Portrait Photography: A Guide to Getting Started

The art of portraiture is as old as recorded history.   Fayum Mummy Portrait,  Unknown, 100A.D. (i mage source )

The art of portraiture is as old as recorded history.

Fayum Mummy Portrait, Unknown, 100A.D. (image source)

“The first half of the 20th century belongs to Picasso and the second half is about photography” - David Bailey, Fashion and Portrait Photographer

Portraits do so much more than capture someone’s likeness. They also portray someone’s personality and status, speak volumes about their culture, give insights into their values and history, and of course, can express quite a bit about the sociopolitical contexts in which their image was made. Portraits have been with us for as long as we’ve recorded history. From primitive clay busts to exuberant oil paintings, artists from every age and from every corner of the world have strived to create meaningful representations of their subjects with the tools they have at their disposal.

As technology has evolved, so has the art of portraiture. With the development (and the subsequent ubiquity) of the camera, photographers have found all new ways to capture subjects. The art of portrait photography has emerged as a major form of creative expression. Famous photographers like Richard Avedon and Annie Leibowitz have built wildly successful careers by honing their personal approaches to portraits, but the art form isn’t something that’s limited to well-known professionals.

If you’re a beginner who is interested in portrait photography, it’s important that you learn the fundamentals before you try your hand at shooting. That’s why we’ve rounded up this complete guide to portrait photography and included all of the essentials you need to know in order to get started. You’ll learn about the basics of portrait photography: how to identify the right equipment, employ the best lighting techniques and build rapport with your subjects. Read our guide to portrait photography for beginners below, and you’ll be able to create your own great images in no time.

What is portrait photography?

“What the human eye observes causally and incuriously, the eye of the camera notes with relentless fidelity” - Berenice Abbott, Photographer

According to world-renowned arthouse Tate, “a portrait is a representation of a particular person.” But the word representation here is a bit tricky. It can mean likeness, as in, a depiction of someone’s likeness, but it can also involve capturing the emotion or personality of an individual. It can employ symbols as a way of representing someone’s status or affiliations. It can include props or specific settings to represent someone’s cultural context. A portrait is also defined by the technique through which it is made. An oil painting is fundamentally different from a bronze sculpture, and each have their own goals, challenges and artistic intents. Portrait photography, or the art of using a camera to capture a representation of someone, is a distinct and important way of creating a likeness that has evolved its own practices, goals and requirements as camera technology and cultural norms have shifted and changed.

Portraits don’t just capture what subjects look like, they also tell a story about them.   Portrait of Marguerite Khnopff , Fernand Khnopff, 1890 ( image source )

Portraits don’t just capture what subjects look like, they also tell a story about them.

Portrait of Marguerite Khnopff, Fernand Khnopff, 1890 (image source)

If you want to try your hand at portrait photography, first think about your goals. Unlike in other mediums, your tool—the camera—will automatically capture someone’s physical features. You don’t have to worry about making sure your work seems “realistic.” Instead, think about the other information you might want your photograph to convey. Do you want to show someone’s mood? Their interests? Their personality? Do you want to convey their beauty or stark individuality? Do you want to include a setting that shows the fullness of their lives, or a background that is blank, so that your audience focuses on their physicality? Ask yourself these questions (and others) about what your artistic intent is before you begin the shoot and you’ll be much more likely to end up with a final result that meets your expectations.

Shoot your subject in an interesting context or include details that tell a story.   Morton, Mississippi,  William Eggleston, 1969 ( image source )

Shoot your subject in an interesting context or include details that tell a story.

Morton, Mississippi, William Eggleston, 1969 (image source)

Gather Your Equipment

Whether you’re interested in color or black and white portrait photography, you you should  invest in a few key pieces of equipment that will help your work seem more professional. Portrait photography requires the right lighting, backgrounds, and of course, a dependable camera, but that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank to get started. Here are a few things to make sure you have on hand before you begin:

A Camera

Traditional point-and-shoot digital cameras (including smartphones) are not ideal for portrait photography. That’s because their latency—the time it takes between when you push the button and when the picture gets taken—is relatively high. That means you run the risk of missing the perfect facial expression, micro-movement, or another detail that might make your portrait successful. You want to be able to push a button and instantly capture someone the moment things fall together the right way.

A DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera has much lower latency, making it ideal for beginner photographers. The right DSLR can create high-quality images with better resolution, sharpness, and clarity. Plus, when using a DSLR, you can take photos fast by locking-in the focus ahead of time and snapping away.

The best DSLR cameras can cost thousands of dollars, but you can save money by   purchasing a package that includes more than just a single piece of equipment. Kits from top brands like Nikon or Canon, that include cameras as well as accessories like lenses, tripods, memory cards, and cleaning supplies, offer a tremendous value and save you time and energy on research, too.

