Keys to a Good Portrait (Part 3)

June 02, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

In our first lesson we talked about using natural light for portraits. You can review that post here.
Last time we talked about adding artificial light to portraits. You can review that post here.

In this segment we are going to discuss two more aspects of portrait photography. These are posing the subject and how to relax them to help get the expression you want. We will also take a look at how to use DOF to separate the subject from the background or to remove an unwanted distraction from the background.

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 shoot 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 that are different. Learn a pose or two 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. The dominant pose 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.

Standing square to the camera has a more 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 have the hands doing the same thing, feet separated and pointed differently, etc.. Remembering this helps you create interesting images and adds to the ability to light the subject to have dimension.

Rule of 2's and space between the 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 then 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.

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 your 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.

So, over the past few weeks 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. In the final segment, we discussed posing and some of the principles to think about to have your subject look most pleasing. Also in that segment we 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.
    a. 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.
    b. Also of importance to note is that if the resulting shutter speed is too slow (I almost never shoot a portrait slower than 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 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 I want.

Suggested Practices:

  1. Stand squarely in front of a full length mirror. Now turn slightly to face left or right. Notice how much thinner your body appears. Put all of your weight on your back leg and take your knee closest to the mirror and bend it slightly over the back leg. Notice how this slightly turns your hips to help thin the body. This also will tend to lower the shoulder closer to the mirror. Now practice tilting your head slightly (low shoulder for women and high shoulder for men). Finally, put one hand in a pocket (if you have one) and the other on your hip. It really doesn’t matter where your hands are as long as they are doing something different and not just hanging straight down. Your objective is to place them so that your elbows are bent and you can show space between your arms and body. While there are definitely proper ways to pose the hands don’t worry about it now. Get the body right and worry about the hands later.
    a. Practice different ways to turn your body and using the rule of 2’s so your body looks thin and pleasing. Do this with a standing, a sitting, and a leaning pose. Find something you like and remember why you like it.
  2. Find a volunteer and take what you learned in practice 1 to pose them. Take some shots and be your own critic. Do they look relaxed? Did you thin the body? Find out what you got wrong and work on getting it right for next time.


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.

Click here to see this entire article where all three segments are discussed together.

If you would like to see more of my work please feel free to visit my website at, or my Instagram page at bwoodfinphoto, or my Facebook page at woodfin photography

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