The 10 Do's and Don'ts of Portrait Photography

Portrait photography is the most reliable way for photographers to support themselves.

From corporate headshots to school pictures to editorial spotlights, there's a wide range of portrait photography clients, giving you many opportunities to carve out a niche in your career.

Of course, nobody will want to hire you unless you can produce consistent results. While photography is as much an art as it is a science, there are some best practices to capture eye-catching portraits that only the professionals know about.

DO: Establish a rapport.

Being photographed can be one of the most uncomfortable sensations in the world, even for a professional model. For most, insecurities come alive when confronted with a large lens in their face.

The best way to open a portrait session is to be candid with your model: "The first 10 minutes or so are going to be a 'warm up' – we're going to adjust the lightning, try different angles, and just have some fun with it." Without the expectation to perform or nail the shot, your subject will loosen up. During this warm-up session, you can share details about your personal life or career to establish a casual connection with your subject. Try to speak slowly and consistently with a warm, enthusiastic energy while taking these initial frames. 

Natural chemistry is important, but if you find yourself struggling to relax or encourage your model, consider sharing the occasional confidence booster every three shots or so. You can even liaise these in to repositioning your model.

  • "Wow, your face reads very well on camera. Try dropping your left shoulder to keep your neck nice and long."
  • "This is killer! Your eyes were perfectly intense/soft/relaxed/confident in that last frame. Let's try it once more, but this time, take a soft breath in on the count of 3."
  • "I love what you're doing with your neck. Let's tilt your chin just a bit to the left."
Jessica in the East Village, Manhattan. Canon 5D Mark II, 50mm f/1.2.

Jessica in the East Village, Manhattan. Canon 5D Mark II, 50mm f/1.2.

DO: Pay attention to catchlights.

This is one of the oldest portrait photography principles in the book, but many new photographers forget about it entirely. "Catchlights" are the orbs or slivers of brightness in an iris. Instagram-famous photographers like Brandon Woelfel actually paint on additional catchlights in Photoshop to add more life to their subjects.

Rita Ora in the Lower East Side. Fuji X100F, TCL-X100

Rita Ora in the Lower East Side. Fuji X100F, TCL-X100

If your lights aren't positioned in a way that forces a catchlight, the subject will appear flat and dead. Catchlights are possible with a wide variety of lighting set-ups, but the easiest way to get a wide, open catchlight is to position a silver reflector just under your model. The bounce back from either artificial or ambient light will soften shadows, which is often desirable for portraiture. However, if you're going for a high-contrast, directional light look in your portrait, it's better to ensure that your key light hits the subject in a way that sparkles their eye.

DO: Consider a thematically appropriate prop.

Giving your subject something to do with their hands is the best-kept secret in the portrait photography world. A small bundle of flowers, a deck of cards, a baseball, a pen, a cigarette, a mug of coffee, or even a phone can add some authenticity and naturalness to your portrait.

This tip isn't appropriate for all portrait shoots, and it will certainly read as shoehorned if the prop isn't cohesive with the visual story of your portrait. But when it's right, it's right: not only will you create visual interest and a sense of animation in your photograph, your subject will be put to ease by having a physical outlet for their nervous energy

Michelle and Alisa in Soho. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 50mm f/1.2.

Michelle and Alisa in Soho. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 50mm f/1.2.

DO: Shift your perspective. 

The just-above-eye level, just-off-center is the old faithful of portrait photography, and for good reason – it's typically the most honest replication of how your subject looks in daily life. While it's important to nail this shot, you don't want your contact sheet to be nothing but variations on this perspective.

Profile shots can add an immense amount of character. Relaxing your subject's posture to the extreme can make for a much more honest shot. Standing directly over your model as they lie on the ground creates a palpably intimate photograph. It's okay to throw conventionally flattering perspectives out the window if you have a creative angle, but the best portrait photographers can do both. 

Girl in Santa Fe. Canon 5D Mark II, 50mm f/1.2.

Girl in Santa Fe. Canon 5D Mark II, 50mm f/1.2.

DON'T: Let them stick to your pose.

When you give feedback on angles and pose, your subject can take them too seriously, becoming stiff and mannequin-esque. A model afraid to shift around or breathe during their session spells doom for your photographs: there's nothing more cold and awkward than an uncomfortable model trying to be something they're not.

In reality, your posing should only be a guideline, with enough room for your subject to shift and breathe in to a more natural, candid position. To make this clear, you must deliberately communicate permission for your model to move around. Try this phrasing:

"That's perfect. Now, try to stay within that general pose, but take a few breaths, roll your head, wiggle your fingers, and explore the feeling of the position while I take a few more frames."

Robby in Grand Central Station, Manhattan. Canon 5D Mark II, f/1.2.

Robby in Grand Central Station, Manhattan. Canon 5D Mark II, f/1.2.

