Key Principles to a Good Portrait

January 12, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

There are so many things involved to creating a good portrait that it will be hard to include everything in a single post.  Probably many of you will think of additional important elements that have been missed, but I hope to include the basic things I think will be most helpful.

The first things that come to mind are those things that are important in any image.  This includes good exposure, focus, and good composition.  Without these elements it doesn’t matter if your image has the other elements of a good portrait because it’s not going to work anyway.  So for now let's assume you have those and just talk about what else is involved in making a good portrait. 

When shooting a portrait the first thing I think about is the look I want.  Do I want it to be dramatic, romantic, happy, festive, etc.?  This will make a difference in the lighting, the posing, colors, depth of field (DOF), and expression of the subject.  These all have to work together or your portrait will have mixed signals for the mood you are trying to show.  Think about this, it doesn’t make sense for the subject to be smiling or laughing when everything else in the image has a somber mood to it.   

Let’s talk about lighting first.  The idea of any image is to show depth.  As photographers we are trying to make a two dimensional media appear as three dimensional.  The way to do this is with highlights and shadows.  As the image goes from highlights to shadows our brains interpret this as depth.  Think about an individual’s face.  Having highlights on the right cheek that gradually turns to shadow on the left cheek shows that the light is partially blocked by the nose indicating depth. The light we use to show this depth can come from two places.  These are natural light from the sun and artificial light sources.

Natural Light

Natural light is the best light there is.  It shows skin tones in the most natural state and evens the light out across the entire scene.  When I’m on location I always look for natural light first.  The best natural light is when it bounces off of other elements in the scene.  This could be the wall of a building, or the concrete of the sidewalk, or even a reflector that you put on a stand.  Bouncing the light naturally diffuses it making it very soft and perfect for romantic or dreamy moods.  The key with natural light is to be able to see it as it falls on the subject and the scene and to position your subject so the light is directed on the subject in a way that is most pleasing for the mood.

So how do I see natural the light?  Seems like a silly question because when you go outside in the daytime there’s light.  Right?  Yes but photographically you must see the direction of the light.  This is what determines where the shadows and highlights will fall on the image.

There are two primary ways to find the natural light that works well with portraits.  One is to look for a location where the light is being diffused by being narrowed into a smaller area.  This could be a doorway, a window, an archway, an overhang, or just a large opening in a building.  Another place to find light is from reflections such as reflective glass, the side of a building, or even the ground.  Once you discover one of these places put your subject in the area of the light and look for the catch lights in the eyes.  When you see the catchlights you know you have light on the face.  Then just position the subject for a good composition and take the shot.  Always be sure to get light in the eyes.  The eyes are the most important part of a portrait and they must pop.  Even if the eyes are closed they should be well lit.

Bella Schmukal - Image SubmissionBella Schmukal - Image Submission

Shot in Natural Light.  Location a Parking Garage with diffused light on camera right.

Artificial Light

In absence of natural light you must provide your own artificial light.  I could write volumes about lighting your subject, but let’s talk about the basics.  There are three principles of light that you should consider for any scene, particularly portraits.  First is the direction of light.  As you probably know, the direction of light has a direct impact on the mood of the image.  We will expand on that here and talk about the effect of putting the light in different areas around the subject.

Putting the light behind the subject is called “Backlighting”.  The effect of this will tend to put a halo around the subject with the front of the subject being dark because no light is falling on it.  You may want this direction of light to get a silhouetted subject, or you may light the front of the subject as well and use the backlight for accent.

Backlighting added an accent or "glow" around the hair

Side lighting tends to show a more dramatic look and it also brings out texture.  Lighting the subject at 90 degrees can be very powerful, however most side lighting tends to be more of 70 to 80 degrees to add a little light in the front.  All subjective, but the idea is to light one side and let the other side go into shadows.  The degree of shadows depends on how far to the side you have the light.  Side lighting can also be used to add additional drama to another technique.  In the image below I added side light to give the image some more punch.  In this case it didn’t add a lot of drama, but gave it a different look.

Side lighting added punch to the image

Front lighting tends to have very little or no shadows.  This is called “flat lighting” and what you will get when the flash is on your camera.  Since there are minimal shadows you lose the ability to show depth, making your image appear to be two dimensional.  This is why most photographers want you to take your flash off of the camera.   However, there is a time where flat lighting is exactly what you want.  Makeup manufacturers spend a lot of time getting great makeup to look just right.  If you were shooting for an advertisement for makeup the agency would want you to show every bit of the face possible to promote the wonderful product.  To do this, their photographers shoot very flat images.  As a photographer yourself you may want to have your image emulate this look.  I do it all the time.  However, as a rule, flat lighting should probably be avoided for shooting portraits of individuals.

