Portrait Session Photography Tips

Here are a few tips to keep in mind next time you have a portrait session:

Blur the background

When you shoot a portrait you can make the photograph more focused by using a large aperture (low f-stop number) like 2.0, 2.5, or 2.8. This will cause the focus to be on the person and in turn blur out the background. This makes the viewer focus on the person and effectively removes clutter from the photo.

portrait session

Photo by Hans Mendoza; ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/60s, 67mm.

Also, as a bonus, this will help you shoot in lower light and thus getting sharper images. However, be aware that apertures of 1.2 – 1.8 might give you problems placing the focus correctly since it’s so narrow. So if you shoot a portrait and the focus ends up on their nose instead of their eyes (which is where you want to place the focus) it will be extremely distracting.

Remove clutter

Always strive to remove clutter from a portrait. The environment can surely be visible and in focus if you want it to but remove cluttered backgrounds that doesn’t contribute to the photo or takes away focus from the person. Make sure the background is what it’s supposed to be—a background.

Be aware of your lighting

I prefer to be flexible than having perfect lighting as I’ve mentioned time after time again on this site. Reason being that I don’t want to miss that perfect moment. But this doesn’t mean that I always go flexible on the lights. Sometimes I do use studio lights or just create my own little studio. Either way, when it comes to lighting a subject, soft lighting tend to be more flattering and hard light tends to bring out flaws because of its harsh shadows that makes wrinkles and such pop. On that note – never, ever, photograph with a flash on top of your camera straight ahead without a second light source. Pop-up flashes are horrible and you will always benefit more from using natural light, reposition your subject, use a more light sensitive lens or just raise the ISO. Knowing light is a massive knowledge, but studying it will pay off since it’s the building block of the photograph.


Take down notes, plan the shoot, and prepare equipment before you meet with the model. If you start messing around with these things during the shoot the model will lose energy and it will look unprofessional. So figure out your theme, poses, location, equipment, and such beforehand. I personally prefer to have the shoot planned out, but more in rough drafts than in detail, so I leave some room for creativity. But I also have a backup plan in case something falls apart.

portrait planning

Photo by Tamarcus Brown; ISO 250, f/2.8, 1/250s, 50mm.

Get to know them

If they are a music artist, listen to their music and lyrics. An “ordinary” person? Call them up and chat. Get to know them. What makes them passionate? What makes them comfortable? What gives them joy? A portrait isn’t about showing a face, it’s about portraying a personality.

Natural expression

Most people are uncomfortable in front of a camera and to help them keep their mind off of it, I suggest that you engage them in something. Gather them around a pillar, between two walls, pose on a chair, chop wood, play some guitar, or why not ask them to sing to you? Just make sure it’s something that fits the person you’re shooting and that makes them feel passionate and comfortable.

Corny yourself up

If you are comfortable being a bit corny and energetic on the set the model will feel comfortable, too. So if you want them to scream out hard, then you better be prepared to do it yourself first.

Touch them, don’t grope them

It actually makes a model comfortable if you touch them, but only if you know how to do it. If it gets even the slightest bit intrusive s/he will be uncomfortable, and that’s just not good. Things you can do are to walk up to them, remove a hair from their face, adjust a collar—something small, and it doesn’t even have to be real. What you do is show that you want them to look good, and touching another person, when done right, creates a very strong connection and a sense of trust. I cannot go into the details of how to touch here, but a post about this might show up in the future.

urban portrait session

Photo by Guilherme Stecanella; ISO 160, f/2.8, 1/320s, 35mm.

It’s in the people skills

And finally the most powerful tip to shooting awesome portraits: it’s in your people skills. There is one single thing that every great portrait photographer knows how to do and that is to make the subject relax and feel comfortable. What your subject feels will shine through. I cannot emphasize that enough. So if the model is feeling uncomfortable it WILL be visible in the final picture. Work on your people skills and your portraits will come out better no matter what technology you use.

About the Author:
This article was written by Mikael Cedergren, fine art photographer.

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21 responses to “Portrait Session Photography Tips”

  1. no touch-ey.. yep I agree there are some creepy dudes and dudetts out there. Just because you are photographing some one does not make you privlidged to touch them. To adjust something like hair or clothing I always ask if I may the adjustment but often use the “Mirror” technique when shooting portraits or wedding photography to get them posed the way I want them. Clearly speak direction, demo or spicifically tell your subject wear to but their foot, leg, hips and do it with them like they are looking in a mirror. It’s all about trust. Once people trust you, the great art follows.

