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5 Benefits of Learning Portrait Photography Even if You Don’t Do Portraits

Not everyone is into doing portrait photography. I get it, I wasn't once upon a time either. I much preferred photographing stationary objects that I didn't have to talk to, and they also had infinite patience while I set up the shot.

But then something happened.

I had to do some people photography for my first job and I found that I actually liked it!

The big benefit of photographing people is that they appreciate the photos and often get emotional when they see their images. So it is a lot more rewarding.

A plate of food never once thanked me profusely and hugged me for making it look good.

Portrait photography can also be very intimidating, it is complicated and complex, and is often challenging. But many times the things most worth doing aren't always easy, right?

a tender moment between father and daughter in Nicaragua
This is one of my favorite images from Nicaragua. It's a tender moment between father and daughter. I used my portrait skills and knew that the lighting was perfect on them at this moment and it all came together.

So even if you have no intention of ever doing portraits, I'm going to show you a few reasons why you might want to consider learning about it, to help improve all your photography.

Five benefits of learning portrait photography

  1. If you can learn portrait lighting it will help you get a handle on better lighting for all your images.
  2. Understanding light is also the key to correct exposures. Portrait lighting concepts like lighting ratio, high key, and low key apply to other genres as well.
  3. Also, a good understanding of light will also help with street photography, travel photos, shooting events, candid shots and more.
  4. You will become a better, more well-rounded photography, better equipped and able to handle any situation.
  5. It will prepare you for when your friends ask, “You have a nice camera, can you take our family photo?”
You can even use your skills to get in the photo yourself do a self-portrait. This is a photo of myself and our two tour leaders (Kav left, and Dan right) in India on our recent tour. I picked the spot and set it up and it was graciously taken by one of our tour participants, thanks Peter!

#1 – Portrait photography is all about understanding light

This is not likely the first time you've heard that light is really important in photography. If you've been reading my articles for a while you'll have heard me say it – light is everything.

In fact, we've had two monthly challenges designed to help you learn about it:

The contests on those challenges are completed now, but feel free to go do them again any time and share your images in the comment area.

So it goes without saying that light is the most important aspect of photography you need to learn.

To take that a step further, if you can get a handle on using light for people photography it will give you a good solid foundation to work with and grow from there.

This image was created on a night photo walk in my city. A flash was used to spotlight the man against the graffiti wall. In order to know where to place the flash to get good lighting on him, I drew on my portrait experience.

In order to make great portraits, you need to understand the basics of light including the three properties:

  1. Quality of light
  2. Direction of light
  3. Color of light

So by taking some time to learn about portrait lighting, you can then apply those principals to all the other photography you do as well.

For example

To create a portrait that has depth, dimension, and shows the shape of the person's face in a flattering manner you need to have soft light from the side (usually 30-45 degrees from the camera).

You also not only want to have some shadows you need them – because without shadows the subject looks flat and lifeless.

Mama Sentusa – at the time of this photo was the oldest lady in the Sacred Valley, Peru. Notice how the light comes from the side and adds shape and even texture to her face.
This was taken in the early morning at the Pushkar camel fair in India. The sun was up but wasn't at its harshest yet. I positioned myself so the light was coming from the side, hitting half of this man's face creating the depth, shape, and texture I wanted.

Now apply that to a flower photo or a landscape.

The same applies!

Look at these images of pumpkins that I created for a recent challenge (playing with light).

Notice how the light is coming from the side here and it emphasized all the bumps and textures in the pumpkins. You can see each ridge and curve.
Here the light is coming from the front, directly from the camera. See how flat the squashes look now? They lack texture and almost seem 2-dimensional, not round. This is the benefit of knowing how to use light and how portrait techniques also apply to all photography.

#2 – Understanding light is the key to getting the correct exposure

That may sound odd to you but I often get questions about why a certain part of a photo is under or overexposed, and how to fix it.

The answer is all about controlling the contrast of your scene which is something portrait photographers have to master.

