Portraiture, a style of photography that captures images of people, usually focuses on the face, although it may include a person”s entire head and shoulders or even the entire body. However, when people think of portraiture photography, they generally think of pictures that focus primarily on the subject”s face.

Portraiture Photography through the Ages

Portraiture photography”s roots go back to painted portraits, the most famous of which is perhaps Leonardo da Vinci”s Mona Lisa. In past centuries, painted portraiture was expensive, meaning that it was reserved mostly for the nobility, rich merchants and other wealthy members of society.

However, with the invention of the camera, portraiture opened up to the masses, especially as photo exposure times shortened. Because initial exposure times were long (taking up to an hour), many subjects of portrait photography had to stay still for extended periods of time. As a result, they tended not to smile, instead holding a stern pose that they could maintain for an hour.

The mass production of personal cameras also changed the way people took portrait pictures. Anyone could now, in theory, take his or her own photo. Nevertheless, capturing yourself at the right angle in the right light is still a tricky business that is often too difficult to do without the aid of a professional portrait photographer.

Catching the Person with Portraiture Photography

While capturing a person”s features is one of the foundations of portraiture, it”s not the only function of this type of photography. True portrait photography must convey something of the subject”s personality.

To effectively do this, portraiture may focus on a particular characteristic, habit or facial feature that serves as a window into the subject”s identity. If done properly, a portrait will lend the viewer a taste of the subject”s personality, even if the subject and viewer have never met.

Portraiture Tips

Portraiture photography ranges from formally posed pictures to candid “in the moment” shots of people at work or play. While most amateur photographers lack a professional studio and lighting, they can nevertheless produce excellent portraiture photos with some practice. Here are some basic portraiture photography tips:

  • Know your subject: To capture part of a portraiture subject”s personality, the photographers must know their subjects well. If you don”t know your subject, talk to him or her. Find out about your subjects” goals, interests, jobs and dreams. While some people are shier about revealing this information than others, the way someone answers is another inlet into his or her personality.
  • Smiles are optional: Although a smile or laugh is natural for some people, other people look forced or uncomfortable when smiling for a camera. The key is to see what works with the subject”s personality. Smiling is never mandatory: Some of the most powerful portraits are of subjects with solemn, thoughtful or even angry expressions.
  • Go portraiture viewing: Studying the features of professional portraits can give you ideas on how best to capture different types of subjects. Both art galleries and photography books offer portraiture spreads. Some publications, such as National Geographic, are well known for powerful and compelling portraiture.While some photographers may play with light, others may find that different colors or compositions within a frame can best enhance their subjects. When you find portraiture photography you like, study it. Look at the angle of the camera, the way the light falls on the subject and the use of props and setting to generate a mood. Could you reproduce this feeling in your own portraiture photography? Attempting to reproduce the feel of professional portraiture is a good way for amateurs to develop their own portraiture styles.
  • Play with light, angle and color: Experiment with light and camera angles when you take portraits. See if your subject looks better in soft or bright light. Perhaps your subject looks better with a different camera angle or focus. Manipulating these aspects and seeing how each affects the resulting photo is especially easy with a digital camera, as you can view portraits immediately.Choice of color is also important. While many people are conditioned to use color film, sometimes black-and-white works better for portraiture photography. Black-and-white photos emphasize the play of light and shadow on the subject. Not only does black-and-white film force the viewer to focus on the subject”s expression (without the distraction of color), but it also lends the portrait a classic, timeless quality.

Portraiture Equipment

Because many portraits are close-up shots, a camera with a telephoto lens is a good choice for portraiture photography. While not essential, a tripod is a helpful accessory, as it helps keep the camera steady to reduce the risk of ruining that perfect shot due to shaky hands.

While lighting, flashes and backdrops may be essential for a professional studio, they aren”t necessarily required for amateurs. Often the best examples of amateur portraiture are candid shots, taken as the subjects go about their daily lives.