How to Look Your Best in a Portrait

A portrait can either bring out our best qualities, or it can make a normally beautiful face seem not so attractive. As a woman and a person with a normal amount of vanity (my husband might say a little more than normal, but he’s a scruffy man. What does he know?), I can attest to wanting to always look my best in photos. After all, they have the potential to become permanent records of what we looked like in a certain place and time.  My mother has a few cringe-worthy photos of me that I would have personally thrown away in a heartbeat. Thankfully, they are stuffed away in photo albums that are not looked at very often!

Let’s go over some of the ways that we can look our best in a portrait both in-camera and off.


This section doesn’t really apply to most men, but then again most men don’t really seek out information of “how to look your best in a portrait”.  Makeup when done well, can look fairly natural but can also dramatically enhance your features.

Natural makeup for portraita

First and foremost you should cover obvious blemishes like pimples with a concealer that matches your skin tone.  Some women swear by green concealers, since the green cancels out the red. Personally, I have never liked putting green on my skin since I can never seem to get it to look natural.  Experiment as much as your budget will allow to see what works best for your skin.

If you wear foundation and powder on your face, keep it very very light.  Too much makeup looks mask-like and fake on anyone, and even more so in a photo.  You can use a small amount of bronzer to add a subtle sun-kissed glow to your skin, which is pretty universally flattering.  Using too much bronzer can make the skin look muddy though. Again, experiment to see what looks right for your face. I hate to look all “made-up” so over the years I have perfected the art of minimal makeup for my own face.

You can go all out and paint on full red lips, and create dramatic smoky eyes. Conversely, you might want to just put on a touch of lipgloss and a teeny bit of eyeshadow.  Perhaps you want to look like you are wearing nothing at all.  If you have perfect skin and already gorgeous features then a truly makeup free look might be for you. Lucky you!

Choose Flattering or “Photogenic” Poses in your Portraits

I suppose there are going to be variations on what this actually means for different people. For me, it means don’t take photos looking up under my chin. Yikes!!!

Look at yourself in a mirror from different angles to start with, and then take some self-portraits.  You might be amazed at what a difference a change in angle can make to how attractive you look in a photo.  Unless you are deliberately going for a serious or unposed look in a portrait, be sure to smile, even if only a little. Everybody looks better happy!

Ashley showing off her killer smile

Do your best to have good posture. This will not only make you look healthier, it has a way of making you feel better…somehow. Seriously, I have a bad habit of slouching, but when I make a conscious effort to stand up tall I always feel so much better about myself. People I’ve only just met will later remark on my “quiet confidence” when I’m in that mode. It always surprises me since I tend to see myself as a rather socially awkward person.  Give it a try!

Try to just relax when your photo is being taken. Contorting your face into an odd expression and trying to hold it will create a very awkward and unflattering portrait.  Something I have trained myself to do when getting my picture taken is to think about something I find really funny. Usually I picture John Cleese and his ministry of silly walks skit on Monty Python. It gets me smiling against my will every time.

Relaxed portrait couple

Choose a Good Location or Background

While studio portraiture has its place, that it not where most portraits end up being taken. Personally, I despise studio photography. It’s just way too contrived and artificial for my tastes.

An uncluttered or fairly generic background is often best.  A sunlit field, a beach or next to a window are some good suggestions. The main thing is that whatever elements are present in the background don’t detract from the subject. There are always exceptions to the rule when artistic decisions come into play, but I think this advice is a good starting point.

Get it Right In-Camera

Not everybody is a skilled photographer. If you hire a professional then you don’t have to worry about this part. However, if you are reading this you are likely the photographer. In this case, there are some hints that will help you take a better portrait.

Use an 85mm portrait lens for best results.  If you can’t afford one, then you can certainly take a decent portrait with a kit lens. Just be sure to set your lens to 50mm or higher and stand a sufficient distance from your subject to prevent distortion.

wide angle portrait

Wide Angle Distortion

Use a fill flash or a reflector to fill in harsh shadows and illuminate the face. Not only do harsh shadows look amateurish, they are very unflattering. This is especially true for faces with wrinkles! It’s bad enough that we have to get wrinkles at all, so do your subject or yourself a favor.

You can get a fairly large basic 5-in-1 reflector set for around $30 and use it to bounce natural light to your subjects face. Whatever you do, avoid lighting up the subjects face with direct front lighting from flash. It flattens the face and is very unflattering.

Reflector Disc

Finally, experiment with various depths of field. You might want to blur the background but keep the subject sharply in focus for example.

Mostly, have fun!

laughing baby

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