18 Quick Tips for Improving your Portrait Photography

Sometimes portrait photography can get a bit boring…and worse, sometimes we just can’t figure out why! We’re here to help you, friends and fellow photographers! Whether you want to improve things like your composition or add a dimension of storytelling, there are definite ways to get your photos looking better and adding interest. Read below for our 18 quick tips and tricks for improving your portrait photography in a flash.

1. Choose a Lens

This is all up to you, of course! However, there are some really great go-to lenses for portrait photography!

Portrait Photography Lens

Fixed (Prime Lense)s:

  • 35mm – Great for wider shots where you’d like to incorporate more of the background.
  • 50mm – Used for a slightly closer shot where you’d like more of your client in the frame.
  • 85mm – A great lens for those close-up shots with awesome bokeh in the background!
  • 135mm – Perfect for those REALLY intimate shots and GREAT compression.

Zoom Lens:

  • 24-70mm – This zoom lens is really perfect for capturing more of the scenery while allowing you to zoom in and grab those closer shots!
  • 70-200mm – This is a favorite if you like a lot of versatility in ONE lens. This great choice allows you to get down to 70mm for a wider shot, and all the way to 200mm for those intimate moments.

2. Brainstorm

So remember when you were back in elementary school and your teacher would announce it was time to brainstorm ideas for your new book report? I can’t say it brings back the best memories for me…mostly staring blankly at the sheet of paper and counting the minutes until recess.  Well, brainstorming isn’t so bad, especially when it comes to something you love.  Take a few minutes before your portrait session and write down some NEW ideas. If you’re like many photographers, you probably shoot in the same places often. Change it up.  Start with actually writing down five NEW things you want to do on the session. Things like: photograph from above, use the rule of thirds, try a sunset shot, experiment with flash, try a new pose, incorporate the surroundings, lay on the ground, etc. There are SO many things you can alter on a session, and I think many of us tend to panic and default to what we know.  We need to train the brain to slow down and try new things. Keep in mind, your clients are not going to see every photo, so change it up!

3. The Background

If you’re like me, sometimes I walk up to a new place and think, “oh gosh, this is going to be a tough one!” That’s why I ALWAYS get to the venue 10 minutes BEFORE my portrait client(s) to assess my surroundings.  Try and vary your gallery by walking around and thinking about the background.  Look for different colors, wall/plant textures, or trees vs. open space. Sometimes we get so caught up in the session we literally forget to turn around!

Portrait Photography Tips

In this photo, I shot from above to make sure to get the leaves in the background (it really WAS this vibrant). Little would you know there were about 13,405 runners in the background of this photo.  It was taken with a Canon 35mm at ISO 500, f/2.5 and a shutter speed of 1/200.

4. Composition

Something I recently noticed after FOUR years of portrait photography (I’m a tad slow), is that I was putting my subject the same distance from my lens in EVERY photo, whether I was shooting with a 35mm, or 135mm.  Seems simple enough to change, right? W.R.O.N.G.  You can so easily get into a rut of taking the SAME photos, and that’s not what we want.  A QUICK TIP: Take a look at your Instagram or Facebook page and view your photos next to one another? Are they all similar? Try and really study your work and see how you can improve your composition. This is also where you can look at other photographer’s work (if you PROMISE not to compare yourself).  What do you love about their work? Does it have a lot of negative space? Do they creatively use the rule of thirds?  The fastest way to improve is to be AWARE. Study. Question. And notice ALL the details.

5. Change Focus

Sometimes we focus too much on focus. (If you’re wondering, I am this witty in person.) Sometimes we WANT some things to be more “out of focus” to add dimension or tell a story. And some times we just do it on accident and it looks really cool! The great thing with portrait photography is that everyone has their own distinct style.

6. Lighting

Lighting can be really tricky and really fun. Change it up. Natural light is great, but maybe throw in an on camera flash or studio lights.  A different look can be achieved with the light at a slightly different angle.

Portrait Photography Lighting

7. White Balance

White balance can be something we get too caught up on as photographers aka perfectionists.  There are a few ways to master white balance. The fastest and easiest way is to let your camera do all the thinking. I mean, we DID pay some pretty decent money for the thing, so sometimes we can let it do all the calculations for us.  There is also the famous Expo Disc that allows you to get an accurate reading of white balance by putting a circular disc over your lens that reads the incoming light. Some photographers manually use Kelvin white balance, which is done by selecting a numerical representation of the light, and some other photographers use a grey card.  It really depends on what you feel comfortable with, and what you want YOUR photos to look like. Some portrait photographers prefer warmer images, and others, cooler.

8. Capturing Authenticity

People love and are drawn to photos that capture REAL moments.

