The Unposed Portrait

Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi
A simple color scheme and framing between two rows of train seats provided the isolation for this candid portrait.

All the images in this tutorial will include all the camera settings so that you can learn and study the aperture and focal lengths used to get the look of each image

The goal of a portrait is to capture a person’s personality. The purpose of this tutorial is to explore unposed portraiture, as presented to the Thousand Oaks Photo Group for their January 2018 Digital Composition Challenge.

After returning from Mongolia, I wrote this short blog entry on the unposed portrait challenge that I set for myself during my trip. I wrote:

When traveling to a far away place, whether literally far away, culturally different, or just to an event with dress-up costumes, there is a strong seductive pull to take posed portraits. You may ask your subject to move into the light, change to a different location, turn their head, or perform a particular gesture. These posed portraits can be striking and fun and I’ve seen many photographers fill their portfolios with these posed images of exotic faces in exotic places.

For me, however, posing has never been my thing. I’m not sure if it is because I am bad at posing and communicating with a subject or if I deep-down believe that the posed portrait is missing a more deeply authentic expression. So while in Mongolia I made myself a challenge – no posed portraits.

As we gathered around and photographed the beautiful and generous people of Mongolia, herders and families, many would freeze in a stern face as if they only new of slow film requiring long exposures. While the group began to photograph, I laid back and waited for the release in the tension, looking for the in-between moments when they let their guard down. I looked for the breaks in the stoney expressions, a caring glance toward a family member, or the far away stare into the vast country side.

This tutorial will delve into how to approach taking the unposed portrait.

A long lens and the elevation of the subject (he was sitting on a horse) allowed for the use of the sky as a clean background. His fox hat and collar provides a framing for his expression of concentration.


For the purposes of this discussion, the focus is on portraiture of a single person, maybe two, within a clean background without a lot of context. This constrained definition will compel us to focus on the emotional message of the person’s expression and gesture. This is in contrast to an environmental portrait that will show a lot of context and visually connect the person with what he is or does.

Here are some keys for this style of isolated unposed portrait:

  • One Person (maybe two)
  • Clean background
  • Choice of
    • Head only
    • Head and shoulders
    • Full body
  • Look for a candid, authentic expression
    • far away look
    • concern
    • fear
    • joy
  • If the subject connects with you and poses, wait for them to relax
    • Take images before and after they pose
    • Wait them out
  • Respect the subject
    • AVOID: Awkward expressions or hand gestures
    • AVOID: Eating or chewing
    • AVOID: Sleeping
The long lens and far away background provided the optics to blur the detail of the mountain-side behind this competitor at the Golden Eagle Festival. Here is is competing for how quickly his eagle will respond to his calls.

The Gear

Typically, you will want to use a lens with a longer focal length and larger aperture so that you can issolate the subject with both your framing and the use a shallower depth of field. Remember that a smaller f-number provides a larger aperture. For example, f/2.8 is a larger aperture than f/22.

If you aren’t clear about how to control the depth of field with aperture, focal length, and distance to the subject, you should read one of these tutorials.

You can also experiement with tools such as Dof Master.

Here are some recommendations of focal lengths and apertures which you can use as a starting point to issolate the subject with depth of field. The recommendations vary based on your camera’s sensor size.

  • Full-frame cameras (ex. Nikon 800 series; Canon 5D series; Sony A7 series)
    • 85mm or longer, f/4 -f/5.6
  • APS-C cameras (ex. Canon 7D, XT, Ti series; Nikon 700 series; Fuji mirrorless)
    • 50mm or longer , f/3.5 – f/4
  • Micro Four Thirds (ex. Olympus PEN, OM-D; Panasonic GX)
    • 45mm or longer , f/1.8 – f/2
Using the repetitive seats and simple color scheme separates the subject from his background. Again a long focal length was used with a moderately large aperture setting.

What to Look For

  • Find a clean background
    • Get low to use the sky as your background
    • Use shallow depth of field to blur the background
    • Better if the subject has distance from the background
  • Be patient, wait for the background / edges to clear out
    • Verticals can help eliminate distractions
  • Tight crops are fine, but be aware not to clip off tops of heads and hats, hands, fingers, and toes.
Razdak catching his eagle
Another example using a long lens and wide aperture to isolate the subject from the background.

Post-Processing Tips (Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom)

Almost all photography that we see is processed to some degree (yes, even in the film days). For portraiture, typical adjustments might include bringing out the light in the eyes and selectively brightening faces and shadows. These adjustments can be easily accomplished using the brush tools and radial filters in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom.

  • Bring out the light in their eyes
    • Brush tool: Increase Highlights and/or Whites
  • Highlight the face
    • Radial filter: Increase Exposure

Resist over use of smoothing, sharpening, clarity, or dehaze. Keep the look natural.

Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi
The clean white side and window the Shinkansen high-speed bullet train provided isolation required for this portrait.