Portrait photography ideas for your next photoshoot.

As a portrait photographer, it is easy to fall into the trap of repeatedly producing similar portraits. Maybe you keep using the same models, or maybe your style has become predictable. Whatever the case, photographers of all verticals should strive to keep their work fresh. 

Having a handful of portrait photography ideas in your back pocket can help significantly when your aesthetic is lacking inspiration. 

And so, next time you’re feeling creatively stumped, try experimenting with these ideas. You might be surprised by the creative new aesthetic your work suddenly embodies. 

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Creative portrait of black woman wearing floral chiffon dress by Lou Freeman
Photo credit: Lou Freeman

Lighting and color sets the mood for portraits

When you’re looking for new portrait photography ideas, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to give your work a fresh take. Oftentimes, all you need to do is switch up your lighting, play with color, and be willing to experiment with different techniques that you might have previously rejected. Here are some of our favorite ways to play with light and color to help give your images a totally new feel: 

black and white portrait of a man with facial hair looking at the camera with his forehead wrinkled

1) Black and white portrait photography

You’ve obviously seen and heard of black and white portrait photography, but perhaps you’ve always found that you’re drawn to color in your work. While color can be great for creating an eye-catching aesthetic that feels vibrant and lively, if you want to completely change the mood of an image, shooting in black and white can make a significant difference. 

portait of a woman lit by neon signs at night

2) Night portrait photography

As a photographer, you probably love the idea of capturing natural light in your images. We are big fans of natural light as well, but we also know that getting stuck with the idea that you can only shoot on a day that provides a lot of natural sunlight can pigeonhole you. As an experiment, try shooting a portrait at night and be prepared to discover a totally new look and feel in your work. This might include incorporating off camera flash (OCF) or using interesting ambient light such as neon signs, car headlights, etc… you get the idea.

low key portrait of black man looking to the right of the image

3) Low-key portrait light 

If you like the idea of black and white portrait photography, but want something that feels even more elevated and classic, we suggest experimenting with low-key photography, in black and white or color. 

Low-key photography is a style of photography that requires you to shoot in a low key (i.e. dimming the front light). Doing so results in a dark photo where only certain, predetermined areas of the frame are lit up by either natural light or artificial light. 

4) High-contrast portrait photography 

You can create high contrast with something like low-key portrait photography, as mentioned above, but you can also create a high contrast photo with color. 

These portraits tend to pop and really grab people’s attention. You can create this high contrast scene through contrasting clothing, contrasting backgrounds, and even working in some props to further create that high contrast look. 

black woman wearing hat photographed in natural light

5) Natural light photography 

Probably one of the most well-known portrait photography ideas, you probably won’t be too shocked to find this on our list. Having said that, we want to challenge you to experiment with natural light in new ways during your next photoshoot. 

For instance, use natural light and look for interesting shadows or shoot from different angles. Consider as well that things in the environment like a white wall can act as a reflector to soften the light on your model. Try getting crafty with how you shape the natural light in a scene.

Remember, plenty of natural light might sound like the best scenario when shooting portraits, but natural light can also be harsh and unflattering in certain situations. Learning how to shoot professionally in natural light is key if you want to master this style. 

6) Infrared portrait photography 

While humans can’t detect infrared light with the naked eye, camera sensors can. This results in a truly unique photo that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to capture. In other words, your camera is essentially capturing the “unseen.”

Keep in mind that you can’t mimic the unique effects of infrared technology with Photoshop, so if you have any interest in this portrait photography idea, you need to capture it with your camera as you shoot. 

In addition, infrared portrait photography can work particularly well if your subject has colored hair, or if you want to create a skin-smoothing effect with your subject.  

One thing to note is taht the majority of cameras do not automatically come equipped with this feature and either require modification or you need a camera that specifically offers this feature. Another option is to use infrared film if you’re into the analog revival. 

Shoot In A New Location 

Sure, you might have a favorite park that makes for beautiful family portrait photos. Or maybe you love shooting in the city for a cool, modern aesthetic. Whatever the case, portrait photographers can easily get trapped into thinking that one location makes for the best portraits. If this idea hits a little too close to home, we challenge you to try switching up your next portrait photoshoot with some of these location ideas: 

blond woman with long hair in front of a pink studio backdrop

1) Studio portrait photography 

Don’t be afraid to embrace studio portrait photography when booking your clients. While you may not get as much variety in your backgrounds, in some cases, having a neutral backdrop can be best because it allows the focus of the image to be on the subject. 

Studio portrait photography can also be great for a more minimalist aesthetic. If your portrait photos seem cluttered or a little busy, try switching it up with a very minimalist studio photoshoot. This dramatic change in style could be exactly what your photography needs. 

portrait of women sitting on bench in front of artwork hanging on a green wall
Photo credit: Wild Orchard Studios photography by Amanda W.

