16 Inspirational Portrait Photography Techniques

I’m learning that portrait photography can be tough in more than one way thanks to my participation in the December Challenge. I’m already getting bored with taking the standard cookie-cutter portrait, so I started digging around Flickr for some inspiration. Here’s what I turned up:

[tweetmeme]And yes, I realize that the accompanying text is much shorter than I would usually supply, but the idea of this post isn’t to teach these techniques — it’s to introduce you to them and hopefully give you some inspiration with your own photography. I feel that these photos are strong enough to stand on their own without lengthy descriptions.

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If you’re good with post-processing and manipulations, use it to your advantage. Get crazy with the adjustments, try some new Photoshop techniques, and maybe even a composite image.


If texture is a big part of your subject, make it stand out and make it obvious. Match up the textures between your subject and your background. You might even try texturizing the entire photo for additional impact.


Blowing out the highlights or making a high-key image makes a nice soft portrait with kind of a light airy feeling. Another advantage of high-key photos is that the smaller details and defects are blown away, making the image look much smoother.


A dominantly dark or low-key image will naturally draw your eyes to the lighter parts. These tend to have a grittier and harder look to them than the high-key images.


Hair lights up like crazy when it’s back-lit, so if hair is a big part of your subject make it stand out by placing your subject between you and a light source. You could also take this a little further and push the image to a silhouette.


Get crazy with the pose and positioning — extra points if it looks uncomfortable. Not only with the poses, but also with your own positioning — shoot from different angles to achieve different impacts.


Capture the local culture — what’s mundane to you is exotic to us. Culture is everywhere, even in your own town. Just image you’re visiting from a different country — what things would then seem more interesting to you?


Make use of different surfaces to add that extra dimension — windows, mirrors, and water are all very good reflective surfaces that give a different result and texture.


Make the shadow an important part of the image. Sometimes the shadow can even be more prominent than the actual subject casting the shadow.


There’s no rule against cropping out most of the subject’s face. This draws more attention to the parts that are left in the frame.


Out-of-focus subjects can be more interesting than the in-focus subjects. It kind of adds some mystery to the image because you can’t quite make out who that person is.


Use movement to show action, even if it blurs out the subject entirely. In cases like this, think of the person as a means of creating the subject rather than being the actual subject.


Catch somebody doing something they love, even if it’s not staged. Street photography is one of my favorite genres because it captures life as it happens — unstaged and unposed.


Use vibrant and contrasting colors to draw attention to parts of your subject. This could be makeup, clothing, accessories, or whatever else you can get your hands on.


Not all portraits need to have a smile, capture the serious emotions too. Some of my favorite portraits have no hint of a smile in them, and they’re highly emotional.


Use the props and tools around you to make the setting more interesting. Find things to place your subject in, on, under, around, etc.

160 thoughts on “16 Inspirational Portrait Photography Techniques

  1. olecanoli

    okay “that Guy” maybe this was intended for beginers like me, it may come as a surprise to you but most people in the world arent professional photographers

  2. Brian Auer Post author

    Good point olecanoli. I can see that you have a better grasp on the intent of this article than That Guy does.

    That Guy — it would be great if you could point us to the stellar article that you’ve written on portrait photography so that our more advanced readers (such as yourself) can actually learn something beyond this obvious garbage.

  3. Philippe Roy

    Thanks for putting all of the into words and pictures. I’ve started giving photo-lessons and it was difficult to put into words what my brain seems to do automatically! This list is absolutely great!

    By-the-way, I would even go one step further than “get close” and add “fill-the-frame”!

    Thanks again!

  4. Cassandra

    Thank you for putting this together… You’re very talented and those are some great tips. I think it’s great that you want to help people with the knowledge that you have gained. I am an aspiring photographer.. currently it is a hobby, but I’m on my way to school for it. I’m very excited! I’ve been working on my skill for the past couple of years, and have realised that I am very passionate about it!

  5. jenny

    i must say im astonished by your work:)amazing and the tips are really usefull for us:)i would love if you could take a look at my pics and tell me your opinion:)keep up the grat work:)

  6. mad lady's ru

    Great work of compiling those images! I got some great inspiration from them!
    You had me worried there for a few minute and… I belong to that of people who share your taste in photos, really good and advice for those who are interested in photography and not just looking your striking photos

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  8. khalid

    whats the effect of lenses in a portrait photography.. i mean,, can we use all kind of lenses, wide to tele?
    realy great pics.

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  10. Alan

    Just found this post, inspiring, thank you for the article especially reminding me how powerful the unfocus technique can be.

  11. Ritwik

    Thanks for putting these together. I’m an amateur photographer, and it helps to see different styles together to label what I do with my camera :)

  12. wan

    wow,it’s great images and thanks with your tips and makes me wants to be a professional photographer…

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  15. LUMEND13

    rules were made to be broken, in fotography u can do wherever u want, its my favorite part of art, thanks for the tips great photos, very good job

    buenisimo el trabajo que hiciste…


  16. the_wolf_brigade

    I suspect this was where I learnt about backlighting – unlike “That Guy” I don’t automatically know the basics just because I wield a camera – and yesterday I finally got some results with the kids that I’m happy with!

    Thanks Brian. Love your work.

    Christmas present coming soon :D

  17. jetboy

    sure someone else already pointed out:
    low key is not underexposed, high key is not overexposed…
    all in all some pretty pictures but you better erase your own text…

  18. indir

    What a superb collection to illustrate the different techniques and styles. As usual your text is thoroughly entertaining and informative too.

  19. surgeon

    Thanks Brian, It’s a lovely post. I am interested in photography & with your kinda brilliant work, I think it would be gr8 to follow your blog to learn more.

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