Portrait Photography Tips

Photography Posing Secrets
Improve your ability to produce and communicate posing ideas that will lift your portraiture to a higher standard.

I won’t provide you a standard “method” to shoot portraits: there are a lot of different opinions on that. The goal of this article is to give you some information on how I work, based on numerous questions I regularly receive. I will mainly focus on planned portraits with a model. I sometimes define my work as fashion portraits even though my main concern is to try to tell a story.

Portrait Tutorial

I will split my work into four phases: inspiration, preparation, session and post-processing.


In order to make a session run smoothly, it is safer to plan it as much as possible. Before picking up a model, it’s better to have a general and clear idea of what you’re aiming at. I start by looking around me for inspiration, reading books, looking at pictures in the street, magazines, or in the internet. I gather pictures that could help me explain what I’m looking for to the model.
Don’t neglect this phase. Almost all of my models are non-professional, and they like to know into which direction we’ll go together.


Once I get the idea, it’s time to locate a place that could provide the required atmosphere and lighting. I’m almost always using available lighting during the session (no extra source). Sometimes, someone assists me and bounces the light with a reflector, but basically, what you see is what you get.
Consequently, the light often dictates the pose of the model: if the face is in the darkness while the rest of the body gets a heavy light, chances are that the photo won’t work.
Therefore, I always try to do some tests shots of the place prior to the session: this helps a lot!

Next step is the discussion with the model, prior to the session. Show her/him images, explain the atmosphere of the shots… This doesn’t mean that you have to plan every pose or every expression: but once you’ve defined the atmosphere and ideas that you’d like to convey, it’s way easier to play with these “rules” and change them on the fly. Furthermore, models are more confident if they know what the session will look like before starting it. The selection of clothes is also made at that time: I either pick up stuff from the model’s stock, rent it or buy it.


* Finding a model might be a difficult task. Try to ask friends first. Show them your photos or photos that have inspired you, this will give them a better idea. Be respectful, and only publish pictures that they like.

The session


The session itself lasts around 2 to 3 hours, resulting in approximately 150 pictures, from which usually 5 to 10 will be selected. As I said previously, I’m sometimes asking for external help (lighting with the reflector or makeup). We keep talking while working, the goal is also to have fun !


Light makes the mood of the picture: without a good light, you won’t get anything good.
So what’s a good light then? Hm, tough question.
Well it must first match the atmosphere of the shots. I’m gonna take an example. If you’re looking for dark moody underground shots, it’s best to select the right place, say, a metropolitan station. OK, got the place? You’ll first notice that it’s very dark in there, and consequently ask the model to get closer to those nice green neon tubes. That’s it, the face is lit and everything will go fine…

Light is nothing without shadows. Having enough light on the model’s face is good but the neons on the ceiling are going to make deep shadows under the eyes of the model. In this particular case, I would advice to use a reflector on her chest, pointing the ceiling. This will fill the shadows and avoid them.

Always remember this: light and shadow go together and create the mood of your shot.


* Indoor shots close to a window often offer a flattering light. However, if sun brightly shines outside, it is wise to soften the light through a white fabric.

Portrait Tutorial

* Folding reflectors often cost a bunch. You can create your own by using the stuff that you put in the cockpit of your car to protect it from heat [don’t know the name!]

Portrait Tutorial


* Avoid putting the eyes vertically in the middle of the frame when doing tight portraits. Don’t be afraid to cut the forehead to put the eyes on the upper part, but avoid cutting the chin .

Portrait Tutorial

* When doing tight framing, avoid showing the arms or the legs and simultaneously while cutting their hands and feet.

* Again, place the subject off-center. People usually like when there is some space in the direction of the eyes.

Portrait Tutorial

* Use your imagination to break the rules. For instance, this framing is not conventional and gives the impression of being trapped since the space in on the left rather than on the right side

Portrait Tutorial

* Tilting the camera is an effective way for making a dynamic shot

Portrait Tutorial


Hey wait a minute. We’re about to shoot a model, and we don’t care about the background, right? Well, too bad: background might ruin a picture. The background must help you focus on the subject. Try to make it less sharp by using small aperture values such as f/1.8 or f/2.

