What Is The Art of Portrait Photography And How Can You Make Yours Better

In this article I will explore what is the essence of portrait photography and how can you gain a better understanding of how to approach and use it.

This exploration will also lead us to a better understanding of different portrait photography styles and how you can implement them to your own practice.

What is Portrait Photography?

A portrait photographer depicts their subject(s) in an interesting manner that in best images, also narrates their personality.

What elements to include in the images and how to visualize a feeling.

Portrait photography has a social aspect to it; it is the photographers responsibility to make the subject(s) comfortable and direct them all while creating a portrait suitable for their character.

There are multiple ways of photographing people, but I will share the portrait ideas I most commonly use and explain what they express.

Portrait photography requires composition and an eye for detail and you can improve these skills with the most basic equipment.

Shooting indoors will give you more control over the photo shoot, since you can manipulate the lighting and the weather will not be a surprising element.

Plan your portrait lighting arrangements in advance to better create an atmosphere for your subject which communicates their character.

art of portrait photography
Image credit: Rineke Dijkstra; Almerisa

Deadpan Photography

This is a much-used portraiture method. While there are a handful of different definitions, the most popular is that a deadpan photograph is devoid of emotion.

When placing your camera in front of your subject you can wait until they’re relaxed or just plain frustrated and give up the posing we are so used of doing.

In everyday life cameras are all around us, and people are usually very aware of the photographer. Finding an intimate moment in between the poses might feel impossible, but with patience it can be achieved.

art of portrait photography
Deadpan Photography: Rineke Dijkstra

Most commonly, the subject is in the center of the image, and the photographer is looking at the subject straight-on.

Photographers such as Alec Soth and Rineke Dijkstra are known for deadpan photography, and create amazing portraits with this technique.

art of portrait photography
Nan Goldin

Snapshot / Intimate Life Photography

Through family albums, diaries, or even self-portraits it is that photographers document their personal experiences and deliver their emotions.

To photograph one’s intimate space is a singular task that may be considered more approachable than documenting any other subject.

However, this would be ignoring the fact that in the practice of documenting one’s immediate surroundings, the photographer loses the distance they would otherwise maintain and often confronts extreme emotions.

Here lies the challenge: knowing how to gauge our own or our loved ones’ involvement, evaluating what we can or cannot show, and what others will find moving or shocking.

This type of photography has a melancholy, even romantic, dimension and inevitably draws on one of the primary qualities of this medium: memory.

The narratives of domestic and intimate life have been present in art photography ever since Nan Goldin released her work.

art-of portrait-photography
Nan Goldin

Interestingly, the candid and explicit style of snapshot photography inspired the 1990’s trend in fashion photography for ‘grunge’.

This autobiographical nature of intimate documentation links the photographer with the photograph and adds a layer of authenticity.

When you photograph the subject in their natural environment, you present the viewer with exceptional intimacy.

You as a photographer, are a witness to the ongoing lifes of others and have the ability to translate it into imagery.

Pro Tip: Start photographing people you know – learn to direct people and to read them while photographing them. This way you can get used to being around people and observe them.

Jeff Wall

Tableau-Vivant / Staged Photography

With or without models, staged photography can be broken down into several categories; ranging from fantastical scenes impossible to contemplate in reality, to trompe l’oeil exercises in technical virtuosity often set up in a studio, to full movie production tableaux vivants.

This area of photographic practice is often described as tableau or tableau-vivant photography as the story is concentrated into a single, stand-alone image.

With inspiration from cinema and the history of painting this style represents a staged scenery.

Constructing the image and portraying your subject by adding specific clothing to elevate photography to the status of a painting.

By consciously placing elements and arranging compositions, they create the events, environments or emotions.

Indeed, this style has a particular appeal for me as I have become to realize that I enjoy looking at photographs that invite the viewer to imagine a story behind the image; what may have occurred or be about to occur.

Pro Tip: Start with a familiar surrounding and construct the image from simple props. Decide whether you want to build a story-like setting or a scene that cannot be distinguished from the real life.

art of portrait photography
Jeff Wall

One of the most influential photographers Jeff Wall captures people engaged in everyday life, but his images are in fact largely staged.

These photography methodologies are well explained in the book The Photograph as Contemporary Art.

If you liked this article, you might also like Inexpensive Photography Prop Ideas To Add To Your Portraits

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4 thoughts on “What Is The Art of Portrait Photography And How Can You Make Yours Better

  1. I had no idea what a deadpan photograph was! Photography requires a great deal of skill and I have learned (from your post) a few styles of photography that I did not even know before. Thanks for sharing these different methodologies of photography!

  2. We enjoyed this guide on how to take portrait photographs with any kind of camera, you just need a good eye for detail. This guide is going to help us with just taking pictures in general let alone with taking portraits. Your tips will help us with taking our photographs to the next level of ideas and strategies.


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