15 Portrait Photography Mistakes (And How to Fix Them)

by John Stapel

common portrait photography mistakes

Portrait photography can be tough. In fact, there are a few simple mistakes that I see portrait shooters make over and over again, mistakes that seriously detract from their images.

Fortunately, while these portrait photography mistakes are problematic, they’re not hard to recognize – and they’re not hard to fix, either.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the most common 15 portraiture mistakes (made by beginners, hobbyists, and even professionals).

1. A poor composition

Beginner portrait photographers make this mistake pretty consistently:

They don’t think carefully about the position of the subject in the frame, leading to a bad portrait composition (and an off-balance image). In particular, photographers tend to leave too much space around their subject’s head, which usually detracts from the look and the feel of the photo.

So unless there’s significant information above the person, crop more tightly across their head:

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2. A distracting background

Portrait photographers tend to focus on subjects and poses, but did you know that the background is insanely important, too?

It’s true! A messy background will draw attention away from the subject and can instantly ruin an otherwise great image.

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So before firing that shutter button, check the area behind your subject. Does it look clean? Or is it distracting?

Also, choose your lens and aperture thoughtfully. If you’re stuck with a distracting background, you can use a long lens and a wide aperture to blur the background into oblivion:

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3. The subject is too close to the background

The best portrait photos often feature beautiful background bokeh – that is, background blur – but the closer the subject is to the background, the more difficult it is to create this effect.

So don’t let your subject sit or stand right up against the background. Instead, ask your subject to take a few steps out (in fact, I recommend you do this even if you’re working with a plain background).

That way, you can get a nice background blur:

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4. Using a too-wide aperture

In an attempt to create stunning bokeh, portrait photographers often shoot with their lens’s widest aperture.

But while it’s often good to use a shallow depth of field effect to blur out distractions and complement the main subject, if you let your depth of field go too shallow, your subject will become blurry, and viewers will struggle to comprehend your image.

So don’t widen your aperture too much, especially if you’re working with a longer lens and/or up close. Instead of shooting at f/1.8, for instance, you might choose to work at f/2.8. That way, you can get a nice background, but a sharp subject, too:

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5. Out-of-focus eyes

If your subject has eyes, then you must focus on them.

This is one photography rule I follow. Out-of-focus eyes rarely look good in portrait photos!

So before you press the shutter button, make sure you’ve nailed focus on the eyes. (If your camera offers eye-detection AF, it can be a huge help.)

Pro tip: If your subject’s head is turned to one side, you don’t need to get both eyes in focus – just the eye that’s closer to the camera.

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6. Shooting with a slow shutter speed

You might think that portrait subjects are pretty stationary and that you can get away with a shutter speed in the 1/80s range.

But here’s the thing: People move! If a person moves and you’re shooting at 1/80s, they’ll blur, and your image will fail.

You need to choose a shutter speed that’s fast enough to freeze your subject even if they shift in place. In my experience, 1/250s is usually fast enough. Go any slower, however, and you may run into problems.

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7. Poor lighting

Modern cameras can take photos in all kinds of light…

…but just because you can take a photo doesn’t mean you should.

Some forms of lighting work great for portraits, while other forms of lighting look terrible; that’s why it’s important to carefully select your lighting based on the mood that you’re after.

For instance, hard, high-contrast lighting is good for edgy, intense images, but it’s not so great when you want a soft, romantic-looking portrait.

So make sure you think about your light before shooting. And if you photograph outdoors, pay attention to the light direction and quality as you work!

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8. Bad timing

If you capture the right expressions and poses in your portraits, you’ll flatter your subject. But if you capture the wrong expressions and poses, your subject may be reluctant to let you photograph them again.

Careful timing can make or break a portrait. Waiting and watching a person’s face and body before pressing the shutter button is vital. Most people will change their expression and pose as they stare into your camera, so you need to be ready to shoot when they look their best.

Also, pay attention to your subject’s eyes. If they’re blinking a lot, you’ll need to time your photos in between the blinks!

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9. Not taking enough photos

When doing a portrait photoshoot, you need to take plenty of photos. If you shoot too infrequently, you’ll only have a few images to choose from, and you’re bound to feel frustrated when editing.

That said, you need to shoot deliberately. Don’t just sit with your camera on burst mode, filling up your card with near-identical images. Instead, try to capture a range of expressions. Aim to create a good variety of shots. This will give your subject lots to look at, and it’ll let them make selections far more easily.

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10. Taking too many photos

Taking too few photos is a serious portrait photography mistake, but taking too many photos can be a major problem, too.

For one, if you shoot too much, you’ll have hundreds of photos to go through, which can be tedious, repetitive, and unnecessary work.

Plus, if you’re constantly firing the shutter, it may make your subject nervous, which will show in their face and lead to consistently bad results.

What is the right number of photos for a session? That depends on you, it depends on your subject, and it depends on the type of photoshoot. But pay careful attention to your subject, and do what you can to keep them interested and comfortable!

Man Studio Portrait 15 Common Portrait Mistakes to Avoid

11. Failing to connect with the subject

Portrait photography may seem very technical, but in truth, the best photos often require a connection between the photographer and the subject.

In fact, connecting with the person you are photographing is one of the single most important aspects of portraiture. Many photographers spend so much time and attention connecting with their cameras that they ignore their subject. As a result, the subject never relaxes and the images look stiff.

So before you start shooting, build a rapport with your subject – even if you only have a few minutes. That way, your subject will look relaxed and happy, you’ll get better pictures, and everyone will leave feeling good!

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12. Not giving the subject enough direction

Before you start shooting, explain to your subject what you hope to get out of the portrait session. And don’t make it all about you, either; be sure to ask the subject what they hope to achieve. What kind of photos do they want to create?

Then, once you begin shooting, be sure to give them plenty of direction. Describe exactly what you’re trying to do, and if they don’t understand, show them with your own body. Position your hands, face, legs, and arms in the perfect pose, and they can mimic you.

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13. Feeling like you are imposing

Many street and travel photographers, when attempting to take portraits of strangers, feel very awkward. They feel like they’re bothering the subject, so they try to take candid portraits from a distance.

But standing back and shooting with a long lens rarely produces an intimate portrait. Instead, work on overcoming your fear. Practice approaching people on the street and asking if you can take a few photos. Most importantly: Recognize that you’re not imposing. Many people actually like having their image taken!

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14. Not being confident

When you’re conducting a portrait session, you must act confident (even if you don’t feel it!). If you act self-conscious and uncertain, your subject will be able to tell, and they’ll begin to feel uncertain, too.

So when you start to take photos, relax. Take a deep breath. Remember that you know what you’re doing, that you’re taking good photos, and just let yourself enjoy the moment!

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15. Rushing to get finished

Here’s your final portrait photography mistake:

Trying to get the shoot done as fast as possible – because you’ve scheduled multiple back-to-back shoots, or because you’re simply tired and want to be done for the day.

Take your time. It’s not a race.

Give yourself space to concentrate on what you’re doing. Slow down, make sure you’re getting the shots you’re after, and your subject is bound to have a much better time.

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Portrait photography mistakes: final words

Well, there you have it:

The portrait photography mistakes that every photographer should avoid.

So remember this article. Identify the mistakes that you make, then take steps to fix them!

Now over to you:

Do you make any of these common portraiture mistakes? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

15 Portrait Photography Mistakes (And How to Fix Them)