5 Tips for Great Portrait Photography

5 Tips for Great Portrait Photography

I’ve got a dream job; I get to make portraits of some of the most beautiful celebrities on the planet. But you don’t have to photograph celebrities to create beautiful portrait photography. I’d like to let you in on my secrets for creating stunning portraits that stand out from the rest. Just five super simple tips will give your portraits that Hollywood appeal.

Tip#1: Go long

Shot at 105mm and an aperture of f/4

Shot at 105mm and an aperture of f/4

Chances are your camera has a zoom lens or maybe even removable lenses. Use this extra reach to your advantage. You want to use a longer focal length when shooting portraits (otherwise the camera really does appear to add 10, or even 20 pounds).

Wide angle lenses make people look like frogs: big and bloated. Instead try shooting with a focal length of at least 85mm (or longer) for stunning portraits.

Tip#2: Be shallow

Shot wide open to give skin a gentle glow

Shot wide open to give skin a gentle glow

Do you like blurry backgrounds? You know the kind that puts all the attention on your photo’s subject and not the annoying things in the back (like a photo bomber). This can be done by shooting with a shallow depth of field. Your camera may have a preset or scene mode for portrait shooting.

If you’ve stepped up to an advanced mode like Aperture Priority, then try shooting your next portraits at f/2.8 or f/4. To get a dreamy, but high-quality shot, be sure to set your focus on your subject’s eyes.

Tip#3: Let it flow

Portraits showing movement of our subject

Showing movement of our subject

Sure, pictures freeze a moment in time, but no one said they had to be boring. The goal is to make a portrait feel like there’s action happening (the pros call this implied movement). This is a great way to give your pictures that feeling of life in motion.

Seeing your subject’s hair or clothing moving adds that special touch that makes your portraits stand out. You might use a fan, or even just get a big piece of foam board from the craft store to create a gentle breeze. Consider jumping, walking, leaping, or turning. The energy from your subject’s movement creates a better photo.

Tip#4: Keep your head up

The subject turns away and then looks back to the camera for her portrait

The subject turns away and then looks back to the camera.

Having a camera stuck in your face can get a little intimidating (I definitely like being behind the camera and not in front of it). If you’ve got a nervous or shy subject, just try this simple trick–tell them to look down at their feet. You can have them close their eyes or give them a thought to think about (go for emotion). Then, have them quickly look up at your lens and give you a great look. This trick helps to make each image fresh, new and exciting.

Tip#5: Make sure you both smile

Want a big smile? Give them a genuine one first

Want a big smile? Give them a genuine one first

If you want a smiling portrait, you should try smiling too. When making a photo, your subject will react to your energy as you shoot. Want a big smile? Give them a genuine one first. Looking for a soft, reflective look? Try the same. Remember, you get what you give.

Final thoughts

I love making the people in my photos look great. All people can look beautiful, you just need to bring out their smile and make sure you keep the mood up when shooting. Your job is to help make great memories, and these five tips can help you be successful.

Matthew Jordan Smith
Matthew Jordan Smith is a celebrity, fashion & beauty photographer based in Los Angeles, California. Some of his clients include Revlon, Pantene, Olay and his celebrity subjects include Oprah, Carlos Slim and the President of Iceland. He is a Nikon Ambassador and host of the podcast Master Your Lens.