What is Portrait Photography? [Updated May 2017]
Portrait photography is one of the most popular genres of photography, but it has many meanings that seem to vary from one person to another. So what is portrait photography, or as it's also called, portraiture? Let's take a deeper look.
Defining Portrait Photography
The basic definition of portrait photography is photography of a person or group to capture the personality of the subjects using lighting, backgrounds and posing.
Well, that sounds rather simple.
In one sense, it is simple. You know your purpose when you look at that definition. You want to capture the personality of your subject in a photograph. The problem is that everyone has a bit of a different personality. If you truly want to capture the personality of your subjects, then you need to vary your approach with each portrait session.
Otherwise, your photos end up looking like a high school yearbook.
Wouldn't that be dreary
Why Do We Need Portrait Photography?
There are many reasons that people need portraits. Some of them are quite basic.
- Engagement portraits
- Wedding portraits
- High School Senior portraits
- Baby portraits
- Social Media profile portraits
- Passport photos
- Business Card portraits
- Employee Identification Cards
- Resumes and Professional Information documents
- Commemoration of Special Events
- Party portraits
- Family portraits
- Artistic expression
- To enhance articles and books
This isn't a comprehensive list, but it gives you an idea that people want and need portrait photography for a variety of reasons. Whether you need a headshot for your profession or you want to commemorate an event, like a wedding, a portrait is a common need. Whatever the motivation, people share one common trait when having their portrait photo taken.
They want to look good.
Our subjects have interior and exterior needs. On the exterior, they need a headshot for professional reasons. The interior need is to look their best in the portrait.
As a portrait photographer, you shouldn't just crank out headshots of everyone the same way. It doesn't matter if the technical aspects are perfect if you fail to satisfy the interior need to look good. Every subject is different.
Part of satisfying the interior need of looking good is working with your composition to capture a flattering angle of your subject. The other part is creating the mood in a subject that reflects his or her personality. You have to get to know your subjects in order to draw out their inner character.
The Four Types of Portrait Photography
There are probably a million different ways to take a portrait. I enjoy looking at portraits, both for their creativity and mastery of technical issues. People have taken portraits from here to the Moon under more circumstances than I can count.
When I break it down, I find there are common elements that describe each portrait, at least at a very high level. The four types of portrait photography are:
- Formal Studio Portraits
- Environmental Portraits
- Candid Portraits
- Composite Portraits
I'll explain the differences between each type of portrait photography.
Formal Studio Portraits
First of all, consider that portraits precede the invention of photography. Painters created their portraits in formal sessions where the subject had to remain still while the artist worked to capture their likeness.
Photography is certainly much faster, but the style of a formal portrait remains popular. Photography studios exist to take portraits under very controlled conditions.
Types of Studios
A studio is just a box of a room and you have to bring things inside it to create the environment you desire.
What kind of stuff goes into a studio?
- Lighting equipment
- Backgrounds or backdrops
- A makeup and changing area
What you need in a studio depends upon the type of people you're serving. You need enough space to shoot your portrait, but there's more.
How many people need to be on the set or nearby? Do you need to provide adequate space for customers who are observing the photo session, as with a commercial campaign? Is this an all-day affair where you need to provide catering services?
You may need to bring a table or tripod to hold your computer so you can shoot tethered and see your results on a large screen. As with any building, you need to provide restrooms for guests.
If it sounds like a portrait studio can be an expensive proposition, you're right. Even a small, basic studio is just an empty box waiting for you to fill it with light and activity.
Renting a studio may be a useful alternative if you don't want to take on the expense of maintaining your own place. You can take advantage of the resources of a studio for a short time. Some studios may also rent you lighting equipment or other resources for your portrait session.
If you have the space, creating a temporary home studio may be the answer.
The photo above is one variation of my temporary home studio. It's temporary because that's part of my living room.
