7 Documentary-Style Portrait Photography Tips


Here are my favorite portrait photography tips. I’ve been shooting portraits for more than a decade now and I’ve developed my own process and workflow. Portrait photography is less about technical skills and know-how. It’s about creating mood and atmosphere and revealing the personality of the subject you’re photographing…

Here are 7 of my favorite portrait photography tips.

7 Portrait Photography Tips

These are the portrait photography tips I talk about in this video…

1. Talk

“Talk” is the first portrait photography tips in this list. When you're setting up your camera or when you're looking for the right background, don't just leave your subject standing there, waiting. To them, it almost feels like an execution. Instead, talk to them. No deep conversations or anything but simple questions. “Do you live here?” or “How's your day going?” and just keep that simple conversation going. And keep it going when you start taking photos. Portrait photography is about creating a connection with your subject.

7 Portrait photography tips.

7 Portrait photography tips.

Don't create an awkward silence when it's time to take photos. Usually, I just keep taking photos while talking. As soon as you stop and say “I'm going to take a photo now!” they put on a mask. They start smiling awkwardly or don't know what to do.

2. Timing

Timing is important in all genres of photography and also in portrait photography. Usually, a smile is a mask and I rarely want my subject to smile in front of the camera. But even when you tell your subject they don't have to smile or do anything special, they might feel very awkward. Time your shot. If you can't get a good shot by directing your subject and guiding them, try to get the shot when they're not thinking about it.

Take a photo when you've told your subject that you're going to check the photos or the settings on you're camera. Ask them something like: “What's that over there?” and take the shot when they turn their head again towards the camera.

3. Eyes

In portrait photography, there are two options: Do you want your subject to look into the lens or not. Usually, when your subject looks away from the camera, it feels more intimate. There's also more room for story. What are they looking at and why. What are they thinking. It feels more like you're looking into someones life through a window. Like a movie still… This is one of the most important portrait photography tips if you want to create an intimate atmosphere...

Where should the eyes look?

Where should the eyes look?

4. Framing

A full body portrait tells a different story than a close-up. When you take a close-up, it's all about the person's eyes and face. The person is the focus of the photo but when you step back and show more, there's more room for story. I like to make full body portraits because I find what kind of shoes someone wears or their posture, it just as important as their face. It tells something about that person.

That's why, especially for photo documentaries, I think that full body portraits work really well. Close ups work well if the viewer knows the person in the photo or as part of a series where other photos tell more about the person.

5. Background

The background is important no matter what and you can use a specific background depending on what story you want to tell. In portrait photography, it’s not always just about the person in the photos.

Background is important in portrait photography.

Background is important in portrait photography.

When the background is important for the story, make sure it's in focus, or at least not so blurry that you can't see what it is. If you take a photo in someone's house or office for example, maybe you want to show that environment.

6. Light

While I think you can make good photos in any kind of light, for portrait photography, I do prefer soft light. For all my documentary projects, I made sure I had soft light available. That means either going out in the morning or evening or, for my project Behind The Redwood Curtain for example, I was lucky enough that it was very foggy until noon every day which created a very nice soft light but also soft backgrounds.

Indoors, the light of a window always works. Just make sure that the sun is not directly hitting the window. I never use flash or extra lights for portraits. Sometimes, you just have to improvise to make it work.

7. Gear

Does this belong in a portrait photography tips list? Yes! In general, it doesn't matter what gear you use but for portraits, different lenses get different results. Usually, the rule is something like an 85mm for headshots and a 35 or 50mm for wider shots. But why not switch it around. Here, I used an 85mm at f/1.8 for a full body portrait and I think it worked really well.

Portrait photography with a medium format camera.

Portrait photography with a medium format camera.

But also using a 35mm for a close up can work if you want to emphasize the features a little bit more. It all depends on the look you want.


And that's it, 7 portrait photography tips that I use myself all the time. I hope they're helpful for you too…