12 Portrait Photography Tips to Tell Their Story

Words & Photos by Chelsea Sherman

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Headshot of redheaded woman set against beige backdrop

When we take a portrait, we don't just take a photo — we tell a unique story, capturing personality and emotion in meaningful ways that give color to the life in front of the lens. It is an artform, an exercise in connection, and a tangible recreation of the human experience, all in one. But behind it all is a process that's so much more than point and snap.

Here, with help from friend and portrait pro Chelsea Sherman, we take a closer look at that process — starting with 12 portrait photography tips every photographer can employ in their own shoots.

Tip 01

Start With the Story

Portrait of young man with beard
Photo by Chelsea Sherman

With most portrait photography, there's a story waiting to be told. Developing that story before the photo shoot is one of my favorite steps — looking to sources like literature, history, travel, and song for inspiration. Sometimes, the story can be as simple as the emotions of the person you're photographing, told through their expression.

Once the idea starts to come to fruition, making a sketch or mood board can be helpful. While this isn’t always necessary (because sometimes the inspiration comes from the shoot itself), it can make things easier when working with someone new and outline some clear direction before the photoshoot begins.

Tip 02

Choose a Solid Background

Portrait of redheaded woman
Photo by Chelsea Sherman

This might go without saying, but if you want to draw the attention of your image to the person, having a solid background is one of the most simple portrait photography techniques to make it happen. It helps create more emotion from your subject thanks to less distraction. It also makes the editing process much easier since you don’t have to remove anything that might be drawing attention away from the portrait.

Tip 03

Clothing & Props Add to the Image

Portrait of young blond woman turned to the side and wearing a large-brimmed derby hat
Photo by Brandon Lopez

Work with your model or subject and ask them to bring clothing or props that they love. Photographing people is all about making them feel comfortable, and they tend to be more comfortable in front of the camera if they're wearing something they feel good in. Props can also add to the story you're telling and give your model something to play with, making them look more natural and less nervous.

Tip 04

Natural Light is Key

Woman holding flowers in room flooded with natural light
Photo by Chelsea Sherman

Every photographer has their own personal style and preference when it comes to photo lighting. I tend to be a bit of a purist when it comes to photography and don’t like to use a lot of fancy gear or lights. Nature has already given us all the tools we need and sometimes the variability is a fun added challenge to the creative vision.

Natural light isn't just for the outdoors, it's also the best lighting for indoor photography. It brings out beautiful, natural skin tones, has a vast range (depending on where you place the subject), and, best of all, it's absolutely free!

Tip 05

Use Angles for Interest

Black and white photo of young man laughing and tilting head to the side as he slicks back hair
Photo by Chelsea Sherman

Explore different model headshot poses by having your subject play with different angles and tilt their head in multiple directions to give their face a more dynamic shape. When someone faces directly forward it can flatten their features and feel like a corporate headshot.

Make sure their eyes are pointing towards the camera or looking in the same direction as their nose for the most natural effect. Having them face a corner behind you is often a great way to get some beautiful angles from the side of their face. Plus, they might not feel as intimidated if they aren’t required to look directly at the camera.

Tip 06

Self-Portraits Are Good Practice

Young woman looking dreamily out the window
Photo by Chelsea Sherman

I shoot self-portraits all the time because if I have a particular concept in mind, it is often easier to create it myself rather than try to explain it to someone else. It's also a great way to practice your skills without the pressure of having someone else in front of the camera. You can play with lighting setups, camera settings, color schemes, etc., while experimenting to see which poses and positions look best.

If you're able to learn the hand positions and poses yourself, you'll be better equipped to direct someone else when you're photographing their portrait. This also gives you more flexibility to shoot at any time without waiting to coordinate with a model or scout a location.

Tip 07

Don't Center It

Young man in green jacket outside
Photo by Chelsea Sherman

An excellent portrait photography tip for when you are behind the lens is that you don’t always have to put your subject in the center of the frame. Play with the rule of thirds, or create your own rules to place them elsewhere. The negative space around them can add more context to the image and keep the viewer's eye moving around the frame.

