What Is Portrait In Photography?



Portrait photography, at the very core of its essence, seeks to unveil the true character of a subject through a still image. It breathes life into a static moment and unravels the complex layers of personality, expressions, and emotions of an individual. Far from just capturing a face, it is about the artful representation of human nature through the lens of a camera.

This genre of photography can be classified into several sub-genres, each unique in its approach to unveiling the essence of the subject. Whether it’s a high-energy, candid snappin or a carefully orchestrated environmental portrait, each sub-genre offers a different set of tools to execute and achieve powerful results. These tools, including the use of different lighting techniques, backdrops, and poses, are like a painter’s brush: a means to chart out the rich tapestry of human identity and expression.

Plunging into the ocean of portrait photography, you’ll find that each ripple, every current, has its share of complexities and rewards. This article aims to be your buoy, guiding you through these waters as you explore the depths of this art form. From providing a brief history of portrait photography to explaining its different styles and key elements, this piece will offer invaluable insights into what makes a portrait more than just a picture. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be well-equipped to venture forth, sculpting images that reveal, resonate, and revolutionize your understanding of portraiture.

One curious paradox marks the realm of portrait photography: while those outside the field often assume it’s all about the technical details – lighting, lenses, shutter speed – those within quickly come to understand that the most powerful tool at their disposal is a rapport with the subject. Their personality, their spirit, their stories – these are the foundation stones upon which great portraits are built. So, prepare to embark on an exploration of not just photography, but of the human spectacle in all its diverse grandeur. Prepare to discover the true essence of portrait photography.

Brief History of Portrait Photography

Tracing the course of portrait photography from its humble beginnings to its current standing, we see a fascinating evolution shaped by both technological advancements and changes in societal perspectives. This not only gives us a sense of the origins of our craft but also offers insight into the multitude of ways we now capture our subjects’ resplendent personalities and characteristics.

The Humble Beginnings: Daguerreotype Portraits

Our journey through the annals of portrait photography begins in the mid-1800s with the advent of daguerreotypes. Named after its brilliant inventor Louis Daguerre, Daguerreotype portraiture was the first commercially successful form of photography. These distinctly shiny, reflective images required subjects to sit incredibly still for several minutes— a test of patience that’s bound to make anyone’s muscles quake!

Entering an Era of Color

Black and white images ruled the roost until mid 20th Century when, akin to Dorothy stepping into the Technicolor Land of Oz, the world of photography was struck by a vibrant wave of color. This pivotal step forward was due largely to the pioneering work of the luminary photographer Steve McCurry, who shot the now iconic “Afghan Girl” portrait for National Geographic. This leap into the world of color brought about an enhanced depth and dynamism to portrait photography, enabling photographers to capture a more comprehensive, vivid snapshot of a subject’s persona.

Modern Portrait Photography: The Digital Revolution

Fast forward to the end of 20th century and we encounter another radical shift in the landscape of portrait photography- the digital revolution. The development of digital cameras and software tools for post-processing places an unprecedented level of control in the photographer’s hands. British photographer Rankin, renowned for his evocative, intimate portraits of celebrities, has certainly shown us how this control can be translated into striking, emotionally resonant images that carry a distinctive artistic statement.

Throughout the history of portrait photography, technological advancements have continually influenced and expanded how we craft our portraits. But keep in mind, as fancy as our modern tools may be, they are still just that- tools! At its core, compelling portraiture is less about high- end equipment and more about capturing that elusive spark, the essence of a person, visible only when the subject trusts the eye behind the lens.

Recall the enchanting charm locked in the rigid pose of an 1800s Daguerreotype or the melting depths of the “Afghan Girl’s” emerald eyes, and you begin to comprehend the timeless power of a well-captured portrait. As portrait photographers, we’re merely the narrators utilizing available tools to vividly share our subject’s story, to borrow a phrase from portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz, “a way of capturing a person’s personality, character, and essence.”

Different Styles of Portrait Photography

In the wide spectrum of portrait photography, there is a multitude of styles available for exploration. Each style can be distinguished from another based on certain aspects like setting, subject’s pose, emotion evoked, and the overall feel of the picture. Now, let’s dive into some of the popular styles of portrait photography.

Traditional or Classical Portrait

In a traditional or classical portrait, the subject is often in a controlled setting, fully aware and cooperative with the photographer. The main focus is the face with a key objective being clarity, making every facial feature visible. There’s a formal appeal to this style, and it’s commonly used for individual portraits, corporate profiles or family photography. Famous figures like the Queen of England and several U.S presidents have been captured in this prestigious style.

Environmental Portrait

In contrast to the traditional style, Environmental Portraits incorporate the subject’s surroundings into the composition. The location and surrounding elements provide context about the subject’s life, profession, or personality, creating a narrative that goes beyond the subject’s expression.

Candid or Photojournalistic Portraiture

Candid photography seeks to capture the subject in their natural state, typically unaware of the camera for an unposed, relaxed look. This style can wonderfully capture genuine emotions and interactions in a way that posed portraits might not. Used commonly in event photography or street photography, this approach can add an organic and dynamic element to your portraits.

