Want to learn the art of colour portrait photography? Whether a beginner or an experienced photographer, this guide will give you all the tips and tricks for taking stunning colour portraits. From lighting to angles, find out how to create beautiful photographs every time.
A portrait is an art form that dates back many years. It's a way to capture someone most vulnerable and tell their story. And while digital photography has made it easy for anyone with a camera to take a snapshot, it takes a skilled photographer to capture the essence of someone in just one image. This guide will explore how to use colour in your portraits and create stunning photos beyond just skin-deep ones.
Understand basic photography principles.
If you want to take better portraits, it's essential to understand the basics of photography. Understanding light, composition, and colour will help you create great pictures. It's also important to know how your camera works so that you can get the best results from it.
To use any camera properly, you need to know how its settings work. Most cameras have many options for adjusting things like shutter speed, aperture size and ISO sensitivity (which is how sensitive the sensor is). You should play around with these options until they feel comfortable—that way, when it comes time for actual shooting, there won't be any surprises!
Choose the right background.
- Choose the right background. Choosing a location that complements your subject is essential for capturing impactful portraits. When shooting outdoors, choose a background in the same colour family as your subject (e.g., if you have a warm-toned person, look for cool or neutral hues like blue skies and green grass). If you're shooting indoors, use complementary colours such as red walls and black furnishings or warm wooden furniture against neutral walls.
- Use props sparingly. Props can help add context to an image but should be used sparingly—too many props distract from the image's primary focus and end up overwhelming it instead of adding interest. If you must use a prop (such as clothing), keep it simple: one item per person maximum!
Use natural light to your advantage.
When it comes to portraits, natural light is your friend. It's the best source of soft, flattering light that won't make your subject squint or look like death. You can find it almost anywhere, and if you're shooting outdoors with a DSLR (you should be), you will likely already have one of those handy-dandy lenses that makes shooting in daylight a cinch.
Another benefit of natural lighting is its availability: as long as there's sun somewhere in the world, you can use it for free! No need for fancy reflectors or flash units; just set up your subject where they get plenty of sunlight on their face and click away.
Use the colour wheel so that you don't clash.
Every colour belongs to a colour family, essentially a group of colours with common characteristics. The colour wheel below shows the primary, secondary, and tertiary colours as they appear around the wheel.
When photographing people, you'll want to avoid clashing with their clothing and skin tone. To do this, use complementary colours – two opposing hues that look great when paired together: red/green (think Christmas!), blue/orange or yellow/purple – and analogous hues, which sit next to each other on the wheel: yellowish orange through purplish and blue! If you want to be more subtle about your colour scheme, try using monochromatic tones instead, where one hue dominates but there are still some variations within it, e.g., dark green leaves with lighter shades throughout them or purplish-grey skies filled with white clouds.
Utilize the correct camera settings for portrait photography.
- Learn to use manual mode.
- Set the aperture to f/2.8 or f/1.8.
- Set the shutter speed to 1/250th of a second (1/500th on some cameras).
- Set your ISO from 100 to 200 depending on what you're comfortable with and what your camera can handle at that setting; this will make your images look brighter than if you were to use automatic settings, which may be too bright for darker skin tones in particular.
Employ the rule of thirds to your advantage.
The rule of thirds is a guideline for where to place the subject in the frame. The practice is based on the idea that your photo will be more interesting if its elements aren't perfectly centred on the screen.
Here's how it works: Imagine a tic-tac-toe board over your camera's viewfinder or monitor. The intersection points are where you want to position your subject; divide each line segment into thirds and place them at those points. Here's an example from Adobe Stock:
- This isn't meant to be an exact science—use this method as a starting point for composing your shot so that everything feels balanced and aesthetically pleasing!
Make sure you have a solid focal point.
In photography, a focal point is the area of an image where all visual elements converge. This can be your subject's eyes or face, but it doesn't have to be; it could also be a colourful object in the background or even something abstract like bokeh (the out-of-focus areas created by a shallow depth of field).
- When looking for your main focal point, try to imagine what someone viewing your image would look at first. You want this element to draw people into the centre of your photo and keep them engaged as they look around for other details. If you've got multiple subjects in one shot, focus on one person or object rather than having everyone looking at each other instead of the camera.
Experiment with different lenses and compositions.
A lens's focal length affects how it captures an image. A wide-angle lens, for example, is a short focal length so it can capture more of the scene and distort it slightly, while a telephoto lens is long with a narrow field of view. This can result in different composition choices when shooting portraits because different lenses can change the feel of your photo. Think about how you'd use each type of equipment to create images that emulate the feeling you want to achieve without sacrificing quality or detail.
Go for a soft and flattering focus.
The soft, flattering focus that comes with a shallow depth of field is excellent for portraits. You can achieve this by using the right lens and accessories.
For example, if you're shooting with a wide aperture lens like an 85mm f/1.8 or 35mm f/1.4, you'll get that beautiful soft background blur we all love so much in portrait photography. — this will give you a creamy bokeh (the technical term for blurry backgrounds).
Think about the story as much as colour.
When choosing colours for your portrait, think about the story you want to tell. Colouring can help you impact the viewer and evoke emotion or convey a message or feeling. For example, you might tell a story of happiness, sadness, love, etc. Your choice of colour will help you do this in many ways.
Consider the impact of colour on the viewer when considering your portrait's composition. Think about what kind of mood you want to create when looking at it or even just looking at each element within it; whether that is positive or negative depends entirely on what message (if any) you wish to convey through your art!
Consider using props or accessories.
Props are a great way to add variety to your portraits. They can help tell a story, inform the viewer about the subject, and create interesting compositions.
Props can also help you with colour: for instance, if you have some green props in one shot and blue in another shot—you may be able to use that contrast between colours in post-processing! The same goes for texture—getting some rough or smooth surfaces will make your final image more dynamic.
Using colour in portraits can yield excellent results but requires careful thought and planning.
The power of colour is undeniable. As a photographer, you can use this tool to communicate your message and create a powerful emotional connection with your audience. It's essential to think through how you want people to feel when they see your photos and then ensure that the colours in those images work towards achieving that goal.
If you want someone looking at your photo to feel excited, reds and blues might be the key—but if they're feeling sad or nostalgic, try muted tones instead (like browns, greens and yellows). If you want viewers to focus on a particular part of an image, for example, the face, ensure that other areas use similar tones to avoid drawing attention away from it. One example is dark skin tones complemented by light clothing against pale backgrounds; another could be dark clothing contrasting against lighter skin tones against a darker background (think about contrasting shades). If, on the other hand, what matters most is showing off nature's beauty or highlighting texture in the fabric, well, then go nuts! Don't be afraid: show us every beautiful shade under heaven!
Take advantage of post-processing for perfect colour portraits.
You must understand how to post-process your images to get the best colour portrait. Post-processing is the last step in creating a great shot, and it's essential to do it well so that your photos look professional and consistent.
You should pay attention to several things when editing your photos: white balance, contrast and saturation. White balance controls how warm or cool a photo appears by adjusting for different lighting conditions; contrast adjusts the difference between dark and light areas of an image; saturation adjusts how vibrant colours appear on the screen (or when printed).
A colour wheel is an excellent tool for planning your portrait, but it's not the end of the story. So many other factors can make or break your image: lighting, composition, focal point and narrative all come into play when taking pictures with these beautiful people in front of you.
Please get in touch with me if you have any questions about how I approach colour portraits at Boyd Visuals. I'd love to help!