How to start with Portrait Photography

Michael • updated November 5, 2022 • 8 min read

How to start with portrait photography

Portrait photography has a lot of artistic potential, and when it’s done well, it can make us feel something in a split second. But it is also without a doubt one of the most difficult types of photography.

This means that even people who are just starting out with portrait photography can avoid unnecessary problems and take professional portraits right away.

To also get people who are new to portrait photography interested:

  • What is the most important equipment?
  • What lenses can help?
  • What should you know about settings and changes for portraits?

Our tips also encourage people who are just starting out and don’t have a budget of a few thousand dollars to try out interesting and versatile portrait photography. Let’s get to it, and see how to start with portrait photography.


 

1. What equipment is needed to start with portrait photography?

In fact, all cameras that let you set aperture, shutter speed, and ISO (sensitivity) (the three most important factors in photography) independently and manually are good today.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a DSLR or a system camera in this case. When you ask what equipment you need to take good portraits, there are as many answers as there are faces to photograph. One needs light shapers and studio flash, while the other needs additional stylists. For beginners, a camera, lens, and passion are enough.

The lens should also be able to be changed. On the other hand, whether you choose an analog camera or a modern digital camera depends on your own tastes and needs.

Less important for a portrait photographer is the zoom range. You can change the composition of an image by moving around or changing the subject.

Cheap kit lenses have less light sensitivity in the zoom function. On the other hand, you can get a 50mm or 85mm fixed focal length lens with a maximum aperture of f1.8 for between $120 and $180.

We like to work with a focal length of 85mm because it lets you place the model at a comfortable distance. In theory, though, the focal length should be over 70mm to take photos of faces without warping them. This is, of course, about people who are just starting out.

You can also work with focal lengths like 24mm, 35mm (fixed focal length f/1.4), 50mm (fixed focal length f/1.8), or the whole range from 16mm to 200mm. But this needs to be done with a lot more thought to get the effect you want.

Without a doubt, super wide-angle lenses can also be used to take good portraits. This is because the wider a portrait is shot, the closer the viewer is to the face. So, distortion becomes a way to add style.

You can also buy zoom lenses that shoot quite quickly across the whole range of focal lengths, but you’ll have to dig a little deeper into your pocket to do so.

Here some example 85mm lenses from various brands:

2. Beginner gear for portrait photography

Here’s what you need to take a great picture:

  • Model
  • Camera
  • Lens
  • Folding reflector
  • Studio flash (not mandatory at early stage)
  • Light shaper (beauty dish, softbox, striplight, etc) (not mandatory at early stage)
85mm fast prime lens
85mm, f/1.4 fast prime lens, @qimono

3. Fast prime lenses are best for portrait photography

For the most beautiful and visually stunning bokeh in the background of the model, you should use the largest aperture possible (f1.2, f1.8, or f2.8) with a fixed focal length of 85mm.

The term bokeh refers to the blurred background that appears very close to the subject due to a large aperture. Professionals play with contrasts, highlights, and gradients to place their subjects in the most interesting or harmonious frame possible.

But with intense light there is a drawback: the more you open the aperture, the smaller the horizontal area that is really sharp when you take a picture.

In the worst cases, this “distance” can be only a few centimeters or even millimeters. This is where professionals shoot in various settings and exposure bracketing to make sure that the results aren’t a nasty surprise by being out of focus.

Tools to bring your portrait photography to life

 

4. Choosing the location for your portrait photography

Indoor portrait photography needs the right lighting. The main light source, fill flash, and an umbrella reflector are some of the tools you can use to give your model’s face the best lighting.

But portraits can be taken in front of a window, where the play of light and shadow can make for interesting photos.

When taking pictures outside, midday is not always the best time. Because the sun is up high, it doesn’t shine in the best way, and the light is often very bright.

When taking portraits outdoors, the best times are in the morning, afternoon, or evening, when the light is still good. For example, the warm tones on the model’s face are brought out by the setting sun.

5. The best portraits aren’t taken in bright sunlight

Whether you take pictures outside or in a studio is mostly a matter of personal style.

It’s more important to know what the differences actually are. Then you’ll be able to figure out what you like best and what works best for the other person. And you don’t have to bring your own artificial lights. Yes, portraits do need light.