The setup here is quite simple. There is a 107″ roll of Savage White backdrop paper. On the sides are two v-flats made of white foam core boards (4′ x 8′) taped together with gaffer tape. They serve a dual purpose. One reason is to block the light from the fast lighting the background from entering the camera. The other purpose is to reflect light onto my subject for a high key photo.
Studio Portrait Examples
It's very common to find white backdrops and flooring in studio environments. That creates a neutral environment that's perfect for product or catalog shots, but rather boring for portrait photography.
Having a neutral background can work in your favor, though. It means the environment isn't competing with your subject for attention. Here is an example I took at One Model Place Studios.
That doesn't mean your studio portraits have to be neutral. Remember, you can bring in anything that will fit to create the environment you want. Here is an example I shot at StudioOne in Orlando.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Studio Portraits
The kind of photos you can take in a studio are almost limitless, to the extent that your budget is also limitless. There is a reason why motion picture studios spend a lot of money on studios – control.
- You decide what kind of light and how much you need.
- Bring in the background set your photo needs.
- Add environmental elements like wind, rain or dust to enhance the atmosphere of the photo.
Anything is possible, given enough time, space and money.A studio is just a box that you fill with your imagination.Click To Tweet
That means you don't have to fill it with distractions. There won't be an unexpected breeze knocking over your lights and set pieces. You won't have a stranger photo-bombing your portrait. A studio keeps undesirable elements out of your way.
The disadvantage of a studio is the flip side of its advantages – the cost of bringing all of your imagination into a studio.
Beginning photographers can have unrealistic expectations of a formal studio portrait. It can seem exciting to shoot in a studio. Then you get there are realize there's nothing interesting in the studio, unless you brought it. Some studios are exceptions and they may have interesting backgrounds or props to use, but check before you make your deposit.
Environmental portraits can be taken anywhere. The key is to fit the environment to your subject in order to draw out a message. In fact, a studio may be an appropriate place to take an environmental portrait of a studio portrait photographer. The environment complements the subject to say something about their personality or character.
That doesn't mean you have to put your subject in an expected environment.
One of the most interesting tools we can use is contrast. There is more to a person than what they do. You can also showcase another aspect of their life, such as where they live or a place they represent.
Joe McNally used this technique in his portrait of gymnast Shawn Johnson by placing her on a balance beam in an Iowa corn field.
Let's face it, you don't expect to find a gymnast in a corn field. He could have shot her in a gymnasium and made a nice portrait. Making a nice portrait in an unexpected location is an intriguing idea, but it also says something else about the subject.
She's representing America in her competitions. Why not shoot the photo in the heartland of America?
Location Scouting for Environmental Portrait Photography
One of the key advantages of environmental portrait photography is that you don't have to carry your environment inside a studio. Instead, you have to go find photography locations.
Sometimes this is a simple task. Photographing someone in their home or place of work reduces a lot of the scouting issues for you.
If an environment isn't handed to you as part of the job, it helps to know how to scout for portrait photography locations. Here are a few factors you want to consider:
- Suitability to Your Subject
- Color and Textures
- Natural Frames
- Quality of Light
Environmental portrait photography can be a wonderful experience if you do your research. Things can go bad very quickly on a photoshoot if you don't know what to expect. Once you step outside of the studio, you release your sense of control of the background, so you may have to roll with some of the changes.
There are times when unexpected issues can work rather well for you, so don't give up just because everything isn't as you imagined it. That's like never leaving your driveway until all the lights are green between your home and your destination.
It ain't gonna happen.
I mentioned this first because it's the first consideration you have as an environmental portrait photographer. You are the director of the photoshoot. It's up to you to consider everyone's needs. The imperative need of everyone participating in portrait photography is their safety.
Don't make your photo their last photo.
It may look really cool to have your subject hanging off a cliff or on the edge of a tall building, but it's a long way down. Railroad tracks are an outdoor portrait cliché, but people have actually been hit by a train while posing for photos. It's not like trains are quiet things, but they can't stop in time for people who aren't paying attention.
