10 Essential Techniques for Portrait Photography

In this post we will cover practical tips and guidelines on how to shoot better portrait photos. You will learn how to interact and guide your subject, and reveal their soul with you lens.

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Portrait Photography 101 by Eric Kim

Why Portrait Photography?

Cindy and shadow. Lisbon, 2018
Cindy and shadow. Lisbon, 2018

I think for myself– my ultimate passion in photography is portrait photography. Making photos of human beings.

I am especially drawn to ‘street portraiture‘ in street photography, because it gives me the chance to open doors to other human beings. I love interacting, engaging, and sharing my life with them. I like to hear their life story, and I like to also share my life story with them.

Everyday Portrait Photography

Cindy eyes, and trees in background. Lisbon, 2018
Cindy eyes, and trees in background. Lisbon, 2018

Not only that, but I love to make portraits of everyday life– my friends, family, and of course– Cindy.

I encourage everyone to photographing their loved ones, and start their own Cindy project. Why? Memento mori — they will die, and so will you. By photographing your loved ones, you better appreciate your time and life with them.

10 Practical Tips and Techniques to Make Better Portraits

My laughing grandma. Seoul, 2017
My laughing grandma. Seoul, 2017

Portrait photography can be used to photograph your loved ones, friends, family, or people you meet on the streets.

1. Obscure eyes

The first tip is to obscure the eyes of your subject. Make your photos more surreal by obscuring or hiding their eyes.

The benefit of hiding the eyes of your subject: you make the photos more open-ended. Your viewer is curious about who the subject is in your photo.

One of the best ways to obscure their eyes is to photograph them in direct sunlight, and shoot at -1 or -2 exposure-compensation.

Whenever possible, experiment shooting horizontal and vertical portraits. You will never know which will work best– so just shoot both, and when you go home, decide which orientation looks best in the photo.

Also make better portraits, find interesting backgrounds to photograph your subjects against. You can ask them to move in front of that background.

Pro-tip: Have your subjects play along, and engage with them during your portrait-making session.

Remember: it takes two to dance. Don’t just “take” the photo of your subject. Allow your subject to also engage with you.

2. Surreal portraits

Don’t just opt for pretty portraits, try to make surreal portraits.

One of the best things to do in portrait photography: remember to “work the scene” and always take lots of photos of the scene. You will never know which photo will best until afterwards, when you go home and review your shots.

Tip, always have your camera with you, because you never know when a good portrait opportunity will arise.

For example, I often make portraits of Cindy at restaurants, at coffee shops, or when just eating brunch or dinner together.

Also a way to make more surreal portraits: have an object (preferably circular) cover up one of their eyes.

Another tip: Photograph your subject through distorted glass, to make the photos seem more surreal and emotional.

You can experiment photographing your subject through wine glasses, or through curved reflective surfaces.

3. Colorful backgrounds

If you’re shooting portraits, treat yourself like a movie director– go location scouting for colorful backgrounds.

Find colorful backgrounds that match the outfit of your subject, or perhaps first find an interesting colorful background, then ask your subject to change their outfit to match the colors of the background (or to oppose the colors of it).

One of my favorite places to photograph Cindy is colorful murals. When shooting your subject, look at the edges of the frame to fill the edges of the frame with the colorful background.

Tip: Use a flash to saturate the colors of your subject’s colors.

4. Mirrors/Reflections

I love shooting photographs like a child, and just having fun. For example, shooting portraits in mirrors/reflections– like it were a ‘funhouse’.

Play around with mirrors and reflections– because you’re not sure what the photos will look like. Just have fun with it!

One of my favorite places to shoot portraits are elevators.

Tip: Put your selfie in the photo. It creates a nice memory for yourself, and makes the photo more personal.

5. Dance/movement

One of the best ways to make non-stiff and dynamic portraits– dance with your subjects. Have them move around their head, and move with them. Engage with them. Have your subjects pose for you, and suggest poses with them.

Often when I’m making portraits of Cindy, she will just move around her head, or move her arms. I just shoot a lot, and sometimes I get lucky with a good expression in Cindy’s face and eyes.

Treat photo-shoots like mini fashion-shoots. Have your subjects put on a fun outfit, and keep “working the scene.”

Shoot some photos further away, and shoot some photos closer up. Vary your angles, and perspectives.

Tip: Photos of your subjects not looking at the camera are more open-ended and interesting.

Tip 2: Shoot portraits of your subject with and without a flash, and figure out when you go home which works better.

Tip 3: Focus on shooting, don’t review the LCD screen while you’re shooting. This will distract you– it is more important to engage and focus on your subject.

Also try to have your subject move their arms, curve their bodies, and remember to shoot a lot.

6. Hand-gestures

Why shoot hand-gestures?

Hand-gestures show emotion. Remember portrait photography is all about capturing emotion and soul in your subject.

To capture better hand-gestures in photography, either make candid hand-gesture photos, or ask your subjects to hold up their hands– perhaps shield the sun from their eyes, or position their hands for them.

Tip: Improvise with hand-gestures. You never know which hand gesture will work best. For example I saw a man with a cross on his neck, and I asked him to put his hands together like in prayer, and to look up at the light.

Tip 2: To study hand-gestures, study renaissance painting and hand gestures— how do the painters paint the hands of their subjects?

7. Engage with your subjects

The best portrait photographers engage and talk with their subjects. By engaging with your subjects, you make more interesting images.

You won’t always know what the photo is going to look like, until you chat with them, and shoot.

To get expressions of your subject laughing or reacting to you — put yourself in the photo by interacting with your subject.

Tip when shooting portraits: have your subject face the wall, and have them look over their shoulder. This is a technique renaissance painters have used.

Tip 2: Center Eye Composition: Have the eye of the subject directly in the center of the frame.

Tip 3: Use a flash when making portraits of your subject, to get better skin tones.

8. Dramatic Light

Ask your subject to stand in front of a bright light source, and shoot with -1 or -2 exposure-compensation.

Shoot some photos horizontally (landscape orientation), and shoot some vertical (portrait) orientation– because you are not sure which photo will be best.

Tip: Ask your subject stand in front of doorway for beautiful natural light (a technique that Steve McCurry does well).

Subject standing in front of doorway, beautiful natural light. SF Braids, 2015
Subject standing in front of doorway, beautiful natural light. SF Braids, 2015

Tip 2: Ask your subject to play with their hair to get interesting hand gestures.

Tip 3: Create silhouettes by shooting them against the sun or the light source. Also put a little separation between them and the background, with negative space.

9. Work the scene

Don’t just take 1-2 photos and move on– shoot many many photos. For example, some of my best photos I have shot 112 photos, like this photo of this man in New Orleans:

10. Flash

Shoot with a flash, even during the day– to light up the faces of your subject.

Shoot some photos with flash, some without flash– and figure out which photo works best once you go home.

Shoot with flash at night, when shooting your subject in restaurants, clubs, or bars.

Also use a flash when there is light sources behind them.


The most important thing in portrait photography: Put your emotion, soul, and passion in your photos. Don’t be a disconnected and distant observer in portrait photography — be an active participant.

Make soulful photos,

Essentials of Photography

Cindy and shadow. Lisbon, 2018
Cindy and shadow. Lisbon, 2018