Portrait photography or portraiture
Portrait photography or portraiture is photography of a person or group of people
that displays the expression, personality, and mood of the subject. Like other types of
portraiture, the focus of the photograph is usually the person's face, although the
entire body and the background or context may be included.
2 Lighting for portraiture
o 2.1 Three-point lighting
2.1.2 Fill light
o 2.2 Butterfly lighting
o 2.3 Accessory lights
2.3.1 Background lights
o 2.4 Other lighting equipment
3 Windowlight portraiture
4 Styles of portraiture
5 Approaches to portraiture
7 Mobile portraiture
8 Senior Portraits
o 8.1 Traditional
o 8.2 Modern
o 8.3 Uses of senior portraits
9 See also
11 External links
Portrait photographs have been made since virtually the invention of the camera. The
relatively low cost of the daguerreotype in the middle of the 19th century and the
reduced sitting time for the subject, though still much longer than now, led to a
general rise in the popularity of portrait photography over painted portraiture. The
style of these early works reflected the technical challenges associated with long
exposure times and the painterly aesthetic of the time. Subjects were generally seated
against plain backgrounds and lit with the soft light of an overhead window and
whatever else could be reflected with mirrors. Advances in photographic equipment
and techniques developed, and gave photographers the ability to capture images with
shorter exposure times and the making of portraits outside the studio.
Lighting for portraiture
Winter portrait of a 10-month old baby girl
When portrait photographs are composed and captured in a studio, the photographer
has control over the lighting of the composition of the subject and can adjust direction
and intensity of light. There are many ways to light a subject's face, but there are
several common lighting plans which are easy enough to describe.
One of the most basic lighting plans is called three-point lighting. This plan uses three
(and sometimes four) lights to fully model (bring out details and the three-
dimensionality of) the subject's features. The three main lights used in this light plan
are as follows:
Also called a main light, the key light is usually placed to one side of the subject's
face, between 30 and 60 degrees off center and a bit higher than eye level. The
purpose of the Key-Light is to give shape (modelling) to a subject, typically a face.
This relies on the first principle of lighting, white comes out of a plane and black goes
back into a plane. The depth of shadow created by the Main-Light can be controlled
with a Fill-Light.
In modern photography, the fill-light is used to control the contrast in the scene and is
nearly always placed above the lens axis and is a large light source (think of the sky
behind your head when taking a photograph). As the amount of light is less than the
key-light (main-light), the fill acts by lifting the shadows only (particularly relevant in
digital photography where the noise lives in the shadows). It is true to say that light
bounces around a room and fills in the shadows but this does not mean that a fill-light
should be placed opposite a key-light (main-light) and it does not soften shadows, it
lifts them. The relative intensity (ratio) of the Key-light to the fill-light is most easily
discussed in terms of "Stops" difference (where a Stop is a doubling or halving of the
intensity of light). A 2 Stop reduction in intensity for the Fill-Light would be a typical
start point to maintain dimensionality (modelling) in a portrait (head and shoulder)
Accent-lights serve the purpose of accentuating a subject. Typically an Accent-light
will separate a subject from a background. Examples would be a light shining onto a
subject's hair to add a rim effect or shining onto a background to lift the tones of a
background. There can be many accent lights in a shot, another example would be a
spotlight on a handbag in a fashion shot. When used for separation, i.e. a hair-light,
the light should not be more dominant than the main light for general use. Think in
terms of a "Kiss of moonlight", rather than a "Strike of lightning", although there are
no "shoulds" in photography and it is up to the photographer to decide on the
authorship of their shot.
A Kicker is a form of Accent-Light. Often used to give a backlit edge to a subject on
the shadow side of the subject.
Butterfly lighting by director Josef von Sternberg is used to enhance Marlene
Dietrich's features, in the iconic shot.
From Shanghai Express, Paramount 1932
Photo by Don English
Butterfly lighting uses only two lights. The Key light is placed directly in front of the
subject, often above the camera or slightly to one side, and a bit higher than is
common for a three-point lighting plan. The second light is a rim light. Often a
reflector is placed below the subject's face to provide fill light and soften shadows.
This lighting can be recognized by the strong light falling on the forehead, the bridge
of the nose and the upper cheeks, and by the distinct shadow below the nose which
often looks rather like a butterfly and thus provides the name for this lighting plan.
Butterfly lighting was a favourite of famed Hollywood portraitist George Hurrell,
which is why this style of lighting is often called Paramount lighting.
These lights can be added to basic lighting plans to provide additional highlights or
add background definition.
