Complete Guide to Portrait Photography: How to Pick the Right Camera and Lens and 4 Tips
Portraits tell stories of not just people but also of time, culture, experience, and place. Whether you’re taking casual photos of relatives or friends, or setting up a professional shoot like for headshots, there are a few basic portrait photography tips and techniques that will ensure a positive experience and successful outcome.
What Is Portrait Photography?
Portrait photography is a style of photography that portrays human subjects. Portrait photography has been around since the dawn of photography, when Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in 1839—the same year that Robert Cornelius aimed the camera at himself and took what is widely believed to be the first self portrait photograph (or “selfie” in modern parlance) ever, laying the groundwork for portrait photography to emerge as its own art form. Cheap, fast, and portable, portrait photography soon replaced traditional hand-painted portraiture, allowing amateur and professional photographers more freedom in documenting the human condition.
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What Is Portrait Photography?
What Equipment Do I Need for Portrait Photography?
How to Choose Camera Settings for Portrait Photography
What Are the Best Lenses for Portrait Photography?
What Are the Best Photoshoot Environments for Portrait Photography?
How to Choose Lighting for Portrait Photography
How To Get Comfortable With Your Portrait Subject
4 Tips for Great Portrait Photography
Want to Become a Better Photographer?
Play Video Sample Lesson from Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography Annie discusses photography equipment, working with natural light, and the value of keeping your lighting kit small. GET STARTED BROWSE LESSON PLAN (15) 1. IntroductionAnnie Leibovitz's iconic photographs have appeared in museums, books, and magazines from Vanity Fair to Rolling Stone—and now she’s your instructor. In introducing her class, Annie reflects on her career and the power of telling stories with photography.* See more 2. The Evolution of a PhotographerLearn how Annie’s artistic journey impacted her evolution as a photographer—from the inspiration of family photos to the San Francisco Art Institute and Rolling Stone. *Lessons marked with an asterisk contain images with nudity. See more 3. Photographic InfluencesHenri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Alfred Stieglitz, and Richard Avedon—Annie introduces us to the photographers who have inspired her, sharing the personal lessons she has derived from their work.* See more 4. Portrait PhotographyAnnie discusses portraiture and photojournalism, and what makes portrait photography so compelling for her as a medium. Learn why Annie loves the photo series and why a single image cannot truly "capture" a person.* See more 5. Photographing People Who Are Close to YouAnnie discusses why your family and loved ones may be your best photography subjects and what opportunities come from photographing subjects who are close to you. See more 6. Looking Back at Your WorkAnnie discusses the importance of self-reflection and explains why it's so important for every photographer to look back at their work.* See more 7. The Technical Side of PhotographyIn this chapter, Annie shares how she approached transitioning from film to digital, and what starting out in the dark room can teach you. Annie also shares her perspective on focus and sharpness—and how above all else it's the content that matters. See more 8. Creating ConceptsAnnie breaks down her process for developing imaginative and creative concepts for her photo shoots, sharing examples from Tess Gallagher, Amy Schumer, Keith Haring, Whoopi Goldberg, and more.* See more 9. Working With LightAnnie discusses her philosophy around photography equipment, working with natural light, and the value of keeping your lighting kit small. See more 10. Studio vs. LocationAnnie talks about her approach to studio photography, her strong preference for shooting on location, and the role of environment in her portraiture. See more 11. Working With Your SubjectAnnie shares how she approaches working with a subject for a photo shoot, including refuting the popular notion that it's a photographer's responsibility to put a subject at ease. See more 12. Student SessionsAnnie sits down with students from her alma mater, the San Francisco Art Institute, to critique their work and share her own approach to core principles of photography. See more 13. Case Study Part 1: Photographing Alice WatersAnnie brings you inside a photo shoot with the renowned chef Alice Waters. Learn how Annie built the concept for the photos, conducted research, and prepared for the shoot. See more 14. Case Study Part 2: Digital Post-ProductionAnnie gives you an exclusive look into her digital post-production process, and shares her thoughts about what it means to be a photographer and creative artist. See more 15. Case Study: Angels in America Photoshoot for Vogue MagazineEnjoy a behind-the-scenes look at Annie's photoshoot for Vogue magazine, where she captures the cast of Angels in America. Watch her and her team set up the photoshoot, effect her concept, and show the way she works with her subjects. What Is Portrait Photography? Portrait photography is a style of photography that portrays human subjects. Portrait photography has been around since the dawn of photography, when Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in 1839—the same year that Robert Cornelius aimed the camera at himself and took what is widely believed to be the first self portrait photograph (or “selfie” in modern parlance) ever, laying the groundwork for portrait photography to emerge as its own art form. Cheap, fast, and portable, portrait photography soon replaced traditional hand-painted portraiture, allowing amateur and professional photographers more freedom in documenting the human condition. What Equipment Do I Need for Portrait Photography? To take great portraits, you’ll need the following equipment:
Camera. In theory, any camera, from a disposable to a smartphone to digital cameras, is suited for portrait photography. However, a DSLR or mirrorless camera is ideal since they offer manual settings, affording a photographer tight control over adjustments like exposure, aperture, ISO, and shutter speed.
Lenses. For beginners, start with a lens between 85mm and 135mm before experimenting with zoom lenses or longer telephoto lenses for close-up photos. (We’ll discuss lenses in further detail below.)
