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The Building Blocks of Artistic Portrait Photography

Of the many creative photographic genres, it is perhaps portrait photography where two camps–the representative and the artistic–can be most clearly observed. Whilst the former requires context through captions and backstory to elevate it, in the later, the absence of such requires creative aptitude. Attempting to merge both camps in one photograph can often diminish its effectiveness.

Portrait photography at its pinnacle should be intense. The photographer has chosen a subject for a reason, and that reason should emerge in the final image. It should be the session’s driving force. What is it that attracts us to photograph this individual? Once identified, the photographer should hold onto this thinking until its possibilities are exhausted.

A useful exercise to leverage this intensity is to think that the sitter is someone you have a strong feeling for. Feelings can include admiration, attraction, respect or indeed repulsion. For a great example of the last, look no further than Arnold Newman’s image of Alfred Krupp.

As viewers we are drawn to faces and expressions and because of this the conventions of portrait photography rest on showing a face in its entirety. How we do this depends on what we want to convey of course. In great photos it can be a fleeting moment that emerges in spite of the photographer’s skill (partly why sessions involve multiple captures) or a stillness that hints at hidden depths or suggests timelessness.

In both cases we are not tied to shooting head on, although that may be the best option. Instead, both profile shots or oblique views can also work. A psychological dimension, often absent from less good portrait photography, can also offer something very unique.

Creating a mood with contextual portraits is an alternative with its possibilities for adding meaning to a photo. Pulling back and including surroundings can be a solution if the subject’s expression is not sufficiently interesting to carry the image.

Face appeal is partly why many photographers are readily drawn to pretty women and old men, the two opposites that both carry the most charismatic weight. Some individuals surprisingly photograph well and others less so despite their good looks. Ideally, we should think beyond this narrow view and open up our engagement and subject material. Including context is one way to think about this.

Here are four photographs that use various approaches to get beyond the purely representational.

Creating a psychological shot with hidden depths

This portrait captures a moment and an expression which shows the subject at their most vulnerable. Fixing a state of mind to film is a rare occurrence and one which emerges through good fortune across many sessions. Knowing when to photograph someone is a key tool for the skillful portrait photographer.

Taken with a 5×4 camera, the limited depth of field (DOF) focuses our interest on the subject’s eyes, whilst the head tilt creates a dynamic diagonal line which is further enhanced by the hairline and collar link, leading to the top right corner. The lighting is perhaps the key to this image. Overhead diffused light in this instance adds ‘character’ to the face.

A portrait with a point. How context can be used creatively.

Sometimes a photographer moves on gut feeling, towards the spark of an interesting image. In this example, for the photograph of Kenny wearing black, it’s placing him in front of a backdrop which elevates it from being merely a snapshot of his face to something unique that can only be expressed in a visual language.

The combination of a fleeting moment when Kenny’s eyes are turned, together with the painted eyes behind him, flips what could have been a representational shot into something unique and creative.

Suggesting timelessness through lighting and pose

In this photograph of a musician dressed in white, the use of classic window light offers both mood and meaning. The subject’s gaze in the direction of what we imagine is the outside, suggests a life lived inside. The interior darkness helps create this sense. Reflecting on life and the stillness that comes with this is also created through achieving a balanced composition.

Note the subject’s position relative to the window and also the separation between the window frame and the sitter’s left arm. Everything feels in its right place which adds to a feeling of stillness and permanence.

Attaining authenticity with an ethnic group encounter

International adventures to different cultures are travel photography’s stock trade but there are pitfalls when photographing in ethnic communities. It can be very easy to make a photograph that has no visual purpose other than a record of that person in their habitat. These kinds of photos suffer from an overriding blandness.

Often the difficulties of setting up a shot, through not being familiar with the surroundings or subject, mean the message is diluted through poor expression, lighting, gesture or framing. In this photograph of the woman and child, I ensured both were engaged to suggest a shared moment with the photographer.

The conflicting expressions say so much about the reality of interactions with strangers. What looks to be superficially a representational shot is one that owes more to craft, in the control of lighting, focus, background, as well as the position of the hands and two faces.


About the author: Darren Lewey is a photographer and workshop leader based in Morocco running online courses and retreats. You can read more of his tutorials at Creative Camera.