Still, you should learn how to use flash, light shapers, and even natural light. We will talk about this in another article.

If a studio flash is too expensive to start with, you should at least get a folding reflector, which can be used to get rid of shadows caused by the sun’s reflection or to make a face look much better and more expressive. In this case, you should also think about the choice of reflector:

  • Golden reflector- creates a warmer light, softer portraits, or facial features.
  • Silver reflector- creates a very hard light reflected 100 percent without tinting
  • White reflector- creates very neutral light, but not as harsh as the silver reflector

Have also a look at our guide, how to take good portraits with common light sources.

Woman outdoor portrait with backlight
Outdoor portrait with backlight, @xusenru

6. Basic rules of lighting for portraits

It’s almost impossible to explain this topic in a short and clear way. So, for people who are just starting out, we’ll just talk about the most important exposure rule and a few types of exposure for portrait photography.

Portrait photographers who are just starting out should stay away from the midday sun and its very, very harsh light.

If the photographer isn’t used to working with shadows, light shapers, and other such things, the midday sun will hurt the exposure in the face no matter what. So at first, it’s best to practice in the early morning or late afternoon sun.

Also, the sun doesn’t have to be behind the photographer all the time. With some practice and creativity, you can use backlighting from different angles and perspectives to make beautiful portraits.

But this is more for experienced photographers because it takes a lot of patience and practice to spot meter with natural light. For more info on how to take photos of people wearing glasses, read our article.

 

Portrait with Rembrandt light
Portrait with Rembrandt light, @JerzyGorecki

7. Basic settings to light the models’ face

Only half of the face is in direct light, while the other half is in the shade. The angle between the light source and the model should be about 90 degrees.Read also about how to Photograph Faces.

  • Split light is very dramatic, and with a little practice, you can turn it into pincer light. This is done by extending the Split Light in a way that is the same on both sides.
  • Rembrandt Light is well-known. The source of light is directly above the model’s head, but it is very far away. This makes a triangle of light on the model’s cheek when she is looking at the camera.
  • Butterfly Light gets its name from the butterfly-shaped shadow that this exposure makes under the model’s nose. In Hollywood in the 1930s, this exposure was very popular for taking portraits.
  • Paramount Light, the setting is a light source angled between 25 and 70 degrees and placed in the middle of the model’s head.
  • Loop Light: works in the same way as the Butterfly Light, but the light source is not completely in the middle. Instead, it is moved to the left or right.
  • Broad Light: This light looks like the Rembrandt Light. The model, however, turns her face away from the source of light.

8. Portrait photography camera settings

The 2/3 rule, sometimes known as the golden ratio, is a compositional strategy used by many portrait photographers. Here, two lines cross the image frame horizontally, each positioned 1/3 of the way from the top or bottom of the picture.

The image is divided into 9 similar portions by two vertical lines that have the same length. The right or left third of the image is then used to place prominent items or subjects, such as the model in portrait photography.

Another illustration: in a photograph of a sunset, the sun would similarly not be in the exact middle but rather on either the upper or lower horizontal line.

Focus on the models' eye
Focus on the eye, @Olichel

9. Best Focusing practice for portrait photos

Focusing at 70mm: Wide-angle portraiture can make noses appear enormous, which is occasionally unappealing. Additionally, if you don’t know the model, you can go a little bit closer to them with longer focal lengths, and this distance is actually pretty beneficial.

Under 50mm short focal lengths can be employed as a decorative device or to distort proportions.

The eye closest to the camera must be in focus; if the face is slightly tilted, the camera may not have fully focused on both eyes. We can promise you that the portrait will be coherent as long as the eye closest to the camera is in focus.

10. Always look for the right aperture

Shoot with the aperture wide open: makes it simple to emphasize the subject by blurring the background (a technique known as bokeh). Thus, it facilitates background separation from the model.

A higher aperture value requires a longer exposure time according to exposure metering. You can utilize the AV mode (Aperture mode), which automatically determines the exposure time, as a beginning.

However, it is generally preferable to work with quick shutter speeds because in portrait photography even breathing or an eye blink might result in blurring.