A Lens

When you’re first starting out, it’s best to get comfortable using one lens for all your portraits and expanding your collection to meet new needs as you begin to develop your personal style. For your first lens, you’ll want a prime lens with a higher focal length to take portraits. For a 35mm camera, that means a focal length of somewhere between 50 and 135 mm, with an 85mm lens being the most versatile overall. Still unsure? Find a reputable camera store in your area or watch a class on lenses to better understand the tools that you might need.

Shoot your subject from a variety of angles to find a dynamic shot.   Dancer at the Dew Drop Inn,  Ralston Crawford, Date Unknown  (image source )

Shoot your subject from a variety of angles to find a dynamic shot.

Dancer at the Dew Drop Inn, Ralston Crawford, Date Unknown (image source)

Use an off-camera light source to highlight your subject.   Portrait de Gala,  Brassai, 1932 ( image source )

Use an off-camera light source to highlight your subject.

Portrait de Gala, Brassai, 1932 (image source)

A Lighting Kit

Photographers talk about light a lot, because it is one of the foundational elements of their craft. Your ability to harness light (and create shadow) is a the key skill that you must develop if you want to take great portraits. While your camera comes with a built-in flash, that’s not enough to make your work interesting. If you want to be a good portrait photographer, you’re going to need lighting equipment to help take your images to the next level. If you have money to spend, a professional set up can cost thousands of dollars, but if you’re on a budget, a basic kit can provide high-quality results without costing a fortune. Just make sure that if you buy a kit, that it includes:

An Off-Camera Light Source

Portrait photography lighting should include at least one off-camera light source (a light that is not produced by the flash mounted on your camera) because it allows you to change the angle and intensity of the light hitting your subject. That ability will in turn give you a ton of options for  shooting more dynamic, and original portraits because you’ll have light and shadow at your disposal.

Many photographers rely on speedlights as their go-to off-camera light sources. They are portable and inexpensive, which makes them an easy investment for beginners and professionals alike. A wireless speedlight like this Nongnuo, is compatible with all the major brands of DSLR cameras and is often priced well under $100. Of course, you can pay four or five times that amount for more professional, name-brand equipment, but if the quality difference is negligible, there’s no need to go all out—especially when you’re just beginning to explore the genre.

The downside to speedlights is that they use batteries, unlike strobe lights that are more expensive but plug into AC power. That makes speedlights relatively slower to recharge, which could delay your ability to shoot a large number photos in a row. For some, a few seconds of waiting for the flash to charge doesn’t affect their workflow. For others, a delay could derail a shoot. If you’re just starting out and aren’t sure what your personal style is, work with an inexpensive speedlight flash first, and invest in something else if it doesn’t fit your needs.

A Trigger

The device that allows you to use your speedlight remotely is called a trigger. Think of it as a remote control that tells the speedlight to flash when you want to take a photo. Connecting your speedlight trigger to your camera is easy. You simply place the trigger into the mounting area on top of your camera, and connect the trigger receiver on your flash. As soon as they are linked, your shutter release and speedlight will trigger at the same time, allowing you to work more quickly, easily and seamlessly—particularly if you are interested in self portrait photography as well as shooting other subjects.

A Light Stand

Your off-camera speedlight won’t do you much good on the ground, and you can’t rely on someone holding it in place for any decent amount of time. Instead, you’ll want to have your speedlight mounted on its own light stand—a tripod that holds your speedlight and diffuser. For a couple bucks, you can get a flash bracket to connect your speedlight to your tripod. This holds your speedlight in place and allows you to adjust the angle of light onto your subject until you get it just right.

A Diffuser

Direct light can be unforgiving on a photo shoot. It will highlight flaws, create sharp shadows and mercilessly distract from your subject. Enter the diffuser. Diffusers soften the light and make your subject look better by reducing the contrast between light and darkness. The most common type of basic diffuser is an umbrella because it’s lightweight, effective and inexpensive. The ones made for photo shoots can be connected to your light stand to muffle the intensity of your speedlight. Other household objects can help diffuse light too; white poster board or paper, aluminum foil, or white cloth can help reduce glare and redirect light to highlight your subject in a more flattering way.

A Neutral Background

No white wall is ever going to be clean enough for you to shoot against with confidence. Make sure you invest in a roll of seamless paper. Grey is probably the easiest to use and most versatile, but photographers have had success with white, black, and a range of colored papers, (even patterned backgrounds!) too. Tape your paper it to the wall or get a stand to hold it if you want to take it down and replace it on occasion. Can’t find seamless paper? A clean sheet or tablecloth can work just as well if you’re in a pinch.

Now that you’ve got the basic equipment gathered, it’s time to focus on your subject.

A neutral background can showcase a subject’s individuality.   Puerto Rican Woman with a Beauty Mark,  Diane Arbus, 1969 ( image source )

A neutral background can showcase a subject’s individuality.

