The revered fashion, celebrity, and portrait photographer Peter Lindbergh famously said, “A portrait is never the person. What is captured, I think, is your relationship with the person.” It’s this sense of connection with the sitter that sets portrait photography apart from other genres, such as reportage or fashion. Good portraiture photography doesn’t just show a person’s appearance but reveals something about their character and humanity.
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Interaction with the subject is key. Whether for a commercial client, where you’re required to show the sitter at their best or most flattering, or for editorial purposes, which often requires revealing something about the subject’s personality.
Georgia-based portrait photographer Matt Odom says,
Portrait photography allows you to make people larger than life and make them feel important. I enjoy watching how subjects tend to unfold in front of the camera!
While all types of portrait photography rely on the interaction between photographer and subject, the production setting can vary greatly. There are:
Portraiture photography is a specialty that reaches from a quick head-and-shoulder shot to the elaborately staged scenarios by Annie Leibovitz. Being a good portrait photographer doesn’t only mean finding a setup or backdrop that will bring out the sitter’s personality. It also means they need to connect with the subject in a way that they can direct them and make them comfortable so they reveal something about their personality in the photo. Crucially, you need great people skills. Ryan Donnell, a Washington DC portrait photographer, says,
The most important skill is to put people at ease with being in front of a camera. I’m lucky because I enjoy being with people and am curious about almost everyone. This leads to lots of questions and decent conversations, as people love to talk about themselves.
An eye for composition and awareness of how images are going to be used in print also helps. Ryan says,
Designers will love you if you can incorporate space for text and understand where a page gutter will run across a photograph. Framing more space around the subject is also helpful so that they can crop if needed. If you consider the designer’s needs, you might get bigger photos in print!
You also need to be flexible and quick-thinking. Matt says,
One of the major skills is a strong understanding of lighting and the ability to problem-solve. Constantly.
Finally, portrait photographers must gently but authoritatively be able to direct their subjects. Chicago portrait photographer Kirsten Miccoli says,
You have to know how to read people. Provide the support they need to feel confident and relaxed while still being clear and communicative in your direction.
There are many types of portrait photography and it is prevalent in almost all fields of photography. It’s heavily used in commercial and editorial photography and often accompanies interviews, quotes, or profiles. It can also be part of a reportage or a marketing or branding campaign.
Some examples of places you would commonly see portrait photography featured:
Almost all photographers photograph people as part of their work. So if you want to stand out as a portrait photographer, your portfolio needs to be carefully curated. The best portfolios give the client a very clear idea of what kind of photography they can expect. So it needs to clearly and consistently display your style. British-born, Italian-based portrait and advertising photographer Colin Dutton says,
The images must represent you as a photographer and maintain a certain look or style as you browse them. Mine share a certain calmness, palette, and use of light. So potential clients can get a feel for what I’m likely to produce for them. I spend a lot of time making sure that the colors, the subject’s pose and direction, and the subject’s style flow well. My advice is to research the market, decide where you want to fit in, and then find a smart way to access the right subjects to build your portfolio. The trick is to know how to edit your work to build a portfolio that shows potential clients not what you can do, but what you want to do.
To establish yourself, building relationships with clients is crucial. However, it can be difficult to get a foot in the door. Self-assigned projects can be a helpful stepping stone. Matt says,
Personal work is what I call the gateway to photo editors and art directors. It gives them the opportunity to see you for who you are when it comes to your work and how you move as a photographer!
By doing self-assigned projects, Colin was able to perfect his portfolio as well as get to know clients that still commission him. He says,
When I wanted to break into portraiture photography, I invented a couple of personal projects that would get the right kind of people in front of my lens and into my portfolio. One project was based around a local business incubator, which gave me access to several businesses. I photographed young creative talent in my area for another project and used these portraits to form an exhibition to showcase their work. This provided publicity and contacts, which still bring in work to this day. Once I have worked with a new client, I keep in touch. Every three months, I send out a newsletter with a selection of my best work from that period. It’s frequent enough to make a good impression, but not so frequent that it becomes annoying and prompts clients to send a proposal.
The New York freelance photo editor Whitney Tressel keeps bookmarks of photographer websites, organized by location, and saves inspiring photography features and personal work on Instagram, which she uses as a directory for freelance photographers. She says,
I am often working under a tight budget and can’t afford to fly photographers to where the portrait subject resides. Wonderful Machine is a great resource for varied location work. When deciding who to assign, I match a photographer’s skill set and uniqueness to our creative approach and the audience. Ideally, I use a photographer who will push the creative a bit further for the readership or brand.
Adobe’s Creative Cloud did an investigation into what photo editors are looking for when commissioning. The theme that came up over and over again is that commissioning editors are looking for initiative in a photographer. Initiative to hone their images and style – if need be via personal projects – and a strong drive to get their work out there. Photo editors also placed a lot of emphasis on flexibility and being easy to work with.
Being a portrait photographer not only allows you to use your imagination and creativity, but it also means working very closely with people, which can make it incredibly rewarding. On the downside, it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. Portrait photography constitutes a considerable proportion of all photography, so most photographers will have some portraits in their portfolio. It can also be difficult to differentiate yourself from others, but on the upside, this can also really push you to develop your own individual style. It’s a genre where, depending on the client, you can also really get creative and push boundaries, which can be hugely rewarding.
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YouTube: The National Portrait Gallery/BT Road to 2012 Project – Nadav Kander