Photography tutorial: how to take better portraits

Analysis and advices on portrait photography. In this guide you will find some tips for taking better, more exciting and intense portrait photographs.


Knowing how to take a decent portrait is essential for anyone who wants to get close to the world of photography. If you try to think about photography in general, you will notice that most photos depict landscapes or people... Ok, this consideration is a little trivial, but it explains the importance of this tutorial.
How many times have you wondered how well a friend of yours looks on a photo? Or how attractive a girl can result in a portrait, maybe more for luck than for a real photographic technique? We will analyze the reasons why a portrait results better than another, deepen differect aspects: the naturalness, the composition, the light and the emOptions.
In this guide I don't want to go into studios technique, as it involves professional lighting, reflective screens, perfect make up, professional models and a huge amount of experience. We will consider the classic situations that can be found shooting every day: the occasional photographic portrait.
. We'll learn what you have to consider if you take a photo on a day out with friends, without reflective panels and huge flash lights.


the naturalness of the ranger is fundamental for the result With the term naturalness I would like to describe two different characteristics of the portrait. The first is that the subject should to be completely at ease, caught in a moment when the expression is natural and reflects the state of mind that we want to take in the photograph. If the subject is comfortable being photographed, you will have no problem, otherwise it'll be your job to say something funny, to make him smile in a natural way, and then shoot at the right moment. For other kind of photos you could ask him to think hard about something sad, to take the photo when he is deep in his thoughts. A third method is a 100% natural photography. In the picture on the left the ranger did not know he was photographed (he gave us the permission to publish the photo after), so his pose is absolutely natural.
The second concept of naturalness is that the subject should not appear deformed by an excessive wide-angle lens. A good rule when you take a portrait is to shoot at least thirty photos or so, using a light telephoto lens, the ideal is between 50mm and 100mm. In the case of compact cameras you should always zoom in a bit, when photographing people.
Recap: Zoom in, or use a medium tele to avoid distortion. When possible take lots of pictures and put the subject at ease.

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composizione In photographic portraits a good composition consists in observing the rules of the thirds, where the eyes (the point of greatest attention) should never be placed in the center of the image, but should be placed at one of the interactions of the four lines of force. You should avoid to have horizons or other objects in the background cutting the head of the subject and always try to leave some space in the direction of gaze, leaving less air "behind" the head and more "in front". If you are going to do a shot that includes the body, you should always avoid cutting the image on elbows, wrists or knees. Also be careful not to cut out of the frame the feets, in full body Portraits.
Try to get a blurred background, it helps to keep the attention of the viewer on the subject. There are different ways to get a blurred background: you can use a large aperture value, with better results on telephoto lenses, or rely on a software-based solution, such as those of many phones or the one that you can find in this tutorial for blurred background with Gimp. Consider also that rules are made to be broken, so feel free to experiment with particular framing, alternative perspectives or tilted photographs. Never forget the basic rules, because the common "passport photo" works well, but don't limit your imagination and creativity with preconceptions and limiting impositions.
Recap: First compose in the traditional way, then experiment. Attention to the horizon, don't let it cut the heads.


light One of the most important elements in the composition of a portrait is light, soft and delicate at sunset, hard and unpleasant in the middle hours of the day. Many professional photographers might criticize what I'll write, but since we can't always be equipped with reflective panels and professional lights, we must learn the art of "doing what we can with what the context offers us". If we are indoors, we will have to shoot with the light available.
If we are outdoors, we need to look for alternative solutions to avoid the sun point directly in the subject's eyes. We can try to place our subject in the shadows, if the sun is high in the sky. If, on the other hand, we are in the early or ending hours of the day, with the sun low in the sky, we can place the sun on the side of the face, maybe we can activate the flash, to help to illuminate the areas of the face that are left in shadows. An alternative to the sun on the side, is to place the sun behind the subject, but in that case you will have to use a flash powerful enough, or overexpose the photo, to avoid having a subject that is too dark. Anyway the light of the sun that, illuminates the contours from behind, creates a very suggestive result. The important thing, however, is to position the subject so to not be dazzled by sunlight, otherwise goodbye naturalness. The bad weather, a cloudy sky or a curtain can make the light much more manageable, without sharp shadows and eyes squinting. In the picture on the left the curtain of the bar where we were drinking a coffee become a sun screen, also making the light quite interesting.
Recap: Avoid sharp shadows and light directly in the subject's eyes.


EmOptions are important in portrait photography Here is something really difficult to express in portraits: emOptions. Some people are very expressive, others a little less. In order to be able to capture an emotion you have to clearly know what you're looking for, put the camera in position and wait for the right moment. The timing is essential, if the subject is still, always keep the shutter button halfway down and follow your instincts. Remember that humans are very good at grasping facial expressions (consisting of 57 muscles) and a realistic natural expression is almost impossible to fake if your subject is not a pro actor or model. If I'm asked to take some pictures at some event, I like to put myself in a corner, observe the environment and wait for the situation becomes interesting, shooting without being noticed and especially without the flash. "Stolen photos" are always the most expressive, as they are perfectly natural. Obviously there are exceptions: sometimes a photograph has to be a little bit prepared, and the subjects need to be positioned. An example is the photograph on the left, which is funny and expressive even though the subjects were posed. I had only to wait for the right moment.
Recap: Do not force the subject to smile, the best expressions generally are the natural ones, even more if taken by surprise.

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Last considerations

After having analyzed in detail the four main points that in my opinion are the most important, let's talk about some little tricks that might help you when you find yourself taking your next portrait photograph:

Another point I'd like to address is the look of the subject. The rule would be that in photographic portraits the eyes should point directly to the camera. I personally believe that in the classic family portrait it is the optimal choice, but I personally also love the "stolen shots", where the subject's eyes are not pointing towards the camera, but at an unspecified point out of frame. It helps to create a sense of curiosity, as in the image below, where a friend was flying a remote-controlled plane. Seeing neither the hands nor the plane, you can only notice a certain concentration that intrigues the observer.

Marco aeromodelling

The last point to clarify is the post production and photo editing. It is not easy to figure out if a photo needs to be heavily processed, left almost natural, or if needs a small intervention.
I personally believe that any image should be improved, maybe you just need to remove a pimple, maybe you want to completely change the appearance. We have a whole section of the website with many tutorials about post production and photo editing with Gimp with also a lot of different effects you can apply to your images, starting with the Flou effect, passing through the Bleach Bypass to the exasperated Dragan effect. I leave you with a quote found on a forum, in my opinion excellent point of view about portraits:
"Post production is a great tool for emphasizing emotional contents that, however, must already be present at the moment of shooting".

If you liked this tutorial here you can find all the other tutorials we wrote about photography, or you can go there to take a look to our tutorials for post production with Gimp. If you liked our work, you could consider to support us: by clicking here you can see how.

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