Top tips for creating great portraits

Improve your portrait photography skills with our comprehensive list of the best tips and techniques.
A portrait of a smiling woman sat next to a blue and aqua tiled mosaic and in front of clear blue skies and palm trees, taken with a Canon RF 28mm F2.8 STM lens.

Great portrait photography requires a combination of skills. There are many variables, including ensuring the lighting is right, getting up close, and being quick enough with your camera, as well as choosing the best technology for the task. Whether you're choosing a full-frame mirrorless camera such as the Canon EOS R8 for its uncompromising performance in speed and quality, or an APS-C mirrorless such as the EOS R50 for its smaller size and lighter weight, each has its advantages for shooting portraits.

Whatever camera you have, we hope these tips will help you shoot better portraits – whether they're of friends, family, interesting characters you meet on the street, fashion portraits, or even pets.

Pick the right lens to make your subject stand out

A portrait of a woman standing on a beach in a sunhat, taken with a Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM lens.

Select the right portrait lens for your composition: longer focal lengths for headshots or wide angles for a portrait that also includes the scene. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM lens at 1/250 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200.

A woman walking down a spiral staircase looks up at the camera.

As well as choosing the right kit for your shot, you can use props and surroundings in composition, such as this staircase, to frame your subject. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM lens at 1/60 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1600.

When shooting with a Canon EOS camera that uses interchangeable lenses, whether it's an APS-C camera such as the Canon EOS R50, EOS R10 or EOS R100, or a full-frame model such as the Canon EOS R8 or EOS RP, choosing a lens with a fast maximum aperture, such as the Canon RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM, RF 35mm F1.8 IS MACRO STM or the RF 50mm F1.8 STM, will help separate your subject from the background. To make the most of wide apertures, use Aperture priority (Av) mode or Manual (M) mode, and try using Auto ISO to keep your exposures just right.

Prime lenses with a focal length of 50mm to 100mm are ideal for portrait photography thanks to the low distortion, resulting in beautiful portraits. Using a standard or wide-angle prime lens, such as the Canon RF 28mm F2.8 STM or RF 35mm F1.8 IS MACRO STM, instead of a zoom lens will force you to get closer to and engage with your subjects, and when doing so you should find a smaller lens proves less intimidating.

You could also use zoom lenses, such as the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM, RF 24-50mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM or RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM, and lenses such as the Canon RF 24-50mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM or RF-S 18-45mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM are incredibly versatile, because they give you the ability to shape your portraits using different focal lengths, all with one lens. When you've got to grips with the basics of prime lenses, a lens with a wide zoom range such as the Canon RF 24-105 F4L IS USM, with its internal image stabilisation, is great for shooting handheld, enabling you to move around your subject and change focal lengths to achieve different effects. Its telephoto focal range will create flattering portraits and the maximum 105mm length is perfect for close-up headshots.

A telephoto zoom such as the Canon RF-S 55-210mm F5-7.1 IS STM or RF 70-200mm F4L IS USM is great for shooting candid portraits at a flattering portrait focal length of 85mm and then zooming in close for creative shots of eyes or other details.

If you need help choosing a lens, Canon's handy lens finder tool will tailor recommendations based on your camera, the genre you want to shoot, and which features you value most.

Embrace challenging light conditions

Portraits at night can be tough, as you may need a flash to provide enough light. However, ambient light around your subject can often be very atmospheric and something that you wish to keep in your portrait. Canon's full-frame mirrorless cameras such as the Canon EOS R6 Mark II, which features a Dual Pixel CMOS AF II focusing system, can automatically focus down to EV -6.5, often allowing you to shoot without flash even in dimly lit conditions.

If you do use flash then Night Portrait mode, which features on most Canon EOS cameras, including the Canon EOS R100, EOS R8 and the EOS RP, simplifies it all for you as it changes how your camera thinks. It will use either the built-in flash or register your Speedlite on the hotshoe to light your main subject and provide enough time for the ambient light to set the scene for your picture. It does this by using slower shutter speeds and automatically adjusting the flash time settings. Position your subject so they are lit by the flash rather than the ambient light, and for the best results use a tripod to help reduce camera shake.

Bright conditions mean your portraits may end up with too much contrast. For those moments when your subject is backlit with strong sunlight, a flash can help. Either attach a Speedlite, such as the Canon Speedlite EL-100, to the hotshoe of your camera, or set the built-in flash to fire for every picture. Your camera will work to balance the flash and daylight conditions for a much stronger picture where both elements – the person and the background – are optimally lit.

Shooting outdoor and environmental portraits can also mean dealing with strong or difficult light. Advanced prime lenses, such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM, RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM and RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM offer a higher degree of optical quality, performance and flexibility for dealing with low-light conditions. Their wider apertures allow more light to reach the camera's sensor, enabling you to shoot in lower light conditions without compromising image quality, which is ideal when shooting an environmental portrait in, for instance, a dimly lit factory or artist's studio. What's more, their wider apertures also allow for a shallower depth of field, which helps to create a smoothly blurred background and elements of bokeh that make your subject stand out in a cluttered environment.

Many RF mount lenses also incorporate more advanced internal optics and external coatings that help reduce aberrations and flare, ensuring that your outdoor portraits are sharp, clear and capture every detail of your subject within their surroundings.

Finally, when using automatic or semi-automatic shooting modes such as Aperture priority (Av), or when using Auto ISO, you can quickly adjust for changing or challenging light using exposure compensation. While it may sound complex, exposure compensation is simply a way of making what's in your photo lighter or darker. It's particularly useful for capturing light skin tones to ensure your subjects don't look washed out, and for capturing darker skin tones that you want to look natural. Nearly all Canon cameras have an exposure compensation setting. Check your manual to find yours.

