portrait photo of woman in hood

Written by
Kevin LJ, Professional Photographer

Reviewed by
Chris Johnson, TPG Editor

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The answer to 'What is portrait photography?' is straightforward. 

Portrait photography is photos of a person or group of people.

There are many different answers as to why portrait photography is important. As there are many different ways portrait photographers create pictures of their subjects.

A simple portrait is required for forms of identification, including passports and driver's licenses. Portrait photos are found on book and album covers, company annual reports, and advertisements. These are usually more creative and complex than a mugshot, but important nonetheless. 

passport against dark background



LENS: 35MM F/3.2

SHUTTER: 1/200

ISO: 800


PUBLISHED: February 20, 2017

SOURCE:  https://unsplash.com/photos/RiUZQOfQ8XE

Family portraits will be cherished for generations. This is because they help us keep connected with family members. These are just a few of the many important ways portrait photography is important.

family portrait



LENS: 40MM F/7.1

SHUTTER: 1/200

ISO: 800


PUBLISHED: March 20, 2022

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/-UUfUnOc9-E

You might snap a quick selfie to send to an old friend. Or sit for a formal portrait session. Either way, the images we have of ourselves communicate something of who we are that words cannot so provide.

The definition of portrait photography is straightforward: a portrait is a photo of a person. 

Even so, many photographers feel challenged to make good portrait photographs consistently.

What's Required to Make Great Portrait Photographs?

You need two things to make any portrait photograph. A camera and a person. How you, as the photographer, manage both of these determines the outcome of your portrait photographs.

Cameras and Lenses for Portrait Photography

You can use any regular camera or phone to take a portrait. The focal length lens you use can vary depending on the style of portrait you're making. Using a medium to short telephoto focal length, say a 50mm to 135mm range tends to create an image with little or no lens distortion. This is a typical choice for more formal portraits. 

canon camera lens



LENS: 35MM F/5.6


ISO: 25600

PHOTOGRAPHER: Scott Gummerson

PUBLISHED: January 15, 2020

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/2sJVvank_to

Using wider focal length lenses allows you to capture more of the location. This is ideal for environmental portraits. Although, it can introduce distortion problems. If you're not careful with your subject placement, especially when using very wide lenses. Placing a subject too close to the edge of the frame will cause them to look distorted in the photograph. This is not usually flattering and does not depict a person's true appearance.

Longer focal length lenses are often preferred for candid portrait photography. Using a long lens, a photographer can remain removed from a situation and capture people's portraits without being detected. I find that the longer the lens a photographer uses, the more detached they are from their subjects. This influences the look and feel of portrait photographs.

two friends high fiving



LENS: 145.0MM F/4.8

SHUTTER: 1/500

ISO: 320


PUBLISHED: October 19, 2021

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/L41SlN0P0TU

I have two favorite lenses for portrait photography. One is my 105mm f/2.8 lens. This is considered to be a standard portrait lens. The other lens I love using for portraits is a little less standard. I love using my 35mm f/1.4 lens for making environmental portraits, street portraits, and at other times when I am comfortable being close to my subject. Sometimes I even use it for candid portraits.

Portrait Photography Subjects

The other necessary ingredient for portrait photography is a person to photograph. This is where the portrait photographer can be most challenged. Not in dealing with their camera and lighting equipment but in communicating with the person they are photographing.

How you connect with your subjects is as important as how you set up your camera and lighting because both profoundly affect the finished portrait photograph.

Who you photograph and how you connect with them while you're making their portrait will determine whether or not you're pictures are any good. Some people are far more relaxed than others when you point a camera at them. Some will perform or pull faces. Many will freeze. 

Getting a five-year-old to hold a serious expression for a passport photo is super challenging. Don't smile is the opposite of what they've been told every other time you've pointed a camera at them. Getting someone who's nervous about being photographed to relax and smile is equally challenging. It's also a lot more common.

young child in small blue polo



LENS: 76.0MM F/6.3

SHUTTER: 1/250

ISO: 100

PHOTOGRAPHER: mahan njfizade

PUBLISHED: June 178, 2020

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/WvT5bw7IGgM

Learning to communicate well with the people you want to make portraits of will make or break many of the photos you take of people. Sometimes it may take a few minutes and be painless. At other times you may have to spend time to put your subject at ease and help them enjoy the process. They'll thank you when you do this well because they'll look better in the photos than when they are up tight.

The Portrait Photographer

It's one thing to have great camera gear and know how to set it up to get in focus and well-exposed photographs. It's another whole ball game to do this while engaging with a person you are photographing. 

Capturing a portrait photograph of a person who is tense or uptight will not often produce stellar results. A portrait subject who enjoys the experience of being in front of your camera is going to look so much better in the photographs. This is why it's so important for the portrait photographer to connect well and relate to the people they photograph.

