Learning what the is nature of portraiture in photography is the essential part of everyone’s development who wish of becoming a portrait photographer: Origin, Development throughout history and Understanding the fabric of portraiture in photography.
This article can be treated as a continuation of the topic being covered in the previous post, where we focused on exploring when a portrait is just a headshot – or what makes headshot different from the traditional portrait photography and takes its place as a photography genre on its own.
However, this time will be going through the entire spectrum of portrait photography, exploring the past, present and future of portraiture in photography.
So let’s dive in and explore what is the essence of portrait photography and gain a better understanding of how to approach and use it. This exploration will also lead us to a better understanding of how and why sub-genres, such as headshot photography, are unique in their way – creating their own niches on the fields of professional photography.
What is Portrait photography?
Portraiture in photography can be described as a genre dealing with the transient nature of human life and the ever-changing appearance of a person. A well-crafted portrait captures the exact garb and physical characteristics, at a particular moment in time, of a person or group of people through the medium of photography.
Without confinements and boundaries portrait photography can fully explore the subject’s personality – at any focal length, aperture, shutter speed, underwater, studio, or on location. Frequent use of lighting, props, backdrops, outfits, posing routine, and makeup is intended to further enhance the subject’s appearance.
There are many ways, upon the intended use, to photographing portraits. In contrast to a wedding, headshot or family portraits, where a simpler approach can be the norm, examples of portrait photography used in advertising, or fine art, are created in a more complex and creative way requiring more resources.
Commissioning and the demand for portrait photography is the main factor for the variety of styles, approaches and sub-genres we recognize today – branching out, finding implementation upon usage, budget and sectors (as illustrated on the graphic below).
We, as humans, like labelling things and historically portraiture as an art-form far precedes its name. Portraiture goes back to prehistoric times, a period shrouded in the mist of time, and few examples of early portraiture remain. In the art of most ancient civilizations, portraiture was very conceptual and stylized when depicting a human subject, idealizing the lines rather than describing their real features (probably quite understandable as the sitters of this time period were mostly nobles, given extraordinary appearances).
Of the great civilizations, the Greeks probably came the closest to depicting the human face in what could be called “realistic portrait”.
Portrait photography carries the legacy of everything portraiture was before the developing of the medium of photography – depiction of people. Of course, the new medium introduced a whole new range of specifics and meanings to the entire process of visualizing people.
A photographic camera was the new revolutionary medium, not painting or carving but capturing the accurate physical appearance of the subject sitting in front of the camera.
The camera helped photographer capture a mirrored copy of their subject, unlike painters whose representation can be influenced by admiration or a level of artistic contribution.
Photography became the more accessible form of acquiring a portrait, reaching across different social strata.
With portrait photography, the time a subject needed to spend in sitting was greatly reduced. Although in early, such as with the Daguerreotype, this sitting time was much greater than now.
History of Portrait photography.
The concept of photography has very deep, even mysterious, roots spread through the annals of our history. An example such as “The Shroud of Turin” indicates that some sort of photography process could have been applied or experimented with as early as 12th or 13th century. However, a revolutionary new invention was about to drastically change the traditional way of creating portraits, the development of photography marked the begging of a new era for the art of portraiture.
Although the earliest cameras were enormous in size and incapable of saving the image, eventually with lots of hard work and experimentation in 1837 the first, useful enough for capturing portraits, the photographic process was developed by Louis Daguerre.
In the middle of the 19th-century portrait photography was already paving its way to success among the social layers of western societies. Although being able to produce only black and white images in comparison to paintings, portrait studios became more popular due to its affordability and shortened sitting time for the subject. Most of this was thanks to improved photographic technologies such as the development of daguerreotype and calotype emulsions, capturing images with greater details and shortened exposure times.
Today we may have all aspects of portrait photography for granted but this wasn’t the case for the early pioneers – they needed to devise and adapt all from the smallest details.
André Disdéri was the photographer who introduced and made popular the use of studio props, such as pillars and draperies, and items suggestive of subject’s background or professional life (he also invented the carte de visite). Portraits also were starting to be used in political campaigns as early as 1860 when Alexander Hesler photographed a portrait of Abraham Lincoln without a beard.
These early pioneering works were marked by the technical challenges of the time, regarding longer exposure times, and the aesthetic influence of the preceding portraiture painting.
From the early 1900s, when celebrity portraiture was getting popular, until the present day, portrait photography greatly changed. Latest achievements in camera development introduced new, faster, smaller and cheaper ways of capturing images, thus making portrait photography even more affordable.
Following in the early success of portrait photography – today there are countless portrait studios around the world, from department stores, where you can get a package with almost real-time developing services, to high-end editorial portrait studios. With no surprise, today, portrait photography is the most successful and sustainable business form of photography.
Approaches to portrait photography.
In order to simplify and easily identify approaches within the, seemingly, overwhelming complexity emanating out of portrait photography, we tend to identify four frameworks. Each one of them was established and used over time – becoming distinctive on its own, overcoming challenges and adapting to needs introduced by a combination of factors such as time, location, technicality, artistry, personality and culture.