To create flattering portraits you need to get your subject out of the harsh sun (hard lighting) and into the shade (soft lighting) first of all. Then you need to watch the background as well because if it's in direct sunlight it will be way brighter than the subject and will be blown out (overexposed with no detail).

Look at the images of the two girls below as examples.

This first image was taken in the sun and the background was brightly lit, but the girls' faces are really dark. In situations like this, you will struggle to get the right exposure. Your camera will get tricked as well because everything here is white or bright and your image may be underexposed if you're shooting in Aperture Priority mode. But even if you overexpose to get the girls right, the background will be blown out.
This is my edited version, but I had to do a LOT of work to the image in Lightroom to get this. I had to darken the highlights, darken the background, lighten their faces, lighten their shirts. All done with tools like the Adjustment Brush and Radial Filter. Even after all that I think the image is just okay, not great.
I loved the friendship between these two and how they were always holding hands or touching, and I wanted to capture that. To me, that requires softer lighting than the previous image to set the tone and mood. So I asked them to come into the shade by their school and got this image. Even though there is a kid in the background here I think I was more successful in achieving my goal and that it's a better image overall. Do you agree?

Once again the same applies to any kind of photography you want to do!

Find a lovely flower in front of a grand mountain scene or valley behind it?

If the flower is in the shade and the valley is in the sun, you're going to have issues capturing detail in both regardless of your exposure.

Expose for the flower and the background will be too bright. Expose for the background and the flower will be too dark.

The opposite is also true. Pick a subject in the bright sun and a shaded background will result in a black void background or overly white subject.

The only way to keep detail in both is to shoot bracketed exposures and make it into an HDR image. But that is not the best way to handle it!

This flower was in the sun, but the mountain far off in the background was shaded. The result is a background nearly devoid of detail. It works not bad here as it makes the flower stand out more but I find the image overall too busy.
This is the opposite of the situation above. Now the flower is in the shade and the mountain is in bright sunlight. See the problem? You'll also find that things in the shade are cooler (have more blue) than things in the sun so the color balance will never match across the whole image unless you do some tricky photo editing.

But if you use some portrait lighting tips and keep the subject and background evenly lit, you'll be on the right track. Take it a step farther and go back and photograph that little flower at sunset or dusk when the light is not as harsh, and you'll be in business.

HINT: Portrait photographers' favorite time to shoot is about an hour before sunset (or an hour after sunrise). Likewise, the best landscape photographers are often up at the crack of dawn or shooting late into the evening. Coincidence? I think not!
I took this photo at sunrise in a fishing village in Nicaragua. The soft early morning sun is just hitting the top of her head, providing a nice backlight without being too strong.
I photographed this pineapple farmer in Nicaragua at sunset using the same principles. The sun is low on the horizon and much softer than overhead midday lighting. It is equal on both him and the field behind him making the exposure easier and more consistent (even) across the frame. No flash or external lighting was added here.

The reason this will help you with your exposure is by handling (by avoiding it) contrasty lighting.

Lower the contrast of the scene so your camera can capture all the details and your exposures will be much better every time.

Even if you can't go back and shoot at sunset or sunrise, you can still compose your shots to make sure the lighting is more consistent back to front. Just get out of the sun, like this!

This is a busy street in Granada, Nicaragua near a big market.

Notice how contrasty the scene above is with one side in bright sun and the other side in shadow.

Attempting to take photos of the entire street, or a person or subject that is partly in the sun and partly in the shade, will be an exercise in frustration. Likewise, once again you'll need to do some major photo editing to pull out details.

Here's the alternative method.

Get out of the sun and find interesting subjects in the shade, like this man.

This shoe shiner is on the same street as the one above. I just chose to come in closer and crop out the sunny areas and focus on him.

Here are two more images made on the same street.

See, it is possible to shoot at high noon and get good images. You just have to be more selective with your camera angles and subject positioning.

#3 – It will help you do better photography of all kinds

Even if you don’t do ever want to do formal, posed portraits, a good understanding of light will help you do better photography of all kinds.

Your street photography, travel photos, event coverage, live performance shots, candids of family and friends at parties and holidays, and more can all be enhanced by learning to take portraits.

There are many skills that a portrait photographer must learn besides lighting and exposure that will help you improve your photos overall.

Here are just a few of them:

  • Interacting with or directing people (building rapport).
  • Arranging or posing a group of people.
  • Flash – knowing when to use it, why, and how.
  • Having an efficient workflow and photo editing system.
  • How to edit or retouch faces (remove blemishes, keep it natural looking).
  • How to use a reflector properly to fill in shadows.
  • How to see light and find good light (and images) in any situation.
  • Knowing when to press the shutter button to capture the best expressions and moments.
  • How to use the equipment you have to its full capacity (portrait photographers would all like a better, more expensive lens but can't all afford that so they work with what they have).
  • How to handle stressful situations delicately.
  • Have patience! Read this: Do You Wait for the Decisive Moment or do You Spray and Pray?

NOTE: The doors on our Portrait Fundamentals course will be opening soon for a limited time only. If you want to join the waiting list to make sure you don't miss the early-bird pricing and save 25%, fill in the form below! You'll also get a free PDF, “How to Find Good Light for Portraits at Midday”.


Let's look at a few examples where my skills as a portrait photographer came in handy.

I used my portrait photography experience to find a good spot to take our group photo on a past photo tour of Morocco, and to position and pose everyone.
My experience doing family photos and working with kids helped me capture this shot in Nicaragua. The little girl didn't want to come to us to be in the photo, so we went to where she was and I made it work. Adaptability is a good skill to have!
My knowledge of using flash for portraits allowed me to create this image. He's laughing because all his biker buddies are off the the side making fun of him being a model.
I used flash here and bounced it off a nearby wall to create portrait style lighting in a candid situation. Much better than using the overhead fluorescent lights that were green and unflattering.
Flash was used here to put light on this aghori holy man in Varanasi, India. The sun was just rising and without the flash, his face was too dark.
For this image of a dancer in a field of marigolds (during our photo tour of India) I had one of our guests hold a white reflector to add light onto her face. Otherwise, she would have been too dark against the bright background and setting sun.

Knowing how to use flash and reflectors are good skills to have in your toolbox!

Other times I use my ability to find good light in any situation. This was taken at a community that lives next to a garbage dump at their community center. But the light on this baby was perfect and I couldn't resist his chubby little cheeks.

Being ready and capturing the best expressions are both parts of a portrait photographer's skill set.

This lady was part of a colorful parade and as she saw me she turned and her expression changed. I waited and captured just the right moment.
These boys wanted me to pay them to pose but they were still and weren't smiling. I started making faces at them (something I do at family portrait sessions to help kids relax and laugh), they responded, and I got this shot.

#4 – You'll be better equipped to handle any photographic situation

Learning how to do portrait photography will help you be a better and more well-rounded photographer, able to handle any situation.

This is especially true if you ever decide to tackle shooting a wedding. Weddings are super stressful events where you have to shoot for hours on end, under often difficult conditions (lighting, personalities, limited time, etc.).

So basically, if you can handle doing a portrait or a wedding (I don't recommend it, and I've done over 250 of them!) you can handle most anything!

There are a lot of moving parts to create a portrait and getting it all to come together takes some skill.

It doesn't happen overnight, and it takes practice.

This man was sitting with a few others outside a small shop at the fair in Pushkar, India. The street was very busy as was the background behind him. Asking him to move wasn't an option so I cropped in tight and asked him to smoke (charades works great when you don't speak the local language).

