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What is Portrait Photography? A 101 Guide on a Classic Niche

What is Portrait Photography? A 101 Guide on a Classic Niche

A portrait encapsulates history and individuality in one shot. Growing as a photographer means embracing this complexity every time you snap a photo.

Portrait photography – or portraiture – is deceptively simple at first. A single snapshot of the human face can incorporate everything from cultural nuances to the person’s complex personality. Learning how to capture the depth of the human condition involves understanding the roots of this field and why it resonates with us so deeply. 

What is portrait photography? This guide will teach you the fascinating history of portrait photography and essential terminology, then provide a few photography tips to get started.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. What Is Portrait Photography?
  3. A Brief History of Portrait Photography
  4. What are Different Types of Portrait Photography?
  5. What Lens is Best for Portrait Photography?
  6. What Environments are Best for Portrait Photography?
  7. Conclusion: Portrait Photography is an Elegantly Simple, Yet Complex Niche

an example of portrait photography showcasing three women smiling and wearing black and white outfits

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Portrait Photography?

Portrait photography is one of the best known niches in the photography field. It’s a term that involves capturing the personality, culture, health, or history of a person in a photo.

While a portrait usually focuses on the face, it can also incorporate the shoulders or some of the torso. As long as the individuality of the person is the focus, the photo counts as an example of portrait photography. Once you go past the torso, you create what’s called a full body shot. This shot emphasizes the outfit or the rest of the environment.

The portrait photography niche has a flexible function as both a form of artistic expression and recordkeeping. For example, one photographer may take family portraits for people who want to build a photo album. Another photographer may take portraits to help a hospital maintain records of their patients.

Even our very psychology is rooted in seeing faces where there are none. The history of portrait photography is a soul stirring dive into all the ways humanity understands and defines itself.

a picture of the mona lisa

Source Image: Pixabay

A Brief History of Portrait Photography 

Portrait photography is the modern iteration of classical paintings and ancient cave paintings. Humanity is a collective of individuals always seeking to understand themselves through artistic expression. 

Before photography appeared in the 1800’s, human cultures were intensely creative with how they captured their individuality or culture. Oil paintings are one of the best known examples of portraiture in human history – oil is a particularly subtle medium able to accurately capture the complexities of skintone, making it well suited to portraiture. 

When photography entered the equation, its use was mostly utilitarian. Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in 1839 (in other words, the first functioning camera). This feat of technology still had quite a few limitations, those of which influenced the art of portraiture for decades after. The biggest limitation was time – to take a portrait with a daguerreotype, a person had to sit down for as long as fifteen or twenty minutes. 

Due to the commitment the long timeframe required, photography was generally seen as a way to accurately document the world for historical or legal purposes. 

Since fine art informed photography as we know it, there is unsurprisingly a portrait photography style called fine art photography. Portrait photography styles are numerous, so learning them now will open your eyes to what you can create.

an example of portrait photography showcasing an elderly woman wearing an elaborate cultural headdress

Source Image: Pixabay

What are Different Types of Portrait Photography? 

Portrait photography is a highly diverse niche with a plethora of ways of approaching the same subject. Even a detail as subtle as the focal length you use changes the photo’s style.

To get you started, I have a few of the most popular and enduring types of portrait photography below. 

an example of traditional photography showcasing an elderly man in a suit and bowtie in grayscale

Source Image: Pixabay

Traditional for Special Occasions or Albums

Since it came first, the traditional subniche of portrait photography is perhaps the best known. Traditional portrait photography hearkens back to the daguerreotype as a way to capture a moment in an elegant, composed fashion.

Traditional portrait photography is often the go-to choice for family photo albums or special occasions such as weddings. However, some photographers adore this subniche for its emphasis on classical posture, simple expressions, and a nostalgic atmosphere. While not necessary for traditional photography, traditional portraits often use sepia or grayscale tones. 

Keep in mind that traditional photography is still informed by a modern setting. For example, many photos in the 1800’s often had the viewer looking directly at the camera. This result was usually because every little detail of their face had to be captured for historical or medical accuracy. 

Since photos are much more accessible and cheap nowadays, traditional photography can be more flexible in pose, expression, and setting. 

an example of candid photography showcasing a boy laughing in a blue and red striped shirt

Source Image: Pixabay

Candid for Everyday Life

If traditional photography is the old-fashioned glimpse into times long past, candid photography is the immediate moment. This photography style is exactly what it says on the tin – as ordinary as you can possibly get!

Now, ordinary is far from boring. Capturing the magic of everyday life is a skill that even advanced photographers struggle to capture. Candid photography puts heavy emphasis on impulsive and fleeting moments, such as a snap expression or a fleeting glance. If you have a sharp eye for detail and an adventurous personality, candid photography could be your new favorite style.

Keep in mind photography styles can overlap – you can technically do candid photography in a studio if you don’t have a specific shot or pose planned, despite the fact your studio is a ‘controlled’ environment.

Candid photography regularly manifests as selfies, an entire photography phenomenon that practically dominates social media. However, candid photography can be used for business purposes – such as an About Me profile – or even famous album covers. After all, it’s a celebration of the mundane: it makes sense it would seamlessly fit into everyday life. 