Not so much a part of the portrait lighting plan, but rather designed to provide
illumination for the background behind the subject, background lights can pick out
details in the background, provide a halo effect by illuminating a portion of a
backdrop behind the subject's head, or turn the background pure white by filling it
Other lighting equipment
Most lights used in modern photography are a flash of some sort. The lighting for
portraiture is typically diffused by bouncing it from the inside of an umbrella, or by
using a soft box. A soft box is a fabric box, encasing a photo strobe head, one side of
which is made of translucent fabric. This provides a softer lighting for portrait work
and is often considered more appealing than the harsh light often cast by open strobes.
Hair and background lights are usually not diffused. It is more important to control
light spillage to other areas of the subject. Snoots, barn doors and flags or gobos help
focus the lights exactly where the photographer wants them. Background lights are
sometimes used with color gels placed in front of the light to create coloured
Window light used to create soft light to the portrait
Windows as a source of light for portraits have been used for decades before artificial
sources of light were discovered. According to Arthur Hammond, amateur and
professional photographers need only two things to light a portrait: a window and a
Although window light limits options in portrait photography compared to
artificial lights it gives ample room for experimentation for amateur photographers. A
white reflector placed to reflect light into the darker side of the subject's face, will
even the contrast. Shutter speeds may be slower than normal, requiring the use of a
tripod, but the lighting will be beautifully soft and rich.
The best time to take window light portrait is considered to be early hours of the day
and late hours of afternoon when light is more intense on the window. Curtains,
reflectors, and intensity reducing shields are used to give soft light. While mirrors and
glasses can be used for high key lighting. At times colored glasses, filters and
reflecting objects can be used to give the portrait desired color effects. The
composition of shadows and soft light gives window light portraits a distinct effect
different from portraits made from artificial lights.
While using window light, the positioning of the camera can be changed to give the
desired effects. Such as positioning the camera behind the subject can produce a
silhouette of the individual while being adjacent to the subject give a combination of
shadows and soft light. And facing the subject from the same point of light source will
produce high key effects with least shadows.
Styles of portraiture
There are many different techniques for portrait photography. Often it is desirable to
capture the subject's eyes and face in sharp focus while allowing other less important
elements to be rendered in a soft focus. At other times, portraits of individual features
might be the focus of a composition such as the hands, eyes or part of the subject's
Additionally another style such as head shot has came out of the portraiture technique
and has become a style on its own.
Approaches to portraiture
A constructionist romantic portrait of a young lady by Jean-Christophe Destailleur
There are essentially four approaches that can be taken in photographic portraiture —
the constructionist, environmental, candid and creative approaches. Each approach
has been used over time for different reasons be they technical, artistic or cultural.
The constructionist approach is when the photographer in their portraiture constructs
an idea around the portrait — happy family, romantic couple, trustworthy executive.
It is the approach used in most studio and social photography. It is also used
extensively in advertising and marketing when an idea has to be put across. The
environmental approach depicts the subject in their environment be that a work,
leisure, social or family one. They are often shown as doing something, a teacher in a
classroom, an artist in a studio, a child in a playground. With the environmental
approach more is revealed about the subject. Environmental pictures can have good
historical and social significance as primary sources of information. The candid
approach is where people are photographed without their knowledge going about their
daily business. Whilst this approach taken by the paparazzi is criticized and frowned
upon for obvious reasons, less invasive and exploitative candid photography has given
the world superb and important images of people in various situations and places over
the last century. The images of Parisians by Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson to name
but two, demonstrate this. As with environmental photography, candid photography is
important as a historical source of information about people. The Creative Approach
is where digital manipulation (and formerly darkroom manipulation) is brought to
bear to produce wonderful pictures of people. It is becoming a major form of
portraiture as these techniques become more widely understood and used.
Lenses used in portrait photography are classically fast, medium telephoto lenses,
though any lens may be used, depending on artistic purposes. See Canon EF Portrait
Lenses for Canon lenses in this style; other manufacturers feature similar ranges. The
first dedicated portrait lens was the Petzval lens developed in 1840 by Joseph Petzval.
It had a relatively narrow field of view of 30 degrees, a focal length of 150mm, and a
fast f-number in the f/3.3-3.7 range.
Portrait taken with an 18mm wide-angle lens with an aperture of ƒ/4.5, resulting in
fairly large depth of field
Classic focal length is in the range 80–135mm on 135 film format and about 150-
400mm on large format, which historically is first in photography. Such a field of
view provides a flattening perspective distortion when the subject is framed to include
their head and shoulders. Wider angle lenses (shorter focal length) require that the
portrait be taken from closer (for an equivalent field size), and the resulting
perspective distortion yields a relatively larger nose and smaller ears, which is
considered unflattering and imp-like. Wide-angle lenses – or even fisheye lenses –
may be used for artistic effect, especially to produce a grotesque image. Conversely,
longer focal lengths yield greater flattening because they are used from further away.
