Top tips for creating great portraits

Improve your portrait photography skills with our comprehensive list of the best portrait photography tips and techniques.
A side-profile portrait of a topless man in a dimly lit room looking towards the camera.

Capturing great portrait photos can be challenging. There are many variables, including ensuring the lighting is right, getting up close, and being quick enough with your camera. It is possible to capture decent portraits with any kind of camera, though many photographers prefer to use a mirrorless model such as the Canon EOS R6 or a DSLR such as the Canon EOS 850D, so they have more control and can express their creative flair.

Whatever camera you have, we hope these tips will help you shoot better portraits – whether they be of friends, family, interesting characters you meet on the street or even pets.

Pick the right lens to make your subject stand out

A portrait of a woman, wearing a mustard coloured turtleneck jumper and a blue jacket, holding up her hand so it casts a shadow over her face.

Select the right portrait lens for your composition: longer focal lengths for headshots or wide angles for a portrait that also includes the scene. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Ejiro Dafé

A woman wearing a black and purple chequered jacket with white sleeves sits sideways on the stairs, looking through the white wooden bannisters.

As well as choosing the right kit for your shot, you can use props and surroundings in composition, such as this staircase, to frame your subject. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/180 sec, f/2.8 and ISO100.

When shooting with a Canon EOS camera that uses interchangeable lenses, such as the Canon EOS M200 or the Canon EOS RP, choosing a lens with a fast maximum aperture, such as the Canon EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM or the RF 50mm F1.8 STM, will help separate your subject from the background. Prime lenses with a focal length of 50mm to 100mm are ideal for portraits, but you could also use zoom lenses. To make the most of wide apertures, use Aperture priority (Av) mode or Manual (M) mode, and try using Auto ISO to keep your exposures just right.

Using a standard or wide-angle prime lens instead of a zoom lens will force you to get closer to and engage with your subjects, and when doing so you should find a smaller lens proves less intimidating.

On the other hand, zoom lenses such as the Canon RF 70-200mm F4L IS USM are incredibly versatile, because they give you the ability to shape your portraits using different focal lengths, all with one lens. When you've got to grips with the basics of prime lenses, a lens with a wide zoom range such as the Canon RF 24-105 F4L IS USM, with its internal image stabilisation, is great for shooting handheld, enabling you to move around your subject and change focal lengths to achieve different effects. Its telephoto focal range will create flattering portraits and the maximum 105mm length is perfect for close-up headshots.

Embrace challenging light conditions

A side-profile portrait of a young woman in a grey turtleneck looking towards the camera.

Think about your light source – for example, direct sun, shade, indoors or from a window. Position your subject to make the most of natural light. If the light is too bright, simply stop down your aperture or quicken your shutter speed. If the weather is overcast, why not try using an artificial light source indoors or find out more about homemade lighting hacks. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 85mm, 1/100 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100.

Portraits at night can be tough, as you may need a flash to provide enough light. However, ambient light around your subject can often be very atmospheric and something that you wish to keep in your portrait. Canon's full-frame mirrorless cameras such as the Canon EOS R6, which features a Dual Pixel CMOS AF II focusing system, can automatically focus down to EV -6.5, often allowing you to shoot without flash even in dimly lit conditions.

If you do use flash, Night Portrait mode, which features on most Canon EOS cameras, including the Canon EOS M200 and the Canon EOS RP, simplifies it all for you as it changes how your camera thinks. It will use either the built-in flash or register your Speedlite on the hotshoe to light your main subject and provide enough time for the ambient light to set the scene for your picture. It does this by using slower shutter speeds and automatically adjusting the flash time settings. Position your subject so they are lit by the flash, rather than the ambient light, and for the best results use a tripod to help reduce camera shake.

Bright conditions mean your portraits may end up with too much contrast. For those moments when your subject is backlit with strong sunlight, a flash can help. Either attach a Speedlite to the hotshoe of your camera, or set the built-in flash to fire for every picture. Your camera will work to balance the flash and daylight conditions for a much stronger picture where both elements – the person and the background – are optimally lit.

