Types of portraits

 

Portraits can be broadly classified into two types according the role of the surroundings in the picture:  (1) environmental portraits, in which the surroundings play a critical role in defining the subject’s profession or vocation; and (2) “classic” portraits, where the sitter is the only subject and the background and environment don’t add much to the story. 

Another way of classifying portraits is based on whether the subject is (1) aware and cooperating with the camera, as in a “posed” portrait; or (2) a capture of a candid  moment with the subject being seemingly unaware of the presence of the camera.   Sometimes candid photos can be fabricated, instead of capture – the photographer convincingly shows the subject in an unguarded moment, but the subject is perfectly aware of being photographed.  

 

We can summarize these types of portraits in the following table:

 

Environmental

Classic

Posed

Environmental, posed portraits

Classic, posed portraits

Candid

Environmental candid portraits

Classic candid portraits (uncommon)

 

The boundaries between these types of portraits are fuzzy.  For example, a classic posed portrait may provide a hint of an environment, like a prop, without it being fully environmental.  A good example would be the famous American West portraits Avedon made against a white background.  There is no environment to speak of,  but the clothes and objects the subjects hold give important clues as to their occupation or the location. 

In my photography I am very aware of these distinctions, as they define the techniques required to produce the portrait.  These categories provide the basic decision-making framework for the photographer to work with his or her subject to get a meaningful, compelling portrait.

I see many photographers that favor a type of portrait that has an obvious environment, like a public park, but this environment does not in any meaningful way connect with the subject(s) of the portrait.  It’s just convenient to take pictures in a public park at the golden hour.  While this will often produce pretty pictures, they fall a bit short on the story telling aspects – the location does not provide us with context about the subject – it’s a content-neutral context, as in the classic portrait, but it does contain a lot of information that can distract from the main subject.

In my work I like to do all these types of portraits, and I avoid situations where the environment exists but it’s not meaningful.    Furthermore, I tend to use these styles quite different for portrait commissions and for stock people photography, in the following manner:

 

Environmental

Classic

Posed

Commission, stock

Commission, stock (business)

Candid

Stock

Stock

 

I tend to favor a more posed approach whenever someone commissions a portrait for their wall or photo album.   These portraits tend to show the subject looking at the camera, either in their environment, like home, or doing what they enjoy, or in a formal environment, where the focus is on their physical features and hopefully personality.   While I often use this approach for stock images, I tend to favor a more candid style for stock, so that I can more clearly illustrate human feeling or emotion.

Breaking the rules

Breaking the rules

Like everything in the arts, these categories above are guidelines, but not rigid prescriptive rules for creatives.  In the portrait above I do use a natural setting to help me tell the story - the beauty of late afternoon light,  wild flowers and a young woman echo the beauty of the music she’s playing but we can’t hear.  The environment helps convey the idea of beauty and compensates for what the image cannot do, which is to offer us the music directly.   So it’s an environmental portrait but it’s more conceptual than direct.  It’s posed because I worked with the musician on his position with respect to the lights and the camera, but the viewer hopefully doesn’t see the pose, only the reflective moment in which she connects with her music.

 

Category: Art


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