  2. jimmyD says:

    Personally, i think encouraging photographers to touch their subjects, even with your “no groping” admonishment, is bad advice. Sure, there are people, including some photographers, who have a natural and non-invasive way of touching others. For whatever reasons, they get away with it with no foul called. You might even be one of those folks. For the vast majority of photographers, however, I think it’s bad advice. I’ve rarely met a model, and I’ve shot plenty of them, who was made more comfortable by my touch or any other photographer’s touch. Just my opinion.

  3. Lois Bryan says:

    Very good advice. I especially like your comment: “A portrait isn’t about showing a face, it’s about portraying a personality.” That’s very well said!!

  4. Rod Arroyo says:

    It’s really all about capturing personality. That’s what sells

  5. “A portrait isn’t about showing a face, it’s about portraying a personality” I like this phrase. Definitely agree, because an image it’s not about the face or the picture itself but it describes the personality and value. :)

  6. Dragos says:

    Very good advice on how to help your subject to relax and feel comfortable in front of the camera -“Touch them, don’t grope them”

  7. Paul Langley says:

    These are some really great tips for any new photographer. I especially liked your tip about blurring the background, I had never thought of that before! But it’s really clever, to force the viewer to focus on the subject and eliminate the background almost entirely. Thanks so much for writing, this was really helpful!

  8. I like the suggestion to blur the background. When someone comes to get their photo taken the main focus should be their face. The immediate background of a photo can often times be distracting. Make the portrait intriguing. If you are doing professional pictures then try to fit in the clients personality while still maintaining a professional look.

  9. I think portrait should be like that nobody needs to say anything to the viewers. The clarity and finish of the portrait must make everything clear to everyone.

  10. Brian says:

    Agreed on most everything. Touching… subtle adjustments only, and always ask first. Just hair and jewelry though. The last point about working with people and building trust… that is what professional people photography is all about.

  11. It is nice to know that you should be corny and comfortable with your models. This is a great way to make sure that everyone is comfortable with the shoot. My friend might like knowing this as she looks into portrait photographers.

  12. Elina Gomez says:

    Yes, should need a natural expression for nice and natural capture. These tips like nice for me. Thanks for your tips.

  13. This is indeed very beautiful wedding videography that I am watching right now. Thanks for sharing this out. We move away from a chronological compilation of wedding day events & video shoot and embrace the idea that videography should be telling a story and in this case, a love story.

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  15. Without any doubt, photography is all about lighting. But natural light is great all time. It is a big difference in photography. So be aware of your lighting.

  16. Ronny Berg says:

    Helpful tips for me. Thank you, Mikael. My name is Ronny. I am a Sydney based Portrait photographer. . Your site is TOP class too :)

  17. My sister would like to submit a portfolio of her headshots to the talent agency she’s applying for. Well, you made a pretty good point that the model must feel passionate and comfortable with those shots. Anyhow, maybe it would be best if we’ll hire a professional photographer.

  18. I enjoy a proposition so that you can blur the setting. If anyone reaches obtain their snapshot utilized the chief aim really should be its facial area. A instantaneous foundation on the snapshot can regularly moments often be distracting. Generate a family portrait exciting. When you are executing qualified snap shots in that case aim to slot in a purchasers identity when continue to having a reliable glance.

  19. It will be nice to know you must be corny and more comfortable with your models. This is a terrific make sure that all of them are comfortable with the email. My friend might enjoy knowing this as she checks portrait photographers.

    Thanks for the information.

  20. Baris Selcen says:

    Thanks for sharing amazing tips. Carry on Writing Such Useful Content. I’m a Professional Photographer and I love to click Portraits, Fashion Photo-shoot, and other professional shoots for any occasion if you are from Near By New York City Contact us and Capture your Best Looks with us

  21. Hey Mikael!
    I just wanted to say thanks for posting such an awesome article on portrait photography. I found it really helpful and am excited to try out some of your tips when we shoot photos for our client next week.
    You mentioned in the post about blurring the background. That technique was awesome!

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