Front Flat Lighting Sometimes Works Well

The only other time you should shoot with flat lighting, as a rule, is when you shoot groups of 3 or more.  This is because any kind of side lighting will cast shadows from some members on other members of the group.  You have probably seen this when you have shot groups, or seen them shot, where the light is coming from the side.  Right?  This could be families, or friends, or sports teams.  You see it all the time in snap shots.  Flat lighting will avoid this problem.

One of the most used methods of lighting for portraiture is what is called “45/45”.  This puts the light at a 45-degree angle from the camera and high enough to point 45-degrees down at the subject.  With this you get a nice inverted triangle below the eye opposite of the light.  This is called “Rembrandt Lighting” after the famous artist that showcased it in all of his portrait paintings.  This lighting also gives you a nice catch light at 2:00 if the light is on the left side of the camera and at 10:00 if the light is on the right side.  If the catch light is not in the right place the inverted triangle will not be correct.   This lighting method is not a must, but is fairly easy and always gives you a very nicely lit portrait.  In the image below notice the Rembrandt triangle under the left eye and the catch lights at 2:00.   

45/45 Lighting

All of these lighting methods I have described have assumed a single light.  Adding more lights to these basic lighting techniques can refine the lighting even more and help you attain your vision.  We’ll talk about adding lights in a later post, but for now we will concentrate on single light setups and move on to other elements of the basics on good portraits.

The second principle of light is the quality of light.  This refers to the softness, or how gradual the light goes from highlights to shadows.  You usually want softer light for the romantic or creamy type image.  It goes especially well with females looking for the beautiful magazine fashion look.  Harder light is usually used to show more drama or texture in the image.  I typically don’t use hard light for my family and female senior portraits, although I do use it for some of my male seniors and athletic posters.

There are two things to think about when creating hard or soft light.  The first thing is the size of the light source in relation to the subject.  Bigger light sources in relation to the subject will be softer than smaller sources.  To test this take an ordinary flash light and shine it close a subject.  Notice how the light looks relative to the highlights and shadows.  Then slowly move it farther away and see how the gradation from highlight to shadow becomes much sharper.  Moving the light source away from the subject makes it a smaller source and creates the sharper light.  This tells us that if we want to soften the light we can move our light source closer to our subject.  Of course, when you do that you will also have to adjust the intensity of the light.

The second concept regarding light quality is that you can soften light by diffusing it.  There are multiple ways to diffuse light.  Bouncing light off of an object is one way.  This could be a wall, a floor, or a reflector (including an umbrella).  As the light hits these and bounces it spreads in all directions creating a nice soft effect.  The other way to diffuse light is to shoot through a diffusion material.  Soft boxes, shoot through umbrellas, Octa boxes, and other modifiers are examples of this.

Jenna Geyman - August 7, 2016Jenna Geyman - August 7, 2016

Soft Diffused Light

So to summarize, when you want to soften the light you can choose a bigger light source, or move the light closer to the subject, or bounce the light, or diffuse the light by shooting through a diffusion material.  You can also use a combination of these to make the light even softer.

Finally, the third concept of lighting that is important is the color of light.  Yes, we are talking about white balance.  This is more important in shooting portraits than with landscapes because of the color of skin.  Nothing looks worse than the portrait of a beautiful woman with green skin.  It’s extremely important to get the skin tones right.  My advice is not to shoot portraits with the camera set to Auto White Balance.  This is especially important if you want to display a series of photos in the same setting, like a photo array or collage.  The white balance in this case may not be the same in each image and the skin tones will show it.  Instead, shoot a gray card if you can.  Set your white balance on the camera to a preset like “Sunny” or “Cloudy” and keep it there.  In postproduction, use the gray card to correct your white balance on all of the images in the series.  If you don’t have a gray card image to use in postproduction, you can adjust the white balance in one image the way you like and then set the others to the same white balance so they are consistent.  This will be easier if they all have the same white balance to begin with and is the reason for using a preset instead of Auto White Balance. 

If you are not shooting an array of images and you don’t have a gray card you should still color correct your images, if you want the skin tones to reflect reality.  You can do this in post processing by selecting the White Balance Correction tool (in either Lightroom or Camera Raw, or whatever) and selecting a neutral color in the image.  Neutral colors are any black to white tones that are suppose to be void of any color.  If the white balance is incorrect these tones will have a little tint of color that needs to be removed.  Using the White Balance tool and clicking on these areas will remove that tint.  Color toning your images is always an option and you won’t have to worry as much about white balance, but even if you color tone them it’s always best to start with an image with corrected white balance.  Take the time to get the white balance right.  You’ll thank me for it later.


