Portrait Photography – a guide for people in front of the camera

Portrait photography is a broad discipline. A portrait is a portrayal of a person, and a portrayal is defined as a depiction of the subject matter, which could be in the form of a picture, performance or paragraph.

What is portrait photography?

Portrait Photography. Business Head Shot.
Business Headshot – Copyright Andrew Cameron

In portrait photography, the portrait is a true likeness of the person being photographed, accepting that a photograph is a framed moment in time.

Business portraits tend to be headshots against a plain background that feature on the company website, intranet or brochure – the objective is usually to literally ‘put a face to the name’.

The photographer’s main challenge here is to get the person to relax, smile and look comfortable. Creatively, the options are limited and these types of portraits, whilst depicting a true likeness, don’t reveal much about the person. Whereas environmental portraits are about capturing something about who the person is and/or what they do.

Environmental portraits

A photograph of someone leaning on the bonnet of a classic sports car tells you something about the person. A portrait of a person wearing a hard hat against a background of cranes and earth movers tells us something about what that person might do or be involved with. These would be classified as environmental portraits, which include in the framing, other elements that transform the image from simply being a likeness of the person, to an image that provides us with some information about the person.

Portrait Photography - Hotel Owner Blackpool at reception
There are several layers in this image. Copyright Andrew Cameron

A head and shoulders photograph of a smiling woman in front of a white wall doesn’t convey that much information. There are essentially two layers to this type of image, the person and a flat background.

If the same woman, wearing the same clothes, was photographed in a bar holding a trumpet, a story would start to reveal itself. Now the image has several layers – a trumpet, a female, and the visual information that tells us she is in a bar, which could also be a music venue.

Portraits that tell stories

As someone motivated by stories, it will be no surprise that I find environmental portraits, that reveal something about the individual, more interesting and challenging.

Rod Judkins, author of The Art of Creative Thinking, tells the story of a groundbreaking portrait of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1857.

‘The famous photograph of Brunel standing before the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern created an idea of Brunel as a romantic genius, arrogantly relaxed and confident. Although it looks like a snapshot of an insouciant savant taking a break, it was actually a painstaking act of image manipulation. This classic “snapshot” in fact took several days to construct. […] Both the photographer and Brunel were searching for an idealized image.’

Isambard Brunel. Early example of Environmental Portrait.
Brunel photographed by Robert Howlett in 1857

This photograph, by Robert Howlett, was an early example of an environmental portrait at a time when most portraits were created in a studio. Brunel, a creative visionary himself, understood the potential power of the photograph and insisted that his portrait tell his story rather than just present his face. In other words, he had a clear objective and enlisted the help of a well-known photographer to achieve his goal.

The Brunel portrait was undoubtedly a collaboration, but sometimes it’s down to the photographer to tell the story. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of Samuel Beckett are documentary in style but are environmental portraits nonetheless. We can see that Cartier-Bresson has photographed Beckett in his study or library and even if we know nothing about Beckett we can summise that he is a man of literature and words.

Environmental Portrait Photography. Sam Beckett in study.
Playwright Samuel Beckett, 1964 by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Arnold Newman’s portrait of Picasso leaves us in no doubt that the person in the picture has a strong connection to art. Standing in front of just one image, the portrait may have been interpreted as someone in front of their favourite picture. Perhaps if they were also holding a paintbrush or wearing a paint-splattered smock we might assume they had painted the picture.

Here we see Picasso in a room full of paintings and ceramics, some works are finished others are works in progress but none of it is hanging on the walls or appears to be on display. The works are in the same style and there is an energy to the composition that tells us something about the artist’s prolific output.

Portrait Photography. Picasso sitting on chair with art in background.
Picasso by Arnold Newman

Someone else’s story

Some people like the idea of having their portrait taken but others would rather be someone else. I‘ve worked with a number of clients who wanted to recreate and re-imagine portraits that have inspired them from works of art, films or famous photographs from the past.

Julian Sharples Portrait for Album Cover.
For an album cover – Copyright Andrew Cameron

The process is no different from that which Brunel and Howlett followed. Start with an objective, discuss the style, decide the location and make it happen.

5 things to consider for your own portrait photographs

Those wanting their portrait taken should assume that their photographer will know what camera, lenses and lights to use but in the same way that an interior designer needs to understand ‘you’ before proposing designs, a portrait photographer needs to understand the following:

  1. What’s the story that you want to tell? Think about what you would like people to know about you.
  2. How do you want to be portrayed? Strong, confident, shy, cheeky, sexy, flirty…?
  3. Do have a location in mind?
  4. What are you going to wear? – Colours matter, hats might shade eyes, your photographer needs to know these things
  5. What props would support your story?

St Francis portrait for project.
Copyright Andrew Cameron