Practise candid shooting

A smiling child reaches for the camera in a family living room.

Make the effort to keep your subject interested and relaxed while shooting. This will enable you to achieve more candid shots. Using a lens with a small profile will also help, as your subject won't find it as intimidating as a larger one. Taken on a Canon EOS R100 with a Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/3.5 and ISO1600. © Gary Morrisroe

Many Canon cameras, such as the Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III, EOS R100 or EOS R8, can be controlled remotely with your smartphone over Wi-Fi, thanks to the Canon Camera Connect app.

For some models, this remote control includes a live view of what the camera is seeing, plus the ability to take photos just by tapping the screen of your phone. Position your camera on a surface, then use your smartphone to view the image and fire at the right moment. Using this technique may help your subject relax as you won't be looking directly at them.

To capture natural looking, candid portraits, try taking a couple of shots before and after your subject is ready and posing for the camera. People will feel more at ease and you're much more likely to capture their natural smile or a child's mischievous look by clicking the shutter when they're not expecting you to. If working with a mirrorless camera such as the Canon EOS R6 Mark II, you can even use electronic shutter mode to shoot silently. If your camera has a burst or continuous shooting mode, try it out. You could also use a zoom lens and shoot from further away, so your portraits look less forced and more natural.

Ask family or friends to pose for you to get some practice. If you want to capture portraits of strangers, ask their permission – often they are flattered to be asked, plus it gives you some time to set up your frame.

Experimenting with self-portraits is a good way to get familiar with settings and composition styles.

Tell a person's story by shooting them in context

A bride dressed in a traditional sari, adorned with gold jewellery and with decorative henna covering her hand.

When including context in wider portraits, consider your location. Look at the background before you shoot and be careful to avoid distracting elements. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 70mm, 1/1000 sec, f/2 and ISO1600. © Sanjay Jogia

A portrait of a smiling stall holder, wearing a scarf and a burgundy apron, standing behind his wares.

This image of a man at his stall at Bath Farmers' Market is a prime example of providing context in a portrait shot – read our guide to shooting portraits of people in their environments for more tips and information. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/60 sec, f/2.8 and ISO160. © Julian Love

A portrait of someone in their usual environment often tells more of a story than a simple headshot can. For example, you could use a wide-angle lens such as the Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM, RF 15-30mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM or RF 28mm F2.8 STM to shoot a chef at work in their kitchen or capture a farmer in a field full of cows. Or why not photograph a musician friend with a blurred guitar shop interior as their backdrop? Think about what you want in the background of your photo and why. The aim is to capture an image which is visually strong, to add a layer of meaning and to encourage your viewers to want to find out more.

Capture your style on social media

A portrait of a woman sitting on the floor in front of a beaded backdrop, smiling at a camera on a wooden table in front of her.

Maintaining a consistent colour palette and editing style across your social media feed gives your content a more cohesive and professional appearance.

When creating fashion portraits for social media, understanding your audience is key. Tailor your shots to reflect the style that your followers engage with most, such as vintage or modern. Natural light is your best friend in these situations, as it casts a soft and flattering glow on subjects. Aim for the golden hour shortly after sunrise or just before sunset, and strike a pose that feels natural. It's important to let your personality shine through, so let your demeanour tell a story about who you are and what your fashion sense represents.

With trends such as "Outfit of the Day" (#OOTD), it's the small details that are important. Ensure your clothes are clean, well-pressed, and the accessories are suitable. And choose your backgrounds wisely; they should complement your outfit, not compete with it.

Consistency in editing is also crucial. Remember: think beyond this one image and what your channel's landing page will look like. Try to maintain a cohesive visual feed that can make your profile stand out. Finally, social media is not just about posting – it's about engaging. Interact with your followers after you post your images, and keep an eye on influencers and fashion icons to adapt and evolve with fast-paced social media trends. Remember, your fashion portraits are not just showing off an outfit; they're sharing a part of yourself. For more information on how to capture a distinct style with consistency, check out our guide to shooting aesthetic photos.

Experiment and defy conventions

A top-down black-and-white shot of a mother and child reading a book. The child is looking up at the camera while reaching forward to turn the page.

Experiment with your portrait shots using different Picture style settings. This black and white image is just as bold and striking as a colour shot, if not more. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/2.2 and ISO1000. © Helen Bartlett

A side-profile portrait of a woman with dark red lipstick looking towards the camera. Strings of blurred lights hang behind her.

Think about how your camera settings, such as exposure and depth of field, can help you to achieve the look you require. Don't be afraid to experiment and play around with that look to get different effects. You can even try adding bokeh to your image to add a dynamic element, as with the lights here. If everyone's portrait images looked the same, the world would be a boring place. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1250. © Ejiro Dafé

Besides adjusting your camera settings, there are some simple ways to add interest and create impact in your portrait shots. Instead of looking at the camera, you could ask your subject to look away, at something within the frame or in the distance. Or why not try shooting your subject from above using a step ladder? Or bend down and shoot from waist height? Break the rules of composition by having your subject completely fill the centre of your frame. Or try backlighting, shadows and slow shutter speeds to add mood to your portraits.

You can even set up your own home studio in order to experiment with different techniques or find out more about building your own creative settings for portraiture*. The aim is to experiment, learn and get the results you are happy with.

Written by Peter Wolinski, Tamzin Wilks and Jeff Meyer

*Available in English only

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