DON'T: Go too crazy too soon. 

Some of the most evocative portraits happen when you challenge your model to leave their comfort zone – but your model can't move out of their comfort zone if they were never in it to begin with!

If you want your model to jump in the air, over-emote emotions like anger or sadness, or contort in to a contrived pose, you'll need to take baby steps on the way there. Taking your time warming your subject up and establishing a legitimate connection is vital: your subject has to have confidence in your ability before they'll risk looking foolish. Furthermore, if you press for a "wacky" shot before they feel comfortable, you can disrupt the energy of the session and turn your model off, risking the success of shots you have yet to nail.

DO: Carve the jawline.

Peter Hurley's viral video said it best: the jawline is the most important aspects of a compelling portrait. High fashion models have a wide variety of facial features and body types, but a long neck and harsh jawline is ubiquitous. We aren't all blessed with glass-cutting jaws, so your best bet is to fake it. As Peter points out, telling your subjects to "bring their forehead towards the camera" for front-facing portraits or to "bring their ear to the camera" for side portraits cleans up the jawline and gives their face a defined, powerful look

Aesthetic benefits aside, posing your subject down to the intimate details puts them at ease, giving them the impression that you know exactly what you're doing and how to make them look their best. Most people will silently beg for granular direction during their shoot, and the more you give it to them, the more they'll trust your skills.

Cullen in Las Vegas. Canon 7D, 50mm f/1.8.

Cullen in Las Vegas. Canon 7D, 50mm f/1.8.

DON'T: Be afraid to contextualize.

There are many different styles of portraits. As a portrait photographer, it's your job to take initiative and think outside of a typical headshot. If the responsibility of a portrait is to visually communicate the personality and story behind your subject, you have more tools at your disposal than a simple 3/4 headshot with a single colored backdrop.

Take cues from environmental portraiture (look to photographers like Anthony Kurtz for examples). The scenery and location of a portrait can tell a more compelling story than a minimal headshot ever could, so be sure to stage it in a way that makes sense for your subject. Oftentimes, your client's favorite photography from a session will be a shot of them in their element: holding their dog, sitting in their garden, or playing piano. 

DON'T: Change angles without changing your light.

Whether you're working in natural light or a studio setup, a portrait photographer should be thinking of light above all else. When you have the perfect light in a photograph, it's tempting to keep your subject still as you rotate around them, taking frames at different angles. This would be a mistake.

When you reposition your perspective, you need to make sure the light is still hitting the way you need it to hit. If your subject is facing the light head on, a profile shot may be too contrasty or unflattering. Have them tip their camera-facing ear up, back, and away to elongate the neck, catch the jawline, and broaden the surface area of the side of the face, ensuring the light you loved from the front has the same glow in profile. 

PS: It's not easy to maintain a relationship with your model, adjust poses, re-light, and ensure your exposure is spot on. Our friends over at PhotographyTalk wrote a comprehensive rundown of the best camera settings for portrait photography so you can set it and forget it.

Alisa on the Upper East Side, Manhattan. Canon 5D Mark II, 50mm f/1.2.

Alisa on the Upper East Side, Manhattan. Canon 5D Mark II, 50mm f/1.2.

DON'T: Rely on a shallow aperture.

The dreamy, 'f/1.2, tack-sharp eyes and blurry everything else' look is a popular way to isolate and flatter the 'soul' of a subject. A shallow depth of field also smooths out the skin, making harsh wrinkles and blemishes less distracting. But a shallow aperture is only one look in a portrait photographer's arsenal.

Sharpness and focus should be thought of an an artistic decision. Stopping down to f/8 ensures everything from the tip of the nose to the back of the hair will be in focus, as well as any sort of scenery or context you've included in the frame. Remember that a photograph is made up of three parts: the foreground, the middle ground, and the background. A truly masterful portrait leverages all three depths, and a stopped-down aperture is the best way to capture the full range of visual interest.

Matthew at the St. Regis in San Francisco. Fuji X-pro1, 35mm f/1.4.

Matthew at the St. Regis in San Francisco. Fuji X-pro1, 35mm f/1.4.

With all these lessons in mind, here's the truth: there is no such thing as a tutorial for good portrait photography.

Portrait photography is an artistic pursuit. Your style, aesthetic sense, technical ability, and relationship-building skills will improve with every photograph you take, and they will eventually become reflexive and subconscious. Think of the above lessons as shortcuts on your way there.

Which of your portraits are you most proud of? Drop our readers a link to your photo – and your Instagram – in the comments below.

PS: Looking for a mind-blowing portrait camera on the cheap? Read the Sigma DP2 Merrill point and shoot digital camera review.

Digital strategist, writer, and image maker based in Manhattan working with clients in the tech and entertainment industry.