In the midst of a session there are countless things on your mind--the lighting, camera settings, posing, getting the right angle. This can be overwhelming, especially if you're somewhat new to photography or crunched for time (like on a wedding day, for instance). While making mistakes and learning from them is an important part of growth, sometimes you just want to know what to avoid.

Here's a quick list of 7 things to avoid for creating better portraits!

Eliminating some of these simple mistakes is a great place to start to take your portrait photography up a notch.

LXC  - Image by Anna Sansixto

LXC - Image by Anna Sansixto


I know, I know, it’s difficult - because when shooting portraits, your focus is heavily placed on the person in front of the lens and not necessarily the things going on behind your subject. Distractions will draw the viewers’ attention away from the important parts of the photo and lessen the intended impact. Before you bring your camera up to your face or start posing your subject, check the background for distracting elements such as bright objects, people or signs.

LXC  - Image by Nagira fotografia

LXC - Image by Nagira fotografia


This one probably seems obvious, but over exposure in portrait photos can result in a lack of detail where it matters - your subject’s skin. Cameras these days can do an incredible job of recovering shadow detail when shooting in RAW, however digital still falls short of film when it comes to recovering detail in highlights. Exposing for the skin is the best way to guarantee all the essential details of your subject.

Pro Tip: If you’re in a tricky lighting situation try switching to spot metering and meter for the skin for best results.

LXC  - Image by Fran Decatta

LXC - Image by Fran Decatta


Some may read this as ‘harsh light’, but that isn’t necessarily the case. It’s true that soft, diffused light is great for portraits, giving skin a smoother, more flattering look and reducing hard, defined shadows; but harsh light can be effective when used in the right way and on the right subject. If you find yourself shooting in harsh sunlight and the results are unflattering, then one option is to seek out open-shade, which gives a softer more consistent look. Alternatively shoot your subject backlit, this will lower the contrast due to the way the light enters the lens and will create a pleasant soft glow around the edge of your subject. Artificial light can also give unflattering results, for instance in mixed lighting scenarios where there is both tungsten and incandescent light present in the same location. This mix of warm and cool lighting will make it difficult to set the white balance, which in turn will result in inconsistent skin tones. If possible, remove one of the lighting types from the equation, or move to a different location. If neither of these can be done then editing the images in black and white usually will offer the best results.

Wayfarer  - Image by Jessica Winfield

Wayfarer - Image by Jessica Winfield


Distortion can be caused by the type of lens used, the angle at which the shot is taken and the pose of your subject. Lenses that are 35mm and below are considered wide-angle, and the wider the lens, the more distortion it introduces. This can become problematic in portraiture as body shape and facial features can look out-of-proportion and unnatural. The closer you get to your subject, the more pronounced the distortion. This distortion effect can sometimes be used for a fun/quirky look, but generally isn’t something desired in most portraiture. When shooting portraits with a wide-angle lens watch out for limbs that are close the the edge of the frame or closer to the camera as these can appear stretched or oversized. Longer lenses such as 85mm and longer will give less distortion and compress the scene which can give pleasing results. One isn’t better than the other but it’s worth understanding the potential issues that come with wider focal lengths.

Terrain  - Image by Logan Gregory

Terrain - Image by Logan Gregory


Posing of subjects is a big topic and could be a post all of its own, but here we’re focussing on avoiding static posing. There’s a fine line between not giving enough direction and giving too much - not enough and your subject may lack confidence and pose awkwardly, too much and they may become rigid and lacking in connection. If your subject remains static during the shoot you also limit the number of images you’ll end up with (nobody wants 10 photos that are almost identical), having your model move and change expression gives you more diversity in the final photos. Try giving your subject motion directions. For example, simply getting the model to slowly step back and forth as they pose, will create a more natural body posture and give variety in the photos.
Pro Tip: Strike a pose - SHOW your subject how you want them to pose rather than just using verbal direction, this will help them to visualise what you’re trying to capture and make them feel more relaxed.

Summit  - Image by Jennifer van Son

Summit - Image by Jennifer van Son


This falls into the same category as ‘checking your background’. Horizon lines or any other hard lines that run through the image can become an issue if they cut through the head/ neck of your subject. This can be avoided by shooting from slightly higher, to bring your subject below the line of the horizon, or getting a lower perspective so that your subjects neck and head are well above the horizon line.

Pro Tip: Using a wider aperture will help soften the line of the horizon making it less of a visual distraction if it does cut through your subject.

1888AD  - Image by Amanda Rose

1888AD - Image by Amanda Rose


Similar to the last tip, avoid the edges of the frame intersecting with the models joints - if it bends don’t crop. Cropping at the joints can give the illusion of missing limbs or make the subject seem shorter or wider than they actually are. Getting in close to your subject can create a compelling and engaging portrait, but make sure to crop limbs mid-way between joints, i.e. crop at the thigh rather than at the knee - seeing the limb continue to the edge of the frame rather than appearing cut off at the edge helps our brains to fill in what’s missing.

Terrain  - Image by Leonie Jones

Terrain - Image by Leonie Jones

Hopefully you found these tips useful and you have a refreshed enthusiasm for shooting portraits - now go forth and portrait like a pro!