Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography

Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography Hand on Chin

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When I started out in photography I mostly took landscapes. Now my work has progressed to the point where I am taking more and more portraits. This my Beginners Guide to portrait photography and how you can start taking photos and work your way up to high enough standard for potential paid work. You will not need expensive gear to start your portrait photography, but this is more about learning to pick up skills that will help you as a portrait photographer.

I do not have expensive lighting or the use of a professional studio, although they may come in handy. You can use your own home with a big enough space to build your own mini home studio. There will be a few portrait photography settings or camera settings you need to grasp, so now is the time to break out of your comfort zone. I wish to thank DK Studios – Wigan for putting on a studio taster day and organising the model, Holly Heyes for the day.

Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography Test Pose

What is F/Stop? 

Many people will have heard of F Stop and wondered what on earth the photographer is talking about. An F/Stop refers to a range of aperture movement from one setting to another. For all of the photographs within this blog post, I used an aperture of ƒ/8 which is more or less the mid focal ratio of my lens with which was a Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 G. The Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ/2.8, has a maximum aperture closure size of ƒ/22. This means the smallest size the aperture the will close to, where the smallest amount of light coming into the camera is ƒ/22.


To compensate for the amount of light the camera needs to take normal exposure for an ƒ/22 photo, I will have to either raise my ISO (Light sensitivity mode) or lower my shutter speed. With slower shutter speeds below 1/50 of a second. Images with start to become blurry to what is called ‘camera motion/shake’ ‘motion Blurr’. At those shutter speeds of 1/50’th of a second, you will need a tripod to stop motion blur or camera shake. All aperture sizes are measured in ƒ/ numbers (the ‘ƒ’ means focal ratio and is also known as the ‘F-stop’).

Photography and What is Depth of Field - Depth-Of-Field-Railings

These ƒ numbers are found on your camera lens and can range from ƒ/1 to ƒ/32. What do these numbers mean? Well the lower the number (ƒ/1), the larger or more open the aperture will be. The higher the ƒ/ number(ƒ/32), the small the aperture will be and more light is required to capture a perfectly exposed photograph. Think of the aperture as your pupil and how wide your pupil is in darkness, or how closed your pupil is during sunlight.

Most modern lenses like mine which is the Nikon 24 to 70mm, has a maximum opened the aperture of ƒ/2.8. My lens maximum closed the aperture is ƒ/22. At ƒ/8 my images will be sharp and I will need to focus on the eyes of the model.

What is Depth of Field?

Now, this is one subject you will need to grasp fairly quickly. Depth of field is the distance from the camera to the subject or model to the background. This is controlled by their little pupil shaped curtain at the back or your lens called an aperture. If you wish to learn more, you can read my post on What is Depth of Field.

Photography Test Pose 2

Playing with Depth of Field for your photographs, can give you entirely different looks and allows you to be more creative with your photography. Take for example the photo below. This is an example of opening up your aperture during the daylight and everything in front of the model and behind her are not in focus.

Wedding Portrait and the Use of Depth of Field

With these types of photographs, you have to experiment with your shutter speeds to bring some sharpness back into your photo. Also, the person who took this photograph used an 85mm lens. The settings he used were: Aperture ƒ/1.6, Shutter Speed 1/8000’s and the ISO at 160. If your camera has the option of going below ISO100 like ISO64, he could have brought the shutter speed down to around 1/6000 or even 1/4000 of a second. Just playing around with some settings can give you the same results, just with some slower shutter speeds. Not all cameras can reach 1/8000’th of a second.

Portrait photography settings

There is one element to my beginners guide to portrait photography is the settings you would use indoors for a studio photography shoot. You need to keep your ISO as low as possible. ISO 100 will suffice. The digital noise will be kept to a minimum and you won’t need to remove in post-production. Your aperture size to be around ƒ/8 or ƒ/9. Some Youtube photographers may use different aperture sizes, but for now, stick to one size and try to keep your photography consistent. Your shutter speed to be 1/100 or 1/125 of a second. You always play around with that shutter speed, but slower the shutter speed, the greater the risk of camera shake and lens blur.

Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography Jumping in the air

Portrait Photography Checklist you may need to consider:

  • Keep your ISO Low as possible. Either ISO 100 to 200
  • Higher the ISO, the higher the digital noise you will see on your photographs when it comes to editing
  • Be consistent wit your white balance so you do need to change it that much. Use the Grey/White Card 18% for white balance and camera settings
  • Shutter speed of 1/100th of second
  • An aperture size of ƒ/8 or ƒ/9 while in doors.
  • One strong light source like a flashgun or speed-lite
  • A soft box diffuser. The bigger the soft box the softer the light will be.
  • Learn to bounce light of other surfaces like a white reflector.
  • Composition – Don’t just shoot full body. Zoom in and photograph the upper body. It can also depend on the lens, if you use a prime lens, you will have to move with the lens.
  • Rapport with your model
  • Posing or poses you require your model do. This takes time and practice get right.
  • The outfit or outfits – Having more than one outfit will help bring a bit of diversity to your photoshoot.
  • Somewhere safe to get changed.
  • Atmosphere. I.e music which your model may enjoy. Music always has a calming atmosphere and can keep everyone focused.
Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography Before and after playing with hair

What is White Balance?

What is white balance and why do I need it? Just like your shutter speed, aperture size, and ISO. Your camera also has a setting called White Balance (or WB on your camera’s display). Just as your camera has an internal light metre, your camera also reads the colour given off by your subject and is affected by the lighting conditions under which it is viewed through your lens and viewfinder. There are pre-programmed White Balance (WB) settings that are pre-installed on your camera by the camera manufacturer.

Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography Posing Pose edited

My Nikon D850 has the following settings choose from Auto, *A Neutral, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy, Shade, Choose Colour Temp (2500-10,000k) and PRE Preset Manual. Before you start with your main photoshoot you will require Portable Foldable Photography Grey Card for White Balance, so if your client comes back to you with more work. You can keep your colours and photographs consistent.

Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography Hand on Chin

Portrait photography Ideas

Adding diversity and changing things up to be more creative with your photography will help stand out and may lead to more paid work as a photographer.

Here also a few ways you could try a few portrait photography ideas to make your photos stand out from the rest. It is also a way of breaking the ice and building a rapport with your model. With my beginner’s guide to portrait photography, I am hoping you will learn to break out of your comfort zone and try something you may have never done before.

Ideas to Try with your Model:

  1. Frame your subject
  2. Introduce Movement
  3. Take out of focused shots
  4. Change the framing of your shots to add variety
  5. Hold your camera on a different angle
  6. Play with your backgrounds and lighting
  7. Add or remove lights to change up your shadows
  8. Go all Open – Open up your aperture to get softer bokeh.
  9. Introduce blur or movement
  10. Experiment with poses or facial expressions
Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography hand on hair 2

Portrait photography poses

When working with a professional model, you will still need to guide and ask your model to do various poses. There are some poses that bring out the shape of your model bodily features. When photography a female model, there is quite a lot of photo poses for girl or woman. In the end, it all comes down to the experience of the model and your ability as a photographer to direct your model. Sometimes each pose can take time and direction.

There no set ways or poses but there some you wish to try.

  • Into the lens
  • Over the photographer’s shoulder
  • 45 degrees to the left or right of the camera
  • Up or down
  • Into the key light
  • Seated Poses from a chair or stool
  • On the floor/steps
  • “Popping” a hip, elbow, knee or shoulder into a new direction. Not all at once.
  • Extend a limb or stretch out.
  • Squat, crouch, stand on tiptoes.
  • Have a laugh, pull a face or play with your hair.
Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography side with left hand on hip

We make pictures. At the end of the day, we create something potentially significant that did not exist at the beginning of the day. We go forward, despite the uncertainty. Because this is an act of love and passion, which defies reason and prudence.” – Joe McNally – McNally, Joe. “As Good As It Gets”, September 23, 2008

Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography Test Pose

What is The Difference Between RAW and Jpeg?

