People and Portraits – Overview


Unless you are teaching your child how to order a hamburger topping at a restaurant, let’s try to remove this phrase from our vocabulary.  Actually, the traditional “cheese” face from young ones is cute and can provide priceless memories, but in terms of more advanced people shots, a few easy to understand concepts may serve you better.

Each of the sections below provides a concept related to people photography and a gallery with examples.  Links are provided to other posts about related topics when mentioned which will open in a new browser tab.  The examples provided are just that – EXAMPLES.  A photographer should seek to develop his or her own style, but there is nothing wrong with studying photographs you like and understanding what it is that you like about them.

Growth in photography involves a lifetime of learning how a final image is impacted by using certain techniques and elements of design/composition.  You likely will develop a few approaches of your own, perhaps without even realizing it, that will help define your personal style.  With a variety of tools in your photographic toolbelt, you can mix and match to create the image you envision.

Fill the Frame

When your goal is to highlight a particular person or group, do not be afraid to fill the frame with your subject.  Filling the frame with your subject gives the viewer’s eye less room to travel around looking for other points of interest (see post of Positive vs Negative Space).

Remember, your feet are an extension of your lens.  A great way to zoom in or out is to move closer or further away from the subject.  If you are using a prime lens (one that does not zoom in or out), you have no choice.  If you are using a zoom lens (like the 18mm – 55mm kit lens for the Canon T7), make sure the use of the zoom involves purpose or necessity and not just convenience.

Huh?  …  Don’t be lazy.  Generally speaking, the 50mm – 85mm lengths are good for portrait type shots.  This range provides you enough space between you and your subject to not be uncomfortable and produces a perspective close to that produced by one’s eyes.  Use your feet to move closer or further away when you can.

A wider angle shot in which you fill the frame, especially with people can lead to a distorted perspective.  The point is to use wider angles, like 18mm or below, intentionally to produce a creative effect or because you have no other choice due to being in a cramped space.  


Having just finished saying that filling the frame with your subject in people photography can be important, it is also important to note that it is not the be all and end all.  For example, filling the frame with the boys silhouette would have cropped out the beluga whale entirely, thus rendering the photo virtually meaningless.  As will be discussed in a post on environmental portraiture, sometimes including the background, even in somewhat blurred or abstract form, is crucial to the art of storytelling photography.

Photo Credit: Dan Scott

Similarly. street and documentary photographers include background in their people shots for context that helps tell the story.  The blurred, but recognizable, bustling streets of Burlington, Vermont strengthens this image by providing context.  The image suggests a carefree and active community where one can meet interesting people and go about doing one’s thing without being bothered.

Regardless of the amount of background you choose to include in the image, always consider how prominent background objects overlap with your main subject.  Sometimes a photographer possesses no control over the situation.  Other times, the photographer fails to consider background objects altogether and ends up with a telephone pole growing out of the back of the main subject.   A tree growing out of a subject’s head also usually indicates photographer carelessness.  A subtle shift in the angle of the shot helps avoid such awkward situations.

Outdoor portrait photographers, like street and documentary photographers,  often use blurred backgrounds to help the main subject stand out and minimize background distractions.  How blurry or sharp the area around your main subject is called depth of field.  How to achieve the shallow depth of field look shown in the images below is covered more in our Depth of Field post.  For now, consider using your camera’s Portrait Mode as it is generally designed to create a shallow depth of field (just the main subject in focus).  For the adventurous, try setting your camera to aperture priority mode (“Avon the mode dial of entry and intermediate level Canon DSLRs) and use the dial to select a number less than 8.0.


The recording of light and shadow in an intentional and meaningful way defines photography.  With the exception of the photoshopped glow at the end of the staff, creating the wizard portrait consisted of using studio lighting, colored gels, a smoke machine, a talented seamstress, and a patient young model.  Such a photo demonstrates the control achievable inside the studio.

Studio lighting techniques are beyond the scope of this introductory overview.  Regardless, thousands of dollars worth of professional lighting equipment and dedicated studio space are not needed to produce remarkable people photos.   Understanding the basic quality of natural light provides a powerful tool for the photographer’s toolbox – ready to be called upon based on the situation at hand.

Photo Credit: Dan Scott
Photo Credit: Shawn Roberts

The Golden Hour

The “golden hour” is a photography term impacting both portrait and landscape photography alike.  The golden hour refers to the hour or so before sunset characterized by the sun positioned low in the sky.  The angle of the sun casts a warm light or  glow upon which it falls.  People photographers will often shoot outdoor portraits during the golden hour as it provides a way to light the subject with a beautiful, natural light.  The sun’s low position in the sky allows the subject to be facing towards the sun without squinting and benefit from the soft even lighting produced.  Of course, subjects with their backs to the sun yield portraits with a golden backlit glow to their bodies and hair.  Capturing backlit photos  often requires photographers to spot meter or partial spot meter the light – a technique discussed in its own post.

High Noon

In the middle part of the day, photographers often describe sunlight as “hard” or harsh light.  At midday, the angle of the sun causes unflattering, high contrast shadows to form. including around the subject’s eyes.  Photographers generally avoid shooting outdoor portraits midday.  When left no other choice, midday shoots often involve the subject posed in an area of open shade.  Alternatively, overcast days prevent the harsh shadows usually caused by the angle of the sun by creating a giant diffused light source that evenly lights a scene.

