Everything You Need To Start Capturing Amazing Portraits

family photo

Have you ever seen beautiful portraits while browsing the internet, and wished that you could create something similar?

You can!

Now here's the best news:

There’s no need to have a full studio with expensive lighting gear, unless you want to. 

Today, I’m going to show you that by taking a little time and preparing for a portrait shoot, you can start creating unforgettable images.


black and white portait

If you are lucky enough to have access to studio flash heads, I would strongly suggest starting with one light and becoming familiar with it before you even try shooting portraits.

There is much to learn, such as direction of light, how to change the harshness of the shadows, and what the different light modifiers do.

I could write several articles just on studio lighting, but today’s article is more of an overview and I will be concentrating on using available light, so I suggest you get Googling for studio lighting tutorials, and start practicing.

There are many quality lighting tutorials for beginners on YouTube, and you can practice on yourself before you start working with a subject.

Natural lighting can give beautiful results with portraits. You don’t need anything but your camera and a reflector, (I’ll tell you how to create one with items you’ll have lying around your house later in the article) and best of all, natural light is free, and you can take it anywhere you go.

Quality of Light

Not all natural light is created equal.

Think of the soft, golden light of early morning and the hour before sunset.

The light created at those times is very flattering, and the shadows are soft and barely there. This is why photographers call those times the ‘golden hour’. This is a great time to shoot portraits outdoors.

Now think of the light at midday, when the sun is directly overhead. The light is strong and contrasty, and the shadows deep and dark. This is a much more challenging time of day to shoot, as the light is not flattering to your subject at all.

If you have the sun at your subject’s back, their front will be in shadow, and if you face them into the sun, they will squint and screw up their eyes to avoid the glare. Not a good look!

If the day is overcast and cloudy, you can shoot at any time of day, as the clouds diffuse the harsh rays of the sun, giving a soft and even light.

I created this image above on an overcast day using natural light and a reflector. I also used a shallow depth of field to blur out the foreground and background.

Using a Reflector

Reflectors are really an essential part of the natural light photographer’s toolkit.

They are basically a large white, silver or gold reflective disc, which is held up to the shadow side of your subject, so that it will ‘bounce’ light back, and lighten up the shadows.

It can make all the difference to a shot when you use a reflector.

You can buy 5-in-1 reflectors very cheaply, and they fold up into a small, lightweight circular bag which is very easy to carry.

However, if you need a reflector and you don’t have one, or you can’t afford to buy one just yet, you can make one from aluminum foil and card. You can even use white card, paper, polystyrene board, white material or a mirror!

If something is white or silver, it should reflect some light back on to your subject.

Get some aluminum foil and card – as large as you can find. Scrunch up the foil carefully and gently so that it’s wrinkled, then open it out again. Wrinkling the foil first makes it work better than if it was just a smooth sheet of foil. Place it over the top of the card until it covers it, and voila! You have a home-made reflector which will work just as good as a bought one.

White reflectors give a soft, even light, while silver gives a slightly harder light, which makes your subject ‘pop’ a bit more.

I personally never use the gold reflector unless it’s on a person with darker skin, as I find it gives an orangey color cast.

Practice using the reflector by asking a friend to stand next to a window with natural light coming through it. Hold the reflector up to their face level, on the side furthest away from the window. Tilt the reflector around until it catches the light and throws it back on your subject. You will know when this happens, as you will see the darkness on the shadow side of your subject’s face light up.

That’s all there is to it, and you’ll find that it makes a massive difference to your portraits.

Tips For Making Great Portraits

Now that we’ve gone over some basics of using natural light, we’re going to look at working with your subject.

unique photo
Taken using a camera-mounted flashgun bounced off the ceiling

Check The Background

Portraits are often taken with a plain background, or with the background out of focus (shallow depth of field).

This allows the viewer to concentrate on the subject, and not be distracted by details in the background. There are exceptions to this, such as environmental portraits where you are taking photos of someone in their workplace, or surrounded by things that are important to them.

abstract backdrop

You can use a purpose-built background such as a paper roll, cloth, canvas, muslin, or a pop-up portable background.

Don’t have your subject stand right up against the background – try and move them a few feet forward of it if possible. This gives a bit of separation between subject and background, and makes it easier to throw it out of focus if you wish.

Before you take the shot, check all round the frame while looking through the viewfinder. Can you see anything in the frame that shouldn’t be there?

Move yourself or your subject a little so that any distracting elements are not visible in the frame.

Take Lots of Photos

Some people make the mistake of only taking three or four images of their subject then stopping the shoot. They think they have what they need.

I always shoot way more images than I will ever use, because the chances of getting the one brilliant one is much higher that way.

Don’t just stay in one spot while shooting. Try using different camera angles. Move around your subject, or go higher or lower for some interesting effects.

Ask them to turn or tilt their head, to look at you or look away.

If you want someone to smile naturally for a photo, the best thing to do is make them happy!

Forced smiles always look fake, so try chatting and joking while you are shooting. Most people will respond, and you’ll get some great natural emotional engagement in your images.

I took the image above when I was a beginner, using a camera-mounted flashgun and natural light. Yes, I can now see the mistakes I made technically and cringe about it, but I still like this image for the emotion it contains.

Go to The Dark Side

Don’t just stick to brightly lit, light colored backgrounds.

Try using a black or darker colored wall, backdrop, or fence to shoot against for a change.

If you are shooting with natural light indoors near a window, shoot with your subject facing the window. The background will be dark as the light falls off gradually into shade.

dark photo

The image above was taken in my living room using natural window light. As you can see, the background has gone very dark. I tend to like darker images more than pale backgrounds, but that’s a personal preference. I also prefer images where the subject isn’t smiling, and the communication is all through the eyes. Which do you prefer?

Working With Children

Never work with children or animals is the old saying! Well, someone has to do it, and with a few guidelines you can get the best out of children’s portraits.

Let Them Play


Don’t expect a small child to sit still and smile at the camera. They get bored while you fiddle around setting up the shot, and they want to be playing, not sitting up straight staring into a camera lens.

Let the child play, give them a few toys and shoot while they are playing. Great portraits don’t just have to be posed ones. Catching those unguarded moments of play can have great results.

Another tip for photographing children is to have your camera on continuous shooting mode, so that you can fire bursts of shots. If you don’t you can miss a fleeting moment, as children move so fast.

Get Down to Their Level

Photos of children are generally more flattering if they are taken on the child’s eye level, rather than having them look up at you.

Keep The Session Short

Children have a limited attention span, and after this is exhausted they become bored and fractious. Keep sessions with children short and sweet, and have your camera and location ready before the child arrives. This means they aren’t sitting around waiting while you’re getting your exposure and framing right.

If the child starts getting grumpy and non-cooperative, either call a break or end the session. Trying to carry on is a road to nowhere, and you won’t get any good photos.

Final Thoughts

outdoor portrait
Taken with natural light and reflector

I hope this article has given you some ideas and inspiration for portrait shoots. Experiment, practice, and don’t be afraid to fail. We only learn through making mistakes. I’ve made them all at one time or another and I’m still here to tell the tale!

Dawn Gilfillan started her love affair with photography quite late in life, and is currently doing a Bachelor’s degree in commercial photography. She enjoys most types of photography, but specializes in fashion and portrait. Dawn lives in Durham, the cathedral city in the North East of England. You can follow her adventures or drop by and say hi on Instagram: @dawngilfillanphotography or at her website: www.dawngilfillan.uk


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