Hints and tips for portrait photography

Discover the secrets of portrait photography with our top tips to help you snap the perfect portrait.

It was World Photography Day on 19 August. To celebrate, we’ve put together some portrait photography top tips with the help of photographer John Millar. We’ve got advice to help with taking more formal portraits and for those relaxed reportage shots where you want to capture snaps of your loved ones on days out together. Why not pick up your camera this summer and see what amazing shots you can take of your family and friends?

John Millar is an expert when it comes to taking photos of people. He’s been a professional photographer for over 33 years and has taken over 30,000 pictures for us, immortalising our staff, volunteers and visitors at the places we care for. He also took all 125 portraits for our new book, A Portrait of the National Trust: 125 Stories for 125 Years.

" I never really set out to flatter anybody by taking nice pictures of them. What I really want... is the character to come out."
Our portrait photography top tips
Photo shoot in the rain

Tip 1: Be adaptable

Always be prepared to change your plans and adapt to what you find on the day. I find each shoot is usually 50 per cent planning and 50 per cent reaction on the day. There is always something – the situation, weather, location – that won’t be how you imagined it would be. Quickly adapt your ideas to match your situation.

Joan Capel and John Millar

Tip 2: Work with your sitter

Help your sitter to relax. Chatting to them will distract them from focusing on the photo itself. The result will be more natural images where their character really comes across. The portrait is as much the work of the ‘willing victim’ as the photographer, so work together.

125 portraits photo shoot

Tip 3: Focus on what’s important

Concentrate very hard on the composition and how your subject fits into the scene but remember that it is a portrait, so concentrate even harder on them.

John Millar taking a photograph

Tip 4: Know your kit

Make sure you understand how your kit works and be as one with it, like a well-oiled photo machine. Sometimes confusion can’t be helped because photography equipment just behaves badly and won’t do as it's told, but if you can avoid getting lost in the settings menu when you are meant to be snapping, that is a good thing.

Setting up for a photo shoot

Tip 5: Capture emotion

A photograph that resonates with the viewer emotionally is better than one that is just technically correct. Concentrate on what emotion you want to capture and what you want the viewer to feel when they look at your photograph.

Stuart Bowden

Tip 6: Don’t worry about the rules

There are plenty of hard rules of photography, like having the sun behind you and taking pictures during the golden hour at the end of the day. Mostly you don’t have the luxury of being in the right spot at the best time so work with the conditions you have and don’t worry. Remember, taking photos is meant to be fun. Build your confidence through trying new things and taking risks. Ignore all advice, especially mine. Do it your way and keep experimenting until you are happy.

A Portrait of the National Trust book

A Portrait of the National Trust: 125 Stories for 125 Years  

2020 is our 125th anniversary year. This limited edition photographic collection shines a light on the many incredible people who contribute their skills, time, passions and personalities to our cause. Featuring dramatic photographic portraits by John Millar and personal interviews, it's a representation of the National Trust as it is today. It's a huge thank you to everyone who has supported us over the years.