Male portrait with strong facial expression
Male portrait with strong facial expression, @1866946

11. Capture your model in a proper perspective

Perspective – perspective is, of course, also a style issue. The following considerations should be made. The model appears submissive or obedient when the lens is above eye level.

The model appears strong and powerful if the lens is kept below eye level. By the way, this explains why fashion photographers frequently spend the first half of the day kneeling. 

Getting your model look good is critical, see the best hairstyles to look good in photos.

12. What is the best way to become a portrait photographer?

When you are an absolute beginner to photography, we recommend learning about the theory first, reading through reference materials, and watching YouTube tutorials, if you like neither of these just pick up a camera, a lens,, and a model and start shooting.

However, it doesn’t hurt to be familiar with the fundamental contexts and operations of portrait photography as well as the intriguing and inventive ways that aperture and shutter speed can interact.

Ideally, you are also familiar with the golden ratio and the rule of thirds. However, amateurs or newcomers should actually take the plunge and obtain some low-threshold experience before delving too deeply into theory.

Start taking snapshot portraits as this will train your eye and you move toward creating more conscious and empathetic portrait photos.

Model posing relaxed on chair with window light
Relaxed model, @Takmeomeo

13. Always show respect for your model

The expert always makes sure that the subject to be portrayed is entirely at ease and treated seriously in the appropriate context in order to transmit authentic and genuinely moving feelings and – if wanted – a message.

We recommend to direct the model with  thoughtful and well-measured guidance.

Beginners should preferably get their first acting experience from actors who are accustomed to acting in front of the camera and don’t require precise direction. This makes the process easier when filming. Learn how to pose male models.

14. Pro tip: create a laid-back atmosphere

Give your photo subject some attention, and provide a welcoming atmosphere. If at all possible, prepare your equipment before the shoot.

Talk to your model while listening to music that she like. By doing this, you may eliminate your model’s self-consciousness in front of the camera and lay the groundwork for facial expressions that are as genuine as possible.

Lively portraits can also be made through movement rather than just a static stance. It is best to distract kids a little bit when taking images of them by giving them something to do.


Frequently asked Questions

What background shall I use for my model?

The background in a portrait is just as crucial as the subject. A cluttered or interesting background will draw the viewer’s eye away from the subject of your photo.

Typically, a neutral, uncomplicated background that won’t detract the audience from your portrait subject is what you want for portrait photography. The background in portrait photography is equally as crucial as the subject.

Interested in more portrait backgrounds? Check our aesthetic portrait backgrounds here!

What focal length is best for portrait photos?

Because focal length contributes a predictable degree of image distortion, it has a significant impact on your photos and can make or break your portraiture.

By looking at the lens barrel, you may determine what focal lengths your lens offers. Millimeters are used to display the focal lengths, such as 18mm, 55mm, etc. There will only be one focal length available if you are using a fixed or prime lens.

The most accurate picture of your subject will be provided by an 85mm focal length lens, because it produces no facial deformation.

The face features will start to distort unfavorably if you shoot with a focal length less than 80mm. For instance, certain characteristics, like your subject’s ears, chin, and hair, may appear smaller while others, like their forehead, nose, and closest cheek, will appear larger.

Where shall I photography my models?

Your camera settings and the setting you decide to photograph in go hand in hand. Environments can be divided into two major categories: indoor and outdoor.

  • Interior Homes, workplaces, and specialized photography studios with backdrops, complete lighting setups (flash included), and additional props are indoor settings for portraiture.
  • Outside. Urban and natural locations for outdoor portraits include city streets, gardens, and parks.

More reads about how to start with portrait photography:
10 Different Types of Portrait Photography
11 Things Photographers Wish They Knew Before Going Freelance
Portrait Photographer demographics and statistics USA

Conclusion

Although there are a few specifics to portrait photography that you should be aware of right away, an unrestricted approach that concentrates solely on the method will eventually result in better pictures.

Keep reading: How to Outdoor Portrait Photography »


What is your opinion on How to start with Portrait Photograph? Let us know in the comments.

By Furoore team member Michael
Furoore Team is here to assist you in capturing the most significant moments in your life. To create exciting photographs, discover photography guides, find unique photo ideas, and limitless image inspiration.

Turn your snapshots into awesome portraits.

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