Rickety ladders or fire escapes can give way. Trespassing on someone else's property can be a problem. Venturing far into the woods without communication or first aid could be a dangerously lonely experience.
Portrait photography is a lot of fun when you don't invite tragedy.
Have you ever looked at an environmental portrait and wondered how the photographer got access to such a wonderful place? It's really not that hard if you keep these issues in mind.
You're more likely to get access to a great location if you're working to serve someone else. Concert venues don't let every schmoe with a camera into the pit. You have to earn the right to be there by shooting for someone that has a use for your photos. You can shoot for a magazine, the concert venue, the performing act or maybe a wire service.
The key isn't whether you can take better photos than the next person in the pit. They key is to make your photos useful. Bands and venues need photos for promotion. Magazines need photos to accompany a review or other article.
A concert venue is just one example. Think about the location you want to shoot and research who may want photos. They may open the door for you because they're getting something in return.
Most business locations are very good at saying “no” to requests if there is no benefit to them. The tip about serving others is a way to overcome that issue by providing them with a benefit, but it may not be enough.
They want to know that you're not going to damage their property or do something that could put them out of business, even if only for a few hours. One way of accommodating that concern is by showing them that you have valid insurance for General Liability and Workers' Compensation.
General Liability insurance protects the cost of any damage you may accidentaly cause to their property and business.
Workers' Compensation covers any injury or illness suffered by you and your crew.
Not only can having these insurance policies help you gain access to someone else's business or property, but they can also protect you in case of a lawsuit.
There are many places to acquire General Liability and Workers' Compensation. One popular firm providing insurance to photographers in the USA is Hill & Usher.
Suitability to Your Subject
There are plenty of environmental portrait location clichés. You seem them used even if they have no relationship to the subject.
- Railroad tracks
- Brick walls
- Urban environments
- Forests and woodlands
- Abandoned buildings
These are places that photographers go when they have no idea where else to go. That's because most of them are open and available to the public, though abandoned buildings are often on private property. I'm not saying that these locations are inherently bad.
They're only bad if they have no relation to your subject.
Taking a model and putting him against a brick wall doesn't necessarily tell you anything about the subject. I know, because I've taken this kind of photograph before.
Looking at this photo, you probably have no idea that she's a ballerina. The technical aspects of leading lines and depth of field are there, but the location says nothing about her personality or character.
On the other hand, you can infer more about this next subject from her environment.
A young woman in jeans and boots sitting on bales of hay in front of a barn. It's a rustic setting and she's comfortable in her environment. In this case, it's because she's an equestrian. The photo may not show her horse, but the environment gives you a clue about her and what she enjoys.
Your environmental portrait photos need to inform the viewer about your subject. They have to tell a story that supports the subject. Busy backgrounds and environments compete for attention rather than support your subject.
It's important to eliminate distractions from your photos.
Anything that competes with your subject is a distraction. A distraction could be a bright spot in your composition, a horizon line cutting through your model's head, or just a bunch of junk in the background. If an element doesn't support your subject, eliminate it. Distill your photo to include only the essential elements.
You have to strike a balance between environment and subject, but put your thumb on the scale so your subject always comes out on top.
One of the ways to do that is to take a test shot and adjust for the problems. Here's an example of the first shot of a model in a pool. I'm not proud, but sometimes you have to show your failures to make a point.
Where do I begin?
I have a model in my frame and I haven't done her any service here. The background is full of distractions. Plants. Furniture. Over-exposed light. I'm also shooting from the wrong angle, but we'll talk more about that in another section.
However, it was a place to start. I shot a few frames and examined the corrections I needed to make. The biggest problem was my background, so I slightly adjusted my position and we came up with this photo in a few seconds.
Just by stepping to a few feet to the left and getting lower to change my angle of view, I went from a tragic hot mess of a background to one that support the personality and character of my model.
Color and Textures
Color and textures in portrait photography attack the senses. These visual elements, used properly, can draw the viewer's eye right to your subject.