Some people you'll have no problem with. For others, you'll have to work a lot harder to get them looking good. It's not so much to do with a person's features but more to do with how they feel because this is portrayed in their facial expressions. It may be a matter of helping take their focus away from the fact that you're photographing them. Cracking a joke, making small talk, and paying compliments to a person can all help them feel better and help you make a more flattering portrait.

smiling woman in sunglasses and checkered overalls



LENS: 50.0MM F/2.0

SHUTTER: 1/400

ISO: 100


PUBLISHED: November 18, 2018

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/k9XZPpPHDho

For shy photographers, this is often the most challenging aspect of portrait photography. Being a portrait photographer takes more work and personal development if you're not so keen on interacting with people.

One Other Key Factor in Portrait Photography: Purpose 

The other key factor in portrait photography is the purpose of the photograph. Not all cameras and lenses will suit every need. Taking a quick snapshot with a wide-angle lens when the light is low and the background is distracting might make a great memory. But it won't do when applying for a job or passport. The combination of camera, lens, lighting, and composition all make a portrait suitable for a specific use.

You can use any camera you like to make a portrait. But if there's a specific purpose for the portrait photograph, you'll be more confined in your equipment choices. Knowing how the portrait photographs you take will be used is important so you can set everything up well. It's important to understand this when you're planning your portrait photography session.

studio setting with blue steps and orange background



LENS: 21.0MM F/5.0

SHUTTER: 1/125

ISO: 1000

PHOTOGRAPHER: William F. Santos

PUBLISHED: May 14, 2019

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/PU3eZhA76s8

Sometimes you'll have full control over the creative process. At other times you may need to follow some strict guidelines, so the portraits you make are as useful as possible. Variables can include the location, lighting, clothing, and even the type of expression you capture from your subject.

Communicating well with your subject, especially if they are a paying customer, is vital. They can tell you what the photos will be used for and together, you can discuss how you can come up with the best results.

I'll often take some simple head and shoulder portraits of clients, even if they don't currently need one. Having an up-to-date simple, plain portrait of yourself is always handy. I'll also work with a variety of lighting and background combinations. By doing this, I can provide people with many options to choose from.

What Are the Main Goals of a Portrait Photographer?

When you think about what portrait photography is, you must consider your goals. What kind of portraits do you want to create? Does your subject have a choice in how you photograph their portrait? What is the main purpose of you taking portrait photographs of someone?

Planning your portrait photography sessions well helps you to achieve your goals. There's nothing wrong with spontaneity, but it can mean you're limited. The results may not produce the most creative portrait photograph or the most useful results.

Most portrait photographers who work professionally have a list of questions. They'll ask a subject well in advance of the actual portrait session. This discussion helps them ascertain the purpose and style of the portraits they need to take.

I'm always most satisfied with my portrait photography when my subject loves the photos I've taken of them. It's one thing for me to be happy with the results, but if my client is also pleased, then I know I've done my job well.

When you start out making portrait photographs of friends, you may not realize the value of planning. Discussing what you want and what your subject wants sets both of you up to create a series of portrait photographs that you'll both love. 

Some things to consider are:

  • Portrait Lighting
  • The best location - indoors or outdoors
  • What your subject wears
  • The mood of the portrait
  • How the photos are to be used.

Whether you're a casual portrait photographer or a professional, it really pays to know what your subject wants to look like in their photos. At times they'll give you full creative control. Then it's up to you to create a traditional portrait or engage in some environmental portrait photography. You need to be sure of these things before you start, or you both may end up disappointed.

Some Different Types of Portrait Photography

There are many different types of portrait photography: from traditional portraits, street portraits, environmental portrait photography, and fine art portrait photography. All of these styles create images of people representing them in very different ways.

When you first start out taking portraits, you'll possibly be more focused on your camera settings and capturing a good smile. But there's so much more to learn how to create great portrait photographs. Studying the various types of portrait photography helps you make better choices. You'll better understand the style of portrait photography you want to engage in.

Once you've gained some experience, you may find that people are seeking you out to take their portrait photograph. This could be because of the unique style you've developed. Some of this style will be about lighting and equipment choices. Much of it is likely to center around how you connect with the person you're photographing.

Here's a list of some different types of portrait photography to check out. Think about aspects of each one that resonates with you. Then take a deeper dive into learning more about successfully creating these types of portraits.

Lifestyle Portraits

Lifestyle portraits reflect a subject's style of living. There's plenty of creative flexibility with lifestyle portraits. Lifestyle portraits aim to depict people in their everyday environments. These pictures ideally tell a story and reveal more of a person than a traditional portrait might.

Lifestyle portrait photographers often prefer to direct their subjects to look natural. Rather than have them in set, controlled poses. Lifestyle portraits aim to capture someone looking as natural as possible doing things they typically do.

man wearing blue coat in a restaurant


CAMERA: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

LENS: 35.0MM F/1.6

SHUTTER: 1/200

ISO: 250


PUBLISHED: April 24, 2019

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/7uoMmzPd2JA

Lifestyle portraits can be of individuals, couples, or groups. Family lifestyle portraits are popular. This is because they depict a family in their natural surroundings. This type of portrait represents a period of time in family life that can be cherished for generations.