Puerto Rican Woman with a Beauty Mark, Diane Arbus, 1969 (image source)

Build a Rapport with Your Subject

“A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people” - Annie Leibovitz, Portrait Photographer

A portrait should be an intimate expression of a person. But people don’t generally reveal their true emotions to complete strangers. Therefore, it’s important that  you—the photographer—connect with the person you’re photographing before you begin shooting. You may not make them completely comfortable, but you want to make sure that they are in the right headspace for the shoot. Be honest with them, talk about what your goals are for the shoot, what story you want to tell about them, or why you are interested in shooting them. The more comfortable and honest you are off-camera, the more comfortable and honest the subject will be while you are shooting them.

Having trouble creating a rapport with your subject? Here are a few tricks to help you build a better relationship with them.

Get Acquainted Before the Shoot

Whether they have approached you or you have found them, find out as much as you can about them. Anything they share can help you understand how to best set up the shoot to make them feel comfortable. Think of a few basic questions about them, their lives, and their goals for being photographed ahead of time so that you can get the conversation rolling. Ask them things like:

Have you ever had your portrait taken before? What did you like about the experience? What did you dislike?

What do you want this portrait to say about you?

Is there any part of this process you’re afraid of?

What concerns or questions do you have about the process?

Maria Shriver,  Andy Warhol ( image source )

Maria Shriver, Andy Warhol (image source)

Introduce Yourself

When your subject arrives for the shoot, put them at ease by initiating the conversation. Talk to them about your equipment and explain what everything does. Show them other work that you have shot, and talk about what made those shoots successful. Set a comfortable, friendly and relaxed tone for the day by adjusting your energy level and conversation topics accordingly.

Be Clear About What to Expect

Before you start fiddling with your lights and camera lenses, take a few minutes to outline for your subject what the shoot will entail. You can be casual in how you describe the plan for the day, but it’s important to help them understand what to expect. This is especially important for group portraits if you plan to shoot family portrait photography. Give the adults in the room the information they need to know ahead of time and they’ll be much more able to wrangle their children when you’re ready to shoot.  

Give Clear Direction

When you begin the shoot, your subject will be looking to you for guidance, so make sure you give specific cues. Don’t assume they know what looks best; don’t be afraid to tell the subject to lower their right shoulder, or raise their chin slightly if it means a better portrait. Don’t assume they know what looks best. Praise them as you capture good shots and invite them to see what you’ve shot as you move around the studio. Working with them will keep your subjects engaged, cooperative and much more likely to give you the perfect shot over the course of your time together.

Practice Your Craft

“I think all art is about control - the encounter between control and the uncontrollable.” - Richard Avedon, Fashion and Portrait Photographer

If you’re a true beginner, you’ll want to start honing your abilities in an indoor studio before taking your work outside. Staying indoors will give you more control over your lighting, which will in turn allow you to better experiment and learn from different studio setups. You’ll also want to recruit family and friends to pose for you. The best way to practice is alongside people who will cut you some slack when things go awry. Offer to give them free photos in exchange for their time and patience and you’ll be on your way to portrait perfection in no time.

Ask your subject to turn towards the light to capture interesting highlights and shadows.  Marlon Brando , Phillippe Halsman, 1950 ( image source )

Ask your subject to turn towards the light to capture interesting highlights and shadows. Marlon Brando, Phillippe Halsman, 1950 (image source)

Ready to get started? Here are two exercises that only require one light source, a neutral background and of course a camera, so even if you’re new to the art, you can get the hang of your equipment and begin to shoot great pictures right away.

Prompt 1: Rembrandt Lighting

Named for the signature lighting style that Dutch master painter Rembrandt employed in his oil portraits, this technique uses light is directed downward on your subject from an angle—illuminating one side of the face and casting a shadow on the other. When done correctly, this effect projects a small triangle of light on the shadowed side of the face. Rembrandt lighting is a great technique to try because it works well on any face, providing a nice highlight-to-shadow ratio and flatters every subject.

How to create this effect: Use a single light source mounted 45-degrees to the side of your subject, and angled 45-degrees down.

Prompt 2: Side Lighting

Side lighting is one of the easiest and most dramatic techniques that you can create using a single light source. To achieve it, position your light close but directly to the side of your subject. If your subject looks straight at the camera, half their face should be in shadow, but before you shoot, have your subject turn slightly towards the light source so that more of their face is highlighted. Done correctly, this technique creates a uniquely stunning portrait. Try some shots where your subject gazes off camera and you should be able to see why this effect is so powerful.

How to create this effect: Use a single light source placed directly to the side of your subject, and angled at 90 degrees.

What’s next?

“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera“ - Yousuf Karsh, Portrait Photographer

If you are just beginning of your journey in portrait photography, keep challenging yourself by shooting different types of subjects, trying different styles and studying different techniques. Practice, practice, practice, continue to learn, and you’ll soon be creating the kinds of portrait photographs that will be treasured for generations.


Want to learn more about photography? Skillshare has hundreds of classes to help you take better, more beautiful images. Find the class that fits your needs here.