Portrait photography is all about capturing personality and emotions. Working closely with your model, portrait photography can be revealing, intimate, and deep. It requires a keen eye and a skilled artist who knows how to bring the best out in people.
Portraiture can use professional models, everyday citizens, and groups of people. You can even choose to shoot yourself if you feel up for a self-portrait.
At the end of the day, your biggest goal with your portrait photography should be about capturing a certain emotion or feeling through whoever you’re shooting.
Having said all of this, we know that finding these intimate and revealing moments can feel like a struggle, especially if you’re in a creative slump. Perhaps you can’t think of new environments to shoot in, or maybe you’re tired of working with the same type of model. Or maybe you’re just generally stumped about how to capture a stunning portrait photograph.
Whatever the case, portraiture is a photography style that contains plenty of opportunity and room for experimentation. All you need is a little push, and we’re certain you’ll be itching to start shooting some portrait photos ASAP.
Use some of these portrait photography ideas to get the ball rolling, and don’t forget to check out some of the best portrait portfolios, as well as this full list of portrait photographers for inspiration.
Portrait Photography Ideas Table of Contents
We’ll start off easy with some basic portrait photography ideas you can implement to help get your creative juices flowing. While these ideas might not completely revolutionize your photography career, it’s better to start off with some of these more basic ideas and then build from there:
One of the easiest ways to give your photography a whole different feel, we always recommend playing with black and white photography, especially with portraiture.
When you use black and white photography, you have the potential to create so many different aesthetics. It can be moody and dark, but it can also create a glamorous and nostalgic feeling. Black and white photography can also help with picking up on texture in an image if that’s one of your goals. Try it out as shown in this image for something different.
Another relatively easy way to add something different to your portrait photography, motion blur is worth experimenting with.
We love motion blur because it doesn't require too much effort or change on your end (i.e. you can still work in the same environment and with the same model). All you have to do is add in that motion blur effect to the image you would have shot regardless.
As a portrait photographer, it can become second nature to select similar models. Maybe you enjoy the way a certain aesthetic turns out in your photo, or maybe you simply prefer working with people in your own age bracket.
Having said that, working with different aged models is another easy to switch up your style. For instance, in this image of an elderly woman, we notice things like wrinkles, sagging skin, and even a worldly look in her eyes. If you never work with anyone of a different age, you'll miss out on things like this in your work.
In a similar vein, if you’ve never worked with children, you might want to consider trying it to switch up your style.
While it may be harder to direct models who are children, this can often result in a lot of playful spontaneity and energy in your images, as shown in this example.
If you can’t decide between multiple images in a shoot, this is the perfect solution. Utilizing a grid in your image not only gives you the opportunity to show off multiple shots within one image but doing so also gives the image itself another layer of interest. It’s almost like a nostalgic print that you might have received at a photo booth.
Add the black and white element as shown in this example, and you get even more of those nostalgic vibes.
A silhouette is always a great idea, especially if you’re having trouble conveying the exact emotion or feeling that you want from your model.
A silhouette allows you to cloak the model, while still giving the image a mysterious and elegant feeling. While you likely will need the perfect lighting in order to achieve this effect, if you’re able to do so, the payoff can be huge, as shown in this image.
When it comes to shaking up your work, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Perhaps all you really need to do is to direct your model to pose in an unconventional manner.
This image is a great example of that idea in work, but keep in mind that you can be as tame or dramatic as you want. But in general, standing in any manner that probably wouldn’t be comfortable to stand in normally is a good starting point for an unconventional pose.
Speaking of not needing to reinvent the wheel, we want to remind you that even if you feel like you’re in a creative slump with your portraiture, sometimes going back to the basics is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Pose your model somewhere they are comfortable (i.e. their home), dress them in a way that feels natural to them, and don’t force any poses. Doing these three things could result in a natural and effortless portrait, as shown here.
We won’t lie to you: Self-portraits can be difficult to pull off. As both the photographer and the model in a self-portrait, not only do you need to nail the usual things like lighting, shadow, color, and creative direction, but you’re also responsible for conveying emotion or feeling through your expressions as the model.
On the other hand, having full control can also be a gift, depending on how you look at it.
If you want to experiment with self-portraits, here are some ideas you can try.
Just as black and white tends to be popular with regular portraiture, we also recommend experimenting with it during your self-portraits. It can help add a whole new element to your image. Not to mention, it will help you highlight different textures and shadows without the distraction of color, as shown in this self-portrait.
If you read through the ideas for portrait photography listed above, you might be noticing a theme here. That’s right, almost any portrait idea that you can use with models, you can also use on yourself. In this case, we recommend playing with blur by adding an element into the foreground with a shallow depth of field to enhance your self-portrait.