Tripod. A sturdy tripod enables you to set up your portrait shot and get your model in sharp focus. Then, you can concentrate on your model and capture multiple different expressions from the same vantage point.
Lighting. At a minimum, you’ll want a speedlight or flash attachment for your digital camera, particularly for interior and studio work. However, there are other lighting tools available for portrait photography. See below for a deeper dive on portrait lighting.
Backdrop. If you’re taking your portrait photographs in a studio, you’ll want a simple backdrop. In general, opt for a backdrop that’s at least 6 feet long for ¾ length portraits and 10 feet long for full-height portraits. Photography backdrops come in a variety of materials, including vinyl, canvas, muslin, and even paper.
How to Choose Camera Settings for Portrait Photography
The dynamic nature of the subject, paired with a wide range of environments from professional studios to the great outdoors, means there is no one-size-fits-all setting for a camera. What is important to keep in mind, instead, is the relationship between your lens, your portrait subject, and your background. Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are all related to the brightness, or exposure level, of the image. Your portrait camera settings will depend on whether you’re using a tripod, or holding the camera yourself.
Tripod. When using your camera on a tripod, shoot in Manual Mode. This will allow the maximum level of customizability for your shots. Since camera shake is less of an issue with tripod photography, you can slow your shutter speed, helping you make use of all available light. When slowing your shutter speed, use a low ISO setting of 100-400.
Handheld. When you’re shooting portraits with a handheld camera, shoot in Aperture Priority mode. This will allow you to account for different angles and lighting by adjusting the amount of light entering into the camera through the lens. To compensate for the additional movement of handheld photography, increase your shutter speed to 1/200th or higher, then compensate for this by raising the ISO.
What Are the Best Lenses for Portrait Photography? For experienced photographers, lens choice is a matter of personal preference. However, prime or fixed lenses in the 85 through 135 range are considered ideal for portraits because these focal lengths provide the sharpest result without widening or flattening the subject too much. Longer lenses also compress facial features slightly, resulting in a more flattering portrait. Portrait lenses also provide some room to play with blurring your backgrounds. You can achieve this effect, known as a shallow depth of field, by using a wide aperture and maximizing the distance between your subject and the intended focus of the blur. Avoid using wide-angle lenses, which can distort your subject’s face and lead to an unflattering and unnatural photo. What Are the Best Photoshoot Environments for Portrait Photography? THINK LIKE A PRO Annie brings you into her studio and onto her shoots to teach you everything she knows about portraiture and telling stories through images. The environment you choose to shoot in goes hand in hand with your camera settings. There are two broad categories of environments: indoors and outdoors.
Indoor. Indoor environments for portraits include homes and places of work, as well as professional photography studios complete with backdrops, a full lighting setup (flash and all), and other props.
Outdoor. Outdoor portrait settings range from the urban, like city streets, to the natural, like gardens and parks.
How to Choose Lighting for Portrait Photography You have a variety of options when it comes to portrait lighting equipment, including:
Flashes and strobes to create bursts of light and fill any gaps in your ambient lighting.
Reflectors and bounces can be used to absorb or redirect both ambient and artificial lighting.
Remote flash triggers can help you trigger multiple flashes in specific combinations on the fly.
Umbrellas, softboxes, and diffusers to soften harsh artificial lighting setups and reduce the “staged” quality of a studio portrait.
How To Get Comfortable With Your Portrait Subject
Meet your subject for coffee and learn more about them. What are their interests and hobbies? What do they do for work, and how does that make them feel? What are some places that hold meaning for them? Could they share any pictures of themselves that they love? This pre-shoot research demonstrates a thoughtfulness that should facilitate a more productive and comfortable shoot.
Get their approval. There may be scenarios, however, in which you won’t have time to do extensive research before taking someone’s portrait. In this case, it is first and foremost important to obtain the person’s approval. Be respectful in your approach and kind throughout the process. Fortunately, unlike buildings, roads, or even wildlife, human subjects have the added benefit of offering a photographer feedback, whether consciously or subconsciously.
Learn to interpret body language. Some people blossom in front of the camera while others become shy. Some might be willing to sit for hours while others might want to rush through the process. The portrait photographer bears the responsibility of interpreting the subject’s body language and making tweaks to the process as they see fit.
Share your process. Sharing parts of the process also helps people feel comfortable. If your subject is shy, try suggesting a handful of poses to warm them up. Show the result on camera and ask what the subject thinks, what they like and what they dislike. Offer advice for improving the shot. Making the process collaborative simultaneously empowers the subject and allows the photographer to get not just a great portrait, but also a true one.
4 Tips for Great Portrait Photography Here are some tips for taking stunning portrait photography.
Diffuse your light source. When selecting an environment, consider that a soft, diffused natural light from an indirect source is best for shooting portraits. Direct, harsh light or a full sun can cast unwanted dark shadows or create unnatural skin colors.
Focus on your subject’s eyes. If you’re not sure where to focus your lens, look to your model’s eyes. The human eye is visually interesting, and communicates more about mood than most other features.
Pay attention to height. Portraits taken from below the chin tend to be unflattering, while shots that are too high can diminish your subject.
Use setting to your advantage. While a studio can help you exert full control of your lighting, a more natural setting like an office or backyard can add personality to your portraits, as well as make your model feel more relaxed.