Portrait Photography: Definition, Techniques & Tips

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

Portrait photography is more than just capturing a picture of somebody; it's an artistic representation of a person's attitude. In this lesson, we will learn about portrait photography as well as some tips for taking great photos.


Imagine if a person asked you to highlight who they are in a photo--ultimately, snapping their personality to preserve it forever. Well, you probably wouldn't just take a quick photo of that person, would you? You'd have to think about what position and background would help highlight everything about them. Well, welcome to the world of portraiture. Portrait photography is much more than a snapshot of somebody's face. A portrait is about capturing the essence of a person's identity and attitude that they want to share with the world. In those terms, a portrait photographer has a really big job to do! Learning to work with clients and using a camera to snap the perfect exposure is about hard work and knowing a few simple tips. In this lesson, we will go over an in-depth definition of portrait photography, and explore some tips and techniques to help you master portrait photography.

What is Portrait Photography?

Portrait photography is all about the face. A photographer's goal is to take a carefully decided photograph of a person's distinguishing facial features, while capturing the person's attitude, identity, and personality. The photo may include a blurred background and the person's body, but those factors are not emphasized in the image.

Is a Portrait Candid?

A portrait is carefully planned and rehearsed with the client; a candid photo is not considered a portrait. Does that mean that a portrait cannot appear candid? Definitely not; this should be taken into account depending on the client's overall attitude and the purpose of the image.

A portrait, regardless of whether it appears candid, should be planned out with the client. The outfit, background, props, client's position, and the angle of the photo should be prepared before the actual photo shoot.

Approaches in Portrait Photography

Four types of approaches exist in portrait photography: environmental, constructionist, candid, and creative. The photographer should select a specific approach in conversation with the client based on the type of portrait that is being taken. Let's look at the different styles of portrait photography.


The environmental approach to portrait photography means that the portrait is taken with the client in a surrounding that speaks to the person's identity or profession. For example, if a client loves horses, then the portrait might be taken with the client in a stable while brushing a horse.

On the other hand, if a client is a professional writer, then the portrait might be taken inside an office with the client holding a pen and notepad.


Portrait Using Constructionist Approach

A constructionist approach to portraiture is all about building emotion and atmosphere. The photographer may choose to set the mood of the portrait through body language, lighting, and background to build a conveyed emotion. For example, a photographer might have a mom-to-be holding her belly and looking downward to build the notion of waiting. Likewise, for a serious attitude, the photographer might have a client look intently into the camera and keep the background minimal.


Candid portraits work best when the client thinks that you aren't taking photos or providing direction, but in reality, you are doing those things. Candid portraits are all about looseness and capturing the essence of a client when they think the photographer isn't working. Again, this doesn't mean that the photo wasn't planned; the portrait should be planned, but what isn't planned is exactly when the photograph is going to be snapped.


Portrait Using Creative Special Effects

Adding in creative effects using digital software is the main component of a creative portrait. The creative approach requires the photographer to take a portrait shot in a traditional fashion, but then to add fantastical elements during the editing phase. Perhaps the client wanted to appear as an elf from her favorite movie; the photographer would take the photo and add in elf ears using digital editing software.

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