Got a compact digicam? I’ve got bad news for you: changing aperture with these tiny sensors won’t give you nice results as the pictures tend to be too sharp. You’ll have to go for SLR or DSLR.

Speaking of SLR, I avoid zooms like plague: their aperture is too high for nice portraits. A good and cheap start is a 50mm f/1.8 lens. For close-ups, go for a 85m to 100m f/1.8 lens.
If your background is too visible and has lines or elements, don’t make these elements overlap the model’s face. Vertical lines touching will ruin the composition. Try to keep the background simple and out of focus.


* While the background shouldn’t interfere with the model, its texture or pattern can give an atmosphere to the image

Portrait Tutorial

Foreground is also important, as it gives more depth to the image. Reflections are a nice way to make it look more interesting:

Portrait Tutorial

Despite the numerous curves in this composition, the position of the head doesn’t hit any of them:

Portrait Tutorial

The longer the lens, the less deformations you’ll get. Hence, rather go far from the model and zoom in rather than shooting close with a wide angle lens.

Also don’t neglect the final presentation of the photo and its framing. I often play with weird frames and, no, I don’t use any specific plug-in such as Extensis Photoframe. What’s the purpose if you just select a preset and apply it to the image? It’s so much better to do this by yourself!



Portrait has to focus on the face or an element of the face. Most often eyes need to be sharp. As I said, separate the face from the background with a shallow depth of field (DOF). You must be able to control this factor on your camera by setting manually the aperture, in order to blur the background. Most of my images are shot around f/1.8 or f/2.


With a very tiny aperture value, both eyes might not be sharp altogether. Some people don’t like this but I don’t really care. Here is a shot with both eyes sharp

Portrait Tutorial

but not here

Portrait Tutorial


I’ve already written a whole tutorial on that so I won’t go into details this time. Just switch to manual exposure so that the sequence of shots have the same settings.



* Manual exposure helps you focus on one specific exposure range. A good thing is to get close to the model and fill the frame with an average exposed skin. This will ensure that the skin is correctly exposed. Your background might then become too dark or too bright, but at least, the skin will be OK.

* Try to avoid direct sunlight: it causes too much difference between dark and bright areas.

* Backlighting might be a very good thing if you expose it correctly. For instance, this image was backlit by the sun

Portrait Tutorial

Exposure was manually set so that the skin is bright enough. Don’t try this with auto-exposure: the camera will compensate for backlighting and the subject will remain pretty dark.


All of my pictures are digitally post-processed. I mainly do color changes and local darkening. I like Photoshop’s adjustment layers, especially Curves: you can easily darken one specific area with them. Most people ask me how I’m correcting colors. I can’t give you answers because I use all types of adjustment layers.

Keep this in mind: there is NO general recipe! Don’t think that I always do the same operations. I could show you my adjustment layers but you won’t get the same results with your pics, simply because the initial colors will be different.

So what’s to do? Well, experiment and learn by yourself what are the possibilities of each tool. Then decompose your problem into smaller adjustments and apply them.

That’s it, I hope that this’ll be useful 🙂

About the author:
Jean-Sébastien Monzani is starting a pro carrier, and his favourite photo subjects are portraits with a narrative aspect (he often shots series). The proper atmospheres and moods are achieved through digital adjustments.

Websites: www.jsmonzani.com and www.simplemoment.com

Recommended Readings:

Article was originally written on 19 August’08 submitted by Jean-Sébastien Monzani

7 Responses to “Portrait Photography Tips”

  1. these tips were helpful. it makes me want to know more about how you do things and what you know. it makes me want to see more of your pictures and about them as well. thank you.

  2. Otto Haring says:

    Thanks for the tips!
    This article is one of the most helpful on this site.

  3. Vilma Salazar says:

    Thank you for sharing. Very useful tips.

  4. Rachel says:

    This is one of the most clear and helpful guides I have found so far in my search for portrait photography tips. Thank you!

  5. Eliz says:

    Excellent advice. Although quite a bit is review for me, you have great insight and are a very good teacher. Well done!

  6. Garry says:

    I am a beginner photographer. Thanks for the useful tips!

  7. Nino says:

    Your article is very interesting to read and very useful. I m trying exactly now to have the session and I ll do my best and noted some stuff you mentioned here, thanks so much!

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