A beginner's guide to photographing people

4 min read
Black and white portrait of a young Indian man wearing a hoodie

No matter what type of photography you prefer or specialize in, at some point you will have to photograph another person. If you're a professional photographer, you'll probably be asked to photograph portraits a lot. The art of taking good photos of people is vastly different from taking photos of landscapes, architecture, products, food, or anything else you specialize in. These tips will help you get the best portrait, especially if you don't often see people on the other side of the lens.

  1. Be realistic - To start with, don’t set extremely high expectations of yourself as a portrait photographer. Portrait photography, like anything else, takes time and effort to get great results…what’s important is getting started. Jump in the next time someone asks you to take their portrait and let them know you are a novice, that way neither of you will be disappointed or have unrealistic expectations.
  2. Simplify everything Indian family of three - husband, wife and child happily posing on a street

    The purpose of good portrait photography is to direct the viewer to your subject. Everything else - backgrounds, clothing, props, lights, etc - should be kept as simple as possible. Ensure the background is flat or level, there are no horizon lines running through people's heads, even lighting, and solid colors. It should only be the person's face and body that are emphasized, everything else should compliment it.

  3. The easiest camera settings - This will be controversial as there’s no agreement amongst photographers on what settings work best for portrait shoots. However, here – go mine. A quick disclaimer though: I shoot Nikon and use Nikon lenses only but the settings below should translate well to other platforms too.
    • Use natural light: I prefer using natural light for portraits. I find that the shadows come out better with a more natural and even color tone. For bright days, use ISO settings at 200, 400 if it’s cloudy or 600-800 if it’s darker
    • Aperture priority mode: AP will allow you the most room for error, and it’s how most portrait photographers tend to shoot
    • Low f-stops: I like to use a low f-stop (1.4 – 2.2) when shooting a single person, I find that this gives me the most beautiful, creamy bokeh (background blur) that’s aesthetically pleasing to my customers. For groups of people (2-4 people), I use a higher f-stop of around 3.2 – 4 as a starting point and work my way from there
    • Shoot in RAW: Compared to JPEG or PNG files, RAW files capture much more detail in your pictures. Shooting in RAW will give you the ability to fix blemishes in post-processing compared to shooting in JPEG
    • Use a prime lens: I shoot nearly everything I can with my 50mm 1.4 prime lens. Prime lenses tend to be faster (have a larger maximum aperture/ lower f-stop) than a zoom lens and give your better-quality photos. On the flip side, with no ability to zoom in/ out I have to walk around to make adjustments to the composition
    • Underexpose your images: This works for me because I like to get the details in my photos and then bring them back up in post-processing

    These settings may or may not work for you, and there is no shame in having everything set to “Auto”. This doesn’t make you any less of a photographer…it’s all about experimenting with different settings and your own style to come up with what works best for you.

  4. Shoot from their eye level, or higher at an angle Black and white portrait of a smiling, bearded middle aged man

    If you want to get the best, most flattering shots, shoot your subjects at their eye level or higher. Additionally, taking photos of someone straight on is both unflattering and uninteresting. Asking them to twist at the waist, shoulders, or neck, rather than facing their body square on, will make the portrait more forgiving and professional.

  5. Don't command a smile - Do not command or instruct your subjects to smile. The best portraits capture your subject's true nature in a natural, candid way. The mistake many photographers make is forcing their feelings on their subjects (like “say cheese” and posing). Engaging my subjects in conversation and clicking away has worked much better for me. I find this gives me a better chance of capturing that candid, honest portrait than trying to set up a single moment of utter perfection.
  6. Photoshop overkill - Photographers who are new to taking portraits tend to overuse Photoshop or Lightroom. Have you seen those portraits where the skin looks stretched like plastic? Yeah, that’s overdoing Photoshop. To have a clean, natural look to your portraits it’s best to use minimal steps in your post-processing flow. Here’s what I do:
    • Clean up blemishes with the “Spot Healing Brush Tool” in Photoshop
    • Basic sharpening using the “Unsharp Mask”
    • Adjust color and levels, if needed

    Avoid using the Auto color, tone, and contrast options – they are easy to use but almost always take the editing too far and make portraits look unreal.

  7. Have fun!- Two children playing in the park

    The most important thing is to enjoy your shoot - not just for yourself but so that your subjects feel more comfortable in your presence. If your subjects feel comfortable, you're more likely to capture candid images.