This makes communication difficult and reduces rapport. They may be used,
however, particularly in fashion photography, but longer lengths require a
loudspeaker or walkie-talkie to communicate with the model or assistants.
range, the difference in perspective distortion between 85mm and 135mm is rather
subtle; see (Castleman 2007) for examples and analysis.
Speed-wise, fast lenses (wide aperture) are preferred, as these allow shallow depth of
field (blurring the background), which helps isolate the subject from the background
and focus attention on them. This is particularly useful in the field, where one does
not have a back drop behind the subject, and the background may be distracting. The
details of bokeh in the resulting blur are accordingly also a consideration; some
lenses, in particular the "DC" (Defocus Control) types by Nikon, are designed to give
the photographer control over this aspect, by providing an additional ring acting only
on the quality of the bokeh, without influencing the foreground (hence, these are not
soft-focus lenses). However, extremely wide apertures are less frequently used,
because they have a very shallow depth of field and thus the subject's face will not be
completely in focus.
Thus, f/1.8 or f/2 is usually the maximum aperture used; f/1.2
or f/1.4 may be used, but the resulting defocus may be considered a special effect –
the eyes will be sharp, but the ears and nose will be soft.
Conversely, in environmental portraits, where the subject is shown in their
environment, rather than isolated from it, background blur is less desirable and may
be undesirable, and wider angle lenses may be used to show more context.
Finally, soft focus (spherical aberration) is sometimes a desired effect, particularly in
glamour photography where the "gauzy" look may be considered flattering. The
Canon EF 135mm f/2.8 with Softfocus is an example of a lens designed with a
controllable amount of soft focus.
Most often a prime lens will be used, both because the zoom is not necessary for
posed shots (and primes are lighter, cheaper, faster, and higher quality), and because
zoom lenses can introduce highly unflattering geometric distortion (barrel distortion
or pincushion distortion). However, zoom lenses may be used, particularly in candid
shots or to encourage creative framing.
Portrait lenses are often relatively inexpensive, because they can be built simply, and
are close to the normal range. The cheapest portrait lenses are normal lenses (50mm),
used on a cropped sensor. For example, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II is the least
expensive Canon lens, but when used on a 1.6× cropped sensor yields an 80mm
equivalent focal length, which is at the wide end of portrait lenses.
The documentary I Am Chicago was an experiment in mobile full-body portraiture,
using natural light and a moving truck as a studio.
In North America, senior portraits are formal portraits taken of students at the
beginning of their senior year of high school.
Senior portrait c. 1920
Formal senior portraits, in and of themselves, date back at least to the 1880s in
America. Some traditional senior portrait sittings include a cap and gown and other
changes of clothing, portrait styles and poses. In recent decades, the convention has
been to feature male students in tuxedo jackets and female students in a silk or fur
drape and a pearl necklace which is meant to simulate the appearance of a formal
In some schools a portrait studio is invited to the school to ensure all senior portraits
(for the yearbook) are similar in pose and style, and so that students who cannot
afford to purchase these portraits on their own or choose not to purchase portraits will
appear in the yearbook the same as other students. Other schools allow students to
choose a studio and submit portraits on their own.
A contemporary photo montage type senior portrait, personalized with name of
student and year of graduation.
Modern senior portraits may include virtually any pose or clothing choice, within the
limits of good taste. Students often appear with pets, student athletes of both sexes
pose in letterman jackets or their playing uniforms, while many men choose glamour
photography. Outdoor "location" photos continue to increase in popularity, replacing
studio portraits. Picture proofs are usually available to view online the next day which
are lower quality, unedited and often with a watermark of the studio.
Uses of senior portraits
Senior portraits are often included in graduation announcements or are given to
friends and family. They are also used in yearbooks and are usually rendered larger
than their underclassmen counterparts and are often featured in color, even if the rest
of the yearbook is mostly reproduced in black and white. In some schools the
requirements are strict regarding the choice of photographer or in the style of
portraiture, with only traditional-style portraits being acceptable. Many schools
choose to contract one photographer for their yearbook portraits, while other schools
allow many different photographers to submit yearbook portraits.
choose to frame a large print of their child's senior portrait for
display in their home. One popular way of displaying the senior portrait is in a special
photo mat cut to display small copies of the student's school photos from kindergarten
to their junior year, displayed in a circle (like the numbers of a clock) surrounding a
larger opening for the senior portrait.