I could go on and on about lighting, but let’s move on to posing and expression.  Posing is probably the most difficult part of the process for me.  What I have learned over the past few years to make it easier for me is to learn two or three basic poses and then shoot from different perspectives.  This means shoot the same pose, but shoot full length, ¾ length, and tight head shots.  Then shoot low, shoot a little high and shoot a little left and a little right.  Just be careful that the light is correct for each perspective and that the background still works.  From each pose you should be able to get about 4 to 5 shots of the same pose but are different because of the different perspective.  Learn a pose or two for both a male and female that are standing, one or two sitting, and one or two leaning against something (like a tree or wall).  

Some of the things to look out for when posing are some of the basic rules of photography.  One of these rules states that, “whatever is closest to the camera appears bigger”.  This is especially important in portrait photography.  When I mentioned above that you should shoot high and low you must be aware of the result you will get.  When shooting low I am talking about getting the camera low and shooting up on the subject.  Doing this tends to elongate the body causing the subject to look taller.  This sometimes works well with females to give them longer legs that can look more elegant.  It also can give the subject a more dominant look if posed properly.  This works well with males.

You should also keep this rule in mind when posing the arms and legs.  For example, if you have an arm extended toward the lens be careful that it is not too far away from the main body of the subject.  Notice in the image below how the elbow on camera right is almost as big as his face.   It becomes a dominant force in the image.  The more appropriate pose would be to have him turned a little more toward camera and have him lean his head in a little.  This would put his face and elbow much closer to the same plane causing them to be in a more proper perspective.  It’s a very subtle change, but makes a big difference in the image.

Elbow closer to the camera appears nearly as big as his face

Probably most important for female subjects, is to make sure to slim the body as much as possible by posing them correctly.  You can always take off pounds with the Liquify tool in Photoshop, but over indulgence with that tool becomes obvious and you want them to look like themselves.  I have to admit that I use the Liquify tool on occasion, but I use it very subtly and it’s only to correct posing mistakes (unless I’m doing a composite where anything goes).

One of the best ways to slim the subject is to have them slightly turn toward the right or left of the camera.  This tends to slim the face and body. Ask them to shift their weight to the back foot and to pop that hip.  Then ask them to lean forward slightly.  Remember, the closest thing to the camera appears bigger and you usually want that to be the face.  Posing this way will slim the lower part of the body while emphasizing the face.  You may also ask them to bend the front knee in front of the back leg, or to bring the entire leg in front of the back leg.  This will cause them to turn the hips resulting in a slimmer look.  This is helpful whether you are shooting full length or head shots.  Separating the arms from the body also thins, so you probably want to see some space between the arms and the waist in most cases.  This sounds like a lot, but the key is to turn the body slightly, lean forward, and separate the arms from the body.

Slimming the body is mostly important for females.  With males you have more flexibility.  I definitely shoot slimming poses for males but squarely facing the camera will always give them the broadest look and also a very dominant look.  This is popular with athletes and some of my male seniors.  They like posing in front of their trucks looking “bad”.  Below is an example of this.

Brendan Cockroft - Senior 2017Brendan Cockroft - Senior 2017

Posed square to the camera to portray a dominant look

Another important thing to remember with posing is the rule of 2’s.  This rule indicates that any two things (pair of things) on the body should not be on the same plane.  This is referring to eyes, shoulders, hands, feet, etc..  So you should always think about tilting the head slightly, tilting the shoulders, not having the hands doing the same thing, feet separated and pointed differently, etc..  Remembering this helps you to to create interesting images as well as to light the subject to give you dimension.

Rule of 2’s and Space Between Arms and Body

One more thing on posing that isn’t really a rule, but a technique that I like to help slim the body and give it a more elegant look.  When you have the subject turn the face opposite of the body they will tend to look more elegant.  Not necessarily a technique for males, but works well with females.  See the image below for an example of this.

Head turned camera left and body turned camera right has a more elegant look

As with lighting I could go on talking about posing but let’s end this subject with a final word.  It’s extremely important that the subject be relaxed and having fun.  If they are not, the images will reflect it and everyone will know.  The expression and body language will show the tension.  Believe me I have shot my fair share of tense subjects and it’s very obvious.  Do everything you can to connect with the subject to get over this hurdle.  Your images will reflect that.  I usually ask about something in their life and then show some interest in what they say.  My subjects are usually seniors so I ask about the college they are applying to, or what they have planned after they graduate.  Then I ask a lot of questions about that and show some real interest.  This usually loosens them up and they become more relaxed.

It’s also good if you if you have a good wit.  That’s not my personality, but if you can make them laugh they will usually loosen up and even be relaxed on serious shots.  Just be sure if you tell a joke to keep it clean and remember who your audience is.

