"When you photograph a face you photograph the soul behind it." - Jean-Luc Godard

You may have heard the saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words" but have you ever wondered what a picture of you would say?

Are you enthusiastic, energetic, expressive, content, shy, mysterious, sassy, vulnerable, angry, candid, generous, or helpful?

Observing a candid portrait photo of yourself could teach you a lot about your personality, the way you view the world, and even what is going on inside of you.

A fascination with people, their emotions, and your technical skills could be the combination that turns you into a talented portrait photographer.

But could you make a career out of portrait photography?

Not to be confused with other specialties like advertising photography, in this article we will look at the different types of portrait photography as well as how you could make a career as a portrait photographer.  

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Different Types of Portrait Photography

The word portrait usually conjures up images of a painting or drawing where the head and shoulders of the subject is most prominent.

Photographs are portraits too and not really selfies on cell phones!

A good portrait photo is able to capture the mood, feelings, and personality of the subject.

But how?  

First, if you are shooting a studio portrait, make your model feel relaxed and comfortable. You could do this by chatting about other things to help them forget that the camera is there. Your aim, whether you are in a photography studio or using natural light is to ensure that your subjects are just being themselves.

As a genre, portrait photography has various specialties. Here is a brief description of some of those styles.

  • Family or Group Portraits: a common misconception is that a portrait photo only features one individual. Photographing a group of people is also considered a portrait, however, you may hear photographers claiming that shooting multiple people for a portrait photo is far more challenging because it is harder to capture the emotion that makes portrait photography so special.
  • Self Portraits: classic self-portraits have been around far longer than the selfie which really gives the genuine portrait photo a bad reputation. When a professional shoots a portrait, whether that is a studio portrait or a candid shot, the magic is evident! Taking a self-portrait usually requires a tripod with a remote release button or timer.
  • Surreal Portraits: the most artistic portrait types are surreal. Surreal images do not materialise by chance, they depend on great shooting and post-production talent. They are a visual feast and are certainly classified as art.
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Environmental portraits focus on the surroundings and the person at the same time. (Source: Unsplash)
  • Environmental Portraits: to be categorised as an environmental portrait, the photographer needs to include the environment in the image. There also needs to be a distinct connection between the environment and the model and this should be reflected in other elements like the pose, attitude, and lighting too. These are not shot in a photography studio.
  • Lifestyle Portraits: lifestyle portraits are the opposite of the studio portrait. Typically, they capture the subject doing everyday activities like brushing their teeth, cooking, gardening, or lying next to a swimming pool! These shoots are usually done on behalf of brand managers for marketing campaigns and need to be directed by the photographer or art director to achieve an exact look.
  • Traditional Portraits: the most well-known of all portrait genres is the traditional portrait; here, the model poses and usually looks directly into the camera. These are generally taken in a photography studio on an infinity curve.

As you can see there are many different types of portrait photography, some experts are comfortable across all styles while others make a living by specialising in one area.

If you think about it, apart from landscapes which generally don’t include people or animals, many other forms of photography such as wedding photography, fashion shoots, and even wildlife photography will use the skills used by the portrait photographer.

Iconic Portrait Photographers

If you are determined to have a successful career, you could reach the top of any sector. All it takes is a lot of dedication and perseverance.

The same can be said about photography even though it is an art form that requires a certain amount of natural talent.

There are many well-known and iconic photographers who have prosperous careers as a result of their hard work and determination.

Here is a list of inspiring and successful portrait photographers who are well known across the world.

  • Steve McCurry: celebrated for his iconic photo 'Afghan girl' which was taken in a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984, Steve McCurry has been all over the world to capture the faces of people from all tribes, races, and languages. Fun fact: 'Afghan girl' was named the most highly recognised image in National Geographic's history. Stephen McCurry's work is certainly worthy of study.
  • Lee Jeffries: recognised as a true artist who is both compassionate and understanding when it comes to the beliefs of his subjects. His black and white photo series of homeless people is a masterpiece. In it he manages to capture the struggle and hope of the people he photographs.
  • Dorothea Lange: known for her enormous contribution to documentary photography, Dorothea Lange made a name for herself during the Great Depression. She is highly regarded and known as one of the best photographers of our time. Her work accurately portrays the intense affliction suffered by the America people during one of the most difficult times in history.
  • Diane Arbus: as a portrait photographer who was fascinated by strange people, Arbus’s famous black and white photos of seemingly ugly and surreal subjects make her work worthy of study.
  • Yousuf Karsh: one of the most famous portrait photographers in history, Yousuf Karsh was an Armenian-Canadian who was known for his famous clients. Karsh has photographed some of the most famous world leaders, celebrities, and politicians of our time. These include famous shots of Grace Kelly, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Helen Keller.

Images taken by all of these photographers have one core ingredient in common – all of them capture the raw emotion that makes a portrait iconic. Whether a lifestyle, traditional, or studio portrait these photographers knew how to push the boundaries and create art in its purest form.

Working as a Portrait Photographer

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Creating profiles on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram will help you attract potential clients. (Source: pixabay)

So if you are fascinated by emotion, people and photography then working as a portrait photographer could be your calling. You might also be interested in becoming a sports photographer?

To follow are some important steps to go about earning a living taking portraits. One way to do this is to open a photography studio that is not dependent on weather and lighting conditions. The studio photographer is at a great advantage in that they are shooting in a controlled environment. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the studio portrait is boring because lighting is a highly creative skill and can dramatically impact the mood, creativity, and purpose of an image. The studio photographer knows just how to do this and a photography studio can set up a lucrative and dependable business.

So how does one become a reputable portrait or studio photographer?  

  • Study Portrait Photography: many people start out by practicing photography as a hobby only to have it turn into a lucrative career. This happens with a combination of practice and passion. Becoming a portrait or studio photographer happens gradually over time. Dedication to your craft would mean watching YouTube tutorials, reading books, and practicing lighting setups in a photography studio.
  • Explore Career Options: if you decide to specialise as a portrait or studio photographer there are two main career paths to take. Firstly, you could work for an established photography studio or open your own, secondly, you could continue to grow your network and portfolio to shoot lifestyle and documentary-style portraits. The choice is yours.
  • Build Your Portfolio: working on an outstanding portfolio is like your calling card as a portrait or studio photographer. If you want to be known for taking portraits in all environments be sure to include your best studio portrait, as well environmental, documentary, and lifestyle shots. Be sure to have a blog, website, and well-curated Instagram account.
  • Develop Your People Skills: even if your brilliant portfolio attracts clients, it will be their comfortable and enjoyable experience with you that gets you word of mouth referrals. Remember that people in front of the camera, particularly in an intimidating photography studio, are usually quite nervous so part of your job is to try and make them as comfortable as possible.

If you are an introvert, you may need to work on your charm and people skills. Being warm, kind, and funny will put your subjects at ease and take their mind off having a studio portrait taken. If you want to be a studio photographer, make sure that you don’t underquote on time as it can take a while to get the lighting right.

By putting all of these tips into practice you will be on your way to knowing how to confidently shoot a portrait photo whether that is in a photography studio or out on location. Portraiture is one of the most distinct photography domains and it is possible to have a rewarding and lucrative career in this field.

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Niki

Niki is a content writer from Cape Town, South Africa, who is passionate about words, strategic communication and using words to help create and maintain brand personas. Niki has a PR and marketing background, but her happiest place is when she is bringing a story to life on a page.