Constructionist or Conceptual
The need for developing a concept, for the purpose of depicting a portrait, is the main characteristic of the Constructionist approach in portrait photography. This is apparent in scenarios where a photographer needs to recreate a scene revolving around a theme – being of nature such as romance, happiness, social appearance, identity, professionalism or simply conveying an idea. Good examples of the constructionist approach can be found, in particular, in the fields of advertising and fine art photography where specific ideas are to be disseminated.
With sometimes bold and formalist visual language, the constructionist approach carries strong social significance in the way it can influence people’s political, social, creative and intellectual views.
Example of Constructionist approach to portrait photography
This is the approach where portraits are photographed on-premises with the purpose of revealing more about the subject’s professional or personal identity. Environmental portraits are usually photographed with wide-angle lenses, accommodating more of the content the subject is surrounded by. Environmental portraiture is very popular and useful within the commercial sector, where often people are photographed holding items or doing something, typical for their professions – surgeon performing operation, barrister making coffee, artist performing etc.
Environmental portraits can hold significant value in respect of the time period they’ve been captured. Reviling lots of information not only of the subject’s current state of appearance but also his/her surrounding – providing clear and valuable characteristics for the time period the image was photographed.
Example of Environmental approach to portrait photography
The candid approach in photography is very common in photojournalism or street photography, photographing people without their knowledge – unaware of a photographer’s intend. Although being very invasive approach, as in the example with paparazzi photographers. Many iconic images, with explicit visual narrative characteristics, of people being part of important events and locations in our history were captured, thanks to more modest and refined candid photography approach.
In contrast to the Constructionist approach, candid photography captures real-life scenes disconnecting from the photographer’s creative or ideological preferences. A common element between the Environmental and Candid approaches is the encapsulating of moments in time, holding detailed description based on the subject’s surrounding.
Example of Candid approach to portrait photography
The creative approach is characterized by a signature style of the photographer creating portraits, which can be a combination of lighting, aperture, concept, posing, styling and editing techniques. Editing or retouching takes an important role in the process of creative communication through photography. In the early stages of portrait photography, images were treated/edited in a Darkroom, different techniques were available to further enhance the final result. Today editing portraits and the way people appears in them is done in digital format and it is becoming a very popular trend even an industry, such as retouching, on its own.
The creative approach is very well adopted in fine art portraiture, where the artist can express his/her allegorical vision and perception of reality.
Example of Creative approach to portrait photography
Lighting in portrait photography.
Lighting in portrait photography plays a very important role, being in a studio or on-location portrait photographers must have full control of how subject is lit. By controlling light and using lighting techniques and tools, portrait photographer can influence the quality outcome of a photo session – overcoming challenges introduced by location specifics or client requirements.
There are no concrete rules of how a portrait should be illuminated, especially if you are in pursuit of developing your own signature style. However, there are several well-established lighting techniques which will provide many portrait photographers with consistent results and predictable outcomes. They are also easy to identify and can provide a clear indication, by highlights and shadow patterns on the subject’s face or background, of what lighting setup/technique was used.
Furthermore, combining elements (or mixing) of these techniques can account for a creative or conceptual approach for lighting in portrait photography.
Example of Low-key lighting technique
Example of High-key lighting technique
This is a lighting setup where the ratio of shadows to highlights is in favour of the last one. The predominant tone in high-key portraits is white with overall bright appearance, photographed on a white background. Such a set will require numerous strobes as every detail within the frame need to be enhanced for tonal consistency.
Low-key is used for rendering more dramatic profiles, illuminating only the face of a subject with high on shadows to highlights ratio. Such set is usually photographed with only one strobe, in some cases upon photographers expertise and personal artistic input – additional lights can be used in recreating this lighting pattern.
This is the basic set used in portrait photography upon which more complex and diverse lighting set-ups can be constructed; achieving different effects. By using the three-point lighting plan photographer can add more depth, thus the model can have a three-dimensional appearance. This is an optical illusion achieved within the framework of dynamic and tonality ranges distributed across the photographed frame. It is very important when working with multiple lights, how the strobes are positioned and the output ratio between them.
Three-point lighting also can be interpreted in different scenarios even by introducing extra lighting to the set-up.
The Three-point lighting consists of:
This is the light illuminating subject’s face, it’s also known as the Main light. Its purpose is to model and shape the face of the person sitting in front of the camera. It can be positioned upon the photographer’s style and preferences, usually above the head, camera left or right in various angles – especially if feathering light is the preferred approach. The spread of it can be controlled by using different sorts of light modifiers and, ultimately, will depend on the photographer’s style and art direction at any particular instance.
Fill in light.
Fill in light can consist of another strobe, modified with softbox or umbrella, or reflector of any size. Its purpose is to enhance and control the contrast, which will be very high in result of illuminating a model with only light – the size of the Key light also can be contributing factor of contrast levels. The output of a fill light should never be equal to the output of the main light but rather in various stop ratios like 1:2,1:4 etc. – as its main role is to lift the shadow areas. “Stop” in photography refers to increments adjustment of strobe/lighting units.