Natural Light Photography

Natural light photography encompasses all photography where a natural source (e.g., the sun) is used to light a scene.  The term natural light photography used here reflects the subset of the genre involving window lit portraiture.  With the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, photographers often use a south facing window or one not receiving direct sunlight.  As a result, the soft light iluminates the subject.  Based on the posing of the subject, the light gradually falls off to shadow providing beautiful portraits that can communicate a variety of moods.

Black and White

Photo Credit: Dan Scott

If color brings out the vibrancy of life, black and white photography represents the raw emotion.  Color holds purpose but can also be distracting.  Strip away the color and one is left with the person, patterns of light and dark, and the story being told.  Black and white highlights the texture of individual faces – with each wrinkle representing  wisdom gained through life experience.  As tempting as it is to think black and white photography is simply “desaturating” the photo, it is so much more.  It really is a rewarding genre of photography that will bring years of joy and a lifetime of learning.

The Elements of Design/Composition Still Apply

Applying the elements of design/composition in portrait photography provides similar impact as when used in landscape/nature photography.  Portrait photographers may, for example:

use leading lines to guide the viewer’s eye to the subject,

use natural or human made framing,

and vary their angle and perspective.

Photo Credit: Dan Scott

And, of course, the rule of thirds provides a nice reminder that people shots need not position the main subject in the center of the frame.  The rule of space adds to the lesson by suggesting that moving subjects should have space to move into  or a subject looking away from the camera may need “space” to be looking into to imply a story.


The general rule of thumb in photographing people states, “if it bends, do not crop at it.”  Unless for a creative reason such as creating a feeling of uneasiness in the viewer, photographers should avoid cropping people photos at the joints.  In general, bisecting fingers, wrists, ankles,  and knees with the edge of the photo detracts from the photo.  Great care need be taken by a photographer wanting to crop at the waist or neck of the subjects.

When cropping at the waist, photographers often try to make sure the entirety of the arms and hands are within the shot.   With the subjects hands on her waist, cropping at the waist awkwardly cuts through the model’s wrists – producing the uneasy feeling that the model has no hands.. through the subject’s wrists.  In contrast, the image with the model’s arms folded  produces a much more natural waist crop as well as helps frame the subject in the bottom half of the image.

Perhaps instead of learning what one should avoid, one should consider what kind of cropping and posing often works well.  While it is important to remember that “rules” are really guidelines, some common portrait shots are:

The Headshot

Headshots come in many shapes and sizes – models use them, business people use them, actors and actresses use them.  There is not necessarily a formal definition, but the head and face, or a portion thereof, serve as the primary focus.  Generally, the photographer wants to avoid cropping out the chin, but as can be seen in the picture here, cropping part of the chin out can also work if done with intention.  Cropping a portion of the brow or top of the head is a more acceptable practice as a rule.

While a straight on head shot can be useful in some circumstances, do not be afraid to have the subject tilt his or her head, turn only their eyes toward the camera, or even provide a full profile.

Head and Shoulder/Bust Shot

The head and shoulders shot provides a standard look utilized by photographers everywhere.

Again, a straight on head shot can be useful in some circumstances, but consider having the subject turn his or her shoulders and body and try different head angles.  Turning the shoulders at a 45 degree angle has a slimming effect as well as adds visual interest to the image.

Bust crops generally fall around the subject’s sternum with head and shoulder shots falling just below the sternum or the neckline of the subject’s shirt.  These of course are lose descriptors subject to manipulation by the photographer.


Three Quarter Length Shot

The three quarter length shot often allows the photographer to include background or props that can help provide context to the shot.  A subject’s clothing choice and sense of style also become more important elements.

Subjects cropped about half way up the thigh, or even half way up the shin, often fall under the umbrella category of three quarter length shots.  Such framing avoids cropping at the joint while including almost the entire length of the subject’s body.

Full Length Shot

Full and three quarter length shots require photographers to think about multiple factors when composing their shot.  Unless crossed, arms should often be held at least slightly away from the body to avoid making a subject appear wider than he or she is.  Legs should not necessarily be in the same plane.  For example one should be in front of the other, crossed, bent, etc to give the picture interest and a more natural feel.  Try having the foot closest to the photographer pointing at the camera while the rear foot points perpendicular.  Use the setting to create a story but be sure to not make the background so busy that it detracts from your main subject.  Consider capturing subjects doing things they love or laughing naturally to avoid the “posed” look.  Have subjects walk or move, toss their hair.  Capture them in the moment when they are living and not totally aware of your presence.

Keep in mind that shooting a full length portrait with a wide angle lens will often distort and elongate an image.  Make sure such an effect is intentional.

Full length need not just be standing.  Have the subject lay down, sit, scooch, look over the shoulder, jump for joy, stand a funny way.  All the while, the photographer can be equally active making portraits from multiple angles, laying on the ground, standing above the subject, etc.

Most important of all when doing people photos.  Have fun.  Encourage your subjects to have fun.  Be sure everyone on a shoot is safe, but otherwise, be as creative as possible.  Have people give piggybacks, tell jokes, make a pyramid, be themselves.

Please be constructive and appropriate when posting comments below.  Many of our readers and contributors fall within the 5th through 12th grade age range.


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