The red shorts on this boxer are a stark contrast to his gritty training environment. You see a man who is fit and athletic, but the bright red, framed by his arms and gloves, tells the story in this photo.
Movie posters use a very common color combination all the time – teal and orange. That's because the colors are complementary and easily found in nature. The sky changes from orange to blue to orange and then teal just after sunset. Many times the movie posters will use color grading to change skin tone to complement the background so the end result is teal and orange. It's a compelling combination.
Fortunately, it's not the only combination. You can use complementary colors or contrasting colors in your portrait photography. Just remember the main objective is to support your subject, not overwhelm them.
Sometimes the Universe hands you a gift.
Texture adds another type of interest to your environmental photo. Imagine this portrait of a tobacco farmer without the added texture of his environment.
The texture doesn't compete for attention, but it adds information. The drying tobacco leaves and wood posts add leading lines which draw your eye into the portrait of the farmer. The board in his lap is old and weathered, complementing his age and rough hands.
Old cities are wonderful for finding texture. Sometimes you can find a scene that you like and just wait for the right person to enter. As they say, find a stage and the actors will come.
Look for areas that create a frame around your subject. The phrase “natural frame” doesn't mean you're limited to naturally occurring frames, but anything you encounter on a location that seems like a good fit. It could be a doorway, an arch or any opening to an enclosed space.
In the photo above, the model uses the framework of the doors and the curtains to emerge as the central subject. When you see a framework or opening, it's natural to wonder what's inside. Put your model in a natural frame and it will draw your viewer's eye to the subject.
Direction of Light
You can change the mood of your photo by creatively using the direction of light. Never forget that mobility is one of your greatest attributes as a photographer. That means you need to move around your subject and look at the possibilities. What happens if your subject is backlit or has side lighting instead of just blasting light from the direction of the camera?
The photo of Arno (above) uses directional light to accentuate his physique. He spent a lot of time working on his body. Are you just going to walk up and hit him with on-camera flash? It would be a waste of an opportunity.
These creative possibilities are why so many photographers want to get their flash off-camera. It's the least flattering option to light your subject. Except, perhaps, lighting below your subject.
Now let's try the same subject with a better direction of light.
Now that's much better. Direction of light is only part of the issue, though.
Quality of Light
As you can see, there is a significant difference in the quality of light between the two photos of the fireman above.
What does that mean?
The quality of light generally refers to the characteristic of light that yields a shadow. A harsh quality of light creates harsh, abrupt shadows as you see in the top image of the fireman. There tend to be extreme changes between light and shadow on your subject.
At the other end, a soft quality of light has much softer shadows on your subject. The area of brightness gradually degrades into shadow. It's more of an even light with subtle changes.
There are a lot of people who think that hard light is bad and soft light is good. My own answer is that it depends upon your subject. There really isn't any such thing as bad light. What matters is whether the light is appropriate for your subject and the circumstances of your portrait.
Generally speaking, we like soft light for portraits. That's why the photography industry is full of light modifiers like umbrellas and soft boxes to diffuse the light. It's flattering light.
I think hard light gets a bad reputation. Many photographers think of it as bad light, but it's still useful. Here's an example shot with a small reflector and without any diffusion.
Take a look at her nose and you'll detect the dark outline shadow associated with hard light. Sometimes the secret to working with the light available to you is as simple as turning your face.
Hard light invokes a mood. There are places you visit in life without ever thinking about the light, yet capturing a portrait in similar lighting takes you back and gives you a contextual relationship with the photo.
Soft light is far less dramatic.
You still find shadows in soft light, but they are soft shadows. Notice how they degrade gradually from light to shadow. Rather than seeing a harsh shadow from her nose, we see a slightly darker skin tone than her left side closer to the light.
Just as hard light can set a mood of action or intensity, soft light sets a more casual and laid-back mood for your subject.
Soft light can be gentle, carefree, romantic or seductive.
