17 Tips for Shooting Better Urban Portraits

The post 17 Tips for Shooting Better Urban Portraits appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Matt Murray.


Are you interested in doing an urban portrait shoot, but you’re not sure where to start? An outdoor shoot in your local town or city is a great way to be more creative, think on your feet, and come away with some unique images that you can’t get from a shoot in a studio or your local park. However, If you’ve never done one before, you may be a little daunted. In this guide, I run you through my top tips for shooting better urban portraits.

One way to make sure your talent is relaxed at the start of the shoot is by asking them to smile and getting some fun shots to kick things off.

1. Have a vision for the images you want to shoot

Begin with the end in mind. Create a mood board of urban portraits using a free tool such as Pinterest. These could either be your images or inspirational images from other photographers. Keep these in mind as you plan your shoot, as this is the standard you’ll be aiming for.

2. Location scouting

Before you plan your shoot, get an idea of the type of urban landscapes in your area. What kind of images could you take here? How could the buildings and street scenes feature in your photographs as a point of interest or as a background texture?

Every town and city has its unique charms – from heritage buildings to seaside piers to abandoned shopping centers. Find what’s interesting about your area and use it.

You can find out more about what I look for when scouting locations in my previous dPS article, How to Choose Urban Landscapes for Portrait Photography.


There’s always something of interest to shoot. Open up to the creative possibilities in your town.

3. Find talent for your shoot

The easiest way to find someone for a shoot is by asking family or friends. This way, the pressure is off, as you have someone familiar to work with that you can test your ideas on. Make sure you ask someone that is not too shy or self-conscious, though; after all, it will involve posing for photographs in a public location.

If you’re ready to test your urban portrait skills with a model, organize a TFP (time for print) shoot. These have been around since the pre-digital days, when photographers, models, and make-up artists would collaborate and give their time for free in exchange for physical prints of images taken during the shoot. These days, images from TFP shoots are usually digital files shared over the internet.

Finding people to work with should be relatively easy. Most cities have photographer and model groups on Facebook. Type the name of your area with the words model or photographer and see what comes up. If you have no luck, you can also ask in general photography groups if anyone knows of a TFP-style group you could join.

Image: In this image, I have lit Alyssa with a video light. Fujifilm X-T3 with a 35mm f1.4 lens.

In this image, I have lit Alyssa with a video light. Fujifilm X-T3 with a 35mm f1.4 lens.

4. Ask for expressions of interest

Once you’ve joined a local Facebook group, have a scan of the posts and see if it’s the kind of community you wish to work with. If you feel comfortable, it’s time to post your expression of interest.

Create a post introducing yourself and calling for expressions of interest in a TFP urban portrait shoot. Link to examples of your work and your Instagram.

Let people know specific details about the shoot. This includes the approximate location, proposed days and times, and the types of shots you’re looking to get. You can also link to or share images from your mood board on the post to set an expectation of the kind of shots you’ll take. If you use images on the mood board that are not yours, make sure you credit the photographer and explicitly state whose work it is.

Finally, ask people to comment on the post or send you a private message, expressing their interest. Also, ask them to link to their Instagram or portfolio.


Safety is important on any shoot – never put yourself or your talent in danger to get a shot. I took this image with the model on the footpath.

5. Arrange details for the shoot

After you’ve chosen whom you’d like to work with, organize the shoot. Agree on the day, time, and location. Prepare to negotiate regarding which day you can shoot, but not on the time. Always choose the time of day that you know will work best for photography. For me, that’s about an hour before dusk as this provides opportunities for natural light and after-dark images.

If the model is under 18, check that their parent or guardian is coming along and that they will be able to sign a model release form.

Ask your model what they’re planning to wear for the shoot. Quite often, they will ask for your advice or provide you with options. Explain that it would be ideal to have two or three different looks. Some people will prefer to have completely different outfits for the first and second half of the shoot (if there is somewhere to change). For others, it means bringing along some fun accessories like glasses, sunglasses, a hat or jacket.

If you’re arranging a shoot a week or two in advance, don’t forget to stay in touch with your model. Remind them a day or two before the shoot.


Sunglasses can be very handy on a shoot – especially when there are neon signs! Anneke, Brisbane. Fujifilm X-T3 with a 56mm f1.2 lens.

