【Portrait Photography】10 Essential Tips for Beginners + Course Recommendations

9 May 2023 by
Apryl Zhang

Portrait photography is widely used, whether for social media posts, ID photos, commercial shoots, or wedding portraits. However, for beginners, it can be challenging to take great portrait photos. In this article, we'll introduce 10 essential portrait photography tips and recommend some courses to help you understand this art form.

What is Portrait Photography?

Portrait photography is a form of photography that focuses on "people" as the primary subject. Portrait photography can be done in various settings, including indoor, outdoor, and studio environments. By capturing elements such as expressions, movements, and postures, portrait photographers can create a series of unique works with a particular style and emotional impact that resonates with the viewer.

Portrait photography can be classified based on different purposes, such as portrait photos, fashion photography for magazines, advertising photography, and wedding photography. Each type has its unique style and techniques, and photographers need to adapt their approach according to the purpose and requirements.

Family Portrait Photography

Portrait Photography Techniques

1. Mastering the Use of Lens Focal Lengths

Every photographer communicates through their lens, so it's essential to master the use of lens focal lengths. Different focal length lenses have their own characteristics and effects that can create various styles and emotions in your work. When shooting portraits, photographers can choose the appropriate lens based on the shooting scene and composition.

Wide-angle lenses can capture a compressed perspective feeling and are suitable for shooting a wide range of subjects up close, including people and scenery. Telephoto lenses can compress the background and reduce the distance between the background and the subject, creating a shallow depth of field effect. Standard focal length lenses can capture realistic and natural-looking images, making them ideal for street photography or when lens changes are not possible. The different lens focal lengths and their shooting subjects can be seen in the table below:

Focal Length

Recommended Subject


Wide landscape


General landscape


Realistic photography


Medium-distance portraits


Faraway animals, birds, or sports

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2. Make good use of light and shadow

Photographers can use different lighting techniques, such as side lighting, top lighting, and bottom lighting, to create portraits with emotion and a sense of depth. Strong contrasts between light and shadow can bring out the emotions in a photo. For example, side lighting can create a moody atmosphere, backlighting can hide emotions, and shooting against the light can create warm and inviting photos.

Photographers can also make good use of shadows to highlight their subjects. For example, taking photos under tree shadows can create a mysterious atmosphere and make the subject more charming.

3. It doesn't have to be at eye level

When taking portraits, photographers don't have to take photos at eye level. Try taking photos from high, low, or side angles to create different effects. 

Taking photos from a high angle can create a feeling of elegance and confidence, such as shooting from a balcony or using a ladder to shoot down. Taking photos from a low angle can create a strong visual effect and make the subject appear taller and more majestic, such as shooting from the ground up. Taking photos from a side angle can highlight the subject's facial features and body curves, making the photo more dynamic.

​4. Use the "crush the light" technique

When taking portraits in bright sunlight, photographers can use the "crush the light" technique. By increasing the shutter speed to darken the background and using powerful flashes or external lights to illuminate the subject, the subject's outline can become clearer and create a striking effect, making the background colour more vivid.

5. Use silhouettes and reflections

Using silhouettes and reflections can inject a dreamy and surreal feeling into a photo. You can choose reflective objects such as lakes, rivers, mirrors, and windows as the scene to create a semi-real and semi-virtual reflection. 

When the sun or other light source is behind the subject, you can place the subject in front of the light source, focus clearly on the subject, and create a sharp silhouette.

6. Make good use of "foreground"

Using foreground can add depth and layers to a photo, making it more story-like and thematic, and enriching the visual experience. When shooting nature, you can try placing flowers, branches, and other objects in the foreground, obscuring part of the lens, and then focusing on the subject. Using foreground to frame the main subject can highlight the theme and add depth.

Portrait Photography with Foreground

​7. Use "off-camera flash" technique 

"Off-camera flash" refers to the technique of using a flash that is not attached to the camera, but instead placed in a different location using a trigger. This technique breaks the limitations of using a flash, allowing for a more natural fusion of flash and ambient light, making the subject more three-dimensional and prominent, the background softer, and the lighting more natural. 

Photographers can adjust flash distance, angle, and output according to different shooting environments and needs, bringing more light effects to their photos. Off-camera flash relies heavily on the photographer's experience, and beginners can practice and experiment more.

​8. Use LED lights instead of flash 

For photography beginners, using an external flash can be challenging, and LED lights are an excellent alternative. LED lights are not only practical lighting equipment, but they can also be used in photography and videography. Many brands now offer similar products at cheap prices. They allow you to see the effect of light on the subject immediately, making it easier to shoot ideal works and providing more options and a better shooting experience.

9. Use polarising filters 

When shooting outdoors, light control is crucial, and filters can help you better control light and colour. Polarising filters can increase the colour saturation of photos while preventing unnecessary light from entering the lens. Moreover, when shooting reflective objects such as leaves and lake reflections, polarising filters can reduce reflections and make the subject clearer. 