Use the quality of light that suits your subject and the mood you want your photos to evoke.
What is Portrait Photography All About?
It seems like a question too obvious to ask. What is portrait photography?
I think it's imperative that we understand the answer, though. Portrait photography isn't about our cameras, gear and lighting equipment. There is more to portrait photography than our techniques, posing or direction.
We're after a result.
Portrait photography is about relating a human experience. It's about exposing the character of your subject. Your portraits of people tell their story.
Most of your attention during a portrait photoshoot should have little to do with photography. You've heard of the 80/20 rule. Portrait photography is 20% photography and 80% relationship.
Your subjects trust you. The way to get the best portrait photo is to understand how they relate to the world, and then capture that in your photos.
In simple terms, expression is a way of communicating thoughts and feelings. Our faces share our emotions. Expressions can be subtle or extreme, but they are the keys to an inviting photograph. You may have heard that the eyes are the windows to our souls, but our expressions open the door.
We all communicate with facial expressions, as do animals. It’s built into our DNA. Facial expressions quickly and vividly announce our mood.
Charles Darwin noticed and wrote about it in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Our expressions link movement with our emotional state, which others instinctively understand.
The power of expression reaches into genetic programming wired into our souls. It seems incredibly obvious that some form of outward display of emotion ought to be critical to our photographs.
Expression, and similarly gesture, tell a story. We don’t want to just look at a portrait of someone. We want to understand something about them.
I see a lot of models who adopt a blank expression that belies nothing of who they are. You may not need a smile in your portraits. That’s OK. There are plenty of other expressions that can work for you.
Talk to your subjects. Find out what they’re thinking. Direct them toward the mood of the photo. The expressions will come.
2: Color and Tone
Color matters. Skin should appear natural. Unfortunately, there are a number of ways to screw up skin tone. It starts in camera with poor exposure and white balance.
Here’s a sample of poor white balance. There is a yellow color cast that ruins her skin, hair and eyes.
Your subjects trust you do make them look their best. If you don’t understand how to control exposure and white balance, your subject could end up looking like one of The Simpsons.
Always take some test shots and examine them for exposure and white balance issues. Make your corrections before proceeding with the photoshoot.
It may be difficult to see some of the issues on a camera LCD. I recommend shooting tethered to a computer if possible. It’s much easier to spot and correct issues when you have a large screen.
If tethering isn’t feasible, be sure to zoom in on your LCD to get a look up close at exposure, color and sharpness.
Always bring a grey card or color card for your test shots. Some cameras can set their white balance on the spot with a grey card. At the very least, the grey card gives you a neutral color to use in postprocessing to get natural colors.
If you want something a bit more durable than a piece of cardboard, you can buy a Lastolite LL LR1250 12-Inch Ezybalance Card, as shown in the photo below. It's durable, packs into a small size, and it has some contrasting lines that make it easy to get focus for your shot.
I've used mine for years without any damage to the card. The piece of cardboard above came for free in a photography book, and it works. However, it eventually frayed and changed color. The Ezybalance card cost money, but it lasted and provided consistent results for years.
Another great choice is an X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Photo.
Photograph the Passport in the same lighting conditions you plan to use for your photoshoot.
I use it with Adobe Lightroom, but it also works in other postprocessing software. You use the grey squares to set your White Balance and then export the image of the Passport using a Lightroom plugin to add a Color Calibration profile that’s specific to the conditions of your photograph.
Why is this important?
You can make sure that your skin tones are accurate, as well as any other color in your photograph. If you’re a commercial photographer on assignment from Coca-Cola, you have to be sure that the Red color on the product is Coca-Cola red.
Color matters. Precision counts. The X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Photo is how you make sure your photos are color accurate.
TIP: Ask your subject to hold the Passport by the edges. You need a clear view of the colors inside.
Color affects tone. Even if you plan to desaturate or convert to Black and White later, start with the right color so all the changes reflect your intent.
