What Makes A Good Portrait?

I love portraits. When I look back through my best photographs a large proportion of them are portraits. I blame this entirely on my 50mm f1.8 lens which in my opinion is the best bang for the buck portrait lens available (i still can’t believe you can pick it up for less than $100).

Anyway recently I was thinking about what makes a good portrait and thought i’d turn this into a post here on Digital SLR Guru. In this post i’ll take a look at a recent portrait I shot and try to analyze why I feel the photograph works.

The 50mm Produces Stunning Portraits

What Makes A Good Portrait?

Ok, so first off here is the Exif data from the shot:

Camera: Canon Rebel XSi (known as a 450d in the UK)
Lens: Canon 50mm f1.4 USM
Exposure: 1/100 of a second
Aperture: f2.0
Focal Length: 50mm
ISO: 400
Exposure Compensation: -2/3 EV
Flash: None

Below I have picked out some of the points that I feel help make this portrait a good one (in my opinion, feel free to object in the comments section!).

Connect With The Subject

In the portrait above there is a genuine connection between the subject and me, the photographer. Even though I didn’t know the man and couldn’t speak his language we seemed to connect straight away. By being friendly, greeting him with a smile I seemed to win his trust and connect with him straight away.

If you don’t connect or have trust with your subject you will stand a much smaller chance of getting a decent portrait with a relaxed subject.

Look For Emotion

I guess this is inter-twined with the above point but capturing emotion in a photograph generally leads to a good shot. This was the first frame of about 10 I took of this man during our brief 2 minute encounter on the street and the only one with any true, un-posed emotion.

This first shot is the only one that works as there is a wry smile creeping over his face, excitement about the fact that a strange man is about to take photographs of him for no good/known reason, maybe even anticipation or excitement. The rest of the frames I took do not really work well as they are all too ‘posed’ and lack the sense of excitement or realization that this particular shot has.

Crop In Close

Have a scan through any newspaper or magazine and you’ll soon see how tight portraits are usually cropped in the professional media. By cropping close and not having blank space all around the subjects head, the readers eyes have less space within the photo to escape to. In this shot I cropped in close using the camera – not during post processing.

Depth of Field

I shot this photo using a 50mm f1.4 lens shot at f2. This meant that the depth of field was very narrow (only a few cm deep) which  in turn meant I had to get the focus spot on. Of the 10 frames I took, only about 3 had a really good focus on the subjects eyes (focusing on the eyes is essential for a good portrait).

The background is completely blurred out meaning there is not much to distract the viewers eyes. In addition the blur (or bokeh as it is known) helps to accentuate the good focus on the subjects eyes.


I used to find it impossible not to take portraits with the subject positioned dead center in frame. Until fairly recently I used to instinctively place the subjects head dead center of the frame without even considering anything else.

The rule of thirds states that points of interest (such as the subjects eyes when taking a portrait) should be aligned at the points where the horizontal and vertical thirds meet. Following this rule for all types of shots (not just portraits) generally results in more interesting looking compositions.

In this shot the subjects right eye (the left as we look at it) falls near (if not on) one of these intersecting points. As a result even though the subject is off center, the photo appears to have a natural balance to it.

We’d love to hear your views on why you feel this shot works (or doesn’t work, after all we all have different opinions!). Also if you have any other portrait tips you’d like to share please leave a comment below.

Enjoy this article? If so please subscribe to Digital SLR Guru to receive free updates!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Darren Parslow February 8, 2010 at 11:11 am

When shooting portraits i prefer to use my 100mm lens. it means i need a bit more space to work with however i feel the perspective it capture slightly more conducive to portraits than a 50mm lens.

You hit the nail on the head when you talk about cropping in tight. This is perhaps the easiest way to add power to a portrait.

Simon Thompson February 8, 2010 at 11:14 am

i really like this shot. the only downside for me is the slightly distracting figure in the background that appear to be pointing at you.

I would have perhaps cropped in tightly so that all of the frame was taken up by the main subject, and flipped to a portrait orientation.

James K February 8, 2010 at 11:15 am

Hi Simon,

I actually hadn’t noticed that figure pointing until you pointed it out – now it is bugging me. Just goes to show how we all perceive the same image differently and are drawn around an image in different ways.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: