Portrait Photography

Portrait photography is a satisfying genre for many photographers as it allows them to connect with a multitude of people across many different walks of life.

As a smartphone portrait photographer, your journey of capturing frames could extend to photographing your friends, family, or even strangers on the street.

Whatever the case, applying some simple photography principles when using your smartphone is key to obtaining the best quality images.

In this extensive guide, we will walk you through some of the tips, tricks, and accessories you can use to enhance your portrait photography photo-taking skills when using your smartphone.

Top Camera Phone Features For Portrait Photography

Before we begin in understanding how to capture the best looking portraits, we must first look at your smartphone camera and hardware.

Depending on the year of purchase, your smartphone may have one or more lenses. If you only have one primary lens on the back of your smartphone, don’t worry.

The majority of phone cameras in existence only use one lens at a time, so although you might be limited to a single focal length, this won’t affect your ability to obtain a brilliant portrait.


Without going into too much detail, megapixels play a significant role in determining the output quality of your smartphone photos.

The most basic setting you can change on your smartphone is to select the highest possible image quality for portraits. By choosing the highest image quality, you allow yourself the opportunity to edit your pictures without losing too much quality.

Lens Aperture

All smartphones list the lens aperture in the specifications of the device or next to the lens itself. To obtain the highest quality portraits, with the most amount of out of focus background areas, an aperture of around f2.8 is recommended. Ideally, an aperture of around f/2.4 or f/2.8 is best.

Manual Modes or Pro Portrait Modes

To overcome these tricky lighting situations, you have to turn off the automatic mode; and instead, venture to manual operations.

Manual mode opens up so many possibilities. If your smartphone allows adjustment, you can control aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, exposure compensation, and even white balance. A mixture of these settings produces

In this modern age, technology is starting to do more of the hard work for us. It’s the definition of auto mode when you think about cameras.

But, as you may understand when taking photos, automatic mode sometimes doesn’t perform. For instance, you might be photographing a portrait where the person is standing in front of a bright background. When you take the phone, the background has the correct exposure, whereas the person is a silhouette.

impressive results in a given scenario. For portrait photography, controlling the aperture and shutter speed are the main areas of interest, but we will explain more about these settings a little later on.

Shoot Portraits In The Right Light

Illuminating your subject with soft or hard light is a must for all portrait photography. Creativity and lighting effects are worth exploring, but ultimately when setting up a light, it’s best practice to provide adequate strength to light your portrait.

Try and avoid low light scenarios with your smartphone as generally speaking; sensors on phone cameras don’t perform as brilliantly as in well-lit areas.

If you don’t want to fuss about setting up one or more light sources, the sun is a useful alternative. The sun’s light filtering through a window is some of the best light you can use for indoor smartphone portrait photography — the reason why is due to the diffusing soft light which penetrates a window.

Rather than direct light from the sun, the light softens and portrays evenly across your subject, reducing any harsh shadows.

Experimenting With HDR Mode To navigate Direct Lighting

For more consistent exposures in tricky lighting situations, we recommend you turn on HDR or High Dynamic Range mode on your smartphone.

This mode generally sits by itself and offers to recover the shadow and highlight details to produce a more detailed, even tone.

Some smartphones adjust an individual photo to achieve the look, whereas higher-end smartphones take three images in quick succession, each at different exposures. The final pictures then combine to produce one HDR photo.

The effect of HDR is great for scenarios where you will be capturing portraits high contrast areas such as landscapes or indoor with multiple lighting which you can’t control.

The only thing we would suggest being careful of is the level of HDR you are applying to a portrait. Higher levels will degrade the skin quality significantly so ensure you keep an eye on your portrait whenever making adjustments.

How To Best Hold Your Smartphone For Portrait Photography

When you position yourself to capture a portrait using your smartphone, there are techniques you can implement, which will help you achieve the sharpest focus.

For instance, instead of holding your smartphone in one hand, use two and think about the orientation of the photo. For portrait photography would a horizontal or vertical orientation be best to showcase the personality of your individual?

The second technique you can do to help you achieve a stable shot is to hold your smartphone using a tripod of some kind. In reality, not everyone is going to carry around a mobile tripod suitable for portrait photography, but there are some other options if you find yourself without the aid of a tripod — for example, a standard drinking glass.

When empty, if you pop your phone vertically in the glass, the smartphone will stand up for a vertical shot. If you need to take a horizontal shot, rest the phone along the rim of the glass while holding it steady using both hands. Both techniques are perfect if you are travelling or happen to be at a family function that requires some portrait photography.

One other tip to remember, and probably the most obvious is: do not cover up the lens your smartphone. Check the lens before pressing the shutter to make sure it is void of fingerprints and your fat fingers! There’s nothing worse than seeing a fantastic portrait with smudges throughout the image.