Not everyone who sits for a portrait will sit still. Don’t be afraid to include some motion in your portraits. Motion adds visual interest and energy to a photograph. It’s another tool you can use to draw in your viewer.
Our eyes react to light, color and motion. We can’t help it. If something moves, it gets our attention.
Use that primal instinct in your portrait photography. You can freeze motion or let it blur. Either way, your viewer will understand that you’ve captured something in motion.
Motion makes your portraits stand out from the crowd.
Not only do we respond to motion, but it adds another element to your photographs.
We can’t help it. As soon as we know something is moving, we want to know what happens next. Building anticipation addresses our imagination and curiosity.
Will she win the race? Can he hop over the puddle? Are they jumping high enough to make it over the top?
Motion doesn’t have to be extreme in order to be useful.
Earlier in this section, you see extreme blur as a bicyclist races through a jungle. Here we see a young woman turning with her dress.
4: Light and Shadows
You always hear photographers talking about light. Of course, we can’t take a photo without light, but there’s such a thing as too much light. Shadows are your friend. They define the edges and allow the light to stand out.
Light and Shadow are Yin and Yang. Each needs the other to develop interest.
Shadow defines your subjects. If you want to accentuate an edge, let the light fall off into shadow.
If you want to create a dark or somber mood, let your subjects emerge from shadow into the light.
You can use shadows to illustrate serious effort. Shadows can create a sense of loneliness. Someone working alone in near darkness has a greater sense of presence than in a fully lit room.
More than once I’ve heard Joe McNally share this advice from one of his mentors:
“If you want to make something interesting, don’t light all of it.”
Connections show relationships between people, animals and even objects. We love seeing couples, people with their pets, or even a favorite possession. Use connections to tell a story about your subject that allows your viewer to relate.
Connections are essential to happy living. We all have our connections and we recognize them in others.
Some of the most powerful connections show a display of love and affection. Connections make you think about the subjects in the photo. Sometimes a photo can remind you of your own connections, or spur you to take action to create a new connection of your own.
When you’re seeking subjects for your portrait photography, consider asking them about their own connections. They help identify our subjects and inform our viewers.
We’ve seen musicians with their instruments. Engagement and wedding photos show the love of a couple.
Relationships with animals can make very compelling portraits. They bring out the best in your subjects and add a “cute” factor to your photos.
Environmental portraits connect your subject with a location, creating something that goes beyond a standard portrait. It gives you the opportunity and the challenge to put a person in a place. Do it well and your viewer will enjoy it.
I attended a training area for boxers in Havana. They work incredibly hard in their training, thanks to a mindful coach.
Even without his direction, they spent part of their time running up and down these stairs in the heat of the day. I would have collapsed.
Of all my photos from that experience, this one tells the best story. Sweat. Muscle. Grueling environment. Hard training.
The chance to take a break for a moment shows how much they put into their training.
The environment shows that there are no mercies here. No air conditioned gym. Here, they train outside with only the essentials.
Would the photo feel the same if they were resting in an air conditioned gym?
Portrait Photographers Have a Responsibility
If you're still wondering , “What is portrait photography?”, the answer is simple. It's a responsibility to your subjects.
People love to see photos of other people. People love to see themselves in photos that look great. They will share those photos with pride. A great portrait photo is something they want to show to their friends, family and everyone in the world.
Just as a nice photo makes them feel good, an average or poor portrait can bring them crashing down.
Portrait photos affect emotions like no other genre.
It's not just the end result that matters. The portrait experience can be tense and frustrating for our subjects. I know, because I feel it, too. Put me on the other side of the camera and I suddenly feel very self conscious about every flaw people can see. That's because I know how accurately a camera can capture and freeze those flaws for anyone to examine.
Capturing someone's portrait is more than a hobby or profession. It's a matter of trust. Your subject trusts you to make them feel good and produce a result that delights them.
Consequently, portrait photography is a responsibility that can make both you and you subject feel great.