We all love a good portrait. Who wouldn’t love to improve their skills taking them?

But, to take instantly better portraits? Seems too good to be true, right?

Not necessarily.

I think that a few simple things can really make the difference… and when I say simple, I mean simple.

Portrait photography is interesting in the sense that it doesn’t just have to be pictures of people.

I mean, of course technically a portrait is a picture of someone, but you can treat any subject like a portrait, whether you’re taking a picture of an animal, of an object or even (very meta, I know) a picture itself.

So, that all being said, here are 5 tips for instantly better portraits.

1.) Make Sure Your Subject is In Focus

Black and White Portrait in Focus

I know, I know… I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself that this is very obvious BUT, you would be surprised at the amount of portraits (Google them!) that aren’t in focus.

For example, you might see half of the subject’s face in focus and the other half is blurry. Other instances show people that aren’t in focus AT ALL.

The #1 tip to make sure your subject is in focus: focus on your subject’s eyes.

If you tell your camera — or your phone — to focus on the eyes (more often than not) you will get a result that makes you happy.

If you’re photographing an inanimate object but want that “portrait” effect (see the photo below), imagine your subject has eyes (this sounds insane, I know, but just go with it) and make that your focus point.

This is the most critical tip for instantly better portraits

2.) Make Sure Your Subject Has Good Lighting

Colter Bay beer in good lighting
Here, I’ve isolated an object in the same way I would a person, creating a “portrait” effect.

Again, you may think this is obvious, but proper lighting is something that is critical for instantly better portraits.

But, really… it’s simple: make sure you can see your subject!

You don’t need to flood the subject with light, but good neutral lighting is essential to a well-balanced portrait.

Now, what do I mean by “neutral lighting”: the light cannot be harsh.

Harsh lighting would be something too bright, too warm (yellow) or too cold (blue/ white); you want something that is an appropriate balance between warm and cold, for whatever situation you find yourself in.

Improving the lighting is probably the easiest way towards instantly better portraits.

3.) Pay Attention to the Background

Black and White Portrait with blurred background
The background is blurred out, but it’s still exposed correctly

Your subject is the focus of your portrait, right?

So who cares about the background?

I care.

You should, too.

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say: a bad background will ruin your portrait work.

Whether your subject is in the foreground of an image with a “blurred” background or the background itself is in focus… the background still effects the subject!

In the above image, the background is blurred, but it’s still correctly lit and creates depth in the photo (meaning, the photo doesn’t look flat), so your eye is drawn to the subject.

For example, If your subject is in focus but the background (blurred or not) is so bright that it looks completely white and detail-less (this would be referred to as “blown out”) you’ll get a result that’s devoid of depth and will look shallow and uninteresting.

The advice, here: make a decision as to whether you want your background in-focus or blurred, then make sure the lighting you have is conducive to that background.

4.) Don’t Get Too Close, or Too Far Away From Your Subject

Wide angle portrait
The photo is entirely in focus, but we’re at the correct distance to highlight our subject

So, your subject is in focus… all good, right?

Not necessarily.

Your subject can be in focus, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve created a good photo.

The above photo is an example of a wide-angle shot where everything is in focus, but our eyes are still drawn to the subject.

Why is that, you ask?

Well, it’s because the subject is the correct distance (not too close, not too far) away from the camera.

In this context, if our subject were to be too far away, they would become part of the background and there wouldn’t be any focal point of the photo.

Too close and we lose the wide-angle effect of anything else happening in the frame.

It’s important to frame your subject correctly, meaning you’ve made a conscious decision on how you’d like your subject to look in the photo; you’ve made your own distance adjustments in regard to the subject and you’re incorporating the necessary elements of the background to complete the shot.

5.) Clean Your Lens

Horse portrait, detailed

Again, you may be thinking… seriously?

This… this, is the tip?

YES.

The most important thing you can do in — ANY — photographic setting is make sure you clean your lens.

The above photo, for example, is a closeup portrait of a horse with a lot of detail to the point where we can really see individual strands of hair, wrinkles in the leather halter, etc.

If my lens had been dirty, you’d see inexplicable blurry spots, which would be juxtaposed with the heavily-detailed subject… which wouldn’t be great.

Our lens is clean – meaning we see everything without any blurry spots!

To the cynic reading this: I guarantee you’ve never cleaned the lens on your smartphone camera.

Clean your lens, take a photo, and compare it to an older un-cleaned photo.

Thank me later.

If you approach a portrait setting with a clean lens, not only will it allow you to get a great picture in the moment, but will help you later on if you import the photo into any editing software (Lightroom, Photoshop, etc.).

Once you begin editing, any sort of impurity becomes very obvious… if you didn’t clean your lens and the picture you took has dust particles on it, any post-processing you do will only highlight those impurities.

See? One of the keys to instantly better portraits is as simple as cleaning your lens!

Bonus Tips

That’s right, friends. I’ve sprinkled in some bonus tips for you.

It’s not just about instantly better portraits — it’s about instantly better photos in general!

In the spirit of #5, here are a few simple things that I can with 100% certainty say will improve any photograph instantly:

  • If you’re using a camera with a removable lens, make sure your sensor is dust-free (keeping a lens attached at all times reduces the probability of getting dust caught on the sensor).
  • Make sure you take enough pictures! You don’t want to have taken too few and find out later that you missed a potential “winner” .
  • If you’re using a camera with ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture controls, don’t be afraid to play around with different settings at the same location. Trial and error is your friend!
  • Don’t have a camera with those controls? No worries! Download an app like FiLMiC Pro or Moment that provide those controls and with some practice, you’ll improve your photos in no time at all.
  • If you have a camera — or one of the apps — always shoot RAW photos! This will allow you more control when editing your photos.
  • When it comes to editing, don’t overdo it!
  • There are professional programs (Lightroom, Photoshop, etc.), which are amazing, but some of the more simple programs are great, too!
Shanghai

You don’t need a mirrorless camera, DSLR, etc to take a good photo!

This was taken in Shanghai with an IPhone 8 using the Moment App, which allowed me to “dial-in” my photo.

Now, Go Take Portraits!

I’m serious… these tips will really help you take instantly better portraits

These — illegally simple — tips will not only help you take instantly better portraits, but better photos in general, too.