What makes a good portrait photograph

Portraiture as a distinction from street photography is best defined through its relationship to the subject.  If you as the photographer have the time to craft a shot with the consent of the subject, then it could be considered a portrait irrespective of the location and context. That craft time can be short, perhaps a minute (see project) or substantial over a couple of hours.

The range of portrait approaches since the origin of photography has remained relatively standardised.  As a viewer, we are primarily drawn to a subject’s expression, pose or context, which as a photographer can feel limiting or challenging depending on your intentions. World-class images can move us off course, take Steve McCurry’s portrait of the Afghan girl, and shift a career to new heights.  Often success is not so much through design but through the sitter’s charisma that the photographer intuitively senses.  In the best images, it can be a fleeting moment that no amount of photographic genius can engineer, or perhaps a stillness which is easier to create and offers a psychological dimension.

Much of contemporary portrait work requires the viewer to understand its context; why indeed is this person important.  If we separate models as portrait subjects from subjects who are chosen for other reasons, then this contextual framing becomes essential, especially so when just one image is presented to us.

In approaching portraits we can use six areas to help shape what we are trying to achieve.

Portrait building blocks

1) The project scope – What are your reasons for taking the photo.  If it’s part of a series and project, then what is the aim for this.

2) Visual appeal – To raise an image beyond the visual representation of an idea it has to incorporate something of visual interest.  I would argue that portraiture needs to work on this more so than other photographic genres due to its conventional need to show a face.

3) The subject relative to their immediate situation – the contributory factors of surrounding decor and quality of lighting.


If we are thinking about framing we can break this down into three approaches:


a) Contextual framing.

b) Conventional – Head and shoulders, 3/4 or full-length part contextual.

c) Oblique – Fractions of a face partly obscured or unrevealed. Views of their body and not face specifically.


We can look at the following images to understand how this works.

In the above photo, the equation is 1 + 2 + b. An original mission statement (1) to reveal rarely photographed Moroccan women is combined with (2) visual interest as shown through the expressiveness of the subject.  The framing and gesture of women are conventional (b), and an approach was chosen to circumnavigate visually challenging surroundings.

In the next photo of a musician, the equation is 2 + 3 + a.

Here the visual appeal is a mixture of clothing and light.  The white fabric and key light source drama set against the subdued and simple surroundings (3).  The element of light sculpting is central alongside both the sitter’s position and visual relationship with their immediate space.  The simple window sill and bare walls offer a glimpse into a sphere where music is all and possessions are secondary.  Under these conditions, all elements needed to be tightly controlled, with exposure control, subject movement and DOF all coming to the fore in an act of juggling.

In the next pair, I want to talk specifically about the kind of light and the impact it has on how we perceive a person in a photograph.  The third photo down (1 + b) uses a limited DOF and flat, even (reflected light) as the subject looks directly at the camera.  The warmth of the lighting indicates an exterior location although this is partially checked by the dark backdrop.  This set-up used midday sun reflected back onto a sitter in the shade from the white dusty ground, two-metre in front.  You can also see a similar approach used to effect in the African portraits by J. Kenny.

The Best Photography Magazines To Feature Your Work

Using reflected daylight offers a powerful reflector bringing detail to every characterful flaw in a face.  In this case, the project scope (1) was to present fascinating male faces of country market folk who openly acknowledge the process of being photographed.  For them, it was a formal process, an official statement for which they immediately received validation, via a portable printer on location.  The portraits are raw and unsentimental.

The last photo (1 + 2 + b ) presents a similar subject but this time the lighting is more complex and offers added visual appeal through encouraging nuance, in contrast to the market location.  The lighting here utilises a mix of the overhead skylight as well as ambient frontal.  This creates more sculpting in the face and also inhibits detail in some areas.  Sitters under such conditions are loaded with a psychological dimension, whether or not it’s the intention of the photographer.

As viewers, we bring meaning to the photo partly by associating this type of lighting and style (b&w, a contrasty film look) with examples from history.  All photography is reflected in what came before.  Understanding this is a key component of your photographic development.  These photos are serious in gesture and approach.  Are these people troubled? Creating a mood or feeling that can be universally or culturally understood is what you want to aim for in your own personal photography.

In some of these portraits, there was an inbuilt need to have a strong visual sense, partly as a reaction to the current fashion of representing the very ordinary in an ordinary way.  Often it helps to add flair to the ordinary or indeed frames the exotic in an ordinary way.  Mixing it up should be high on your agenda when it comes to planning out your approach to projects or series.

Of course, skill is indeed keeping all the plates spinning; technical (accurate focus), compositional sense and connection.  For me, it’s also about generating warmth and a direct expression, a literal connection; openness offering layers of suggestion and mystery. To reach the final selected shot for some situations it involved around 50 exposures and in others just one.

Still, the often unseen craft of portraiture is communicating with a subject whilst maintaining photographic discipline.  This is partly a practised skill but also one dependent on your personality.

documentary photographers gravitate towards workers with character