What is Portrait Photography? Definition, Examples & Tips

From the black & white portraits of the Old West, to the more modern headshots, we've been obsessed with portrait photography for a long time. In fact, one of the first permanent photographs were portraits from the 1840s! 

I mean really, who wouldn't want a stylish and posed picture of themselves?

However, that begs the question of, "what is portrait photography?" Obviously it's about pictures of people, but does that include self portrait photography?

So, if you want to learn more about professional portrait photography, we've got you covered.

What is Portrait Photography?

Portrait photography aims to capture the personality of a person or group of people. This can be done through the effective use of lighting, backdrops, and poses.

As mentioned, the first instances of black and white portrait photography began as early as the 1840s. Back then, they were often commissioned by royalty, wealthy families, and others who could pay. 

Today, commissions are just as frequent, though far more accessible. Common commissions include weddings, school events, or commercial photography

For a visual breakdown of capturing a photo portrait, take a look at the video below:


So now that you know what is portrait photography, let’s get into what portrait photographer’s do. Generally speaking, portrait photographers can take photos for a few different reasons.

What is the Job of a Portrait Photographer?

Before getting too deep into the job responsibilities of a portrait photographer, it’s important to note what goes into portrait photography.

Basic Equipment for Portrait Photographers

Camera Bag

We recommend The Voyager camera backpack. It's undoubtedly equipped to handle your photography needs. It's lightweight, spacious, and even water-resistant. You’ll also never miss a shot using the quick draw side access.

In addition to that, you'll need the following equipment (most of which should fit in your camera backpack). Here’s a list of equipment every portrait photographer should own:

  • Tripod
  • Portrait Lens
  • Flash Heads
  • Light Stands
  • Modifiers
  • Reflectors

Of course, ambient lighting can be used for some photos. However, most portrait photography requires a lot of light manipulation.

What is a Good Portrait Photo?

What is portrait photography - portrait photography - self portrait photography

In answering the question of “what is portrait photography?”, you should also know what makes good portrait photography. 

Good portrait photos are all about capturing the human spirit with detail and emotion. This is true regardless of the type of portrait photography. Though, here are some extra tips for doing portrait photography right:

  1. Use a wide aperture (between f/1.8 and f/4) to focus on your subject and blur the background. 
  2. Check out female poses and male poses to liven up your shots
  3. Communicate with your subject 
  4. Make sure your subject is well-lit (but don’t overexpose them either)
  5. Have fun with props!

What is the Best Lens for Portrait Photography

If you're looking for the best lens for portrait photography and you're already within the Canon family, we would suggest sticking with it. Canon offers a sleuth of options when it comes to portrait lenses.

In general however, we would suggest a portrait prime lens like the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM. This lens is flattering and incredible when it comes to portraits! The L Series type allows for extremely sharp photography and the prime lens has less glass which is why it costs a bit more (than any other 85mm lens).

Types of Portrait Photography

There are a few different ways of taking portrait photography. This includes anything from self portrait photography to family portrait photography. However, both of these count as portrait photography.

What is Portrait Photography Meaning - Studio Portrait Photography - Why Portrait Photography

Typically, any portrait photography will fall under the following popular categories:

Commercial Portrait Photography

What is Portrait Photography Definition - Portrait Photography Ideas

Though not the most exciting, these photos make up a large portion of professional portrait photography. They’re often personal or company commissions.

Expect subjects to be looking into the camera, and dressed up nice and fancy!

Surreal & Abstract Portrait Photography

    Portrait Photography Definition - What is a Portrait Photo - Black and White Portrait Photography

    These pictures are most likely to be a photographer’s passion project. Expect weird shots with close-ups, photoshop or other wacky effects. Though, these effects are usually meant to have meaning.

    Environmental Portrait Photography

    What is Environmental Portrait Photography Definition - Best Lens for Portrait Photos

    Environmental photography is a pretty broad category. Really, it can cover anything from a chef in a kitchen, to an artist in their studio. 

    These photos can have artistic or commercial purposes, depending on the subject.

    Candid Portrait Photography

    What is Meant By Portrait Photography - What is a Portrait Picture - Candid Photography Picture

    One of the most common things you’ll see when you think of “what is portrait photography”. This includes school pictures, company headshots and more. Clients can use commissions for personal or commercial reasons.

    The most common types of commission portraits include things like lifestyle, glamour and formal photos.

    Photographers in this line of work generally make a decent living. For example, their average income is around $32,000 per year

    Fine Art Portrait Photography

    What is The Best Lens for Portrait Photography Canon - Define Portrait Photography - Fine Art Photography

    While artistic portrait photography can also be commissioned, that's not its purpose. Typically, artistic photography puts the photographer’s intentions center stage.

    Common categories that fall under this are surreal and abstract photos. If it’s a bit weird or photoshopped, it’s probably an artistic thing.

    Statement Portrait Photography

    Definition of a Portrait in Photography - What is Portrait Photography - Shooting Portrait Photography - Sunny 16As shown by this portrait which is a part of Jimmy Nelson’s People’s & Places collection, portrait photography can make powerful statements. The project is meant to spread awareness of indigenous peoples. 

    Through the photographs, the photographer intends to make statements about change, wisdom, and more.

    Portrait photography is a great way to make statements, because it’s easy to see emotion in other people. For this reason, street and environmental photos are great choices for this. 

    Up Next: How to Start a Photography Business

    Now that you know the answer to the question: “What is portrait photography?” you’re ready to start shooting!

    Let us know in the comments which type of portrait photography interested you the most. And, if you want to learn more about how to start your very own photography business, we have an article on just that. 

    Up Next: How to Start a Photography Business →

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