2) Environmental portrait photography

Environmental portrait photography is one of our favorite ways to switch up photoshoot locations because it offers a lot of flexibility even within a small area and it usually doesn’t take much effort when trying to convince the client to experient with the aesthetic.

Environmental portrait photography is done when you capture the subject in their “natural” environment. This can mean at home, at work, or doing their favorite activity. The emphasis is still on the subject rather than the activity they are completing, but by incorporating the natural environment, we get an effortless photo that makes the subject look right at home. 

3) Portrait photography ideas outdoors 

An outdoor photoshoot can be great for a photographer because it provides natural light, it’s free (usually… always check if a location requires a photo permit especially if you’re shooting a paid assignment), and there are plenty of options for where you can shoot. Some outdoor location ideas include: 

  • A park 
  • The beach/a lake
  • In a backyard 
  • Botanical gardens 
  • A field
  • Your favorite neighborhood
  • A historical landmark 
  • A marina 
  • A cool (see also, gritty) alleyway 
  • A greenhouse 
  • Brick wall/textured wall/graffiti

You typically have two main options when shooting outdoors: Go for the industrial look with a city backdrop or embrace nature with greenery and flowers. Try out one, or get adventurous and test out both. The more experimentation you attempt with your portraits, the more creatively fulfilled you’ll feel. These are by all means not the only outodoor locations you can shoot. Also be on the lookout for interesting spots where you can shoot, like a coffee shop terrance, a market, or even carnivals and theme parks. 

Creative Portrait Photography Styles and Shot Ideas

While we maintain that all the above portrait photography ideas are great ways to switch up your aesthetic, for those of you who have been working as portrait photographers for multiple years, there’s a good chance that you’ve tried out these ideas in some way, shape, or form. 

If you’re looking for creative ways to switch up your portrait photography, we highly recommend testing out some of these new options: 

portrait of a girl in warm dappled light
Photo credit: Rich Voltz

1) Film portrait photography 

If you’ve tried switching up your portraits with all the ideas listed above, the next best thing you can try changing is the type of camera you use. In particular, we suggest testing out film photography. Film photography creates a really unique easthetic that is difficult to replicate digitally, and each film has its own characteristics when it comes to grain, color, and tone.

Film photography relies on light-sensitive rolls of film, which give you total control over exposure and shutter speed. It requires you to understand the photo development process more than ever, and it forces you to slow down your process. It also gives you a different level of control that you won’t get with digital portrait photography. Having said that, film portrait photography also requires a lot of trial and error, and a strong understanding of light and photography as a craft in order to achieve your ideal portrait. 

Bottom line, while there is a learning curve with film portrait photography, if you’re looking for a way to switch up your style, this might be the solution.  

portrait of three women wearing 80's aerobic outfits and makeup

2) 80’s portrait photography 

Giving your photos a nostalgic feel can quickly and easily transform your portraits into something that steps outside the bounds of conventional portraits. 

You can recreate 80’s portrait photography by having your model dress in nostalgic, vintage clothing, but you can also use Photoshop to give your image a vintage feel during the post-production process.  

However you choose to embrace an 80’s feel, remember that photography doesn’t always have to be modern to be impactful. Taking a step back in time with your imagery can be the key to unlocking your new, attention-worthy style.

3) Long exposure portrait photography   

Experimenting with long-exposure portrait photography is a great way to add a creative angle to your imagery. If you’re not sure what long exposure photography is it is essentially what might be more commonly thought of as an image that incorporates motion, which is detected through blur.

Keep in mind, though, these blurry images are quite clearly intentional. You’ll often find that only one part of the image is blurred rather than the whole image, and, rather than the image seeming out of focus, you more so get the effect of movement from long exposure portrait photography. 

With portraits, you can have the subject move their head, move their hands, run, or even have the background blurred (i.e. cars passing by on a busy road, or people moving around the subject). You can also have your model stay still in position while motion or light painting is happening around them. 

portrait of two people's eyes

4) Eye portrait photography 

Portrait photography doesn’t necessarily require a person to be fully present in a shot. Portrait photography can focus specifically on one body part of a person. For instance, in this case, we’re focusing on the eye. 

The eye is a great point of focus because there tends to be a lot of variability in the eyes, and we often find that deep emotion can be conveyed through the eyes. Other points of focus could include hands, side profiles, legs, arms, bodyscapes, and perspectives from behind. 

portrait of a woman from a low angle in front of a tower

5) Portrait low-angle photography 

Speaking of taking photos from different perspectives… We also always encourage portrait photographers to play with their angels when they are looking for a way to switch things up. In particular, low-angle portrait photography can add something unique to an image. 

This angle can make a subject look more powerful, it can provide an entirely new backdrop (i.e. the sky), and it can create new shadows and perspectives that you might have otherwise never discovered.

6) Close-up portrait photography 

While this might not seem like a revolutionary portrait photography idea on paper, it’s one that you don’t see often employed in the world of portrait photography. 