6. Have a plan

Think back to your location scouting. Have a list of 8-10 places where you’d like to shoot that are within walking distance of each other. Draw a map in your notebook and plan your route and the types of shots at each place. Typically, I only shoot in 6-8 locations, but I like having a couple of options up my sleeve in case some don’t work out.

Finally, don’t be afraid to throw your plan out the window if a better opportunity presents itself.

17 Tips for Shooting Better Urban Portraits

7. Plan your kit

It’s tempting to take as much kit as you can carry on an urban portrait shoot. However, strike a happy medium between taking enough kit to give you options without having to hire a Sherpa to carry your gear.

I typically take two camera bodies (Fujifilm X-T3 and X-T2) with prime lenses, with a third lens in my bag. My lenses of choice are usually the Fujinon 16mm f1.4 for wide-angle and environmental portraits, and either the 35mm f1.4 or the 56mm f1.2 lenses for portrait work. With the APS-C crop factor, these work out to 24mm, 52.5mm, and 84mm equivalent lenses in full-frame terms.

Although I love zoom lenses for family portrait shoots, I only take fast prime lenses on urban portrait shoots.

Double-check all your camera settings when you pack your gear. Things I check are:

  1. I’ve selected the same JPG film simulation on both cameras,
  2. I have the same auto ISO settings,
  3. JPG + RAW is selected in the image quality settings.
  4. There are spare formatted SD cards and spare batteries in my bag
  5. I have model release forms and a pen.

8. Get to know whom you’re photographing

Make sure you turn up early – you won’t make a good impression if your talent is waiting for you and wondering if you are going to turn up or not. Get to know your model and their chaperone. Everyone can be a bit nervous at the start of a shoot, so have a good chat with them before you even think about pulling out a camera.

9. On the shoot

Remember, on these kinds of shoots, you don’t need quantity, you need quality. I aim to get a dozen images I’m really happy with. This means potentially shooting in a different way than you usually would. Take your time with directing the model and getting the composition right before taking the shot.

Make sure you get a variety of shots – close-ups, full length, looking to the camera, looking away. Also, remember to get some different looks by using any accessories the model has brought with them.


Make sure you get a variety of shots – not just close-ups.

10. Be prepared to direct the model

Directing talent is a skill you will need to learn – especially with younger up-and-coming models with limited experience. There’s no need to be worried if you have no experience doing this yourself. Get yourself the 67 PORTRAIT POSES (PRINTABLE) Guide from DPS to have on your phone (or print them), or have a stash of urban portrait images, ready to flick through to give your talent some ideas on how to pose.

17 Tips for Shooting Better Urban Portraits

11. Check your ISO and shutter speed

As the day moves into night, keep a check on your ISO and make sure you have usable shutter speeds above 1/80th of a second. The most annoying mistake I’ve made on these shoots is looking at the back of the LCD screen, thinking that I’ve captured a sharp image, only to see that the image wasn’t as sharp as I thought on my computer screen later on.

12. Limit any negative self-talk

Negative self-talk can affect us all. If you had an idea for an image, but it doesn’t work out on the shoot, move on and forget about it. Many images are still there for the taking.

13. Carry your own lighting options

For the first half of an urban portrait shoot, I rely on natural or ambient light. As darkness envelopes the urban landscape, I look to my own lighting options.

The first option I usually take is a speedlight flash that I can use on-camera, or trigger remotely. Typically, the light from these types of flashes can be harsh, so you may like to use a light modifier such as a mini softbox.

The second type of lighting that I use on my urban portrait shoots are small LED video lights. These are fantastic, and I love using them. Again, you can use one through a light modifier for a softer effect.

Image: Using an on-camera flash can lead to some creative effects.

Using an on-camera flash can lead to some creative effects.

14. Safety

Safety should be your number one priority on a shoot like this. Identify any hazards before the shoot and brief your model. The last thing you want is someone getting hurt. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. If you get a bad vibe from an area, it’s best to move on.

Never leave any of your bags on the ground unattended. A few moments of inattention is all an opportunistic thief needs.