Consider that all of these elements need to be handled well to make a good portrait:

  • Scouting and finding a good location for the photo session.
  • Going at the right time of day.
  • Making sure you have all the right gear packed, batteries are charged, and memory cards are ready to go.
  • Knowing what lens to use to make the most flattering photos of your model or subject.
  • What ISO, aperture and shutter speed will you use for the optimal exposure and look you want?
  • Will you use a tripod and/or a shutter release (remote trigger)?
  • Is the light hard or soft that is falling on the subject? How about the background?
  • Is the background working or does it distract from the subject (red flowers)?
  • Are there any objects in the scene that need to be removed (tree branch, garbage, trash can, cars, etc.)?
  • Posing the subject. How will they stand or sit? How should they place their hands (they will ask), turn their head, put their feet/legs?
  • What clothing will they wear (they will ask you for advice on that)?
  • Will you need to add light with a reflector or flash?
  • How will you get your model to make a good expression?

Once you get all that organized then you actually have to do the photo session, which may last 15-90 minutes.

If you're dealing with a toddler it could be over in 10 minutes, or it could take 30 just to get them to stop being shy.

The pineapple farmer again, this time I had the opportunity to get him to move where the light was good. This was taken next to his home under an overhang which blocked any overhead light. I love the almost monochromic tones in the image (all browns).
This was taken at the same parade as the lady above. I watched this lady and waited until she turned into a full profile view and the light outlined her perfectly. I applied portrait techniques to blur the background (used a long lens and wide aperture).
Another image from the parade – to capture this shot I positioned myself on the side of the street so I was shooting back towards the sun. That gave the subjects a great backlight and avoided their faces in shadow and a bright background.
Street portrait of a lovely fellow I met in NYC. I chose where to stand to get the background and lighting I wanted on his face and had him turn toward me.
Fuji X-T1 shot in low light at ISO 1250, f/5 at 1/6th with a 32mm lens. Working with natural or available light is my favorite thing to do but it often comes with low light conditions like this schoolhouse in Nicaragua. Knowing how to do portraits in low light will help you master any situation you may encounter.

So learning to master all that comes in really handy, no matter what kind of photography you're doing. And patience and people skills are never bad things to have either!

#5 – You'll be able to take photos of family and friends

“Hey you have a really nice camera, can you take a family photo for us?”

Have you been asked that question yet? If not, sooner or later you will likely be asked to photograph someone you know.

Whether it be a family photo for your best friend, your co-worker's new Facebook profile pic, or even just photographing your own kids or grandkids – by learning some portrait photography skills you'll be ready and able to do it when the time comes.

For this group portrait, I literally had about 2 minutes to make it happen, arrange the people and handle the lighting. I used my flash bounced off the ceiling to get them evenly lit and my people skills to get them to be more animated.
Another quick photo of a photography student in Nicaragua and his mom. I found shade beside their house and got them into position.

I don't know why it happens, but as soon as you get a DSLR (or even a mirrorless camera) many people will see you as a professional photographer.

You may not feel like one, or feel you are ready or up to the task, but they make the assumption that a good camera is all that's needed to take good photos.

So why would you say no when they ask, right? Wrong!

You know there's a lot more to it than just a nice camera, but they don't. And if you pick up some portrait photography skills along the way you'll be better able to say YES when they ask, help out a friend/family member and create some images you'll be proud to share.

That doesn't mean you have to hang out a shingle and open a studio.

It just means that you'll be ready if and when the time comes (and it will come, trust me) and you'll be up for the challenge.

Another group photo from one of our tours, this was Nicaragua 2016. I moved the chairs, arranged everyone, and then got someone to press the button for us and I hopped into shot myself. As you can see it was sunny outside the little hut shelter so I used it to put us all in the shake and let the background bits get overexposed.

Conclusion

I hope these examples have shown you the benefit of learning about portrait photography.

Even if you do not like people photography, you can take the skills you learn and apply them to any genre you do enjoy.

Please share in the comments below of anything you have learned about taking portraits that you have been able to use in other situations. I'd love to hear about how you've applied it or if you are inspired to give it a go.

Cheers,
Darlene Hildebrandt photographer DPM

Coming Soon

NOTE: We cover a lot of this stuff in more greater depth in our Portrait Fundamentals online course. The doors will be opening soon for the course, for a limited time only.

Make sure you don't miss the early-bird pricing.

Save 25% and grab my free guide, “How to find good light for portraits at midday” just fill in the form below:


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