We may too embarrassed to ask our clients really personal questions or to ask them to tickle each other.  A quick suggestion for your next session: bring a short list of questions to ask your clients! Throw in a funny one like, “who is the WORST cook?” Or a serious one, like, “what do you love most about your mom?” Ask your clients to answer these while looking at each other, get your firing finger ready, and you’re bound to get some real moments.  Another great way to capture genuine moments is to NEVER stop pressing that shutter button.  Transitioning from location to location tends to be the best times to grab those images. Your clients are starting to relax and are interacting without the pressure of the camera in their face.

Portrait Photography

9. Get in There

Sometimes we can be a little shy/awkward on photo sessions, am I right (wait, is it just me)? We don’t want to invade our client’s personal space, especially during those intimate moments. Maybe on your next session, push yourself to take just TWO photos close up.  You can fill the image with JUST the eyes, for example, or ask your couple to kiss and get a little closer than you normally would. Start breaking your own rules! It’s the only way to really start varying your photography and your portfolio.

10. Eye Contact and Connection

People can innately tell when someone is connecting in a photo. If you can, ask your subject a funny question for a light/humorous connection, or a deeper question for a moment of more intense connection. Either way, keep in mind that it’s hard to fool us humans. We KNOW in our brains when there is something deeper behind the eyes, so always try to get those REAL moments. Try and go past the surface.

11. Tell a Story

The next time you approach a portrait session, try and push yourself to tell a story. Posing a family in front of a brick wall is great, and maybe that will cover the classic POSED wall piece, but try and add some interest in your photos by having them DO something.  Have a family sit and read together if your doing a lifestyle session, or have them cook a meal together, like Betsy describes in her tutorial on lifestyle sessions.

Portrait Photography Storytelling

12. MOVE!

When you think you’ve nailed the shot, MOVE. Get closer, move back, get down on the ground or find a place to shoot from above. JUST MOVE.  So often, we get stuck taking the same photos again and again…so we need to force ourselves to move around.  Have your subject(s) stay in the same place and take some shots from say, FIVE different places. I promise this will add some variety to your galleries.

13. Framing

Sometimes just framing your subject with a doorway, stairs, a cool tree, or interesting leading lines can add some really great dimension and interest to your photo and leads your eye to the subject. Always keep a look out for things a little “out of the ordinary” that will draw your viewers to what you want!

Portrait Photography Lines

14. Get Comfortable

When photographers are nervous, we tend to forget EVERYTHING. We default back to what we know which is camera basics and clicking that shutter. The first five minutes of any session are going to be a tad uncomfortable for both you and your client. This is a good time to get to know them, ask questions, and maybe throw out a joke to break the ice. As we all know, we like to talk about ourselves, so get them chatting. Ask the kids what their favorite sports are, or what they like to eat. Create a connection, because that connection and comfortability will help ease the tension and create more authentic images.

15. Anticipation

Anticipating the needs of your clients is always a great way to keep things moving! Are you doing a session with three young toddlers? Maybe bring a light-up ball to get their attention! Are you doing a newborn session? Bring an extra set of tissues in your pocket for those accidents that may happen. Whatever or whoever your photographing, just take a moment to think about how you can anticipate the session…clients LOVE THIS.

16. Match the Mood

If you meet a client that is on the quiet side, maybe it’s not a bad idea to match their mood. Ask questions that get them thinking and connecting in a different way, than say, an outgoing family! The real goal here, is to capture your subject being authentically THEMSELVES. This is where your body language reading skills will come in handy! Get them talking and assess what “look” best captures their unique personality!

17. Posing

Take the time to study posing when it comes to your portrait photography.  You know those really genuine photos that we so often gravitate towards? I’m going to burst your bubble! They aren’t often as genuine as we think.  We frequently will have to direct our clients how to stand (which can MANY times feel SUPER awkward), and what to do with those hanging hands (you know what I’m talking about). You can warn your subjects that although it may FEEL strange, it looks really great on camera. You can find a really great posing guide here!

18. Colors

Something that many people don’t think about before a session is coordinating colors. Look, we can’t all anticipate what our clients will wear (trust me, I’ve been shocked before). BUT, what we can do, is send them a little guide before their session.  Are they planning a beach session? Maybe suggest that they try and “match” the color palate of the beach. This would include shades of tan, grey, blue, cream, etc.  Neutral tend to be great for natural settings.  Just try and be slightly more intentional before your session! Just taking the extra 10 minutes to draft an email to send to your clients can really go a LONG way.

Thinking about all of these tips and tricks are really simple and could potentially start to train your brain to think outside of the box! Have you ever noticed when a non-photographer takes a photo at a crazy angle and it looks REALLY cool? Start pushing yourself to break the rules and CREATE! Isn’t that how we set ourselves apart from each other? Portrait photography is such an interpretive art, and can evolve endlessly! Step outside of your zone…I promise you’ll learn more about yourself and your photography in the process (which is ALWAYS interesting)! A great resource for this is Cole’s Classroom Pro where there are new videos and tutorials posted weekly!

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