15. Legal

Always operate your shoots legally. Research if you need any permits to shoot in your city, look into public liability insurance, and have model releases signed before the shoot.

16. Limit the shoot time

Keep the shoot between 60 and 90 minutes; you’ll be amazed at how fast this will go. It’s better to have it run shorter and end on a high than run it longer with everyone exhausted. For younger models, keep it to under 60 minutes.


Keep the shoot length to under an hour for younger people – modeling is very tiring!

17. Editing your images

I always try and get it right in-camera, with only minor edits made to images afterward. One decision you may have to make is how much you want to clean up the image in post. In the example below, there were a lot of cigarette butts on the ground. I decided to remove these in Photoshop to make a cleaner image.

17 Tips for Shooting Better Urban Portraits


In this image, I removed all the cigarette butts and other debris from the road as I felt it detracted from the image. Sasha, Brisbane, Fujifilm X100F lit by a Godox flash.


Urban portrait shoots are a lot of fun and can stretch your creativity as a photographer. They help you to think on your feet and overcome challenges. If you’ve never done one before, there’s no need to feel daunted. Do your research and planning, and it will all fall into place.

If you have any questions or comments about planning an urban shoot, let us know below.

The post 17 Tips for Shooting Better Urban Portraits appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Matt Murray.

Simple Tips to Improve Your Portrait Photography Immediately

The post Simple Tips to Improve Your Portrait Photography Immediately appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by John McIntire.


Getting started with portrait photography can seem like a daunting task. Once you start researching all the techniques, equipment and (so-called) rules, and everything else you have to memorize and acquire, it can all feel a bit overwhelming. Even so, the journey is worth it, and portraiture is a rewarding pursuit. Throughout your time taking portraits, you will meet, talk to and get to know a lot of people, and hopefully take some great photos of them as well. Instead of focusing on what you need to take great portraits (that’s a camera by the way, nothing more), this article outlines eight tips that you can take and start using immediately to help you improve your portrait photography immediately, without spending another penny.

1. Use softer light


Soft light is an incredible tool to get the very most out of your portraits. Using it is not the only way to do things, but it’s a great place to start.

If you’ve read anything about portrait lighting before, this is a tip you’ve already heard, but it needs to be repeated over and over again. Hard light, such as that from the midday sun, is usually the quickest way to attain contrasty and harsh portraits with unflattering shadows and highlights. Taking the time to seek out pockets of softer light (or creating it in the studio) is by far the quickest and most effective way to improve your portrait photography without doing anything else.

Outdoors, look for areas of open shade or take advantage of overcast days where the light is diffused by the cloud cover. Of course, golden hour will provide you with amazing light most of the time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and search for pockets of diffused, flattering light at any other time of the day.

Image: For soft light in the studio, big modifiers in close will do the job just great.

For soft light in the studio, big modifiers in close will do the job just great.

In the studio, make sure that you are using as big of a modifier as you have. If the light is still too hard, you can diffuse your light with a diffuser (yes, I know that might require another purchase, and I apologize for that), or you can move the light closer to your subject.

Just remember that the bigger the apparent light source is to your subject, the softer the light is.

Is all this to say that you shouldn’t use hard light for portraits? Absolutely not. Hard light can make for wonderful portraits, but in a lot of cases, and especially as you are starting out, you will find it beneficial to learn how to use and understand soft light first.

2. Light for the eyes


Making your subject’s eyes a priority when you are lighting your images will ensure that the eyes are bright and remain the focal point of your images.

Eyes may be the most important part of a portrait. When your viewers look at photos of people, most of the time they engaging with the person’s eyes first. This is because that is how we humans engage with people in face-to-face scenarios. To make sure you get the very best from your subject’s eyes, start making sure that you light for the eyes at the beginning of every portrait session before you even take your first frame.

To do this, watch your subject’s eyes carefully as you arrange the light, whether that be outdoors or in the studio. Direct your subject (or move your light source if you can) so that the catchlight in their eye is near the top of their eye. It also helps if the light is going directly into their eyes. This will help you to get the most detail in your subject’s eyes.

You will also find that making the eyes a priority at the capture stage means that you will rarely have to do anything to them in post-processing.

In short, light from above whenever possible and direct your subject’s pose so that the light is going into their eyes.

