What is Portrait Photography

Portrait photography is one of the most popular styles of photography. But, what exactly is considered to be a portrait?

This guide will explain the definition of portrait photography and discuss the tools, tricks, and tips you’ll need to create successful portrait photographs.

What is portrait photography?

Portrait photography can be defined in simple terms as a photo of a person or group of people. But that’s not to say that all photos of people should be considered portraits.

A true portrait also portrays the personality of the subject. It tells a story about their environment, their profession, their culture, or how they’re feeling in that particular time and place.

A portrait is all about the person or people in the photograph and anything else in the frame is there to help tell their story.

woman portrait
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Examples of portrait photography:

  • Engagement and wedding;
  • High school and senior portraits;
  • Maternity and baby portraits;
  • Professional headshots;
  • Family portraits;
  • Celebrity and Fashion;
  • Artistic expression;
  • Boudoir;
  • Pet portraits.

This isn’t a complete list of all the different kinds of portrait photography. The list is vast, but they all have one common trait — people (or pets, but for the sake of this guide, we’ll focus on people, though the concepts are the same). 

The other common trait among these many types of portrait photography is that you want your subject to look good. Part of satisfying that need is by using the appropriate equipment to capture a portrait photograph.

baby portrait

What is the best camera for portrait photography?

In theory, you could use any camera to take a portrait, but a DSLR or mirrorless camera that will allow you to dial in manual settings like aperture, shutter speed, and ISO and will allow you to use a quality portrait lens will give you the best results.

What is the best lens for portrait photography?

While you aren’t limited to it, an 85mm prime lens is considered by many photographers to be the gold standard lens for portraits.

The moderate focal length gives you a comfortable working distance between you and your subject, but lets you remain close enough that you can still give direction on posing. Most importantly, though, the 85mm focal length doesn’t distort your subject like a wide-angle lens would.

The longer lens also helps when you’re trying to achieve a blur to separate your subject from a distracting background.

  • Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM;
  • Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G;
  • Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM;
  • Tamron SP 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD;
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art.

What is the best location for portrait photography?

Portrait photos can be taken anywhere — outdoors, inside a building, or in a studio. No location is better than the other, the key is to match the location to your subject to best tell their story. 

Outside: locations can vary from a country park to a city street; urban to all-natural.

woman in a field of flowers portrait photography
Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

Indoors: Indoor portraits might be shot in the workplace, at home, or anywhere else between four walls.

Studio: Many portraits are shot in studios with complete lighting setups, backdrops, and props.

portrait photography
Photo by Bestbe Models from Pexels

Camera settings for portrait photography

The settings you’ll use for portrait photography will vary greatly from one photo to the next. But here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Use single-point autofocus. With portrait photography, you always want your subject’s eyes to be in focus. So use single-point autofocus and set the focus on the eye closest to you.
  • Use a fast shutter speed, especially if photographing children. Kids are unpredictable, so make sure your shutter speed will freeze motion by setting it high. 
  • Use a wide aperture. Especially if you’re shooting outside or somewhere with a distracting background. A wide aperture will give you a shallow depth of field, blurring out the background, and isolating your subject from the distraction behind them.
  • When shooting groups, keep them all in the same plane of focus. Photographing groups can be tricky, especially if you’re using a wide aperture and have a very shallow depth of field. To be sure they’re all in focus, make sure the entire group is positioned at the same depth. If that’s not possible, decrease your aperture to increase your depth of field.

ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/500s

portrait photography three women
Photo by Gabriel Tovar on Unsplash

Best lighting for portrait photography

Once again, the best lighting for your portrait depends on the subject of your photograph.

You might prefer soft, natural light that’s bright and airy or your subject might call for dark and moody or high-contrast lighting that can be best achieved indoors or in a studio setting.

When it comes to lighting your subject for portrait photography, there is no shortage of options. Some of the most popular ways to light your subject include: 

  • Flash: Use off-camera flash or strobe lights to fill in dark spaces that exist in ambient lighting.
  • Reflectors: A reflector can redirect flash or natural light onto or away from your subject.
  • Diffusers: If using flash, use a diffuser to soften the light to make it look more natural.

What makes a successful portrait photograph?

Besides being properly exposed and in focus, a successful portrait photograph:

  • Tells a story about the subject, shows their expression or conveys their personality. To achieve a connection with the subject, it helps to build a rapport with the person you’re photographing first, to make them feel more comfortable in front of your lens. 
  • Focuses on the eyes. Not only are eyes visually interesting, but they also help communicate mood. Remember, the expression, “the eyes are the windows to the soul.”
  • Has the quality of light. Generally speaking, lighting should be soft and natural-looking, without harsh light or unwanted dark shadows — unless the subject matter calls for it.
  • Pays attention to the surroundings. A great portrait of a person can be ruined by a distracting background. Always be aware of everything in your frame.
  • Edit your photos. Sometimes, it is impossible to take a perfect shot no matter how hard you try. But don’t worry! You can use free Lightroom presets for portraits to make your images flawless yet realistic.
woman portrait
Photo by Adam Sabljaković from Pexels

Final thoughts

Portrait photography is not simply a pretty photograph of a person — it’s so much more than that. The purpose of this genre of photography is to draw the viewer in.

To bring out the personality of their subject. To tell their story. A successful portrait photo will leave the viewer with a feeling that they know more about the subject in the photo than they did before they saw it. Consider this next time you photograph any person.

What will you do to help their personality shine? This is not only done with a camera and lens, but also by using those tools to capture the expressions, body language, and essence of your subject. 

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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