ultimate light source, the sun, and the portrait photographer’s cheat code, window light.
There are a few other accessories that you may find helpful along your portrait photography journey, depending on the direction you go. A tripod can help you stabilize your camera, maintain a consistent frame, and free your hands and body to pose, direct, and work with your subject without a camera in hand. A reflector can help you bounce light onto your subject and serve as a faux second light source. Reflectors can be used in conjunction with natural light and/or used in a studio setting with strobes and speedlights.
Portrait photography encompasses many different genres, and each genre has its own unique style and required approach. As a beginner, it’s always recommended to explore different genres and see what resonates with you and your subjects the most.
Traditional portraits are the classic and timeless portraits that you’re probably familiar with. Traditional portraits capture the subject's likeness in a simple, straightforward way. They are often taken in a studio setting, using a neutral background and traditional posing to create a controlled and formal image. For beginners to portraiture, traditional portraits provide a great opportunity to learn basic lighting, composition, and posing techniques in a controlled environment.
Candid portraits document people in a natural and spontaneous way, ideally when they are not aware of the camera. Candid portraits showcase the subject's genuine emotions and personality, capturing a moment in time that cannot be replicated. Candid portraits can be taken in a variety of settings, such as on the street, at events, or in social gatherings. As a photographer, capturing candid portraits is an invaluable skill to have. And with practice and patience, you’ll harness the ability to read body language to anticipate the right moment to take the photo.
Environmental portraiture documents or showcases the subject in their natural or chosen environment. This provides a sense of context and tells the story about the subject's life, experiences, or relationship to the space. Environmental portraits are my favorite because the photographer can use the surrounding objects and scenery to enhance the image's narrative or be used as a creative composition element with added meaning. Environmental portraits can be taken in any location, such as at the subject's workplace, home, or favorite spot. When learning how to take environmental portraits, the ability to read a scene's lighting and composition opportunities is key to creatively capturing the subject in their surroundings and create a compelling image.
Creative portraiture is the unique and imaginative genre of portrait photography that allows photographers to experiment with various techniques, styles, and approaches. These portraits are artistic and expressive, often using unconventional methods to create a one-of-a-kind image. Creative portraits can be abstract, surreal, or use alternative materials or mediums, such as paint, mixed media, or digital graphics, to create a unique composition. For photographers who like to experiment and push boundaries, creative portraiture is the perfect avenue for combining technical skills with an imaginative vision.
Lifestyle portraits capture the subject in a natural and relaxed way, often in a real-life situation or activity. These portraits aim to tell a story and showcase the subject's interests, hobbies, or lifestyle, creating an image that feels authentic and true to life. Lifestyle portraits can be taken in any setting, such as at home, a coffee shop, or while doing an activity, providing a unique and personal perspective on the subject's life. As a photographer, lifestyle portraits require a willingness to observe and capture the subject's character and personality while letting them be themselves.
Self-portrait photography is when a photographer takes a picture of themselves using a self-timer or remote control. It's a way to express creativity, experiment with techniques, and showcase one’s personal style. It provides full control over the image's composition and message, making it an excellent way to explore identity and self-expression. Whether posed or candid, self-portraits can tell a story and are a great way for beginners to develop skills when another subject isn’t present.
Like any photographic genre, portrait photography requires some foundational skills to be successful. The following skills will help you understand the technical and artistic aspects of portrait photography and enable you to capture the subject's personality and emotion in a meaningful way.
Composition is the arrangement of elements in a photograph. It's essential to understand the rules of composition, such as the rule of thirds, framing, leading lines, and balance, to create a portrait that’s pleasing to look at and/or evokes a specific emotion depending on the goal of the photograph.
Lighting is one of the most critical aspects of portrait photography, as lighting will dictate the entire look and feel of the portrait. It's essential to understand how to use different types of lighting, such as natural light, studio lights, and flash, to create a flattering and engaging portrait as well as adapt to the specific working conditions from project to project.
Posing is the art of arranging the subject's body, head, and expression in a way that accentuates their features, evokes a specific mood or feeling, and creates a natural and comfortable posture. It's essential to understand how to pose your subject to create a portrait that they’re happy with as the subject, and one that you’re proud of as a photographer.
Communication is the most critical skill in portrait photography. As a photographer, you need to be able to communicate with your subject and make them feel comfortable and at ease in front of the camera. Good communication skills can help you create a relaxed and enjoyable photoshoot experience.
So now that we know the basics of the gear, genres, and required skill, all that’s left is photographing your first portrait shoot. As a beginner, this can be a daunting task. However, with the right approach and mindset, it’s actually simpler than you think to start building your portfolio and gaining experience as a portrait photographer.
The first step in getting your first portrait shoot is to find your subject. I always recommend asking your friends, family, or colleagues first, if they would be willing to be your model for a photoshoot. If you're looking to branch out, you can also reach out to local modeling agencies, Instagram influencers, local photographer/model meetups, or even put out a casting call on social media. The most important thing is to find someone who is comfortable in front of the camera and can convey the emotion or message you're trying to capture.
Once you've found your subject, it's time to plan your shoot. The location, time of day, and weather can all have a significant impact on the final image, so it's essential to plan accordingly. You'll also want to think about the equipment you'll need and the poses you want to try. If you're shooting in a studio, you'll need to consider the lighting, background, and props. If you're shooting outdoors, you'll need to think about the time of day and the direction of the light. A detailed shot list can help ensure you capture all the shots you need (but if it’s your first shoot, don’t fret if you don’t get every shot).
Before you head out for your shoot, make sure you have all the gear you need – and double-check everything again before you leave the house. Charge your camera batteries, format your memory cards, and make sure you have all the lenses, tripods, and other equipment you'll need. It's also a good idea to pack extras of everything if possible, just in case something malfunctions.
When you arrive at the shoot location, take a few minutes to connect with your subject. Start by introducing yourself and building a rapport with them. Find some common ground, and ask them about their interests, hobbies, and preferences to personalize the shoot – these are great things to bring up later during any awkward silences during the shoot. Also, if applicable, explain your vision for the shoot and what you hope to capture. Show them some examples of your work, and ask if they have any specific ideas or poses they'd like to try.
When it comes to posing your subject, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, make sure your subject is comfortable and relaxed. Encourage them to take deep breaths and give them positive feedback throughout the shoot. Next, direct their posture and movements, paying attention to body language and facial expressions. Avoid rigid poses and instead, aim for natural movements and expressions. If your subject is feeling uncomfortable or awkward, take a break and chat with them for a bit to ease the tension. Another strategy you can try if direct posing instructions aren’t work is to give your subject a feeling to emote or an action to perform (e.g. pretend you just won the lottery).
After the shoot, it's time to edit and share your photos. Take some time to go through all the images and choose the best ones. Make any necessary adjustments to the exposure, color, and contrast, and crop and straighten the images as needed. Consider creating a cohesive look by editing all your images in a similar style. Finally, share your images with your subject, either through email, social media, or a photo-sharing platform. Ask for feedback and consider using some of the images in your portfolio or website.
After knocking out your first portrait shoot, it all comes down to continued practice and repetition. As you do more shoots, your skills will compound, and the images and body of work reflected in your portfolio will reflect your unique style and approach. As you continue on this journey, don't be afraid to experiment with different styles and techniques, and always be open to feedback and constructive criticism. Soon enough, you may find yourself getting booked up regularly for portrait sessions or incorporating elements of portrait photography into other genres, such as street photography, wedding photography, or photojournalism.