Portrait photography, or portraiture, remains one of the most popular genres of photography today—and for good reason. Portraits are compelling; they are evocative. Portraits tell a story; they elicit an emotion. Shot correctly, a portrait can reveal the true essence of a person, who they are and what they feel. According to Godard, portraiture is tantamount to capturing the soul. About what other medium or form of expression could you say such a thing?
As with most genres of photography, portraiture is not beholden to any one specific subject or style. Multiple subgenres of portrait photography exist—everything from standard portraits and headshots to wedding and event portraiture. Even pet portraits are a subgenre of portrait photography.
However, despite the wide range of subgenres, most portraits can be shot using the same (or categorically similar) camera gear and accessories. The same can be said about the necessary skill set one would want to have to capture great portraits (more on those skills later). First, let’s talk about some of the tools you can use in multiple subgenres of portrait photography.
Lenses: Considered by many photographers to be the most versatile focal length available, 50mm (or equivalent) lenses enable you to shoot almost any type of portrait, regardless of your subject. If you plan on sticking to closer portraits, 85mm lenses are beloved by portrait photographers. Learn about the benefits of using prime lenses for portraits here. On the other hand, if you want a range of portrait focal lengths in a single lens, consider a 24-70mm zoom.
Lighting: Like portrait photography itself, lighting—as a tool—comes in various forms and flavors, so to speak. If you’re just starting out with portraiture, you’re probably better off with a basic “on-camera” flash, which can be used for wedding and event photography, as well as other portraiture subgenres.
Now, while they are versatile, on-camera flashes are not a panacea. They aren’t the solution for every portraiture lighting problem. Determining what type of light source best suits your personal style and setup is an important step in putting together your essential portrait photography kit. If you’re looking for help determining which lighting solution is most appropriate for you, we encourage you to check out our guide on making the perfect one-light portrait kit.
Light Meters: It’s hard to overstate how invaluable a good light meter can be, especially if you are working with strobes. By accurately measuring the proper exposure of a scene, light meters provide you with the information you need to shoot perfectly balanced images.
Odds are, your camera has its own built-in light meter, but make no mistake―while serviceable, in-camera light meters are not as capable as handheld meters and useless when working with strobes in manual mode. To learn more about light meters, check out the B&H Light Meter Buying Guide.
Reflectors: Were we to rank the most useful photographic accessories, reflectors would likely top the list. Versatile, inexpensive, and easy to use, reflectors grant you greater control over the lighting in your scene. This added control not only enhances the overall image quality, but it allows for countless creative possibilities you can choose to pursue.
Now, while all of the tools listed above can help you achieve great portraits, it’s important to remember portraiture isn’t just about the gear. Even if your tool kit is nothing more than a camera and a kit lens, you can still shoot great-looking portraits.
By following a few basic principles (or highly regarded suggestions) of portrait photography, you will be amazed by what you can achieve and the portraits you produce.
Rule of Thirds: Arguably, one the most well-known principles of photographic composition, the “Rule of Thirds” is a framing technique that divides an image into horizontal and vertical thirds (a nine-box grid with four gridlines) and tells you to align your subject along those gridlines for better image results and a stronger photograph.
Focus on the Eyes: Despite what you might have heard about bokeh and “buttery smooth” backgrounds, the key to a powerful portrait is focus. Specifically, keeping your subject’s face—especially their eyes—sharp and in focus. The eyes, after all, allow people to connect with each other without words or gestures. Similarly, when a portraiture subject’s eyes are clear and in focus, the viewer can, on some level, connect with them—even if that connection is through a static image.
Frame within a Frame: Frame within a frame (or “framing”) is a compositional technique that involves placing the subject inside a frame-like area (e.g., a doorway) inside your image—which is itself a frame. Hence, you are placing your subject in a frame within a frame. Framing is a good technique for beginners because it’s relatively easy to conceptualize and it’s a great way to emphasize your subject and create a stronger composition.
For more information on the frame within a frame technique, be sure to check out our article on Framing in Photographic Composition.
And, for even more tips on portraiture, be sure to read our Beginner’s Guide to Portrait Composition.
While portraiture is (and likely always will be) wildly popular, it’s also incredibly difficult to “master.” Luckily, shooting portraits is one of the easiest genres of photography you can attempt, so it won’t be hard to get in lots of practice.
As we mentioned above, there are some key pieces of gear that can really help improve your portraiture, but by no means are they a requisite. In fact, before you decide on a new 50mm lens or a light meter, we recommend grabbing your camera and kit lens and just start shooting. Try out some of the techniques we mentioned. Play with framing. Focus on the eyes. Practice using the Rule of Thirds. Or disregard it and all the other “rules” in service of finding your own voice, your own style. After all, portraiture is all about truth—that applies to you, too.
If you have questions or comments, or would like to share your own tips, please do so in the Comments section, below.