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5 Portrait Photography Techniques to Take You from Day to Night

Whether you’re walking around your hometown or exploring some far-flung destination, one of the best places for portraiture is just right outside—on the streets. With this article, we show you how to take amazing street portraits at any time of the day, with just your standard zoom or telephoto zoom lens. (Reported by Teppei Kohno)

Travel portrait photography hero image


Technique 1: Basic outdoor portraits in daylight

Model in front of Tokyo Station

EOS 77D/ EF-S55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM/ FL: 135mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5, 1/250 sec, EV+0.6)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto

Three elements for creating creamy background bokeh

One of the most basic techniques for portraiture is to create background bokeh (background blur) to make the person stand out. There are three elements that helped me to easily achieve the dramatic background bokeh in the image above:

Distance from background
I made sure that there was enough space to put some distance between myself, the subject and the building that I wanted to use as the background.

I used a telephoto lens, which offers a shallower depth-of-field than a wide-angle lens.

A wide aperture further enhanced the bokeh effect.

You might want to try this with front lighting (where the light source shines from behind you onto the subject). This should give you a shot with well-balanced shadows and highlights.


Shooting diagram for good background bokeh

The finer details

The subject was about 5m away from me and 100m away from the background.

For this shot, the sunlight was shining on the subject head on. The lighting could have been too harsh if the sun was strong. However, it was slightly cloudy that day, which diffused the light.

I created some empty space to the left of the image so that the building behind the subject can be seen. It’s a good way to subtly preserve memories of the shooting location.

- It will be easier to shoot if there is an open space or road in front of the building that forms your background.
- Don’t worry if it is slightly cloudy: The lighting is still great for portraits.


Technique 2: Close-ups of facial expressions while in the shade

Close-up portrait in café

EOS 77D/ EF-S18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM/ FL: 55mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/125 sec, EV+0.3)/ ISO 400/ WB: Auto

Take advantage of any light you have

Cafes and other places in the shade can be great locations for portrait photography too. Take the fullest advantage of the natural light coming in through the windows: Sit close to the window if you can. Side lighting is good for portraits as it gives the right amount of dimensionality to your subject. (P.S: It's also great for photographing food.)

Want better background bokeh? Do a close-up

For the shot above, I wanted to create a strong bokeh effect in the background. I achieved this by moving closer to my subject to capture a close-up of her facial expressions. This makes the depth-of-field shallower, resulting in a stronger bokeh effect.

Remember: Observe low-light shooting precautions

Even if you are shooting in the middle of the day, indoors will be darker than outdoors. Your shutter speed will slow down, so hold your camera firmly to prevent camera shake. Increase your ISO speed where necessary.


Portrait in café shooting diagram

The finer details

Focal length
I wanted to shoot as close to the subject as possible. However, using a wide angle resulted in very visible perspective distortions in the face. Using the 55mm tele-end of my standard zoom lens and shooting from around 50cm away from the subject gave the most natural-looking results.

Putting the subject’s face smack in the middle made the shot look too ordinary. I put some space on the left to accentuate the shot.


Technique 3: Get the perfect OOTD in daylight

Green dress OOTD

EOS 77D/ EF-S18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM/ FL: 24mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/4.5, 1/60 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto

Choose the appropriate background

To get your subject’s (or your own!) outfit to look its best in the shot, it’s important to choose a background that:
- Has an ambience that suits the style of the outfit.
- Is not in a colour of pattern that overwhelms the outfit.

In the example above, my subject was wearing a vivid green dress, which stands out against the neutral-coloured background.

Incorporate details of the location to accentuate the shot

If you are shooting in a location that has layers and depth, use a narrower aperture to capture background details.

Tip: Full body shots look sharper when shot at a wide angle.


Outdoor OOTD shooting diagram

The finer details

The light source came from the front-diagonal right of the subject. Diagonal lighting from the front helps to make colours look more vivid, preserving the impact of the OOTD.