While it might be more challenging to fill both roles, oftentimes, knowing you shot the image and modeled for it can make the image that much more impressive.
One of the best things about self-portraits is the unlimited amount of time you have to play with your craft. If you want to shoot hundreds of images that vary only just slightly, you have the opportunity.
In particular, shadows tend to be a good opportunity for play because you can place yourself in various shadows while moving objects around to get the exact look you’re going for.
This is a photography effect that we’re seeing grow in popularity. Using a prism in front of your lens, you’re able to bend light and create multi-colored rainbow effects. This tends to work particularly well if you’re working with black and white photography, but you keep the prism effect in color, as shown here.
One of the biggest perks of doing a self-portrait is you have full control of every detail of the shoot, including the styling. Whether it be your hair that you want to experiment with, your makeup, or even just the clothing that you wear, having fun with style and photographing is a great way to get excited about shooting self-portraits.
As a professional photographer, you shouldn’t feel like shooting in a mirror is beneath you. Trust us, this is not your standard mirror selfie.
You can do this in a multitude of ways. You can actually use a mirror or you can use a reflective surface. You can also choose to look directly in the mirror or look off to the side. In this self-portrait example, the image is styled and the photographer is looking off to the side.
As a photographer, you’re likely used to being behind the lens, but we want to encourage you to not be afraid of getting up close and personal. While this may be uncomfortable at first, the more you do it, the more likely you will become with being photographed. Not to mention, it’s hard to hide when you’re that intimate with the camera, which can help result in powerful imagery.
Front-on, side, and even facing away, you have plenty of options when it comes to how you interact with the camera. The best part? You don’t have to feel uncomfortable or nervous about who is on the other end of the camera because it’s just you.
Bottom line: Play with your angels, experiment with what feels best for the kind of image you’re trying to achieve and don’t worry too much about getting it perfect. When you’re shooting self-portraits, you have all the time in the world to refine the image.
As a portrait photographer, the number of options you have for photoshoot ideas can actually be overwhelming. Having said that, we understand that when you’re not feeling creative, you might be struggling to step outside your box of comfort.
Pick and choose from any of these ideas, put your own spin on them, and even feel free to combine ideas to come up with your own totally unique idea. As a portrait photographer, the world is your oyster.
When you think of a photoshoot, you probably think of highly stylized images that have creative direction and carefully thought-out ideas driving the poses, wardrobe, and shoot location.
Having said that, not every photoshoot needs to be so structured. If you’re struggling with portrait photo ideas, it might be time to take a step back and embrace a more candid style of photoshoot. Allow your model to engage with an activity they feel comfortable with and don’t make the photoshoot about achieving the perfect pose. Instead, go to work and look for those tiny little moments in the everyday. This can have huge payoffs.
Maternity photography is hugely popular, and offers you plenty of opportunities and creative freedom, considering the amount of variability that can exist between photoshoots.
A maternity photoshoot can be simple and sweet or highly glamorized and dramatic, for instance. Rather than give you the exact style to focus on, we would recommend starting with maternity portraits in general and seeing what kind of vision your client has in mind.
In addition, if maternity portraiture interests you, it also might be worth looking into newborn photography.
While we’re on the subject of maternity photography and newborn photography, it’s also worth mentioning family photography.
While capturing all the various personalities of a family can be difficult work—especially if you’re working with young children who struggle to sit still—it’s also a great example of how portraiture doesn’t have to focus on one singular person. You can work multiple people into your portrait photoshoot for an even bigger impact.
Sure, you can keep adding different people and personalities to your portraits, but also don’t forget that you can add animals to the image, too!
Not only can this add a new dynamic to the image for your model to interact with, but it also adds a whole new aesthetic to the image (i.e. think of the different feelings you can evoke if you bring in a cute puppy versus a large snake).
And hey, don’t forget, you don’t always have to stick with the standard dog or cat. You can bring in something like a horse, as shown in this image.
While using a reflective surface might seem more suited to self-portraiture, don’t discount it in a regular portrait photoshoot.
This example is great because it’s not making use of a standard mirror. Instead, it’s using a very small reflective surface, which helps add visual interest to the image.
You can also use traditional mirrors, water, glass objects, glass furniture, and really any reflective surface you can think of. Just be sure that you stay out of the image as the photographer.
If you want to work in wedding and bridal photography, you’ll likely have to master other photography skills beyond portraiture since weddings can involve a variety of different scenarios. Having said that, portraiture tends to be a fairly common photography style used at weddings.
From the bride to the groom and everyone in between, capturing special moments through wedding portraiture on someone’s big day can be hugely rewarding.