Back and Rim light.
Rim, or accent, light is used for separation, it can consist of a strip box positioned on the side and slightly behind the subject. This is the light that contributes the most to the overall three-dimensional appearance. The other way accent light can be used is when positioned behind the subject (aimed at his/her back), in this case, the use of different light modifier will be more practical; such as grids and barn doors.
Butterfly lighting (or “Paramount lighting” as it was known, due to its signature use by Paramount Picture company) tends to accentuate very well facial features with distinctive shadows and highlights patterns. Its name comes from the well defined “butterfly” like a shadow under the nose and the fact it was predominantly used photographing female models and actress.
In most common scenarios, butterfly lighting consists of one light, positioned high above and in front of model’s face, very often supplemented with the use of a reflector to help lift the shadows. As any other lighting sets, butterfly lighting can be interpreted and adapted to the photographer’s style or creative direction, by adding extra lights or modifiers.
In early portrait photography, the main source of lighting was the natural, ambient, window light – technique inherited from the traditional painting. All studios of this early period were equipped with a large window or skylight facing north, in most cases located on rooftop or ceiling, above and to the side of a subject. The quality of window light depends upon the time of the day, usually softer light is available in the early and late hours when the angle of the sun is relatively low. Like with every single light source, window light can be successfully supplemented by the use of a reflector – the matter of fact is that any white or reflective surface can act as one.
Window light also can be explored in a more creative way, by filtering, reflecting and deflecting it a variety of effects can be achieved.
Window light comes with some limitations, restricting the photographer of being in full control over the process of photographing a portrait. Shutter speed can not be fully controlled but rather will be determined upon the intensity of available light sometimes resulting in longer exposure times, although modern cameras are equipped with high ISO a use of tripod may be still required. Also, window light is a static source of light where the subject needs to be positioned at the exact spot rather than light being adjusted in accordance with the subject’s preferable location.
However, in contrast to some of the limitations presented by using a window as a source of light, its free availability, access and quality (still unmatched by strobes) is what makes it so popular among people who are just starting with portrait photography and don’t have access or the budget for strobes. The distinctive smooth signature, window light provides, is still the choice for many professional portrait photographers today.
In modern photography techniques combining window and strobe light are widely adopted, providing photographers with more control and flexibility.
Photography lighting, tools and accessories.
There is a broad range of photography tools aiding in the process of capturing portraits, allowing photographers to further improve the quality of their work.
The actual variety of lighting, tools and accessories is much more extensive, the few listed below are the most common one every portrait photographer may have.
Main lighting source for most photographers comes in the form of professional flash strobes. Continuous lighting is still quite popular among portrait photographers, the intensity and spread of this light source is lower/softer and when combined with strobes allows for achieving a range of creative effects – such as the one covered in this post “Capturing creative self-portrait as a pro“.
In recent years small strobe flashes, Speedlite, are becoming the choice of many photographers from different levels, mainly due to its compact size, lower cost and ease of handling.
The light painting technique also managed to find its way in the realm of portrait photography, and it comes with its own specific sets lighting sources and tools, just to name few as the range can be quite extensive, such as:
Lighting tools will include everything a photographer will use in order to modify the outcome of light’s quality and patterns. Normally these tools are known as light modifiers or lighting controls – they are also available in different sizes and shapes.
Here is shortlist with most common ones that are found in every professional studio.
The Future of Portrait Photography.
We’re living in times where every aspect of our lives is affected by the fast developments of technologies. Many industries have undergone a dramatic transformation in order to adapt and even survive in the current predicament. Of course, professional photography had its share too for good or for bad – only time will tell.
Advances in digital technologies have applied enormous strain on the industry as a whole. Although providing photographers with extra tools and flexibility to create and display more exquisite portraits than ever before, at the same time facing the challenge of breaking through the “dogmatic” constraints of portraiture – its basic simplicity and subjectivity.
The basic framework, in both painting portraits and photographing portraits, has been defined by the medium we use to create portraiture – which in its core principle didn’t change a bit, over the years and millennia. So in this line of thoughts, perhaps, it’s easy to foresee the fact that whatever change may take place in the near future will be related to camera, lighting and printing technologies.
But perhaps the real future of portrait photography will be related to and following, the subject of ever-evolving human face and nature. Capturing portraits of new generations of people rather than forcing changes upon the way we capture them.
Nevertheless conventional and current photography constraints are being challenged, constantly, in the pursuit of creating new, original and unique images – the subject of modern and contemporary portraiture.
Portrait photography has come a long way and thanks to it we are very lucky, against the transient nature of human life, to witness memorable figures and events that took places in our recent history. Based on a very liberal platform, like most art forms of today, portrait photography is perhaps one of the most exciting categories for many participants and professionals.
Broadly interpreted, portrait photography evolved and gave birth to the many styles, approaches and sub-genres we know today- finding its place among traditional descriptive arts such as painting, sculpture and poetry.
As interested and turbulent the early history of, developing and capturing, portrait photography might have been, it will be a great prospect to even speculate what the future may bring – when in the hands of the next generation of portrait photographers.