The idea of posing for a photo goes right back to the early days of photography in the 1900s, when families would get together for a paid-for photo session and everyone would have to sit very, very still, perhaps for as long as a minute or two, while the photograph was exposed.

Of course, with the cameras we have today, portrait photography doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, some of the best portraits you’ll see are candid shots, where the photographer has caught a fleeting moment that reveals something about what it means to be human.

The lighting

Look out for great portrait photos and you’ll find that a lot of it is shot in a studio. There’s a good reason for that. With flashes and light modifiers, you can precisely control the direction in which light falls on your subject. But you don’t need a studio to do that – you can achieve the same thing using natural light and careful positioning. Shooting someone facing a window or at the opening to a bridge will work, because you’re able to make the light fall on them from one direction. Or try using venetian blinds on a sunny day for a more dramatic effect.

The kit

Because portrait photography is all about the person, you want that individual to jump out of the background. One of the most effective methods to make this happen is to use a really shallow depth of field. This gives you soft, creamy backgrounds that make the perfect contrast to the sharp focus of your subject. In photography circles, this effect is known as ‘bokeh’, but that’s just a fancy Japanese word for blur. The effect is to make your subject pop out of the background. 

To achieve this, you want to use a really fast lens – f/2.8 or even wider works really well – but even if you can’t manage that, there are tricks to maximise the effect. By positioning your subject so there’s a greater distance between them and what’s behind them, you can maximise the blurred background. You can enhance it still further by using a zoom lens and shifting your position so you’re further away from your subject – the further you go, the more the background blurs. Get a really long way away, zoom in and see what happens. Portrait photographers really love this effect, which is why Nikon is working on a lens with an aperture of just f/0.95.

Now that you know how to produce those creamy, soft-focus backgrounds, it gives a clue as to the type of lens you want to go for. Of course, you can shoot a perfectly great portrait with a 50mm lens, but if you want to give yourself more options, you want to look at lenses with a longer focal range: 85mm on a full frame camera, or 50mm on a camera with a crop sensor. While a zoom lens might give you more options, when you’re shooting portraits it’s easy to use your feet to move in and out, so you’re better off sticking with a prime lens. Not only are do they give you much better shots but they are usually faster, often for a fraction of the price of an equivalent zoom.

Of course, there are lots of different approaches to portraits and those creamy, soft-focus backgrounds aren’t always the best way to go. Sometimes, the background helps tell the story (for example, the shopkeeper surrounded by his wares), so you’ll have to make a creative decision about what you want to achieve. Either way, even if you’re aiming for a blurred background, you still need to think about not only what and where it is, but also what it says about your subject.

The pose

The lens, camera settings and background are the easy bit. The hard part is finding the right pose. Standing there and telling someone to smile just doesn’t cut it when you’re looking for the perfect portrait.

If your subject has an elbow nearer the lens or an oddly-angled arm, this’ll be exaggerated in the shot, making them look uncomfortable. But then there are those times when, in trying to create a pose that looks natural, your subject has to hold themselves in a way that feels uncomfortable and anything but natural. That’s why one of the best ways to set about portrait photography is to take a snap of any poses you see and like, then reproduce them yourself. It’s far easier to show someone the pose you’re aiming for, than to try to explain it. 

The best portrait shots come when the photographer has built a rapport with the model. Asking them to recall precious moments, then capturing that point where their face lights up, can make for an uplifting image.   

If you’re aiming for something less posed, think about giving your subject something to do. This takes their mind off the fact that a camera is watching them. Get them to skim stones across the surface of water, juggle balls in the air, or rearrange the flowers in a vase – anything that takes their attention from the camera will work. The shot might be set up but it can still look natural. Another photographers’ trick is to tell your subject that the shoot is over, then fire off the last few photos to catch the relief that washes over them – and the surprise that follows when the shutter clicks.

One more tip: be nice to your family, because they’re the only ones who will be patient enough to wait for you to get all the details right, never more so than if you plan on getting pictures like this by John Wilhelm. John has found many innovative ways to photograph his family.

The composition

Focus point is everything, and if you’re working with a really shallow depth of field, it’s more important than ever. With portraits, it’s always the eyes that form a connection with the viewer. This is the reason that auto eye-detect is such a popular focusing feature in high-end DSLR and mirrorless cameras. It enables you to precisely lock your focus point onto a specific eyeball and maintain focus, even if your subject drifts closer or further away from the lens before you click the shutter. Even if your camera doesn’t support this feature, it’s always the eyes you want to focus on. When it comes time to shoot, make sure you try lots of different angles. Stick with using your camera handheld if you can, because this will give you infinitely more freedom than a tripod. If your subject is moving around, then you’ll need a fast shutter speed, but if you’re working with a narrow depth of field this isn’t a problem (because the low f/stop value required for those creamy, blurred backgrounds also makes your shot faster).

And the best photography tip of all? Keep it simple and make it fun.

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