My Best Photo Portrait Tips

Well, howdy folks. No, I didn't drop off the face of the earth! We've been quite busy with family, friends, and all of the busyness that December inevitably brings.

Today, I'm going to share with you some photos from a portrait session I did with my husband's sister's family.

While I'm at it, I'm going to give you some of my favorite photography tips that may help you when you're taking your own photos. With a few simple tricks, you can take professional-looking photographs of your family without having to pay someone else to do it, or invest in a lot of expensive equipment.

The following pictures were taken with a Nikon D80 Digital SLR Camera. It's a couple of years old - here is the D90, with even more features:

Now, that camera's a bit pricey and has lots of bells and whistles for the gadget-crazy, so if you're not that type, you may want something a little more basic. This is my other camera, a point and shoot:

It's a nice little camera, has lots of cool features (including taking short videos!), and is much more affordable and portable.

You might find this book helpful too - it doesn't have a lot of technical information for your camera, but it does help you know what to do in many different situations to improve your photographs. It has a lot of good examples and photos in it too.
At any rate, here we go:

My Best Photo Portrait Tips

1. Read your camera manual. This should be a no-brainer, but I suppose it's like stopping to ask for directions -some people just won't do it. But this should be your first stop. Read through your manual while holding your camera, and explore all of the features as it explains them. The more familiar you are with your camera and its features and settings, the more prepared you will be when the perfect photo op comes along. There's nothing worse than missing an important moment because you can't figure out where the right button is.... OK, well, there are many things worse than that, but you know what I mean.

2. Turn off the flash. In my opinion, this is the tip that separates the professionals from the amateurs. This would be my number 1 tip, but if you haven't read your manual, you won't know how to do this. I cannot begin to tell you how much I despise the effects of flash on a photograph. It flattens everything out, eliminates all shadows (except for the GIANT one directly behind the subject on the wall - not flattering at all), removes all atmosphere and feeling from the photo, and gives people that deer-in-the-headlights look. Not to mention red-eye. Ick.

Flash photographs scream "snapshot." Now there's nothing wrong with snapshots, and sometimes you are forced to use flash if you're in very low light or are trying to stop movement. But if you're setting up a portrait, TURN OFF YOUR FLASH! You'll be amazed at the results from doing this one, simple thing.

3. Use side-lighting whenever possible. Positioning your subject next to an open door or a window gives BEAUTIFUL lighting. When light is coming from the side, it sculpts the subject's face and gives it a 3D quality that head-on lighting (such as a FLASH) eliminates. You can set up your own little studio in your home - next to an open garage door on a sunny day is perfect! Simply add a backdrop, and you're ready to roll! The photos below were taken by an open garage door with a simple black sheet draped across some shelves for the backdrop.

4. Learn how to use your digital photo editing software. There's no substitute for taking a technically-perfect photograph in the first place, but occasionally, even the best photographers meet a tricky situation that requires a little editing back in the lab or on the computer. The digital world has made it possible for anyone with a home computer to edit their own photos and even create some neat special effects, all without access to a darkroom! My favorite editing program is:

Or, the scaled-down version for non-professional use (all you really need):

One of my favorite features is being able to convert photos to black and white or sepia...

But edit judiciously. I think the photo below loses a lot by being converted to black and white - you don't see those beautiful blue eyes or that stunning red dress!

5. Look for quality-light. The best lighting by far is natural daylight. It gives the most natural colors and is the most flattering. Second best is tungsten (the traditional lightbulb). Tungsten gives a warm, golden glow that is generally flattering, warm, and homey-looking. Then you have fluorescent... in a word, ghastly. And those horrendous corkscrew-looking energy-efficient bulbs??? Also ghastly. Do yourself a favor and get rid of them (they contain toxic mercury anyway - so much for the environment!) - they're making you look seasick in your photos! If you need to use extra lighting inside, position a lamp (with a tungsten bulb in it!) to one side of your subject, turn off your flash, and use a tripod.

And now... the most fantastic lighting secret known to man....
"The Golden Hour"
Twice a day, on pretty days, God sends photographers a special gift - what I like to call the "Golden Hour." It's a brief period of time shortly after sunrise or before sunset when the sun is low on the horizon, and it "side-lights" the world - absolutely beautiful! I call it the Golden Hour because it casts a golden glow on the landscape (or your subject), and long, beautiful shadows. While it's wonderful for landscape or architectural photography, it can be a little harsh for portraits (squinty eyes and such). However, it can give you some beautiful "atmospheric" portraits-in-landscapes, such as the photo below from Williamsburg, VA.

Notice how everything looks as if it's glowing and warm, and the man's shadow is stretched all the way across the yard? That's all from the lighting! Taking photos either in early morning or late afternoon will give you this effect. (Incidentally, prints from this photo and the painting it inspired are available for purchase on my website, click here to shop.)

