What Is Portrait Photography? Here’s Your Ultimate Guide

If you’ve ever looked into the world of photography, you probably have found yourself asking many questions: one of those being “what is portrait photography?” But there’s no need to look any further. You’ve come to the right place, and you’re in good hands now.

What Is Portrait Photography?

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Portrait photography in its purest form is simply taking pictures of people or sometimes even yourself. Although, as you might guess, there are a few more ins and outs and nuances than just that.

Most people think of a portrait as simply a snapshot of a person at a particular time. That’s what a photo is anyway, right? Although gauging by the fact that you’re here and reading this, you are probably more interested in photography than other people. 

As with all forms of photography, there are many branches and sub-branches to understand that vastly differ from one another. So let’s answer the question, “what is portrait photography” a little more thoroughly.

What Makes A Portrait A Portrait?

The cute and simple answer here is that a portrait is a picture of someone; and while that isn’t wrong, it’s a bit simplistic. Specifically, a portrait is a picture about someone. It’s a window into their personality and reveals a little bit of who they are as a person. That can mean anything from bringing out the most prominent features of their face to telling the world that their favorite color is yellow. This is where the question, “what is portrait photography?” gets interesting. There are dozens of techniques and styles that can each tell specific things about people.Before we continue, a good way of understanding why not every picture of a person is a “portrait” per se is to talk about what might fall short of that definition. One of the more popular forms of a picture in today’s world is the selfie. While the selfie is technically a portrait, it falls just shy of that classification in the eyes of most accomplished photographers.To understand this, it will be helpful to also learn about our first form of portrait photography: the self-portrait.

Self Portrait VS Selfies

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A selfie is more often than not about a person at a very specific time. Selfies usually emphasize the environment around a person in the moment they’re currently living more so than they do the person themselves. You can see why this is a gray area for photographers. The majority of selfies are taken in a time where a person is happy or experiencing triumph. For example, you will see a lot of selfies taken after a long hike or at dinner in a beautiful restaurant. While there are people in the picture, they are more about the experience the person is having than the person themselves.So what is a self-portrait then? A self-portrait differs from a selfie in the sense that it is more telling of the person in the image than the scene. These pictures usually have a more artistic look than a selfie and emphasize the individual more. A good way to understand this is to think of a picture that you might take about yourself: a picture you could take and show someone and they would understand you a little bit more; or even a little bit less.

Other Forms Of Portrait Photography

Selfies and Self-Portraits are a good place to start when trying to understand “what is portrait photography.”  Knowing the difference between a picture of someone and a picture about someone is really what separates a portrait photographer from your weekend shutterbug. That being said, there are a lot of different things about people that you might try to tell the world. Think of all the many things that make you; you and all the different types of photos it would take to tell them.But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

The Plain-Jane Portrait

These are probably what first came to mind when you heard the words portrait photography, but just because they’re simple doesn’t make these portraits any less remarkable. Traditional portraits are perhaps the most enduring and popular form we’ll discuss. This is due primarily to their applicability. Think of all the reasons you might have use for a good portrait.

Traditional portraits are used for everything from yearbook photos to business headshots to announcements. Every day, people use them in everything from a way to land jobs, to impressing others, to simply make a memory of what they look like.

The Plain-Jane Portrait

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You might be asking yourself what these photos look like. Traditional portraits are meantto specifically show the world what a person looks like, and, at times, give a taste of their personality. They’re very simple in composition in that they are a person posing in front of a plain background. They emphasize the appearance of a person at their best.

The easiest way to understand the reach and purpose of the portrait is with examples. Think of your portrait in the senior yearbook: it was a photo about what you looked like then and about what was about to happen. It was you at the pinnacle of your youth. You were young and ready to tackle the world. Now let’s shift gears. Think of an actor; a hungry actor looking for work. He knows he can handle the part, and he needs it. He puts his portrait in front of the casting agent, and at one glance, they know this man is confident and sexy and perfect for the part.

Lifestyle Portrait

A lifestyle portrait will sound almost exactly like a selfie; but before you lose faith, let us explain. A lifestyle portrait is about capturing a person in the world and telling a story about their life. On paper, it sounds similar to a selfie, but these portraits are executed with much more artistic grace and specific resolve.

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These are typically made to commemorate an important event in someone’s life. Perhaps a woman has recently had a baby and she wants to have photos made to remember the gift of her newborn child. Twenty years from now she can look back at them while her son or daughter is away at college and be flooded with memories of when she first brought her child home.

Lifestyle portraits are very diverse and overlap with other styles of portrait photography. Although at its heart, it’s about telling a story about a person’s life. Again, an example can help. Imagine a photo of a grandfather and his granddaughter blowing a dandelion. It’s a very simple moment but a powerful photograph. It’s about this specific time when they were bonding and having fun. It’s telling a story about both of their lives through their interaction with one another.

Environmental Portraits

Nature portraits are pretty much exactly how they sound: they are taking your traditional portrait photography out of the studio setup and using the environment to make your photo. Where a lifestyle portrait is about telling a story of a person’s life, an environmental portrait is using the world to tell more about a person.

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Think of a place that means a lot to you, such as a local park you went to as a kid or the overlook where you watched your first sunset. These locations would mean a great deal to you, and the idea of taking an environmental portrait there would be to use the sentiment involved in that location to tell the world a little bit about you.

Perhaps it’s a photo of your face as you gaze off into the sunset, or a picture of you sitting under a tree and gazing at the clouds. The specific location you’re in and your actions there blend together to tell a story. How these images look will vary a great deal, but the biggest distinguishable difference between this and other forms of portraits is that it’s using a location and careful lighting and posing to tell a story about you.

Fine Art Portraits

Fine Art Portrait

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Fine art portraits have a very wide range of possible appearances and defining them is a challenge to photographers. No one thing is exclusive to a fine art portrait, but the best way to understand them is to imagine a portrait you would see in an art gallery. Every specific detail and color is intentional and has some underlying value. They often leave you curious to know more and give you some sort of impression.

Photographers use a variety of methods to produce fine art portraits. These can range from nudity of the subject to elaborate lighting to combinations of colors to almost anything you can imagine.

So What Is Portrait Photography?

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In the world of photography, portrait photography is a wide-reaching field with much depth. There are dozens of specific genres, but now you can say you know the most popular ones. The most important thing to take away is that portrait photography is telling something about a person. Whether you’re turning on the camera as you read this or have just been reading to satiate your curiosity, best of luck in your photographic endeavors.

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