What is the difference between RAW and Jpeg? You have all of your photographs on your memory card and now its time to edit your photographs. But what is the difference between RAW and Jpeg. I shoot all of my photographs in RAW format, meaning all get more flexibility and freedom to play with all the colours the camera has seen in an uncompressed format. As part of my beginners guide to portrait photography, I would hugely recommend that you always shoot in RAW format from this time onwards. So you can have more freedom and have more options available to you during the editing phase.

If I shoot in JPEG, all of the colours are compressed and I have less flexibility to play around with the image during the editing phase. The down side to shooting in RAW file format, the file sizes are way more bigger and take up more room on my memory card.

  • 3FR (Hasselblad),
  • DCR, K25, KDC (Kodak),
  • CRW CR2 CR3 (Canon),
  • ERF (Epson),
  • MEF (Mamiya),
  • MOS (Leaf),
  • NEF (Nikon),
  • ORF (Olympus),
  • PEF (Pentax),
  • RW2 (Panasonic)
  • ARW, SRF, SR2 (Sony)
Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography Blue Gel hands on Hat

Photo processing software is it easier now to edit and play around with your photographs. Rather than having a film dark with a Red Light. There are software packages like Adobe Lightroom/Photoshop package or Skylums Luminar 2018 software package. You can also batch edit and look at your photographs side by side like I have done with the photograph above. You can also set a watermark of your own design when you export to Jpeg.

Hand Held or On a Tripod?

All of the photos I took on this day were all handheld, however, one of the owners of the studio did use a tripod while setting up his shots. Each individual photographer is different and they have their own stance and way of doing things.

If handheld is your preferred way of doing things, then yes no problems with holding the camera in your hands. If you shooting all day, then your arms can feel a bit tired and it can tire out your arms very quickly. Using a tripod may be your second preferred option.

I hope you liked my Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography and would appreciate if you would like and comment below.

John M

Please Pin This Fantastic Gallery of My Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography

Beginners Guide to Portrait Photography - Pin Me Collage


  1. Great advice for anyone looking to do studio portraits. I love taking portraits of my kids, but I much prefer to do them outdoors, where they tend to be easier subjects, as neither are capable of taking any direction at all! It’s very different outdoors with kids to a cooperative model in a studio – I can only dream of getting away with a shutter speed below 250! And being outdoors, I do like to shoot wide open where I can – I love that blurry bokeh!

    • I love Bokeh but sometimes you do need to close the aperture and do some sharp portraits. Studio photography is a whole new ball game and it is something I rarely get a chance to do. It is a different type of photography and you do need to think on your feet. Being able to engage with your model can be hard if you have never done that before. I am glad you like my post.

      John M

  2. This is a really comprehensive guide. I don’t do much portrait photography but much of this is lack of confidence with it. You have shown me that I know and understand far more than I thought I did, all of which has been self taught. I think I need to start playing around with ISO as that is the one thing I struggle to master.

    • Thank you. This studio experience allowed me to put a lot of my photography skills to good use and the results were there to see. Playing around with ISO is just as important as dealing with Shutter speed and aperture.
      I did want to make this a very comprehensive guide and I happy with the way things have turned out with this post.

      John M

    • Everyone I have talked to and every YouTube Photographer have all said to focus on the Closest eye to the camera, then everything else will come in to shape. I am glad you can learn from this blog post.

      John M

  3. This was definitely very informative. I love taking pics – not professionally more as a hobby but I do love to find out more about the technical aspects behind it all. Thanks for this! Also the pics were great!


    • Thank you. I really wanted to this a very informative as possible without overloading the reader. What I wanted to also do it demonstrate how I took the photos for this post too.

      John M

  4. I’m so rubbish when it comes to taking good portrait pics but there are some great tips that would help even a novice like me!

  5. What a very informative post. I bet this will be so helpful for many budding photographers. I haven’t really had a reason to practice studio photography. Outdoors is more my forte.

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