Color and Depth of Field

Finally let’s talk about color and DOF.  It’s very important to have the color of the background and the color of the clothes on the subject in harmony.  I tell all of my subjects to not wear anything busy or with bright “loud” colors.  These will draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject.  I am usually shooting in places with earthy tones (darker colors) so I usually ask that they wear something similar and have a few changes just in case something clashes.  I explain to them where we are going and what to expect.  They are usually pretty good about matching the environment.  If I am shooting in a studio environment I will let them know the background I plan to use and the best colors that will harmonize with it.

Shallow DOF to Hide Some of the Background

Whether I shoot with a shallow DOF or a broad DOF usually depends on the look I’m going for, but it can also be determined by other factors.  First, I look at the environment.  If there is something I want to include in the image, like a landmark, I’ll usually shoot with a broad DOF.  Imagine being in Paris and having the Eiffel Tower in the background.  Wouldn’t you want the viewer to see it?  On the other hand if there is something I didn’t want in the image, like a construction crane, I may want to shoot with a more shallow DOF to blur it out.

Another reason to shoot with a shallow DOF is to take advantage of the environment or be creative with what you are given.  For example, if you are shooting a street portrait and there are streetlights in the background.  You may want to shoot with a shallow DOF to see the beautiful “bokeh” of the lights.  This is usually better late in the evening and you may need a flash to light up the subject.  Just be sure that the bokeh is not over powering and becomes the subject of the image.

Summing it Up

So, we have talked about some very basic concepts.  We talked about how to find natural light and then how to use its direction to light your subject in various ways.  Then we talked about adding artificial light and the three principles (direction, quality, and color) that are important for good lighting of the subject.  Then finally, we discussed posing and some of the principles to think about to have your subject look most pleasing.  We also talked briefly about using depth of field to include or remove objects in the environment, or use it to add a creative look to the background while emphasizing the subject.

To bring these all together let’s discuss my approach to shooting a portrait.

  1. The first thing I do is to visualize the image by evaluating the environment and determining the mood of the portrait.  If I am doing a studio session this is done well ahead of the shoot, but if it’s on location it could happen at the time of the shoot.  I usually try to shoot at locations I know or scout the location in advance so this is more predetermined, but sometimes it a little ad hoc.
  2. Once the environment is analyzed and the mood determined I determine my camera settings.  I always try to shoot at ISO 100 and the aperture is determined by the DOF I want to use.  Remember DOF is determined by either creativity, or something in the environment that I either want to show or hide.  Once I know my ISO and Aperture, I can determine my Shutter Speed.  I envision the shot I want and set the shutter speed for that exposure.
    • It's important to note that DOF can also be affected by the focal length of the lens, but that's a discussion for another time.
    • Also of importance to note is that if the resulting shutter speed is too slow (I almost never shoot a portrait slower that 1/30) I may have to make concessions and increase the aperture or ISO.
  3. With the background exposed the way I want I can now focus on lighting the subject.  So I put the light(s) where I want it for the proper lighting technique and measure the light.  The light should be exposed for the same aperture as the aperture set in the camera.  For example, if I want to shoot at F-4.0 then I need to set the light to the proper power to expose the subject at F-4.0.
  4. Now with the flash and background exposed properly I will usually shoot a gray card to use in post processing to assure the white balance is correct.  I try to always have the camera’s white balance set to either sunny or flash.
  5. Now I am ready to shoot the image.  All of the lighting and camera settings should be very close to where I want them so I can focus on posing the subject.   However, I usually take a test shot to make sure.  Sometimes I will need to tweak the flash settings, but I NEVER change the settings on the camera unless I decide I want a different look or mood.  Then I go back to Step 1 above and the subject can relax.

These steps are roughly what I do for every shoot.  Some are more extensive, especially if I use multiple lights, or we are trying to do something unusual.  You should also notice that these steps did not include shooting in natural light.  The difference is that in analyzing the environment I find the direction of the light and determine how the subject must be placed in the scene so they are lit in the most pleasing way.  With this I can determine my DOF and set the camera for the proper aperture and shutter speed.  Then I can move on to Step 4 and 5.  Sometimes I shoot the scene without the subject to be sure I have the environmental look want. 


I truly hope this has helped you think about how to approach shooting portraits.  Please understand that these are only suggestions and there are many perspectives on this subject.  Take these for what they are.  It's perfectly OK to break the rules some of the time.  They are really just guidelines.  Hopefully, there are some nuggets that you can take to improve your images.

There are so many subjects I didn’t talk about, including composition, distracting objects (trees growing out of the head), avoid bright areas in the image, etc..  My goal here was to discuss the most important basics regarding good portraits that I thought would help the most.  Visualizing what you want is probably the most important part of shooting any image.  By visualizing the image you will better know the lighting, the colors, and the camera settings required to achieve it.  Ad hoc portraits are sometimes successful, but planned portraits have a much better chance of succeeding.


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