The saying goes, there are two types of photography when taking pictures of people: candids and portraits. Portraiture is a classic photography genre and in the most general sense is a staged photograph of the subject’s face. Sometimes portraits encompass groups, sometimes the subject isn’t looking directly at the camera, and sometimes the picture is full body. There are a number of riffs and tangents on the category, but it is one of the most recognizable and widely used methods of photography. Self-portraits, family photos, pictures of friends, professional head shots: we’ve all taken a stab at portraits at one point or another. So what makes a good portrait stand out? In our portrait gallery, we’ve curated a group of technically and emotionally strong pictures that are excellent indicators of what makes a portrait special. Here, we’ll discuss the subject in a bit more detail.

The Human Element

Before we get technical, lets talk about the human element behind portraits. Steve McCurry says a good portrait says something about the human condition. That each picture of a person is capturing their humanity and we connect to portraits because the viewer sees something in the picture he sees in himself. He’s talking about connectivity, or the emotional core behind the picture. And this isn’t specific to portraiture. Capturing any picture that has true longevity and power means not only capturing the image, but the emotional moment behind the image. In this case, the “human factor” behind the portrait. People are such interesting individuals, with specific tastes, styles, and personalities. A good portrait should of course be technically strong, but above that it should aim to connect the viewer with the core elements of the person being photographed. This is that unteachable element of photography that comes with talent and time. A great portrait communicates volumes, and should aim to expose something special, but universal, about its subject. As Minor White once said: “All photographs are self-portraits.” Food for thought.


Related to connectivity is thinking about who your subject is and how comfortable they are being photographed. The word photogenic comes to mind and references the likelihood a person will appear attractive on film. Many photographers don’t believe in a person being photogenic, but rather, that the person feels a certain degree of comfort during a shoot and it is the photographer’s job to tease out a good photo. To make or encourage being photogenic. Whatever your take, it is important to consider the environment you are cultivating as the photographer and to do your best to encourage your subject’s willingness to reveal themselves to the camera. As world-famous photographer Brian Smith says: “Success at portrait photography is similar to being a good guest at a cocktail party—it helps to know a little bit about everything. You don’t have to be an expert; you just need to know enough to engage your subject.”

Craft and Technique

Entire technical articles have been written about how to take good portraits, but for the sake of ease, we’ve compiled a few favorite craft tips that serve as helpful reminders to anyone embarking on portrait photography.


Giving your photograph a sense of place offers a “where” to the “who” of your picture. Not only does it provide valuable context to the person, but it also can offer an interesting background and narrative to the portrait.

Light and Color

Technical elements aside, lighting and color drastically affect the mood of your picture, and thus, how it is interpreted by the viewer. Think about time of day, and the color exposure during editing and utilize these elements to enhance or support the goal of your portrait. Think also, about clothing choice and location. All of these supportive elements are important to a strong picture.

Black and White

Contrary to focusing on color, moving your portrait into black and white can provide interesting results. Volumes have been written on the use of black and white, but developing in black and white does generate a mood and climate to the photo that can help enhance what you are trying to capture.

White Balance

Do not forget to check your white balance. The eye is amazing at spotting bad color balance, especially when it comes to skin tone. If your portrait is calling out yellow or blue in the skin of your subject, check that your white balance is accurate and immediately watch the quality of your  portrait improve.


If eyes are the window to the soul, then as sure as your white balance needs to be correct, so should your photo capture and have clear eyes. No matter how wonderful the picture a portrait will suffer if the eyes aren’t clear or serving as the focal point to the picture. Experiment with this and be creative, but if the mood of your portraiture is suffering, think about eyes.

Camera Dynamics

When shooting someone’s face, you’re translating a three dimensional image into two. As a result your image will flatten and some features will be called out more than others. It’s important to think about how camera lens, angle, and focal length will translate your subject’s features. Large chins, heavy brows, long and short noses: the combinations are endless, so you must adapt to feature your subject in the way that produces the most interesting portrait. Longer lenses cause facial elements to look more compressed, or flatter, making the face in the picture fuller and longer and dynamic features shorter and less pronounced. Also, an important rule of thumb to remember is that whatever is closest to the camera will be the largest. Think about this when asking your subject to angle his or her face. If you’re looking for specific camera tips for portrait photography, follow the link for tips on aperture, ISO, shutter speeds, and more.