Additionally, when shooting portraits with a flash, the colour output of the flash may be different from the ambient light, resulting in inconsistent light colours on the subject. You can add colour glass or OEM colour filters to the flash to change the flash's output colour.​

​10. Pay attention to seasonal scenery and interact with the scene

In photography, paying attention to seasonal scenery and interacting with the scene can add more character and memories to the photo. If you want to take more seasonal photos, you can pay attention to the blooming period or colour changes, such as cherry blossoms in spring and autumn foliage. 

When shooting portraits, models can interact with the surrounding scenery, such as holding maple leaves or peeking out from behind a tree, which can add more storytelling and fun to the photo. At the same time, the model can avoid looking directly at the camera to reduce the stiffness of their expression.

Portrait Photography - interact with the scene

Common mistakes in portrait photography

1. Pay attention to framing

Framing refers to the angle chosen by the photographer to capture the subject and how to make the model interact with the surroundings without letting the surroundings interfere with the subject's expression. 

There are various framing techniques, such as long shot, full-body shot, American shot, medium shot, close-up shot, etc. Each framing technique has its unique effect and purpose. In actual shooting, we should determine the appropriate framing based on the theme we want to express and the model's expressiveness. 

Novice photographers may be too greedy and want to include all the scenes in the same photo. However, too much content in one photo will appear cluttered and make the photo lose focus. Therefore, when framing, it is necessary to select a theme and find a balance between the subject and the surrounding elements.

2. Avoid excessive symmetry

Although symmetry can highlight the subject in some cases (such as close-up shots), it does not mean that symmetrical composition is necessary for all portrait photography. In fact, using the common rule of thirds can shift the centre of gravity of the image, making the image more diverse while still expressing the subject. 

In addition, when taking close-up photos, it is not necessary to look directly at the camera. Slightly tilting the body can highlight facial contours. It is recommended to use the rule of thirds, so that the focal point is near the four intersection points, and the subject's face falls on the third line, making the overall picture more harmonious. When taking close-up portraits, you can place the focus on the opposite corners of the frame, so that the subject's eyes are on the intersection point of the third line, making the expression more prominent.

3. Pay attention to posture

In portrait photography, the pose and facial expression of the subject also affect the presentation effect of the photo. Capturing continuous movements can make the subject's movements more coordinated and natural. At the same time, photographers can also explain the key points of posing as clearly as possible to help the subject understand and master them. 

For most people, deliberately posing can make them feel unnatural. It is recommended to relax a bit and make the atmosphere more relaxed through chatting, etc., so that the subject's performance will be more natural.

4. Pay attention to lens selection

Using different lenses can present different visual effects. Photographers need to choose the most suitable lens according to the content they want to shoot, and also pay attention to the limitations of different lenses. For example, using a telephoto lens will narrow the background, and when shooting indoors, the limited space must be taken into account, making it difficult to use a telephoto lens.

5. Pay Attention to shooting time

The lighting during different times of the day can affect the colour, depth, and style of photos. Photographers can consider choosing the "golden hours" for shooting, which are early morning and late afternoon, because the light during these times is softer and can produce more vibrant and richly layered photos. 

It is recommended to avoid shooting at noon, as the intense sunlight can make the model's expression appear unnatural and the strong contrast between light and shadow can make it difficult to coordinate the highlights and shadows on the subject's face, resulting in a half-overexposed and half-underexposed effect.

Portrait Photography Courses

1. The Portrait Workshop 

The Portrait Workshop's portrait photography class is taught by Sophia, who has ten years of experience in portrait photography. The course consists of three sessions, covering topics such as analysis of works, composition, lens and lighting techniques, posing, and more, to give you a solid foundation in portrait photography.

2. Canon Portrait Photography Crash Course

Canon's "EOS Digital Interchangeable Lens Camera - Portrait Photography Crash Course" is divided into three parts and is suitable for those who already have a basic understanding of operating the EOS digital interchangeable lens camera. The course breaks down the elements of portrait photography in a simple and easy-to-understand manner, and provides hands-on practice in studio lighting and outdoor portrait photography to help you quickly master the techniques.

3. HKUSPACE Digital Photography Certificate Course in Landscape and Portraiture

 HKUSPACE's Digital Photography Certificate Course in Landscape and Portraiture is designed for beginners in digital photography and is taught by Mr. So Man Yock. The course consists of 30 sessions and will cover the use of digital photography tools to master digital photography techniques. Practical exercises are also emphasised to enable you to apply the digital photography knowledge and techniques learned.

Portrait Photography Fees

The fees for portrait photography vary depending on the type, photographer, and location. According to online sources, commercial portrait photography ranges from HK$500 to HK$2,000 per hour, while leisure portrait photography ranges from HK$400 to HK$1,200 per hour. These prices are for reference only. Please inquire with the photographer or company for detailed pricing.

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