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Portrait photography

What's so special about portraits? Isn't a portrait just a photo of someone?

That's what I used to think: Then I became a portrait photographer...

What is portrait photography?

Portrait photography is about capturing the essence and personality of a subject through effective posing, lighting, backgrounds, and technical ability.

Let's break it down: If you are interested in portrait photography, it's important to understand each of these terms in relation to it.

What does a portrait photographer do?

1. Posing

Posing is the process of directing or guiding your subject to change their physical position with the goal of increasing visual interest.

Oftentimes: As a portrait photographer, you want to guide your subject into a pose that is visually interesting and flattering and helps communicate the mood you are trying to convey through your photo.

You may have your subject turn their body to a certain angle, move their arms a certain way, cross a certain leg over the other, etc.

For example: In this image, I had my subject "pose" by having her touch her lip to add a bit more visual interest.

Girl in between neon lights in a portrait photo.
Portrait photo example of posing

2. Lighting

Lighting affects the exposure settings in your photograph and also helps control the mood and story in your portrait.

Now: Lighting is important in any genre of photography, but I think it is especially critical in portrait photography.

Along with the availability of light, there are many different types of lighting and lighting setups such as ambient light, three-point lighting (key light, fill light, back light), rim lights, scrims, reflectors, diffusers, strobes, etc.

The available lighting in your scene can either help or hinder you from capturing the mood you want to convey with your portrait photograph.

For example: A bright midday sun peaking through the branches of a tree can create a light and airy portrait look:

Girl standing in a bright and airy park.
Bright and airy portrait

Whereas: A setting sun with an off-camera strobe light placed 45 degrees from your subject can create a more moody look:

Girl in front of gate with leaves.
Moody portrait

3. Backgrounds

When it comes to choosing a background for portrait photography, you have two options: a natural background or a backdrop. A natural background could include the landscape behind the subject, a wall behind the subject, some trees behind the subject, etc.

A backdrop includes the different types available mostly in a studio setting, such as muslin backdrops, satin backdrops, paper backdrops, etc. The background you choose can add or detract from the overall story and composition of your portrait photograph.

For example: Looking at this image again, you can see that my goal was to use the leaves in the background as a framing element:

Girl in front of gate with leaves.
Using leaves as framing object

Remember: Whichever background you choose, it should align with the overall mood and message you're trying to convey with the portrait.

Here's another example:

If you're going for a moody portrait, you most likely will not want to use a background that conveys excitement or happiness, such as a bright, background - you get the point?

Man in wetsuit smiling on beach.
Bright portrait

4. Technical ability

Lastly, technical ability refers to how technically sound your portrait photograph is.

This means your portrait photograph should be properly exposed, have enough lighting in the scene to see the subject and capture the subject in detail.

What does this mean? This means knowing exposure and the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter, and ISO) and how those three elements impact depth of field, motion blur, and noise in an image.

What makes a photo a portrait?

A photo becomes a portrait when the subject, background, lighting, and emotion come together to create a connection between the viewer and the portrait.

Here's an analogy: You can think of it like a symphony where the musicians (subject), the stage, the lighting, and the emotional performance all harmonize to engage the audience (the viewer) in a connected experience.

Why is portrait photography important?

We may not notice it, but we interact with portrait photos on a daily basis. They play an important role in our lives.

Here are all the reasons why portrait photography is important:

1. Moment preservation

Moments are fleeting.

Photography is an art that attempts to capture these fleeting moments, preserving a specific moment in time. Whether it's to capture cherished memories with family or to capture the essence of loved ones, portrait photography helps preserve moments in time for individuals at different stages of their lives.

2. Artistic expression

Believe it or not, artistic expression is very important for a well-functioning society. Portrait photography allows people to capture and create a work of art with another human subject at its center.

3. Communication

You know how sometimes you want to communicate an idea or message but can't express it verbally or through text? Well-portraits can communicate ideas, stories, or even messages effectively without using words.

One of the most prominent examples of this is Steve McCurry's famous portrait of the Afghan Girl:

Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry.
Afghan Girl

4. Historical significance

Portraits of historical figures play an important role in our insight into different periods, fashion, and societal norms. Without these portraits, we would not be able to gather as many insights into our past.

5. Professional and social use

Lastly, portraits play an important role in a professional and social setting.

On the professional side, portraits are often used as personal branding and self-presentation elements, being displayed across professional portfolios and networking websites. On the social side, portraits can strengthen connections between people, displayed across social media platforms, community websites, and dating websites.

Types of portrait photography

Earlier, I mentioned that there are different types of portrait photography. Let's take a look at some of the most popular types of "sub-genres" within the genre of portrait photography.

1. Traditional portraits

Traditional portraits are the most common type of portrait.

These types of portraits are typically taken in a studio or in a natural setting with a clean background and sufficient background blur (bokeh) to emphasize attention to the subject. These types of portraits are often used in profile pictures or for resumes.

How is this different from a headshot: Traditional portraits can also be often referred to as headshots as well, especially if the framing consists only of the subject's shoulders and head.

Also remember: A portrait can consist of the subject's full body, whereas a headshot can not.

Here's an example of what I would call a traditional portrait, which you may also deem a headshot:

Man standing in a suit and tie.
Traditional portrait

2. Lifestyle portraits

Lifestyle portraits are a more casual type of portrait. They are typically taken in the subject's home or in a natural setting to them.

The goal of a lifestyle portrait is to capture the subject in their everyday environment and to show their personality. For example: If the subject skates, it could be of them on a skateboard, or if they do yoga, it could be of them in a yoga pose.

These types of portraits are often used to post on social media or dating profiles.

Man standing with a backpack for a lifestyle portrait.
Lifestyle portrait

3. Environmental portraits

Environmental portraits are taken in the subject's workplace or in another location that is significant to them. The goal of an environmental portrait is to show the subject in their element and to capture them doing what they do best.

These types of portraits can be very powerful and can tell a story about the person that traditional portraits cannot. They are often used on business websites or for professional use:

For example: If you are a bartender, then you will want an environmental portrait of you mixing up some drinks. These are the most popular types of portrait photography.

Man bartending pouring drinks in an environmental portrait.
Environmental portrait

Now: There are other types as well, such as glamour portraits, fine art portraits, self-portraits, group portraits, and couple portraits, but you can bucket those into these three groups above.

How to get started in portrait photography?

You may be wondering: "How do I get started with portrait photography?"

Or maybe: "How do I improve my portrait photography?"

I have a full guide dedicated to improving your portrait photography with my portrait photography tips. For right now: Let's look at how you can get started in portrait photography.

1. Choose your equipment

The first step is to choose your equipment. Most importantly, your camera and lens combo. The best results are obtained with a DSLR camera with a portrait lens (e.g., an 85mm prime or 50mm prime).

But don't worry if you don't have the latest and greatest equipment. A point-and-shoot camera or even a phone camera can produce good results in the hands of a skilled photographer.

I love using the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens and I photograph on a Canon 6D Mark II which is a DSLR camera. Once you choose your equipment and camera, make sure you use the best camera settings for portrait photography.

2. Find your style

The second step is to find your style.

Do you want to shoot traditional portraits, lifestyle, or something in between? Once you've decided on your style, practice shooting in that particular style until you're comfortable with it. For me, I've narrowed my style down to minimalist lifestyle portraits with a cinematic feel (at least, that's the goal).

3. Find some subjects

The third step is to find some subjects. Here's the thing, with portrait photography, you need another human being in order to capture a portrait.

This "finding another human being" thing can be tricky and nerve-wracking, especially if you're a beginner!


Here's what to do, first, ask your friends and family if you can photograph them.

Once you've practiced and built up a small photography portfolio, contact some amateur models in the area for a TFP shoot (trade-for-print), where you essentially trade time for free images.

4. Get to know your subjects

The fourth step is to get to know your subjects. The best portraits are usually the ones where the subject is relaxed and comfortable.

Take some time to chat with your subjects before taking their photo. By keeping an open communication with your subject, they will feel more at ease and allow you to capture their true personality in your photos.

5. Be patient

The final step is to be patient.

Portrait photography often requires patience, both by the photographer and the subject. If you're photographing children, expect to take a lot of shots before you get that perfect shot.

And don't worry if things don't go perfectly according to plan. Sometimes, the best photos are the ones that aren't quite perfect! Once you have some portraits under your belt, continue to refine your skills, and be sure to reference my portrait photography tips!

In conclusion, I hope I've sufficiently answered your question about "what is portrait photography," while also providing insight into the broader realm of portraits. Now, go out there and start taking some portraits!

© 2024