Creating a strong composition to tell a story with your candid photography can be tricky since most shots aren’t planned, but this unpredictability also leads to beautiful surprises.

a dramatic and artistic portrait of a woman with short hair in heavy orange and blue lighting

Source Image: Pixabay

Artistic to Embrace the Fantastical

While traditional photography is composed and candid photography vivacious, artistic photography is a burst of imagination. There are no limits when it comes to what you can create both on and off camera with this subniche.

You can exaggerate the lighting into vibrant neons or pastels. You can add a cartoony backdrop or superimpose other photos in a collage. Any kind of photomanipulation is incredibly popular for artistic photography – photographers regularly pool similar skills such as graphic design or illustration to breathe fantastical life into their photos. 

a girl in a red and black polka dot dress sitting in a garden and holding an orange flower

Source Image: Pixabay

What Lens is Best for Portrait Photography? 

Choosing a lens for portrait photography means understanding the different results they create. Depending on your choices, you can snap an accurate-to-life image or something quite surreal!

The prime lens is best for portrait photography because it gives you stable results. Unlike a zoom lens which lets you zoom in very close or very far, the prime lens will give you a smaller margin. While this means less variety in shots, it also means less room for error. 

an example of a highly detailed portrait showcasing a woman with hazel eyes flecked with dirt

Source Image: Pixabay

Accurately Capture Your Subject Down to the Last Detail

Let’s say you want to capture your subject as accurately as possible, down to the last detail. You need a focal length lens that reduces distortion, a term that refers to subtle issues such as stretching or squashing a subject.

Have you ever noticed you look different in the mirror than when you take a selfie? That’s likely a distortion in action. The best focal length for reducing distortion is 50mm. This is the focal length that most closely replicates how the human eye sees the world. 

However, you can experiment a little between 24mm and 35mm. This will give you a little visual variety without completely distorting your subject.

an example of enhanced photography showcasing a woman in a black jacket with a fur hood

Source Image: Pixabay

Create Flattering Results That Enhance What is Already There

On the other end of the equation, you may want to take a portrait that enhances what’s already there. Perhaps you want to exaggerate the length of the face a little or create a surreal result.

You’ll want a shorter focal length to exaggerate your subject to appear wider, larger, or more stretched out. A popular focal length to flatter your subject is 85mm. You’ll get just a little compression to tweak your subject’s features without making them look entirely different. 

an example of bokeh portrait photography showcasing a baby sleeping in a peaceful dimly lit room

Source Image: Pixabay

Encourage Subtle Effects to Change the Mood of the Piece

Your focal length can also create subtle effects to completely transform the mood of your photograph. Portraiture isn’t just about capturing who your subject is, but what they feel or the environment they’re in.

A narrow focal length can bring your subject into sharper focus while gently blurring the background. This beautiful side effect achieves two things – you create a photo with a sense of depth as well as direct the viewer’s eye to your subject.

Depending on how much you blur the background, you can also create a result called bokeh. Bokeh is a Japanese term for a photography aesthetic that blurs light into round, soothing shapes. These subtle effects often result in a wistful or nostalgic atmosphere that make the viewer feel like they’ve stepped into a dream.

Alongside embracing your subject’s unique traits, you also need to respect the power of choosing the right environment.

a girl with red hair staring through a bush with green leaves and white flowers

Source Image: Pixabay

What Environments are Best for Portrait Photography? 

Portrait photography doesn’t just capture the subject – you capture the environment that informs the mood, story, or personality you’re trying to convey to the viewer. 

I’ll touch on a few popular environments for specific photography styles (though I highly encourage you to experiment and find what suits your vision). 

A Studio Environment for Traditional Photography

Since traditional photography takes inspiration from the earliest days of the craft, your environment is often within a studio. This sterile and controlled environment gives you complete control over lighting, backdrop, and pose.

Literally Any Environment for Candid Photography

Since candid photography is about capturing everyday life, literally any environment will do. That said, I recommend trying to find well-lit environments so you’re not accidentally capturing a muddy blur. 

Outdoors at the park, on the street downtown, or on your porch are great places to get some candid snapshots. Keep your camera on you at all times, because you never know when an opportunity will present itself.

A Studio or a Well-Researched Setting for Artistic Photography

Artistic photography hovers between traditional and candid – it’s a subniche that encourages spontaneity and expression, but may also have a few editing sessions down the line.

A studio could work well as a basis for some artistic snapshots. You can also take time to research a setting before taking a photo, such as a hill overseeing a cityscape. Get into the habit of musing over what your environment does to help tell the story of your subject. 

an example of candid photography showcasing two children smiling outside

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Portrait Photography is an Elegantly Simple, Yet Complex Niche 

Portrait photography hovers in a limbo between elegantly simple and complex. Every time you snap a selfie or build your family photo album, you’re literally embodying human history.

Portrait photography is a relatively modern invention off the heels of classical oil paintings and cave drawings. Nowadays this niche graces many a magazine cover, billboard, or Instagram page as a way to showcase artistic expression. However, it’s also used as a way to document identity or assist with medical records. One way or another, portrait photography is the foundation on which much of our daily world is built on. 

Some of the most popular subniches are traditional, candid, and artistic. Depending on the focal length and photo editing sessions you choose, you can completely change the expression and mood of your work.

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