Shooting position
I squatted a little to shoot from below, which helped to draw attention to the subject’s outfit.


Technique 4: Take advantage of the soft evening light

Model in golden hour backlight

EOS 77D/ EF-S18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM/ FL: 48mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/160 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Shade

Evening light is great for portraits

The evening sunlight is soft with amber tones, especially during the golden hour right before sunset. This results in beautiful, dramatic lighting perfect for portraits.

In the above image, which was shot in backlight against the golden hour sun, the subject is rendered slightly darker, resulting in quiet, elegant atmosphere.

Different light, different effects

Evening light originating from behind me (front lighting) would have made the subject look strong and powerful. Meanwhile, when the sun is just beginning to set, the light becomes quite soft, which allows you to effectively add fine textures to the image.

It’s good to observe the light with your eyes as you shoot, and see the effect that it has on the different elements in the scene.

Tip: If you are shooting at sunset, it can get dark faster than you expect. Make sure that your settings can compensate. The shutter speed will slow down, so take precautions against camera shake.


Evening backlight portrait shooting diagram

The finer details

Focal length
I shot at the tele-end of my standard zoom lens, taking care to ensure that at least some of the background elements were in frame.

Composition/shooting distance
I moved back and forth, keeping the same focal length, until my composition showed the perfect balance between the person and the background elements.

White balance
This was set to “Shade” to achieve a warmer finish.

Revise your white balance basics in: White Balance Basics to Achieve Your Desired Colour Tone!


Technique 5: Use the glittery night scenery as a background

Night portrait

EOS 77D/ EF-S55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM/ FL: 200mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/60 sec, EV-1)/ ISO 6400/ WB: Auto

Use a fill flash to ensure adequate exposure on your subject

When you shoot portraits against night scenery, your subject will probably end up underexposed, especially when compared to the bright lights in the background. To even out the exposure, use a fill flash.

How to take the shot handheld

You could use an external flash, but if you don’t, don’t fret. Your built-in flash might not have enough flash power on its own, but if you also increase your ISO speed, you should be able to get a rather well-lit shot of your subject.

Bonus: Using a flash (and a higher ISO speed where necessary) also increases the shutter speed, preventing camera shake.

The next question: How are you going to incorporate the background lights?

If you want to turn the background lights into bokeh circles, a good trick is to shoot with a telephoto lens. The perspective compression effect will “pull in” the bokeh circles and make them appear bigger.


Night portrait shooting diagram

The finer details

Shooting distance/ISO speed
I shot from 5m away from the model. To ensure sufficient exposure with the light from my built-in flash, I increased the ISO speed.

Exposure procedure
I set my exposure settings to get the best exposure for the background, and then used the flash to illuminate the subject.

Tip: An external flash is not only more powerful than the built-in flash, it also allows better control over light intensity and direction. The light from a built-in flash can be harsher, as you can tell by comparing the highlights in the model's face in the examples below. 

No flash

No flash

Built-in flash

Built-in flash

Speedlite 600EX II-RT

External flash


Find out more about using a flash in these articles:
What are the Benefits of an External Flash?
Brightening Both the Subject and Nightscape Background
Using the Built-in Flash Caused My Subject’s Face to Turn Out Too Bright. Now What?

For more portrait shooting tips and techniques, check out:
Shoot Beautiful Night Portraits with No Tripod, No Flash
[Flash Technique] Creating a Pop Art-inspired Night Portrait
5 Portrait Techniques to Express Your Love for Her


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Teppei Kohno

Teppei Kohno

Born in Tokyo in 1976, Kohno graduated with a Social Work degree from the Department of Sociology of Meiji Gakuin University, and apprenticed with photographer Masato Terauchi. He contributed to the first issue of photography magazine PHaT PHOTO and became an independent photographer after that, in 2003. The author of many books, Kohno not only shoots all sorts of commercial photographs, but also writes prolifically for camera and other magazines.