Image: If you use a really big light source (i.e. to get softer light), the less bright the eyes wil...

If you use a really big light source (i.e. to get softer light), the less bright the eyes will be. This is a good thing to keep in mind as you start looking towards big octaboxes and parabolic umbrellas.

As an aside, the softer the light source, the less detail will record in your subject’s eyes and the darker they will appear in your images. The harder the light source, the more detail.

This will only become an issue if you are using really, really big modifiers in the studio, or if there’s particularly heavy cloud cover. You should be fine if you’re using medium (normal) sized modifiers.

If your goal is simply to get the most detail possible out of your subject’s eyes, you might need to go for a harder light source. You could also mix light sources so that your subject’s eyes are lit by a hard light source, but there is still a softer light source evening-out the contrast in your images.

3. Rapport


Having a good rapport and good communication with your subjects is the best way to get the best expressions out of them.

It should probably go without saying that if you are serious about undertaking portrait photography, then your people skills are going to be paramount to your success. In order to get the best reactions and poses, and to keep your subjects comfortable and engaged, you should build a rapport with each and every subject. Every person is different and no two techniques or methods will work the same with everyone, so you will need to build a catalog of techniques to help you encourage the best from people.

You can start by always, always being polite. Stay positive and complimentary even if things are going completely wrong. Instead of saying: “this isn’t right,” try something along the lines of “This is cool, let’s move on to something else.”

Also remember that as the focus of your portrait is the person you are photographing, so should your attention be. Talk about your subject, and let them talk about themselves.

Try to avoid talking about your photography and definitely avoid technical jargon. Unless you are photographing a photographer, nobody cares. I know that’s tough to hear as you as a photographer care deeply about that stuff, but nobody else does. The confusion and disinterest that those topics inspire in other people will clearly show in the final photos.

If you remember that it’s not about you or your photography, but the person in the photo, you mostly can’t go wrong.

4. Background

Image: On location, making sure your backgrounds are clean and distraction-free is a vital skill to...

On location, making sure your backgrounds are clean and distraction-free is a vital skill to develop.

This is one of those skills that once you learn, you will start to do it automatically and never have to think about it again. In the beginning, however, it is vital to pay close attention to the backgrounds in your images. Ensure there are no extraneous elements creeping into the frame. Make sure there’s nothing like poles, trees, or cars intersecting your subject. If your background is blurred with a shallow depth of field, make sure there are no blobs of contrasting color or value that take away attention from your subject.

In short, pay as much attention to your backgrounds as you do your subjects and ensure that they are clean and distraction-free.


Background clutter is just as much of a pain in the studio. Lights, cables, reflectors, edges of the background all seem to find a way to creep into the frame.

This is easier to do in the studio environment, but there are still things that you can look out for. Avoid using wrinkled backdrops (they never, ever look good). With plain walls, look out for marks and cracks from subsidence or similar. Just taking a moment to pay attention to these small details can help to improve your photos immensely. It’s also a lot easier to spot these things and deal with them in the moment than it is to retouch them out of your photos later.

5. Get close


Filling the frame with your subject will help to emphasize the focal point of your image.

It was Robert Capa who said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

Out of all the photography quotes ever quoted, this is the one I find the most useful by far. It applies to all genres of photography in general, but in portraiture, it’s a particularly important concept. Whatever the focus of your photos (people in this case), ensuring that that your subject is the focal point, and the only focal point in the image, is important. Get close and fill the frame. In most cases, you don’t need much background, and in a lot of cases, you don’t need any background at all.

Doing this helps you to make sure there are no distracting elements in your images. It also helps to emphasize that your portrait is a portrait of a person and nothing else. Sure, there are plenty of instances when you want more background in your images.

Environmental portraiture is a fantastic genre that I love to look at, but if you look at some of the best examples of these, you will probably find that the subject still dominates the frame. The background is just ancillary information that is used to complement the focus on the subject rather than detract from it.


All that said, the use of dead space is a valuable and wonderful compositional element.

Another instance you might opt not to get too close is when you want to use dead space as a design element or perhaps for editorial photography. That’s also fine. The key in these situations is to know when to be close and get a tight-framed portrait, and when to step back and let more into the frame. Most of the time with portraits, however, you will be well-served by getting in close and filling the frame.

