What is Portrait Photography?

In this article, I’ll be explaining what portrait photography is and the importance of portrait photography in society.

Being a portrait photographer myself, it’s become important to me to understand what portrait photography means to me as an artist and for my clients.

More of a visual learner? Check out the video I made:

With that being said, let’s dive into the definition of portrait photography.

What is Portrait Photography?

Portrait photography is all about capturing the personality and mood of a subject through their facial expressions, posture, and clothing. While traditional portraits are often formal and posed, modern portrait photography has a more relaxed, natural feel.

But of course, it all depends on the goals of the client and the type of portrait he/she wants (which should be understood before the session).

The best portrait photographers have an innate ability to make their subjects feel comfortable in front of the camera, allowing them to capture genuine emotions. When most people think about portrait photography, they often forget about this aspect.

I’ve heard many say, “well don’t you just stand there and click a button?”

Portrait Photography is 50% Client Relations and 50% Photography Skill

In my opinion, I believe portrait photography is 50% client relations and 50% photography skill and knowledge. In terms of client relations, I am referring to communicating effectively with your client, making them feel comfortable, and being able to pick up on social cues from the client. Let me explain.

Let’s say you go on a portrait photoshoot with a client and you are 100% photography skill and 0% client relations.

You may take photos that are technically sound, however, your client’s facial expressions and posture may be all off because you aren’t making your client feel comfortable through communication.

Or you may not have picked up on social cues from your client where they are hinting that they are uncomfortable in a certain pose.

Any scenario where the client does not feel relaxed will result in portrait photos that are forced or uneasy.

Now, you may provide a counter-argument regarding street photography, stating that some of the best street photography came from no communication.

In response to that, you have to remember that those “candid” street photos that are so popular came from the subject not even knowing they were about to have their photo taken — so that is the difference.

In portrait photography, the client knows he/she is having their photo taken and it’s about making them feel comfortable. I think we all feel a bit shy in front of the lens, it’s only natural. It’s the photographer’s job to ease the subject so the best image can be produced.

using hands in portrait photography for gesture
example portrait I took in Los Angeles

Characteristics of Portrait Photography

There are certain characteristics that I believe you should always take into consideration as a portrait photographer:

  • The subject(s) is usually the main focus of the image, with a shallow depth of field used to separate the subject from the background.
  • Lighting is often used to enhance the subject’s features and create a certain mood or atmosphere.
  • Posing and composition are important considerations in portrait photography, as they can affect the subject’s expression and the overall impact of the image.
  • Portrait photography can be formal or candid and can be taken in a studio, or outdoor environment.
  • The photographer’s goal is to capture a person’s character, personality and mood, and create a lasting memory of that person.

What is the Difference Between Portrait Photography and Headshot Photography?

The way I like to think of it is that headshot photography could be considered a portrait as well, but a portrait is not always considered a headshot photograph.

Here are some key differences I believe:

  • A portrait is a photograph of a person or group of people that typically includes the person’s entire body or a significant portion of it. It can be posed or candid, and the background and surroundings often play a role in the overall composition of the image. The goal of portrait photography is to capture the subject’s character, personality, and mood.
  • A headshot, on the other hand, is a photograph of a person that typically only includes their head and shoulders. Headshot photographs are usually taken with a shallow depth of field, which helps to separate the subject from the background and draw attention to their face. Headshot photography is often used for professional purposes such as actors, models, and corporate headshots.
  • Headshot photographs are usually taken in a studio, with specific lighting and background setups that are designed to create a professional and polished look. They are usually more formal than portrait photographs, and the subject is usually looking directly at the camera.

What Parts of the Body are Included in Portrait Photography?

When most people think of portrait photography, they think of headshots. After all, the face is the most expressive part of the body, and it can convey a wide range of emotions. However, there is more to portraiture than just the head. In fact, many photographers believe that the best portraits include at least some portion of the body below the neck.

This can help to create a more complete picture of the subject, and it can also add a sense of scale and proportion to the photograph. In general, the amount of body included in a portrait will depend on the desired effect. A close-up shot that focuses on the face may only include the head and shoulders, while a full-body portrait will include the entire figure. Ultimately, it is up to the photographer to decide how much of the body to include in order to create the perfect portrait.

When considering what parts of the body to include in portrait photography, it is important to think about the desired effect. For example, a close-up of the face can be used to capture emotion and expression, while a full-body shot can convey a sense of scale or grandeur.

In general, the head and shoulders are the most important elements in a portrait, but including other body parts can also be effective. For instance, hands can convey gestures and movements, while feet can provide a sense of stability. Ultimately, it is up to the photographer to decide what parts of the body to include in order to create the desired effect.