For some, close-up portrait photography can feel invasive and not always flattering. Having said that, because it’s a style that is not often used, it’s also a style that can feel striking and attention-worthy. 

Don’t discount the power of close-up portrait photography. 

7) Cinematic portrait photography 

One of our favorite portrait styles, cinematic portrait photography provides you with the opportunity to get dramatic with your imagery. It’s a style that doesn’t hold back, and it’s a style that can easily grab people’s attention. 

If you’re not shy about dramatic photography, some ways you can add a cinematic touch to your work includes looking for inspiration in films you already love, shooting in low lighting, shooting horizontal, using a wide aperture, considering mood, and when in doubt, picking a theme to help you come up with a more cinematic photo. 

How to improve portrait photography

Just like any style of photography, you should always be looking to improve your craft. Whether you’re new to portrait photography or you’ve been practicing this style for years, there are always things you can do to optimize your work and give it something extra special. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking there is only one way to do portrait photography or think that because you’ve been doing it for so long that you know all there is to know. 

Both of these scenarios are a mistake. There is always room to play with your craft as a portrait photographer. Let’s explore some: 

1) Practice 

While this tip might seem obvious, for both beginners and seasoned portrait photographers, continuing to practice your craft is the key to improving your work.

If you just keep doing the same things in your portrait photography, you’ll keep getting the same results. 

Practicing will get you more familiar with photo principles in general, while also opening you up to new techniques, poses, styles, and editing. Keep practicing and you’ll keep improving. It’s as simple as that.  

2) Use a person/friend/family member as a model 

We get it, when you’re practicing new styles and techniques, you probably don’t want to be using paying clients. In this case, we highly recommend recruiting friends and family to help you out. Your friends and family can step in as your model, giving you full control to try out new ideas that you might otherwise be hesitant to use on paying clients. 

There are no excuses to not keep progressing in your craft as a portrait photographer. 

3) Props 

In some cases, you’ll want to maintain a more minimalist style with your portrait photography. Having said that, if you find yourself thinking all props are bad in portrait photography, we want to challenge you to bring some in. 

Props can add a whole new dimension to your images, giving your model something to do, while also making the image potentially more interesting to look at. 

4) Different angle/perspective 

Sure, shooting straight on can be impactful in portrait photography, but if you find yourself continuously shooting from the same exact angle or perspective, it might be time to switch things up. 

Playing with perspective can liven up your imagery, so don’t be afraid to get on the ground, to shoot from above, and/or to get up close and personal with your subject. You might be surprised by the results. 

5) Eye contact/looking away 

Where your model is looking can completely change the look and feel of your image. For instance, looking straight on can feel bold, giving us an in-depth look into the emotion being conveyed by the model. On the other hand, when the model looks away from the camera, we might get a softer, more guarded perspective. 

Neither option is better than the other, but it is something worth considering and playing with if you want to give your images a fresh feel. 

Portrait photography ideas for beginners 

Even if you’re a beginner and you haven’t fully established your style yet, we still always recommended continuing to play with your aesthetic. We want to discourage aspiring portrait photographers from feeling trapped or pigeonholed when it comes to their photographic techniques. You should always feel free to change your style, play with techniques, and continue to grow. 

If you’re a beginner, looking for some ideas about where to start, these are our three best tips: 

1) Self-portrait photography ideas 

As a photographer, there’s a good chance that you feel more comfortable behind the camera rather than in front, but when you’re just starting out, you might find that finding models and clients who are willing to work with you is challenging. 

Don’t let this stop you from practicing. As we mentioned earlier, if you have friends and family who are willing to model for you, that’s great, but if you can’t find these people or you don’t want to subject them to hours of standing in front of the camera, don’t forget that you can always become the model yourself.  

Self-portraits will be an entirely different experience than working with a model, but it’s a great option for those who want to practice without time constraints or input from other people. Also, placing yourself in the role of model will help you to better understand poses, how to direct models on how to pose, and generally help you understand their experience more.

2) Portrait photography ideas at home 

You don’t need a fancy studio to become a successful portrait photographer. In fact, you don’t even need to leave your home if you don’t want to. 

Portrait photography at home will force you to get creative. You’ll need to find areas of your home that are appropriate for shooting, you’ll need to work with the props you have, and you might even find that you need to start crafting props out of unique materials. 

Not to mention, portrait photography at home is comfortable, free, and it doesn’t require you to pack up your gear. Simply start shooting and see what you come up with at home.  

3) Poses portrait photography ideas 

When in doubt about how to add something special to your portrait photography as a beginner, don’t be afraid to ask your model to switch up the poses. Remember, as the photographer, you are the director of the photoshoot. While you certainly shouldn’t require your model to do anything they are uncomfortable with, if you see an opportunity for a new pose, it’s worth bringing it up to your model to see if they are comfortable. If they are, you potentially just gave your image an entirely different look, feel, and mood.

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