The beginning

There you have it, that’s a few tips that will help you to improve your portrait photography without spending another penny. Perhaps not all of these tips will suit you and your photography, but I encourage you to try to implement them for the sake of seeing what you can learn from them anyway.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and if you have any tips you feel should be shared with beginners to help improve their portrait photography, please do leave them in the comments.

The post Simple Tips to Improve Your Portrait Photography Immediately appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by John McIntire.

How to Choose Urban Landscapes for Portrait Photography

The post How to Choose Urban Landscapes for Portrait Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Matt Murray.


Are you bored of doing portrait shoots in the studio or the local park? Try mixing things up with an urban portrait shoot. The city streets, the buildings, the laneways – this is your cinematic backdrop. All you need is a little bit of planning and a lot of imagination. If you’ve never done a shoot like this before, you might be wondering how to choose locations. In this article, I will run you through my process of choosing urban landscapes for portrait photography


Bailey in a window, Brisbane. I took this shot with some off-camera flash outside my local library. Fujifilm X-T3 with a 23mm f1.4 lens.

An urban portrait shoot in my city? No way!

You may think that your city or your town has nothing of interest, but it does. You just have to look with a fresh perspective. Sometimes I’ll be on a photo walk with another photographer, and they don’t seem to see the potential that their town has to offer. “Wow, look at that doorway!” I’ll say. With a puzzled face, they reply, “It’s just a doorway!” 

No, it’s not just a doorway – it’s a potential scene in your next urban portrait shoot. 

Image: Sasha, Brisbane. I used these old street lamps as an element in the shoot. Fujifilm X-T3 with...

Sasha, Brisbane. I used these old street lamps as an element in the shoot. Fujifilm X-T3 with a 56mm f1.2 lens.

Every town or city I’ve ever been to has its charms and a unique look: from modern glass and steel skyscrapers to historic buildings to run-down industrial areas. There are so many aspects of urban locations that you could include in your shoots: laneways, street art, doorways, neon signs, steel shutters, and traffic trails, just to name a few. 

There’s also the unique way that light falls in urban environments: harsh beams of light that fall between buildings, beautiful soft light that you find in doorways and under bridges, and in Brisbane, dazzling light reflecting off skyscrapers. The possibilities are endless.

The best time for an urban portrait shoot

The best time for an urban portrait shoot is whenever you and your client or model are both available. Regardless of the light, the weather, or the locations. The success of the photoshoot is ultimately in your hands. 

My favorite time for doing urban portrait shoots is just before dusk. This allows you to get a good mix of golden hour photos with sunlight, blue hour photos as the city lights come into play and nighttime shots with artificial light. 


Alyssa in an industrial alleyway, Brisbane. Fujifilm X-T3 with a 60mm f2.4 lens.

Location scouting

I usually run portrait shoots for around 90-minutes, allowing me to shoot in 6-8 locations. 

It’s best to do your location scouting at the same time of day that your shoot will take place. This is so you can look at the light, see how it falls, and plan accordingly. In practice, though, I usually end up doing my scouting during the day. 

Before I arrange the shoot, I take some time to wander about the city to find 8-10 locations close together. The reason I look for more places than I’ll need is to be flexible on the shoot. Cars or trucks can block alleyways, big crowds could move through the area at the time of the shoot, or the lighting could be all wrong. There’s a whole lot of things that could make the location unsuitable when you arrive at the scene.

Although it’s tempting to plan to shoot in two locations at opposite ends of town, unless you have easy access to transport on the day of the shoot, it will be impractical. Photoshoots can be tiring for everyone, so asking your client or model to walk several city blocks and back again to shoot in one location may not be the best idea. 

What to take during location scouting

When you’re scouting for locations, have a notepad and pen ready along with your smartphone. When you see somewhere that you like, take a photo on your phone for reference and jot down some notes. I always draw a map of the city streets in my notebook. Then I plot the locations on it and plan a direction for the shoot.

What I’m looking for during my walk is a cool urban location in which to place the client or model. Some locations will leap out at you, and you will know that you should take some photos there. Others may not reveal their charm until later when the lights are low. 