If you love the theater, shooting theater portraiture might be the job for you. Often dramatic and lively, theater portraiture comes with its own wardrobe and creative direction. In other words, you don’t have to worry too much about directing your model to embody a certain feeling or emotion. If they are in character, they should already effortlessly convey the right feeling/emotion.
In this photoshoot idea, you can shoot the images candidly (i.e. while the actors are on stage), or in a traditional photoshoot setting (i.e. posed).
When in doubt about how to put together a full portrait photoshoot, you always have the option to stick with the traditional backdrop that you might see in a studio.
You can, of course, play with the colors, and you should feel free to change up the model’s wardrobe, but if you need inspiration to get you going stick with a traditional plain backdrop as shown in this example, and then let your creativity bloom from there.
There’s nothing more fun than setting up a full self-portrait photoshoot. With full control of the shoot—including things like wardrobe, location, and creative direction—your self-
portrait photoshoot can really go anywhere. Keep it basic, complete a full series, or get dramatic with wardrobe and styling. Whatever the case, self-portrait photoshoots are an excellent way to get your creative juices flowing, while feeling totally free to experiment with different ideas/concepts.
If the idea of getting fully nude for the camera sounds a little intimidating to you, remember, boudoir photography can also encompass partial nudity, lingerie, and even just sexy styling. You don’t have to strip down if you don’t want to, but if you’re interested in really laying it all out there, a boudoir self-portrait can be incredibly powerful and revealing.
A common theme we saw with portrait photographers in 2020 and 2021 was self-portrait isolation series that were done during the pandemic. These photographers committed to not letting the pandemic stop their work, and instead, just worked entirely independently. For some, that might mean completing multiple photoshoots on a certain day of the week (i.e. shooting a new image every Sunday), while others shot a full series that conveyed their isolation, as shown in this 7 Days of Isolation series.
As we mentioned, self-portraits are an excellent opportunity to get creative. If you have a vision for a photo in your head but you’re not sure how to create it, don’t be afraid to get crafty. For instance, backdrops are something that can usually be crafted, as shown in this image where we have a blue sky backdrop.
You can also do this with patterns, various colors, florals, graffiti, newspapers, color blocking—really any design you can think of can be used as a backdrop if you’re willing to get creative.
Another great idea to help get your self-portrait photoshoot going is to pick a theme and stick with it. We have a full section on themes down below, so feel free to pick a theme from that list. As an example, though, this self-portrait highlights an elegant British tea party theme.
Having a theme will help you with wardrobe, hair, makeup, backdrop, and any props you might want to include in your photoshoot.
Hands, feet, mouth, and ears, a self-portrait doesn’t just have to be images of faces, it can be of any body part that you want. This example is more of a boudoir style, so there’s a distinct sexy angle to it, but you don’t necessarily have to use this angle. You can also go for something that is more soft, romantic, feminine, innocent, and even dark.
While props have the potential to feel gimmicky, there also is a time and a place for them. In a self-portrait, props can help break up the image, they can give you something to do with your hands, and they can help support a theme.
In this example, we see the use of flowers working as a foreground piece to help frame the image. In this instance, the flowers also help to add a soft and feminine edge to the image.
If you’re stuck for ideas to implement during your self-portrait photoshoot, one easy route is to go with a monochromatic photoshoot. This means styling everything in a similar shade. For instance, in this example, everything is done in shades of blue from the outfit to the backdrop, and even to the makeup. Don’t overthink it. Just use all the same colors when styling the shoot and you’re good to go.
Just like you can use a grid in a traditional portrait, you can also use a grid with a self-portrait. This idea gives you the opportunity to share multiple images, but we would recommend keeping all the images within the same photoshoot (i.e. the same wardrobe and backdrop). This helps keep the image feeling cohesive.
In our books, any photoshoot is always full of creativity. Creativity is just about executing a vision and following your intuition as a photographer. Having said that, we know it can get a bit tiring seeing the same style of photoshoot over and over again. Perhaps you’re looking for a way to break out of the mold of traditional portraiture. If this sounds like you, you might enjoy some of these creative portrait photoshoot ideas.
When you think of traditional portraiture, you often think of a model standing in front of a camera. While the poses can be different, for the most part, we’re very conditioned to seeing the model in the image.
If you want to get creative, try shooting different body parts of the model. In this example, a portrait of Kobe Bryant doesn’t only focus on his face, but the photographer also chose to shoot images of hands, which seems fitting for a legendary basketball player.
Speaking of being tired of shooting people’s faces, if you want to really switch things up, why not experiment with pet portraits? That’s right, in the same way that you work with models to capture emotional portraiture, you can also work with animals, like dogs and cats.
While you might find the clientele is more difficult to direct, pet portraiture is a fun and creative direction to take your photography career.
