Portrait Photography


Viewers of a portrait should see more than just a recognizable photograph of someone. The picture must contain mood, personality and character, allowing the viewer to draw conclusions about the person in the portrait.

You may have heard someone remark that a particular photographer “really captured” someone in a picture. They are referring in part to the image being a true physical likeness, but also reveals a significant, identifiable part of the subject’s character.

We all reveal our feelings and attitudes differently. Some of us may show our individual character with immediate transparency, while others may be more difficult to “read” at first. 

The portrait photographer must become proficient at studying people whom he or she doesn’t know in order to capture their essence. This means watching for signals in a subject’s mannerism, reactions, expressions, body language and then judging how best to have the subject’s character revealed for the camera.

This takes skill and an understanding of human nature. It almost always requires engaging the subject in conversation, and quickly finding a suitable topic that will grab her or his interest and evoke a reaction. 

Find common ground or a topic of particular interest to your subject, which can be a hobby, the latest news, a mutual acquaintance, or any number of topics. 

Building a rapport with the subject is important, whether a three-year-old child or a ninety-five-year old statesman, because it makes the subject more at ease in your presence, and therefore more-relaxed and natural-looking for the lens. 

You must take all possible steps to put a subject at ease in order for her or him to appear natural.


If you are in any doubt about whether you should be photographing someone, there is a simple rule. 


Most people are flattered to be asked, and respond positively, but be ready to accept it if they refuse. It often helps to talk to people and show an interest in them and what they are doing before you ask to take their picture.

Of course there are times and places where you don't need to ask - or where it would not be possible to do so. In general, at least in the USA and UK , you do not need permission to photograph in public places such as the street though of course it may often be polite to make a request. A whole genre of photography, street photography, has involved photographers taking largely un-posed pictures on city streets.

Finding inspiration

Many photographers have photographed people over the years, and the published work of photographers (and also of paintings, drawings and sculpture) is a great source of ideas.

You might find a single picture by one of the 'masters' of photography that particularly excites or moves you, and aim to make pictures that work in a similar way or evoke similar feelings. Don't worry that you are copying someone else's work. That has always been an important part of the training of artists, but especially in photography you will soon want to add something of your own.

The study of the history of photography and the work of great photographers is arguably the most important thing you can do to help you growth as a photographer - so long as you make use of it by applying the insights you gain to your own photography.



Natural daylight is probably the best possible light for capturing the human personality.
The infinite variety of outdoor lighting conditions allows unlimited opportunities for expression.  Excellent effects can also be produced simply by sitting near a window.  



A bad background can ruin a picture.

When framing your shot, pay attention to what's behind your subject. 
Use outdoor backgrounds to advantage, such as colorful leaves, or broad expanses of color such as the sky or distant scenery.


Often you can shift your position or your subject's slightly to greatly improve your composition.  Sometimes, however, you do not have much choice. You must seize the opportunity or you will lose it.  There's always Photoshop....

The Shot

Sometimes your best picture is your first picture, and sometimes it’s the last exposure you make. If the subject is in position, relatively-comfortable and you are ready to shoot, there is usually no reason not to begin right away.

Often just getting started is enough to cause a subject to settle down if they are uneasy or tense. You have to use your best judgment in every case. No portrait session should be rushed, but there is no sense taking up your subject’s time in idle chatter while you could be making exposures.

There is also no reason for your conversation to cease just because you have started shooting. If the session seems to be going well, tell your subject; it may provide added confidence that will show in their expression. Drawing a subject out by having them talk while you are taking pictures will often result in interesting and revealing expressions.

Subjects do not have to smile to make a good portrait. A serious or thoughtful expression can often be more revealing of character, and a better portrait.


Don't forget that most cameras take rectangular pictures, and often when photographing people they will often - as the name suggests - fit better into 'portrait' than 'landscape' format.  


Environmental portrait

Atwood_BlindTwins.jpg (292463 bytes) Jane Evelyn Atwood Blind Twins

karsh_churchill.jpg (27439 bytes) karsh_farmer.jpg (44616 bytes) karsh_shaw.jpg (28603 bytes) m198130600049.jpg (117142 bytes) Yousuf Karsh

mapplethorpe_chains.jpg (78491 bytes) mapplethorpe_moody.jpg (36486 bytes) mapplethorpe_smith.jpg (48222 bytes) Robert Mapplethorpe

arbus_mark.jpg (38350 bytes) arbus_masked.jpg (36966 bytes) arbus_masked_woman_in_wheelchair.jpg (43944 bytes) Diane Arbus_hand_grenade.jpg (39712 bytes) Diane Arbus

eleanor.jpg (321776 bytes) callahan_eleanor_chi48.jpg (35731 bytes) callahan_eleanor_chi49.jpg (42005 bytes) callahan_eleanor_ny45.jpg (34379 bytes) Harry Callahan

friedlander_factory_valleys_60.jpg (41307 bytes)friedlander_nina_szarkowski.jpg (34583 bytes) friedlander_portraits_garry_winogrand_new_york_city_1957.jpg (74596 bytes) friedlander_portraits17_peter_exline_spokane_washington_1970.jpg (83031 bytes) Lee Friedlander.jpg (75972 bytes) friedlandercoleman.jpg (62447 bytes) Lee Friedlander

ManRay-Tears-1930.jpg (24404 bytes)  Man Ray Tears 1930


Self Portraits

1887.jpg (288101 bytes) Selfportrait1888Sept.jpg (258424 bytes) SelfPortraitJanuary1889.jpg (242760 bytes) SelfPortraitJan1889.jpg (338357 bytes) Selfportrait1889September.jpg (428672 bytes) Vincent Van Gogh

Self-Portrait with Monkey1938.jpg (48163 bytes) frida19.jpg (48009 bytes) KahloSelf3.jpg (90040 bytes) Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on My Mind)1943.jpg (357118 bytes) Self-Portrait with Loose Hair1947.jpg (330244 bytes) Frida Kahlo

Ilse Bing.jpg (39962 bytes) friedlander-self.jpg (36281 bytes) Weegee with his Speed Graphic Camera.jpg (40176 bytes) mapplethorpe_self-portrait_jpg_jpg.jpg (34703 bytes)  Warhol_Self_Portrait.jpg (63949 bytes) karsh_selfportrait2.jpg (12752 bytes)

 bdoorfour.jpg (11592 bytes)

 untitled3.jpg (66702 bytes)

Animal Portraits


Student Examples