Quick Tips to Professional-Looking Portraits

If you want to pursue portrait photography but haven’t the slightest idea how the professionals produce images that are so powerful and unique, consider the following quick tips to help steer you in the right direction.

Rule of Thirds
This rule of photography applies to much more than landscape images – it also applies to portraits. When framing a tight crop of a portrait, many new photographers will place their model’s face dead center. However, when we look at a portrait we typically are drawn to the eyes as the focal point – this means that if we follow the rule of thirds, we should place the eyes on the top third of our image – this makes for a more balanced photo.


Pierce by Tarter Time Photography, on Flickr

You can also play around with this rule and place the eyes on the bottom third for a truly powerful image using negative space.


Winter hat by Lars Plougmann, on Flickr

Use Strobes
Using strobes – or flash – doesn’t always have to look cold and flattening, which is what happens when you use direct flash. There are so many wonderful things you can do with off-camera flash – a world of professional looking, on-location portraits can open up for you.


Some Kid and Mr. Bokeh by anton khoff, on Flickr

Off-camera flash has the ability to add depth and drama to any portrait, or it can be used to balance out your exposure with a bright, intense background. Your portrait options are endless with a few flash strobes, and they allow you to take portraits outside of the studio.

Flash portrait photography is a difficult thing to master, no doubt – but thankfully there are plenty of free resources chock-full of valuable information.

Strobist is the most popular and universally recognized source for a 101 course on flash photography. For true beginners to this field, start here.

Neil van Niekerk, who has made a name for his work by balancing out ambient light and flash strobes to create beautiful wedding photos, has written an incredibly informative guide on the subject. Click here to browse through his collection of articles.

Overcast Lighting
Opposite of using flash to invoke a dramatic mood, overcast lighting is also a fantastic way to create beautiful portraits. This light has the ability to eliminate harsh shadows and has a very pleasing appearance – you’ll find that most professional wedding photographers love a cloudy wedding day as it provides the best lighting for their photos.

Overcast lighting is not just possible on cloudy days either – as long as the sun isn’t directly hitting your model, you can still achieve the soft effect of overcast like in this amazing sunset portrait below.


XXXVIII by Shandi-lee, on Flickr

Wide Aperture
Besides being selective with your lighting, there’s a quick change you can make in order to isolate your model – a huge plus to portraits. By adjusting your aperture setting wider, you can decrease the depth of field and put more focus onto your model – this isolation really makes portraits stand out.


Buckman Flair Promo by conorwithonen, on Flickr

Taking portraits is much more than great lighting and a strong crop – you need to think beyond that and consider your environment, context, and how all the elements of your portrait come together. However these tips will give you a great start where you’ll see an instant improvement on your next portrait session.

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5 Comments on "Quick Tips to Professional-Looking Portraits"

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piyush gupta

its a great artical. I am sure this will help a lot to those who are bigners and want to learn photography. keep it going.

Sophia von Blacha

I looove the last picture! By the way I still don’t exactly know, how you did it. With wide apperture you can set the focus at only one place, let’s say – at the eyes, so that the rest of the body, or for instance the coat that protrudes a little bit in the depth from the body, should be a little muzzy. But it isn’t. The whole figure is harsh. HOW did you do it, that the whole background is so muzzy and the person isolated from it?

best regards!

Pabst Photo

This is a great post – just wondering if you gel your flashes – the one with the guy against the cityscape looks well balanced with the color of the background.

John Young

Interesting article and that photo by Anton Khoff is stunning really interesting photo and love the use of the lights behind.

Otto von Trapp

You always leave great tips and suggestions but would it be possible to leave the metadata about the portraits too? Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and the like would be a tremendous help too.

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