8 Common portrait photography mistakes to avoid

When it comes to photography, knowing what you should be doing is great, but knowing what to avoid can be incredibly useful too.

In a recent live critique show, I reviewed portrait images submitted by members, and it soon became clear that there were a few common mistakes that many photographers seem to be making. To help you quickly improve your photography, I’ve summarised the key points to keep in mind when shooting portraits and explained how to avoid the most common problems.

1. The background

Whether you’re working in the studio or out on location, always consider your background.

For studio shots, make sure the background isn’t a distraction, that it doesn’t clash with your model or their outfit and that it simply makes sense. Often backgrounds seem to be somewhat of an afterthought when in fact they should be something you consider from the very start of the shoot.

Location shoots can be a bit more difficult when it comes to getting the right background. Look out for distracting objects behind the subject and do whatever you can to make the surroundings pleasing to the eye. If that means clearing a table, rearranging furniture or moving something into the foreground for interesting occlusion, then so be it. 

In the examples below, which were just some of the images submitted by members for the critique, you can clearly see what a difference choosing the right background can make. In the left example, the flowers blend in and are somewhat lost against the background, whereas on the right the simple blue background offsets the colour of the flowers and allows the subjects to stand out more clearly.

Portrait of girl with flower hat against floral backdrop by Aldolfo Burnett
Portrait of girl with floral hat against blue backdrop by Wayne Lewis
In these similar images you can see what a big difference the background can make in an image.

2. The little details

Hair, makeup, background, props, lighting… There can be a lot to think about when it comes to portrait photography and shoots can often seem somewhat chaotic. However, amidst all the chaos, don’t forget to stop and look at the finer details. Look for stray hairs that could be smoothed out, loose threads on outfits that could be cut off, wrinkled shirts that could be smoothed, off-centred jewellery that could be straightened. Taking a few minutes during the shoot could save you hours in Photoshop afterwards.

Portrait by Lorenz Schuerk
Look out for small details, such as the loose thread on the right arm of the model, that can easily be fixed during the shoot.

3. Posing and positioning your subject

When it comes to posing people, we not only have to think about body position, but also the placement of hands.

Subjects positioned square on to the camera is a common mistake made by many photographers just starting out. Although often done to create symmetry, it usually only results in the subject appearing wider.

Positioning hands is also something many photographers struggle with. Hands can very easily look very awkward in an image, especially when they aren't shaped correctly. To avoid hands looking ‘claw-like' and help them look more elegant, try to position the fingers in a ‘staircase' shape.

In the examples below, we can see two examples of how the hands haven't been posed 100 per cent correctly. In the first, the fingers could do with being more evenly spaced, and in the second the finger looks unnatural, and the direction immediately takes us out of the image. I explain how both of these, very simply, could have been corrected during the critique.

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Girl posing hands with uneven finger spacing
Girl posing hands can sometimes cause claw looking fingers.
Hands can very easily look awkward when not positioned correctly, as shown in these two examples.

4. Separating the subject

Black on black or white on white can result in very striking portrait images… when done correctly. However, this technique does require careful control of lighting to ensure the subject is clearly separated from the background.

Throughout the review I saw many examples of black on black where the subject was not clearly defined against the background, resulting in ‘floating hands’ or ‘missing’ body parts. As I explain in the critique, this is a common mistake that can easily be remedied by introducing a background light, rim lights or lighting background.

While black on black can be effective, I think it’s also worth mentioning that sometimes a dark grey could also work equally well, if not better. Don’t just use black for the sake of it. Take the time to think about whether it really compliments the shot or not.

Male model wearing black top against black background.
careful lighing is needed to separate black top from a black background.
Black on black portraiture requires careful control of lighting to ensure the subject and background are clearly separated.

5. Consider the lighting

Following on from the previous point, lighting is a key part of any image, but what works for one image may not necessarily work for anything else.

Don’t let yourself rely on particular lighting styles or formulas — the lighting should always be tailored to that particular subject. Harder, more sparkly light, for example, may work for a model with their makeup carefully done, but not for a natural portrait of an older lady, the same way a soft, angelic light may suit a young girl, but wouldn’t work for a business portrait.

Lighting on hands was another common problem that I saw throughout the show. When incorporating hands in the shot, the placement is often quite close to the face, which can result in them being too bright. As our eyes are naturally drawn to the brightest or highest contrast part of an image, it’s important to carefully control the light throughout your image.

Fesh punchy portrait of girl wearing red against a red backdrop.
This fun, playful image is enhanced by a fresh, punchy lighting style.

6. Think about the narrative and purpose

Photography, as a visual medium, should always be able to tell a story as a stand-alone image, without supporting text or explanations.

This is why the narrative and purpose of the image is so important. Think about what you are trying to say with the image — is it clear?

The image below is a great example of how to cleverly (and subtly) incorporate meaningful props, without distracting from the subject. The small piano tells us a little bit more about the subject, without being too obvious. This, coupled with his outfit, results in a well-executed portrait.

A playful portrait of a child next to a mini piano.
This effective child's portrait makes subtle use of props and outfit choice to tell us more about the subject.

7. Guide the viewer’s eye

If an image is able to hold the viewer’s attention, we can consider it successful. However, this isn’t always easy to do, especially when we’re bombarded with thousands of images every day. To do this, we can use simple techniques such as composition, framing and even lighting.

8. Retouching

The post-production stage often seems to be a bit of a balancing act for many photographers, with many struggling to know when is too much, or when is too little.

Don’t be afraid to make subtle tweaks and changes, especially when it comes to smoothing shapes (as I demonstrated on a couple of the images), reducing bright highlights or removing temporary blemishes. Just these small changes can make quite a difference.

On the other hand, try not to take your retouching too far either. The most common instance where I see this is in skin retouching, where the end result often looks textureless and plastic-like. We have several great skin retouching classes that demonstrate simple and effective methods that you can use for perfect skin retouching in our Post-production section.

Beauty skin retouching in Photoshop

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In this 5-part course, professional retoucher Viktor Fejes explains the techniques required for skin retouching and the reasoning behind his retouching process.

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To learn more about portrait photography, make sure to watch part 1 and part 2 of this critique, which are now available on replay. I cover each of these concepts in more detail and explain what makes a good portrait photo and exactly how to avoid these common mistakes. You’ll also find a number of creative lighting examples using one, two, three or four lights in our Portrait section.

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To learn more about portrait photography, make sure to take a look at some of our additional portrait photography classes, which you can find here. These classes cover everything you need to know to help you take stunning portrait shots.


  1. Hey Karl, do you have any tips how can I message modelling agencies to see if they have any models to test shoot? How do I put it into words? I live in London btw. English is not my native language and sometimes grammar can betray me

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