Are you looking for an easy way to bring some creativity to your portraits? Try throwing together two contrasting subjects. You can do this by pairing together two unlikely models, as demonstrated in this image, but you can also do this with wardrobe, props, and setting. Essentially anything that feels unexpected or a little unconventional will help to bring a more creative edge to your imagery.
It might not sound like the most creative idea in the books, but trust us, once you start shooting at night, you’ll notice that there is a whole new feeling and mood that comes from your images. You can play with shadows, flash, different colored lights, and even black and white. You have a lot of options here, but simply switching the time of day that you shoot portraits is a great way to get creative,
Do you have an idea for a photoshoot in your head, but it’s not reasonable to create due to logistics? For instance, in this portrait, we see a man sitting on top of a dinosaur, which is, of course, not something we can actually achieve in real life. Here’s where editing comes into the mix. If you have experience with Photoshop and you really want to shake up your work, try using editing to help bring your idea to life.
Obviously, you’re going to have to hire a model who can help you achieve this idea, but if you can pull it off, this photoshoot idea will win you some serious creative points.
Not only does adding an acrobatic element make for stunning images, but it also gets your model into unconventional poses and allows you to shoot higher up in the air (i.e. a different perspective).
You need to be genuine about this idea, and not just throw different cultures into your work for the sake of creating an attention-worthy image. Having said that, if you have an interest in travel photography and culture, this is a great opportunity to capture images that highlight different cultures. When executed properly, the results of portraits that highlight culture can be both stunning, creative, and intriguing.
Add some creativity to your style by experimenting with the wardrobe in your images. Unconventional looks, vibrant colors, unique pairings, or just general style that makes you do a double-take, you have a lot of opportunities to play here. You can look for everyday people who have a unique style, or you can intentionally dress your model in a style that feels unconventional and attention-worthy. Either way, this is a fairly approachable way to add some creativity to your portrait photoshoot.
We’ve mentioned the theme a couple of times throughout this article already, and that’s because the theme can be so helpful when you’re trying to come up with photoshoot ideas. It can lead you in the right direction, help you make decisions about styling, and even inspire full concepts.
When in doubt about your portrait photography ideas, start with the theme, and the rest will follow.
You don’t have to go with a full ballgown and Price Charming situation to capture this theme idea (but you totally can if you really want to embrace the theme).
To get a more modern approach to a fairytale theme, use soft color palettes, florals, light makeup, and a whimsical and romantic setting. This can be in a garden, but it can also be as simple as the example shown. Either way, fairytale themes are often very pleasing to the eyes.
On the total opposite end of the spectrum, you can also embrace a darker theme with your photography. In this example, the photographer really went for it, showcasing an almost vampire-looking model with blood dripping out of the mouth and a unique eye effect. If you don’t want to go that dark, you don’t have to physically change anything about the model. Simply using a darker setting (like an alleyway) can be an excellent choice.
Nostalgia is always a popular theme amongst photographers because, again, you have a lot of room to play. You can go way back and embrace something from the 1920s, you can play with the ‘70s, or you can be less concerned with the era and more concerned with the style (i.e pin-up glamour).
You can even add a modern spin to a nostalgic theme, which we see play out in this example.
You can embrace this theme by using a couple, as shown in this example, but you can also show off the theme of passion through any act that would elicit passion. Maybe it is an artist working on a painting, or perhaps an elderly woman crocheting a blanket. Anything that shows passion for a person, an object, or a craft can be a wonderful photo opportunity.
Children are usually best to use when you’re trying to capture an innocent theme. Having said that, sometimes capturing an emotion that you wouldn’t expect can make for a great image. For instance, innocence from a fully grown man.
In this example, we used children to show how you can capture an innocent theme, but also be willing to explore themes using unexpected models.
Combining your love for nature and for portrait photography can be a welcomed treat. Not only do you get the emotions and feelings from the portrait, but you also often get an expansive or breathtaking backdrop from the nature highlighted in the image. For instance, we see that idea come across in this image where a woman is set against a beautiful ocean backdrop with fish swimming at her feet.
Again, there are many ways you can take this theme. You can capture subtle sorrow (i.e. nothing overt about the image is sad, but maybe there is just sadness in the model’s eyes), you can capture candid sorrow (i.e. the model is upset but doesn’t know you’re shooting), or you can capture something in between, which is what we have in this example. It seems obvious that this was a staged photoshoot, but the sorrow we see on the model’s face still feels genuine.
And lastly, as an artist, you should always feel free to embrace those more abstract themes. Even if they seem a little far out there, or you’re not certain if other people will understand your messaging, we always encourage photographers to embrace abstraction. More than likely, you’ll find an audience who relates to your work.
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