Lighting for lifestyle portraits is often ambient. Using ambient lighting, a photographer can capture the most realistic representation of life. Adding in a little flash or reflected light can help produce images of better technical quality. Extravagant lighting setups are not so common for lifestyle portraits.

Traditional Portrait Photography

A traditional portrait photograph is usually highly controlled. The pose, lighting, background, and subject's expression is manipulated. This allows a photographer to capture a traditional portrait photograph's specific look and feel. This is one portrait style that requires the least amount of creative imagination, and the photographer must stick to the rules. I'm not very good at this style of portrait photography because I like to have more creative input into the portraits I take.

Traditional portraits are often made with a medium to short telephoto focal length lens. This type of lens renders a person very naturally, with no lens distortion or compression. The lighting is usually even and flat, with no strong shadows. A plain background is most suitable for traditional portraits. The subject is positioned facing the camera, sometimes with one shoulder slightly forward.

Even though this type of portrait photography is highly controlled, a skilled portrait photographer will produce flattering, natural pictures of the people they photograph.

Candid Portraits

Candid portraits are made of a person who is not aware that they are being photographed. This type of portrait captures a unique look and feel, especially for people who are not comfortable being photographed. The candid approach is one many photographers, who are new to taking photos of people, prefer. This is because it involves no interaction with the subject of the portraits.

Candid portraits can be made anywhere, even in the studio. When a person is sitting for a more formal portrait in a studio, the photographer may capture a few frames when the person is relaxing. They may be unaware the photographer still has their finger on the shutter button.

More commonly, a candid photo of a person happens in an environment the photographer can remain unnoticed and unobtrusive. Busy streets or marketplaces. At large events or sporting fixtures. Or even in remote locations. Photographers can capture candid portraits.

The combination of personal stealth and choice of camera facilitates good candid portrait photography. A photographer who can blend into any environment is most successful at candid photography. Many prefer to use long focal-length lenses so they can capture their subjects without being seen. This tends to create a disconnect between the photographer and the subject, which shows in the final images. Small cameras are also often chosen because they are easier to conceal.

Street Portraits

Street photography often includes people. Street and candid portrait photography can be the same, but there are differences. 

A candid photograph taken in a public place can be considered a street portrait. So can a setup portrait made by a photographer in a public place. I think there's a difference between a candid street portrait and a portrait where the photographer engages with the subject. To me, a street portrait involves some level of interaction between the subject and the photographer.

Environmental Portraits

An environmental portrait is one that shows a person or people in their natural surroundings. The subject(s) will often be depicted with props or doing something.

Environmental portraits of people working, artists, and sports people are popular. This is because they tell more of a story about the subject of the photographs. They show a relationship between the subject and their environment.

Lighting is typically uncomplicated, and often ambient lighting is best. The choice of focal length allows the photographer to include a sufficient amount of the location to help tell the story.

Family and Group Portraits

Group and family photography is often challenging. Managing to capture every person in a group looking their best takes skill and patience. Lighting is also more complicated than when you're photographing just one or two people. People can block the light from falling on a person behind them or block them from the camera's view altogether. 

Photographers who do family photography must have a good range of ideas for how to pose many people in one picture. They also need to communicate clearly and be patient, especially when there are young children to photograph.

Capturing candid family photos is challenging but can produce some of the most natural results. Taking plenty of photographs during a group family portrait session is essential to success.

Self Portraits

Self-portraits are possibly the most common form of portrait photography because everyone these days has a phone. This makes it easy to snap and share a self-portrait or to delete it and try again if you don't like it.

Those skilled at self-portraiture know their best side and the best angles to capture a look they want to share. They know how to manage the way they look and the expression they choose.

Self-portrait photography differs from other forms of portrait photography. This is because it does not require any ability of the photographer to communicate or remain secluded from their subjects. Self-portraits only need to please one person, the photographer.


There are many other forms of portrait photography, but these are some of the most popular. 

To become a skilled and successful portrait photographer, you must concentrate on two things in particular. The first is knowing and understanding your camera and lighting. The second is how best to connect with the people you're photographing. Or how to conceal yourself if you only want to take candid portraits.

The better you manage the technical aspects of your portrait photography, the more you'll be able to focus on connecting with your subjects. Be sure about your camera settings, and don't leave your subjects looking at the top of your head as you fiddle with your camera. If you do, you're less likely you are to capture engaging portraits.

Take time to set up well. Make sure you have the best lens on your camera for the style of portraits you want. Check the lighting is suitable and modify it if it's not right. Then spend most of your energy on communicating with your subjects. This will produce the best portraits.

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