Define the word ‘portrait’?

The word portrait is used by photographers all over the world, but it’s meaning is a little blurred. Many use the term to describe photographs of people’s head and shoulders and others use it to refer to any old picture of a person so I want to tie down what I mean by potraiture and then talk a little bit about the subject.

©Neil Turner/TSL, June 2006

In my book a portrait is a photograph deliberately used to say something about the person in the picture. A simple ‘mug shot’ can be a portrait, but only if it says something about the subject and isn’t just an identity card style image. Even a characteristic expression is enough to turn the bland ID card photograph into a portrait. You then have a wide range of images that can legitimately be called a portrait until you get to the other extreme where a photograph of someone becomes more about an activity or a mood than about that person. Although there doesn’t have to be any interaction between the photographer and the subject for the picture to be a portrait, it really helps. I have read all sorts of nonsense about the kind of lens you have to use to make a portrait, or the kind of light that you must use. None of these things matters, a good portrait can be made using any lens and using a huge variety of lighting situations.

There are many traps in making good portraits, and I fall regularly into at least one of them, but the bottom line is that the photographer needs to free themself of as many constraints as possible in order to achieve creative results. With this in mind here are a list of do’s and don’ts that might help you to shoot good portraits – starting with my most regular failing:

  • Resist the temptation to always use the same style and fit each subject into it giving you the same picture over and over with different faces in.
  • Each face is different, so allow the light to help to show that. Not everyone benefits from soft lighting and good portraits are made better with thoughtful lighting.
  • Don’t crowd the sitter. If you get right in someone’s face, you will put them on edge and spoil the photograph – of course if you purposefully want to make someone uncomfortable, then go ahead. A relaxed sitter makes the shot easier to get.
  • Think about relating the sitter to their surroundings. One of the easiest ways of saying something about your subject is to shoot them in their own environment.
  • Think about using props. Well selected items can really add to the message of the portrait- it could be an author with a copy of their book or a child with their favourite toy, be imaginative.
  • Resist the tempation to always use the same focal length lens. Nothing annoys me more than to read conversations about “the ideal lens for portraiture”, it does not exist.
  • Try a wide variety of compositions, portraits can be stunning if the subject occupies only a tiny percentage of the image, and can be equally strong if just their eyes fill the frame.
  • There is no rule that says that ‘you must flatter your subject’ but harsh lighting and cruel angles should be kept for those situations where they are suitable.

To be effective a portrait must say more about the sitter than it does about the photographer and it must say more about the sitter than it does about what they are doing. Most great portraits have interesting but not overpowering light. If the first thing that you notice is the lighting then the photograph is not a complete success, if the first thing that you notice is the ‘nice blotchy backcloth’ then the portrait has truly failed.


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