Using The Right Camera Mode For Portrait Photography

Turn your camera to the portrait mode for obtaining the best photographs of people. If you are using one of these in-built modes like iPhone Portrait Mode instead of manual, make sure you turn off some of the default presets.

For example, a lot of smartphones from Asian countries automatically have skin smoothing and face thinning turned on. If this is your style, by all means, leave the settings the way they are, but for the majority of people out there, face alteration isn’t something desirable.

Use Different Modes To Tell A Story

For portrait photography, you don’t have to stick to traditional modes to get the shots. For example, you could use macro mode along with portrait mode.

Usually, the macro mode dedicates itself to photographing close up images of flowers and insects, but you can also use this mode for portraits.

If you are going to remember something from this article, remember this: you don’t have to focus in on someone’s face to capture the best shot. Sometimes telling a story using multiple images tells much more about the person than one image

Take this scenario, if you are photographing a Gardner in his mid-fifties think about the sort of story you will tell. You might like to capture a wide shot of the gentlemen while he is holding a gardening tool.

The background would be a garden, and his work attire would also help portray what he does for a living. Following the first shot, changing your mode to macro, you then might like to photograph his strong hands covered in black dirt before taking another photo of him planting something in the ground.

This series of three photos will tell much more about the person, what they do, and the environment they work in compared to a single photo so plan out your portrait photography shoot.

Understanding Metering For Portrait Photography

Challenging lighting scenarios makes capturing portrait photos a whole lot harder. With traditional photography, camera manufacturers include a setting they named ‘exposure compensation’ which aims to help alleviate some of the challenging light photographers may face.

By over or under exposing before you capture an image, photographers can control the light with minor adjustments.

To give you a scenario, think about what happens when we go outside on a bright day. What we see is a whole lot of light, and in most situations, it’s too much. To reduce our exposure, we put on sunglasses, which cuts out some of the light entering our eyes.

The same thing happens with your smartphone when underexposing an image. So, if you think your photo is going to be too bright, use the built-in underexposure tool on your smartphone to counter. The universal symbol for underexposure is a white plus and a minus sign against a black background.

Playing With Aperture: bokeh or no bokeh?

We previously made a mention in manual modes to say if you are capturing portraits, then you are likely to use one of two methods: aperture or shutter speed (or both). You can control both of these modes in manual, or you can use something which photographers refer to as aperture or shutter priority settings.

An aperture priority setting allows you to control the aperture manually, and the camera will automatically monitor the shutter speed to find the correct exposure. The opposite is exact for shutter priority (you control both of these settings in manual mode). For now, let’s talk about aperture priority.

To enter aperture priority, located the manual mode on your phone and set the shutter speed to automatic. Then find your aperture setting and move the setting off automatic. With this small change, you have entered aperture mode.

The benefits of playing with aperture are you control your depth of field, something that we refer to the amount of subject in focus.

In aperture priority, we can control how blurry the background is, while our foreground remains sharp. This mode is what professional photographers use as if you look at portrait photos in magazines, you will notice the background is very blurred while the person is in focus.

We refer to the background blur as ‘bokeh’. It’s desirable to have as much bokeh in a portrait photo as this helps separate the person you are photographing from any distracting elements in the background. Plus if you have lights in the background, when they blur the create a highly desirable look to your portrait photo.

Separating The Person From The Background

If you find yourself in a tight spot with your smartphone, there are some tips you can follow to help you obtain maximum bokeh.

The first is to ensure you select the widest aperture of the lens. A smaller number of ‘f-stop’ a measurement of the lens will result in maximum background blur. For portrait photography, an f-stop of f2.8 is generally going to give the best result.

The second tip relates to posting the person you aim to capture a portrait of. If you say to someone ‘can I take your portrait’, often you will find everyone will stand close to a wall and smile. And, this is where you can step in as a portrait photographer and achieve an outstanding result.

Instead of capturing a portrait where they might stand, ask them to move forward a metre or so to increase the distance behind them.

Then, along with your smartphone, also take a step back from the person (around a metre). What this creates is a greater depth of field between the person you are photographing and the background. More magnificent bokeh will always be the result.

Documenting A Person Instead of Posing

You do not have to ask people to pose to take their portraits. Some people are a lot more relaxed when they don’t know you are taking their photo.

Next time you are at a wedding or event, pull out your smartphone while remaining in the same spot. Then, turn your camera to portrait mode and wait. Wait for the moment to unfold.

A right trigger of when to take a photo is predicting the moment someone might respond to another person. For example, an excellent documentary portrait photographer will always listen in to a conversation before capturing a shot.

If the photographer anticipates a laugh or smile from someone listening to the person speaking, then they will raise their smartphone awaiting the reaction. Following this simple documentary portrait photography method will always result in fantastic shots as you will capture everyone at their most relaxed state.

Photograph A Full-length Shot, Mid Shot or Close Up

There are various types of photos you can take when photographing portraits using your smartphone. Each might contain more or less of your subject.