Image: Natasha, Brisbane. I like the very subtle reflection in the polished stone wall behind her. F...

Natasha, Brisbane. I like the very subtle reflection in the polished stone wall behind her. Fujifilm X-T3 with 56mm f1.2 lens

As you’re wandering around, there’s a couple of things you need to keep in mind:


What is this place going to look like at dusk or nighttime? Remember that for many shots, you will be shooting with a wide-open aperture, or close to wide open, so many of the details in the background will be blurred. 

Potential risks

It may look cool, but is this place dangerous in any way? Think of how you will place the model or client in this scene – are there any risks that you need to be mindful of? Is there a lot of traffic? Is it a dangerous neighborhood? You should consider all of this when you’re planning, as safety should be your top priority for these shoots.

Below are some of my go-to shots when I plan an urban photoshoot. I took all of these within a few blocks of each other in central Brisbane, Australia. 

Neon lights

Neon shots are a favorite with the Instagram crowd, and it’s easy to see why. They are so much fun and a great image idea to have up your sleeve.

Neon signs are something that, quite honestly, I never usually notice. However, as soon as you start looking for them, you’ll be amazed at how many your town has.


Alyssa, Brisbane. This neon light is outside a takeaway shop in central Brisbane. I was attracted to the three different colors the sign had.

Beer kegs outside a pub

As soon as I saw these beer kegs in a laneway outside a pub, I knew I wanted to incorporate them in a shoot. I’ve used them as both a background element and also as a prop for models to sit on.

In this shot of Anne, I struck gold. By chance, it was one of the busiest days for pubs in the year – Melbourne Cup Day. There were a few dozen kegs in a laneway all stacked on one another. I lit this shot with an LED video light.


Anne in front of beer kegs, Brisbane. I love the shape, color, and reflection of the kegs in the background. Fujifilm X-T3 with an 8-16mm f2.8 lens lit with an LED video light.


Many Australian cities are blessed with alleyways. In many ways, they are the perfect place for photoshoots. Expect atmospheric lighting, an industrial look, street art – and best of all – little traffic. While Melbourne may be the laneways capital of Australia, Brisbane has many too.

Image: Natasha in a laneway, Brisbane. I like the color and bokeh that some tiny blue fairy lights p...

Natasha in a laneway, Brisbane. I like the color and bokeh that some tiny blue fairy lights provided in this shot. Fujifilm X-T3 with a 56mm f1.2 lens.

Telephone booth

This is a really fun place to use for some shots – if you can still find one these days. You may also have to take some time to explain to younger clients or models on how to use a public payphone!


Alyssa in a phone booth in Brisbane. Fujifilm X-T3 with a 35mm f1.4 lens.


Reflections are a go-to image idea for urban portrait shoots. Many buildings provide you with glass or reflective surfaces.

Image: Anne looking into a mirrored surface, Brisbane. Fujifilm X-T2 with a 56mm f1.2 lens.

Anne looking into a mirrored surface, Brisbane. Fujifilm X-T2 with a 56mm f1.2 lens.

Old signage

I love history and nostalgia, but sadly there isn’t much left in my city. One day I noticed this sign and thought I’d love to do some shots here.

Image: Sasha in front of a sign, Brisbane. Fujifilm X-T3 with a 16mm f1.4 lens.

Sasha in front of a sign, Brisbane. Fujifilm X-T3 with a 16mm f1.4 lens.

Take your next portrait shoot to the streets

Urban portrait shoots can be a lot of fun. If you’ve never done one before, I hope that this guide has inspired you to look around your city for urban landscapes for portrait photography.

For your first time, you can always ask a friend to be your model if you want to try things out and see how the images look. Practice makes perfect.

Remember, safety is a very important factor in a shoot like this – both for your client or model and for yourself.

Urban shoots have helped me grow as a photographer. I feel more creative, I see possibilities for images in the mundane, and they’ve also helped me to think on my feet and improvise. ­­­­

So what are you waiting for? An endless array of scenes is right on your doorstep. Take your next portrait shoot to the streets.

Do you have any other tips for scouting urban landscapes for portrait photography? Share with us in the comments!

The post How to Choose Urban Landscapes for Portrait Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Matt Murray.