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. Frank

    Wow! Thanks for not only providing details of the various ways to change the dynamics of portrait photography but then you also provided picture examples as well. As an aspiring photographer your post gave me several ideas on how to spice up some of my pre-existing photography! Thanks alot.

  2. jayden t

    these are amazing i wish i could take pictures that good. wow keep up the good work, you’ve got sheer talent.

  3. Brian

    Your photography is amazing. I’m going to Prague for a job, but want to get into photography while I’m there. Tons of cool castles, etc. I’ll be trying some of these techniques for sure. Thanks again.

  4. Devanand Singh

    I’m researching for improving my photo quality. Most of the time all I get is words. It’s really great to see some actual picture representations to base my standards upon. Thanks much, I really do appreciate this blog.

  5. Alex

    Wow! This small collection of "emotions" is brilliantly made. My favourites are Underexpose and Get Serious. The overall impression is "inspirational". Many will feel like that, I am convinced.

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  7. Dani

    great pics and thanks for the tips…I hate posing so I always look for alternatives and shooting from different angles is a great idea. I will try that my next shoot and see what I come up with!

    thanks for the post.

  8. Albert

    So amazing, the facial expression on every single photo has something compelling on every photograph. Can’t stop to stare at them for at least 5 minutes each. A great capture of the moment. I am a big fan of photography.

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  10. Mirasol

    just bought a new cam last 2 months and as a beginner this info are very useful.. I like the back-light and props.. will try it for sure…

  11. Akbar

    Really cool stuff Brian, thanks for sharing. Just a question for you or anyone else – what lens do you reccomend for indoor portraits without a flash?

    Help appreciated!

  12. Tony Lee

    Wow! The “movement” shot can really play some tricks on your eyes….Thanks Brian (and Authors) for sharing these interesting shots and perspectives.

  13. niki

    i like all the photos especially the black-light and the (un)focus. .
    i like its mystery parts. .
    . .got an idea for our first FMA on Digital Arts. .
    thanks for the inspiring photos..

  14. Hamo

    Wow, some nice ideas… I am currently looking for ways to shoot hair accessories (on models) to make them stand out. So you have given me some ideas to think about.

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  16. mike

    what great pictures! you have captured the art of portrait photography emphatically, and these examples are great. I have posted a link on twitter to advertise your work,
    thanks for sharing

  17. April

    Wow, I’m truly in awe of these images. I would truly love to be able to create images that are even half as good as these. I did an evening course on PhotoShop a number of years and I didn’t learn much at all.

  18. George Packard

    I favor photo number 8. It demonstrates how emotion can be brought out by objects that can be included in your photos. Some of the most wonderful photos I’ve seen were made with water reflections.

    Thanks Brian and Gary!

  19. Eric

    What crap advice…Photoshop? that’s the number one answer…what a joke…
    Please…stop giving advice now….and if you are going to suggest “reflection”…then for god sakes know what an actual reflection is….

  20. Jinger Studios

    Thanks so much for this great list – I know if I incorporate as many of your tips as I can into each of my genres then I’ll be a happy snappy photographer chappy! A big boo to that “THAT GUY” btw!

  21. Jermaine

    Awesome photos you have here! It’s almost like you can see the deepest details you have in each picture, thanks for sharing these amazing photos.

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