Traditional paintings like the Mona Lisa are mid-shots and capture from the waist up, whereas close up shots focus more on the details. To capture a mid-shot, it is best practice to focus on the eyes of the person. Something you can use to assist with positioning your subject’s eyes in the frame is a grid.

To turn on the grid, navigate to your camera settings and look for ‘grid’ or ‘third lines’. When on, the grid overlays on top of your image to assist you with composition. At this stage, all you need to do is position either the left eye or right eye at one of the top intersecting lines (whatever feels more natural).

If you wish to tell more of someone’s story, a full-length shot provides more context of what the person is where and where they are located. Environmental portraits follow a full-length principle as they allow an audience to see elements which surround a person, ultimately adding to the context of their workplace, hobby or profession.

With all portrait photography it’s best to take a mixture of close up, mid-shot and full-length shots in both vertical and horizontal orientation in case you need to submit to a magazine or require the image for something else at a later stage.

Selecting The Best Angle Lens For Portrait Photography

Don’t feel you are limited to only the built-in lenses on your smartphone. There are numerous add-on lenses you can attach to your device.

Wider angle or telephoto lenses and even stronger macro lenses can all play a part in helping capture a standout portrait. We have written an extensive guide on some of the best brands of add-on lenses for smartphone photography, so do take the time to read it.

Trying Lens Effects and Filters

All smartphones and apps have built-in filters which encourage you to experiment and explore your creativity. Don’t forget about these!

Many people don’t realize you can capture a portrait in colour and make a copy of the photo in black and white without affecting the original one. It’s the power of digital! If you are planning on experimenting with some of these filters, we would like to offer one piece of advice.

Don’t over process your photo so that you degrade the skin tones or the sharpness of the eyes. Other than that, let yourself go.

Give Directions For Better Pose

Keep your portrait photography natural. If you are offering advice on where your talent should stand, make sure they look natural.

Don’t ask them to do something the human body can’t do. Stick to traditional poses and ask them to transfer their weight on their foot furthest from the smartphone lens. Remember whatever appears closer to the lens appears larger, so avoid arms and lens near.

Try Photographing Portraits On The Street

If you have an interest in photographing portraits but lack the subject, you could try taking photos of people on the street.

There are two options here. If you are a shy person, you may like to use a stealthy approach and take the unique composition here and there when people aren’t expecting to have their portraits taken. Or, you could go up to the person and ask if

you could capture their picture. The latter option results in more of a posed looks as people tend to look directly down the lens of the smartphone, whereas the other approach documents people going about their day or doing something.

Playing With AI Portrait Features Can Result In Interesting Portraits

We mentioned previously about turning off skin smoothing and face thinning, but manufacturers are starting to introduce more AI controls into smartphones. One example of a new AI feature utilizes multiple lenses on the phone.

In bokeh mode, smartphone photographers can adjust the bokeh after they have captured the image, or they could turn the photograph into a 3D picture and post on Facebook.

Whatever the case for portrait photography, the opportunities are endless, sometimes all it takes is exploring the modes on your phone to end up with some eye-catching results.

Post-processing Apps To Use On Your Smartphone For Portrait Photography.

Once you have taken your portraits, then you should try your hand at editing them. There are hundreds if not thousands of photo editing applications out there.

One we would highly recommend is Snapseed. Over the years, Snapseed has been closely connected with Google and its image processing algorithms on Google+. What this integration has led to are some world-class tools which include:

Tune Image – this multi-tool adjusts standard features including image brightness, contrast, saturation, ambiance, highlights, shadows, and warmth.

Details – a tool to add structure or sharpen an image

Curves – a tone adjustment tool for brightening or darkening an image using graduation.

White Balance – a tool to adjust the color temperature of an image. You can make an image warmer or cooler.

Crop – a simple tool to adjust the size and ratio of your portrait.

Rotate – If you have a portrait image that isn’t quite straight, the rotate tool can fix it.

Perspective – to enhance the angle of a photo you can tilt, rotate scale or freely transform an image.

Expand – in the event; you need more background; this smart tool uses AI to fill any gaps to create new areas of space. Use with caution!

Selective – Do you have a small or large area that requires a slight change in brightness, contrast or saturation? For instance, are the eyes of your portrait too dark? Use this tool to only select a small area without affecting the rest of the image.

Healing – What about if you are taking a photo of someone, but there’s a piece of rubbish that entered the shot? The healing brush can help you remove the distraction.

Recommend Camera Phones For Portrait Photography

If you are looking for a smartphone which can capture amazing portraits then consider the following models based on their specifications:

In summary, portrait photography is about connecting with individuals to tell their stories. A picture is worth a thousand words, and sometimes people don’t have the time to tell their story.

By capturing someone’s persona using your smartphone, you help tell the world about the person. Do it for long enough, and you will excel in what you do.

Remember, practice makes perfect, try putting into practice some of these portrait tips and techniques, and in no time your photography will reach new heights.