6. Capture your subject's personality. There are a number of ways you can do this. The first is just to be patient, talk with them and joke around so that they're comfortable and begin to relax (this should be easy if you already know them well, in the case of a family member), and wait for great things to happen:

My niece posed herself this way when we told her to act like a princess. See the foot-pop? Priceless!
Adding a family pet into the portrait can help your subjects be more relaxed and spontaneous too.
With kids, just let them be themselves in some of the pictures.

Adding a favorite toy or dress-up prop can also add a lot to the portrait and can capture some great memories of current interests and hobbies.

And sometimes, even "bloopers" can be fun memories... in this case, of my allergy-plagued nephew who has a propensity towards sneezing fits...

Don't feel as though the subject always has to be looking at the camera either.
7. Pay attention to backgrounds. Look for simple, uncluttered backgrounds. Doors work well, since they are often simple, have interesting textures, and also place the subject in ideal lighting when opened. The photos below were taken in front of an open old wooden door in a historic log cabin.

You can also look for natural "frames" for your subject.

There's always the sheet option as well - it eliminates everything but your subjects. A dark color like black adds a dramatic, painterly "chiaroscuro" effect, which I love...

8. Fill the frame. This is especially important if you're photographing kids, babies, or anything else that's small. People want to see faces, not a tiny little speck of a person in a large, distracting background. Get in close, focus in on the face, hands, feet or other details, and let your subject shine.

9. Take a lot of photos. And then, take some more. And, along with this is ...

10. Know when everybody's "done," and stop then. The beauty of digital photography is that you can shoot and shoot and shoot without the expense of rolls of film or paying to have "unknown" pictures developed, only to be disappointed when you get them back. By shooting lots of pictures, you stand a better chance of having a few really great shots turn out - especially if you're taking a group shot. Inevitably, someone will blink, one of the kids will have their finger up their nose, someone will be out in outer space or on the verge of a meltdown, a parent will be correcting a child or trying to get them to pay attention, someone will decide to eat a leaf, a bird will fly over and distract somebody - there's ALWAYS something. And there's ALWAYS a ham who decides to make a "funny" face in what might have been a perfect family portrait. (I can't say much about that though - I was that kid. Still am sometimes.)  
But temper your shutter-happy tendencies with the realization that every subject has a point when they are "done." When the shoot ceases to be a fun experience for everyone, you might as well stop. You need happy campers to make good photos.
I hope you've found these tips helpful! Happy shooting!
If you are interested in scheduling a photo session with me, please e-mail me. Thanks!

Don't forget, you can still get 15% off in my online store by using the coupon code "bethlehem" at checkout. And there's always 10% off on orders over $150! Finish your Christmas shopping today!


  1. Great post and delightful photos!

  2. Hey Beth!

    Great tips, thanks! I used to do a lot of photography, many years ago when my oldest children were toddlers. I started out with a Canon AE-1 Program and went on lots of photography hunts and such. When my camera slowly died through the years, it was a heartbreak for me. LOL

    I'm really happy to have my Rebel now, but have not had the time to pursue learning to use it beyond point and shoot. I'm hoping to get into it again this coming year, as several friends want to do some photog field trips together. it would be great to get to know this camera.

    Anyway, loved your tips and ALWAYS enjoy your photographs. :o)


  3. Beth,
    Simply awesome photography!! And beautiful subjects as well!

    I'm going to pass on your tips to John. He, too, hates flash, and uses it as little as possible. I like the idea of side-lighting--I imagine it can be VERY complimentary for those with more 'aged' features, for softening and youthfulness (at least, I can hope!) Also, the door background is terrific! John loves to shoot family photos outside, but I've noticed the wide range of trees, rocks, etc often detracts from the subjects.

    Eventually, I'd like to buy the the Nikon D3000 for John. What say you? Would the D90 suit his needs better?

    Once again, beautiful post, photos, and family!

  4. Hi, thank you all for your comments! I always enjoy hearing what you have to say.

    Linda, I'm not familiar with the D3000, but I'd say he would be quite happy with the D90. I love the D80 - it has more features than I even know what to do with sometimes! And the D90 is better...

    Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Thanks for this great post! Beautiful pictures. I got a Canon EOS 450D for christmas and I love great tips and tricks. I also hate the flash so thank you once again ;) Happy new Year Beth.

  6. Thanks, Annika! Glad you enjoyed it - I hope you find the tips helpful... Have fun with your new toy, and happy New Year to you too!

  7. Your blog is great Beth! I loved all of your photo tips and the pictures too:) You have so many wonderful talents; its great to see you sharing them with all!

  8. Thanks, Bree! Glad you're enjoying it! I look forward to reading your blog too!


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