What Is A Portrait?

by William Lulow

What is a portrait? A portrait is a photographic representation of someone’s likeness printed on paper, published on the web, saved to a disc or sent through electronic mail. The photographic science of capturing an image on film or digitally will not be explained here in full detail, but suffice it to say that with the use of lighting, darkroom or computer  “magic,”  technique, cunning and psychological devices, the photographer hopes to be able to capture the essence of his or her subject at any given point in time and render that subject for all to see.

He or she also tries to elicit a response on the part of the viewer about the person in front of the lens. Therefore, it is important to decide what one wants to say about someone before he or she sits for the portrait. Once a decision has been made about the basic content of the photograph, it then should become easier to apply the types of lightings which will best convey the message. What one decides to say about  a subject is largely determined by recognizing several factors about oneself, including: one’s own interests, personality, shooting style and background.

If the image desired is to be used in advertising, public relations or on the web, a good likeness (one that is well lit with little shadow) is probably best. If the portrait is to be used for the photographer’s own portfolio, then the decisions as to pose, lighting and expression are really unlimited.

When doing a portrait it is important to determine who will be its judge. Most often, that is the single, guiding element. If the photographer is the judge, then anything is possible. If there is a client involved, and he/she is the judge, then they are the ones who need to be pleased and to use the image accordingly.


When the photographer is the judge, different lightings can be used to say what the photographer wants:


Various different lighting setups can evoke moods, draw the viewer’s attention to certain details and create visual stimulation to make certain points.

So, before doing any portraits, decide who will be the judge of your efforts and then try to please that person by using the tools at your disposal to their fullest

The psychological intricacies of making an effective portrait cannot be overemphasized. The portrait photographer must learn how to elicit the responses from her subjects that make portraits visually interesting. Sometimes this can range from saying nothing at all, to engaging the subject in active conversation. Effective portraits can often be made by using techniques from asking the subject if it would be okay to take their picture (as street photographers often do), to directing a studio session by asking the subject to participate in a full “give-and-take.” Personally, I like the latter approach. I like to be able to control all the elements of a portrait session from lighting, to background choice, to what kinds of things to talk about. I often direct my subjects as to pose and attitude. I try to elicit responses based on how the conversation flows. The trick to this is to be engaged with the subject but also to know what you are doing enough to press the shutter at the right times. A lot of planning goes into making this happen.

The bottom line here is that the studio portrait photographer needs to have a great command of all elements of a session. Lighting, pose, background, conversation and purpose are all important parts of a portrait. They must all be mastered to make the portrait effective.