When using automated shooting modes such as Aperture priority (Av), or when using Auto ISO, you can quickly adjust for changing or challenging light using exposure compensation. While it may sound complex, exposure compensation is simply a way of making what's in your photo lighter or darker. It's particularly useful for capturing light skin tones to ensure your subjects don't look washed out, and for capturing darker skin tones that you want to look natural. Nearly all Canon cameras have an exposure compensation setting. Check your manual to find yours.

Practise candid shooting

A smiling child in a brightly coloured coat and fox hat kicks their legs while playing on a park swing.

Make the effort to keep your subject interested and relaxed while shooting. This will enable you to achieve more candid shots. Using a lens with a small profile will also help, as your subject won't find it as intimidating as a larger one. Taken on a Canon EOS M50 (now succeeded by the Canon EOS M50 Mark II) with a Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 15mm, 1/800 sec, f/3.5 and ISO100.

Many Canon cameras, such as the Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III, can be controlled remotely with your smartphone over Wi-Fi, thanks to the Canon Camera Connect app.

For some models, this remote control includes a live view of what the camera is seeing, plus the ability to take photos just by tapping the screen of your phone. Position your camera on a surface, then use your smartphone to view the image and fire at the right moment. Using this technique may help your subject relax as you won't be looking directly at them.

To capture natural looking, candid portraits, try taking a couple of shots before and after your subject is ready and posing for the camera. People will feel more at ease and you're much more likely to capture their natural smile or a child's mischievous look by clicking the shutter when they're not expecting you to. If working with a mirrorless camera such as the Canon EOS R6, you can even use electronic shutter mode to shoot silently. If your camera has a burst or continuous shooting mode, try it out. You could also use a zoom lens and shoot from further away, so your portraits look less forced and more natural.

Ask family or friends to pose for you to get some practice. If you want to capture portraits of strangers, ask their permission – often they are flattered to be asked, plus it gives you some time to set up your frame.

Experimenting with self-portraits is a good way to get familiar with settings and composition styles.

Tell a person's story by shooting them in context

A street vendor wearing a white coat serving food.

This image of a street vendor serving food is a prime example of providing context in a portrait shot – read our guide to shooting portraits of people in their environments for more tips and information. Taken on a Canon EOS M5 with a Canon EF-M 32mm F/1.4 STM lens at 1/4000 sec, f/2 and ISO200. © Richard Walch

A bride dressed in a traditional sari, adorned with gold jewellery and with decorative henna covering her hand.

When including context in wider portraits, consider your location. Look at the background before you shoot and be careful to avoid distracting elements. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 70mm, 1/1000 sec, f/2 and ISO1600. © Sanjay Jogia

A portrait of someone in their usual environment often tells more of a story than a simple headshot can. For example, you could use a wide-angle lens such as the Canon EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS STM or the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM to shoot a chef at work in their kitchen or capture a farmer in a field full of cows. Or why not photograph a musician friend with a blurred guitar shop interior as their backdrop? Think about what you want in the background of your photo and why. The aim is to capture an image which is visually strong, to add a layer of meaning and to encourage your viewers to want to find out more.

Experiment and defy conventions

A top-down black-and-white shot of a mother and child reading a book. The child is looking up at the camera while reaching forward to turn the page.

Experiment with your portrait shots using different Picture style settings. This black and white image is just as bold and striking as a colour shot, if not more. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/2.2 and ISO1000. © Helen Bartlett

A side-profile portrait of a woman with dark red lipstick looking towards the camera. Strings of blurred lights hang behind her.

Think about how your camera settings, such as exposure and depth of field, can help you to achieve the look you require. Don't be afraid to experiment and play around with that look to get different effects. You can even try adding bokeh to your image to add a dynamic element, as with the lights here. If everyone's portrait images looked the same, the world would be a boring place. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1250. © Ejiro Dafé

Besides adjusting your camera settings, there are some simple ways to add interest and create impact in your portrait shots. Instead of looking at the camera, you could ask your subject to look away, at something within the frame or in the distance. Or why not try shooting your subject from above using a step ladder? Or bend down and shoot from waist height? Break the rules of composition by having your subject completely fill the centre of your frame. Or try backlighting, shadows and slow shutter speeds to add mood to your portraits.

You can even set up your own home studio in order to experiment with different techniques or find out more about building your own creative settings for portraiture*. The aim is to experiment, learn and get the results you are happy with.

Written by Peter Wolinski and Tamzin Wilks

*Available in English only

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