Tip 08

Take Time for Setup

Optical illusion of man standing on ledge and leaning over
Photo by Brandon Lopez

Take a few extra minutes before you start photographing to really hone in on your lighting, camera settings, and frame before you begin. You'll feel more prepared before the subject sits down and you can get creative without worrying about setup. It’s a significant timesaver that makes images look close to final in-camera, rather than spending hours in Photoshop tweaking exposure and color temperature.

Tip 09

Talk With Your Subject

Young woman laughing as she tries to give boyfriend a piggyback ride
Photo by Chelsea Sherman

If the person you are photographing is feeling camera shy or is inexperienced, it helps to talk to distract them a bit with conversation so that you can continue shooting. Ask them about things they love or are excited about to achieve the most authentic emotion in your images. Depending on the emotion you're hoping to convey, you can ask them about different things. The in-between moments — when they are thinking of an answer or have just laughed at a funny thought — are often the most beautiful expressions that show a subject's true character.

Tip 10

Explore Creative Portrait Photography

Bride's reflection in the mirror as she does her makeup
Photo by Chelsea Sherman

You don’t need a lot of fancy gear, money, or tools to create a beautiful image. If you want a special effect with lighting or atmosphere, think of ways to use things you already have. For example, I once used the steam after a shower to create a foggy look in some self-portraits. I've also played around with basic home lamps to make interesting light. Even just shooting through windows or a sheer curtain can lend a dreamy look to your portraits.

If you want to bring some beautiful light flares into your image, use the natural oil on your fingers to create a filter on part of your camera lens. While I would recommend cleaning your lens afterwards, it's a completely free and simple way to add some atmosphere to your images.

Tip 11

Play With Light Outside

Man-walking down well-lit path formed by two curving walls
Photo by Brandon Lopez

One of my favorite outdoor portrait photography tips is to find ways to manipulate sunlight with your surroundings. If there's a doorway or corner on the street, place your subject in the shadow and only reveal part of their face to the light for a moody look. You can also look for interesting walls (or even use the subject's head) to block part of the sun, creating a backlit portrait with some delicate sun flares.

Tip 12

Use a Shallow F-Stop for Smooth Skin

Headshot of woman with green hair
Photo by Chelsea Sherman

I'm always looking for ways to avoid too much time editing images and spending more time being creative. To make my subject's skin look smooth and beautiful, I tend to shoot with a shallow F-stop or a low number such as 2.8 or 3.4. This also gives the background a blurred effect, drawing more attention to the portrait.

Depending on the lighting situation, I will need to use a fast shutter speed or a lower ISO so that I don’t have too much light coming in. By shooting a bit darker or underexposed, you can pull out more details in post-production if need be. An image that's too bright makes it impossible to get that information lost in post-production.

Bonus Tip

There Are No Rules

There are no hard rules for which settings to use for portraits. It all depends on the kind of look you want to achieve and what your personal style is. If you like to have some motion blur in your images, use a tripod and a slower shutter speed. Or, if you like sharp details and crisp, clear lines, shoot with a higher f-stop, a moderate ISO, and a quick shutter. You can keep the grain of your image low (ie. a low ISO) but still get sharp details (a high f-stop), by having your subject stay as still as possible while shooting with a tripod and a faster shutter speed.

Shooting self-portraits lets you play around with these settings and new portrait photography techniques in different lighting conditions — without someone else waiting on you.

My Toolkit

A Note About Gear

I shoot with a Nikon D600 or the Nikon D750. I love the low-light capability of the Nikons and the way they capture color. My favorite lens for portraits is the Nikon 60mm 1.2 because it has a beautiful natural vignette and I love the way it captures details. The 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lenses are also great for portrait photography.

About the Author

Chelsea Sherman

Chelsea Sherman was born in Utah, raised in Colorado, and currently lives in Barcelona, Spain. She first found her love of photography during a study abroad trip to Italy and hasn't put the camera down since. After spending the last couple of years working as a commercial photographer for a large company, she decided to start her own freelance business when moving abroad. Her passions are for photographing people in all forms, storytelling, styling, knitting a sweater or two, and traveling anywhere via train with a good book in hand.

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