Glamour or Fashion Portraits

Glamour portraits often highlight the allure, beauty, or elegance of the subject, with the objective of creating aspirational images. It emphasizes the use of complementing fashion elements, professional make-up and extravagant settings. This style is prominent in high-end fashion magazines and advertising campaigns.

Surreal Portraits

Surreal portraiture encompasses a visually eerie and fantastical world in a portrait. It typically involves unusual or unexpected elements that play with reality, often creating a dreamlike or exaggerated version of the subject. This portrait style can be a fantastic avenue to stretch your creative muscles.

Conceptual Portraits

Conceptual Portraits revolve around a specific idea or concept, aiming to evoke deep thought or discussion in the viewer. A conceptual portrait may have a subject or props that represent symbols, metaphors, or a creative representation of a complex or abstract idea.

Each of these styles offers a unique approach, adding richness to the field of portrait photography. Understanding the characteristics of these styles can help you identify and develop your own personal style. Moreover, before carving your niche, remember it never hurts one’s craft to experiment with various styles, bringing elements together that truly resonate with you, to create an enchanting blend.

Elements of Good Portrait Photography

Mastering portraiture does not merely involve capturing an image of a person; it’s about revealing their essence. Certain techniques can be leveraged to enhance your portrait photography. By focusing on key elements such as lighting, composition, angle, depth of field, background, and posing, you can truly let your subject shine.

The Power of Lighting

Lighting can make or break a portrait. When done well, it can sculpt your subject’s features, establish ambiance and set the mood. Experiment with different lighting set-ups and watch how they bring out your subject’s characteristics. Remember, it’s all about illuminating their story.

Composition Commandments

The composition can guide the viewer’s eyes and highlight the picture’s focal points. As a rule of thumb, focus on the eyes – the proverbial “windows to the soul”. Understanding and creatively using tools like the rule of thirds or golden ratio ensures a well-structured photograph that invites the viewer in.

The Perfect Angle

Angles can dramatically alter the perspective and mood of a portrait. An eye-level shot creates a sense of equality, while a high-angle shot might make your subject look vulnerable or smaller. Conversely, a low-angle shot may make your subject appear dominant or in control.

Depth of Field Mastery

Depth of field dictates how much foreground and background are in focus. A shallow depth of field places emphasis on the subject by blurring the background. This makes your subject pop from the photo, turning them into the indisputable star of your shot.

Background Basics

A background should complement the subject instead of competing with it. Pay attention to patterns, colors, and textures that could detract from your subject. Sometimes a simple, uncluttered background works best. Remember, it’s not about the backdrop; it’s about the person in front.

Pose Perfect

A well-crafted pose can convey the personality and mood of the subject. Some people possess a reservoir of natural ease and charisma, others need guidance. Build rapport, make your subject feel relaxed and adapt to what works best for each unique individual.

Emotional Connection

Beyond all the technicalities, the heart of portrait photography lies in capturing the emotional essence of your subjects. The connection between the photographer and the subject is pivotal here. It’s less about capturing perfections and more about revealing genuine emotions and character.

Mastering these elements takes time and consistent effort. As you refine your skills, remember: creativity is the true core of portrait photography. Learn the rules, but don’t be afraid to break them sometimes. Every portrait is a new adventure waiting to illuminate a unique personality. Enjoy the process and keep honing your craftsmanship.


Drawing the curtain on this insightful discussion of portrait photography, it’s evident the genre offers bountiful avenues for creativity, growth, and genuine human connection. The art of capturing a person’s essence in a single frame is both captivating and demanding, requiring a keen eye and communicative aptitude. But the magic extrapolated from a well-executed portrait is worth the effort.

To recap, we have traversed through a multitude of portrait styles, each offering its unique flavor. Traditional portraits echo the classics, while environmental portraits intertwine the subject with their surroundings. In the spirit of spontaneity, candid portraits unveil authentic moments, while glamour and fashion throw us into a world of style and elegance. In contrast, surreal and conceptual portraits challenge our perception and engage us in thought-provoking narratives.

To achieve these interesting styles, we delved into the essential elements that make a portrait photograph memorable: the harmony created by the right lighting, the importance of an effective composition, the use of angles for creating impact, the art of managing depth of field, the significance of a suitable background, and the power of posing.

Remember that while these styles and principles provide a useful roadmap, they are not prescriptive rules carved in stone. The real magic happens when you can adapt these principles to your own vision, infusing your unique style in every frame you capture. It’s your technical skills intertwined with your artistic sensibilities that create the kind of portraiture that resonates with viewers.

Portrait photography, therefore, is not just about the aesthetic—it’s a harmonious blend of technique and artistry. It’s a visual language that communicates the unseen depths of the human soul—a silent yet powerful conversation between the photographer, the subject, and the viewer.

Hence, whether you’re just venturing into this exciting field or are an established photographer seeking fresh inspiration, embrace the potential this fascinating genre of photography has in store for you. Your camera is your most powerful tool—use it to tell stories, to captivate, to inspire. May your exploration of portrait photography be a continual progression towards finding your unique voice as a photographer and an artist. Let there be light, depth, and inspiring tales captured in your frames!

The Creativv
American digital marketer and founder of TheCreativv.com with over a decade of experience in event, travel, portrait, product, and cityscape photography.