Types of Portrait Photography

Earlier I mentioned types of photography, so let’s take a look at some of the types or “sub-niches” within the niche of portrait photography.

1. Traditional Portraits

Traditional portraits are the most common type of portrait photography. They are typically taken in a studio with the subject posed in front of a plain background. The photographer will use lighting to create a flattering image of the subject. Traditional portraits are usually formal in nature and the subject is often dressed in their Sunday best.

These types of portraits are often used in profile pictures or for resumes.

example of a traditional portrait
example of a 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 such as a park. The goal of a lifestyle portrait is to capture the subject in their everyday environment and to show their personality. The photographer will often ask the subject to interact with their surroundings or with each other to create natural-looking images.

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

example of a lifestyle portrait
example of a lifestyle portrait

3. Environmental Portraits

Environmental portraits are similar to traditional portraits, but they 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.

These types of portraits are often used on a business websites. For example, if you are a chef, then you will want to display photos of you working as a chef to show potential clients.

example of an environmental portrait
example of an environmental portrait

5. Fine Art Portraits

Fine art portraits are those that are created with the intention of being hung on a wall or displayed in a gallery setting. These types of images are usually highly stylized and may be heavily edited or even created entirely in post-production. Fine art portraits often explore themes such as beauty, death, love, or other emotions that can be conveyed through a photograph.

Fine art portraits are often used for more creative projects where the image will be used as artistic material within a magazine or for a project such as a movie or music video.

example of a fine art portrait
example of a fine art portrait

Why is Portrait Photography Important?

In a world filled with selfies and filters, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of a good portrait photograph. A good portrait photograph can serve someone’s personal branding goals, it can help them drive more business, it can help them find a significant other, and it can help convey one’s story.

Portrait photography is more than just taking a picture of someone’s face. It captures the essence of who they are at that time of their life. In a world where we’re constantly being bombarded with images, a good portrait photographer knows how to cut through the clutter and capture the attention of their viewers.

They see things in their subjects that others may not notice, and they have the ability to freeze a moment in time that would otherwise be lost forever. The best portrait photographers have an uncanny ability to see the beauty in everyone, even those who may not see it themselves.

For this reason, portrait photography is not only important but essential. It allows us to reflect on the lives of those we love and cherish, and it reminds us that we are all beautiful and unique individuals worthy of being remembered.

How to Get Started in Portrait Photography?

With all this discussion of portrait photography and the beauty behind portraits, you may be wondering how to get started with portrait photography or how to improve your portrait photography.

I’ll dedicate a whole other article to that topic, however, I’ll briefly touch on it here.

Portrait photography can be a rewarding and challenging genre. To get started, here are a few tips: 

1. Choose Your Equipment

A DSLR camera with a portrait lens (e.g. an 85mm prime or 50mm prime) will give you the best results. But don’t worry if you don’t have the latest and greatest equipment; even a point-and-shoot camera can produce good results in the hands of a skilled photographer. 

I personally love using the 50mm lens and I photograph on a Canon 6D Mark II which is a DSLR camera.

2. Find Your Style

Do you want to shoot formal portraits, casual snapshots, or something in between? Once you’ve decided on your style, practice shooting in that particular mode until you’re comfortable with it. 

For me, I’ve narrowed my style down to minimalist portraits with a cinematic feel (at least that’s the goal).

3. 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; this will help them feel more at ease and allow you to capture their true personality in your photos. 

If you aren’t sick of me talking about the importance of understanding your client by now, then you should reread the article.

4. Be Patient

Portrait photography often requires patience, both on the part of the photographer and the subject. If you’re shooting children or animals, 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!

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, portrait photography is a beautiful and rewarding genre that captures the essence of our loved ones, friends, acquaintances, clients, etc., and immortalizes them in a way by capturing that specific time in their life and the story they are currently living.

If you’re interested in getting started with portrait photography, I encourage you to choose your equipment wisely, find your style, get to know your subjects, and be patient. With a little practice, you’ll be taking beautiful portraits in no time!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is good portrait photography?

Good portrait photography captures the essence and emotion of the subject while showcasing their unique personality and creating a compelling visual narrative.

What are the 3 elements to a great portrait?

The three elements to a great portrait are lighting, composition, and connection, where proper lighting highlights the subject, a well-composed frame enhances the overall aesthetic, and a genuine connection between the subject and photographer creates an impactful and engaging image.

Why is portrait photography so expensive?

Portrait photography can be expensive due to factors such as the professional expertise and skill required, the cost of high-quality equipment and studio space, post-processing time and editing, as well as the value placed on capturing meaningful and timeless moments for clients.

Additional Resources

Be sure to also read these articles related to portrait photography: