Portrait styles

There are a number of portrait styles, each of which will show something different about the subject. Taken straight from our award winning Travel Photography book, written by Steve Davey, this inspirational range of portrait styles will ensure you always catch their best side!

Head shots

The classic portrait is the close-up head shot showing the head and sometimes the shoulders of the subject. These are immediate and dramatic portraits, which emphasize the eyes and the face. 

Head shots are usually taken with a mildly telephoto lens (such as an 80 mm lens), the subject distance needed for a head shot gives a pleasing perspective on the face; the subject distance needed for a more powerful telephoto lens (like a 180 mm) may, effectively, compress the perspective of the face too much. You can create dynamic images by using a mild wide-angle lens (such as a 35 mm or even a 28 mm) and getting in close to give a slight distortion to the face, especially if the subject is  leaning towards you. Remember, the perspective of a given lens is the same for a given subject distance, whether you are shooting with a full-frame DSLR or one with a crop sensor; it is just the crop that changes (see page 27). 

One of the advantages of a head shot is that, if there are crowds around, you can crop out the surrounding chaos from your picture. Physically moving in close can prevent other photographers from interacting with your subject and also make it impossible for people to walk into your shot. You can crop tightly into the face or even just part of the face to create a more dramatic image, but you might
have to use a more powerful telephoto lens to avoid getting uncomfortably close to your subject. 


Full-length portraits

A full-length crop will show how people are dressed and what they are holding and so gives a clearer sense of their identity than a simple head shot. The objects that people hold often say a lot about them: a musical instrument, a vegetable, a fishing net can all help to construct meaning.

Action portraits

People are often more willing to be photographed when they are doing something familiar. However, many will stop what they are doing in order for you to take their picture. Encourage them to keep going. Not  only will it make the photograph more natural but it can also provide an idea of their profession or character. Consider how you construct the shot. A picture of a camel trader on his own is just a portrait; photograph him riding a camel and suddenly you have created meaning. When shooting action portraits you should still try to get the eye and face in the shot, even if they are not looking directly at you. A shot of the back of someone’s head is usually far less interesting. If the subject is on the ground, get down to their level and, if there is fast movement, either use a faster shutter speed to freeze the movement or a commensurately longer one to accentuate it.

Environmental portraits

An environmental portrait places the subject in an environment that says something about them. Many photographers find this style of portrait far easier to take, as you don’t have to engage quite so closely with people. Try to think carefully about the environment you choose and keep in mind the concept of mise en scène (see page 69). It doesn’t have to be a natural backdrop; it could be an urban or even an historical scene. The environment should be carefully chosen to convey some meaning about your subject.

You should also be aware of composition. Try to construct your shot imaginatively: don’t just slap the subject in the middle of the frame. Placing your subject on one side can produce a more visually pleasing shot. You can control the depth of field, focus, movement and blur to set up relations in the portrait. In some shots you might make your subject sharp and the surrounding area blurred but
recognizable to prevent the environment cluttering the portrait. Alternatively, you might make the subject a very small aspect of the picture to show a sense of place, or to convey isolation or even domination by a vast landscape.

One thing that you will have to look out for, especially in poorer parts of the world where photographers tend to attract more attention, are the hordes of bystanders who stand around and stare at what is going on. Unwanted crowds can ruin a carefully conceived portrait. Even the shadows of numerous people gathered around can spoil the light and make it obvious that the subject is surrounded. This is more of a problem when shooting environmental or full-length portraits, as you aren’t able to crop out bystanders. The best way to avoid crowds is to work quickly; take your pictures and move on before passing people notice you are there. Alternatively, work with someone else who can distract the onlookers by taking (or pretending to take) pictures slightly away from you. I have used this strategy at a couple of festivals in India and it has worked very well. Learning the local word for ‘shadow’ might also help but, generally, once a crowd has formed, it is too late.

Candid portraits

A candid portrait is taken without the subject’s knowledge, which throws up a number of moral and practical considerations. Part of the justification for candid photography is that, in certain situations,
asking for permission to take a picture will be more intrusive than just taking it. Certainly, asking for permission can lead to less natural pictures. However, there is a difference between taking pictures of people without their knowledge and thoughtlessly snapping pictures of people, knowing that they aren’t willing to be photographed. Unless it is sensitively done, candid photography can be very intrusive, so my general rule is to avoid photographing strangers in private situations. I am more comfortable with the idea of the semi-candid photograph, where people are aware that a photographer is present but they are in a public arena, such as at a festival, carrying out a public performance or at a market that is popular with tourists. 

If you are going to shoot candid portraits, you should make sure that you are very familiar with your equipment. The whole point of candids is to be unobtrusive. If you are messing around with the focus or the exposure then you will draw attention to yourself and miss the spontaneity of the image. Using autofocus and auto exposure can help with this. There are ways of shooting candids that are much less intrusive than walking up and sticking a camera in someone’s face. The classic candid involves shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens but you can also compose a picture in such a way as to allow space for a person to walk into your shot. This gets over the necessity of actually pointing a camera at someone. Another option is to shoot with a very wide-angle lens so that the subject is in the side of the frame but unaware that they are being photographed as the camera is not actually pointing directly at them.

It goes without saying that you should never use candid-style photography as a way of photographing people who do not want their picture taken. This is especially the case if there are cultural or religious reasons why they don’t want to be photographed. Always treat the people you photograph with respect and never use photography to ridicule or poke fun at them. Finally, if you are thinking of trying to publish candid pictures anywhere, even on a personal website, remember that some countries (notably France and Spain) have privacy laws. 

Creative portraits

You don’t actually need to be able to see a person’s face in order to convey something about them; sometimes a small detail – such as their hands or their eyes – can be enough. Old gnarled hands holding a stick may say as much about a person as a head and shoulders portrait. 

You don’t even have to show any recognizable part of your subject. Instead you can just suggest the person. One way of doing this is to have a person rendered out of focus by a shallow depth of field, while a prop or something that relates to them is rendered in focus. You could also shoot someone in silhouette or take a picture of an object that they use regularly, especially one that shows evidence of that use; a tool with a worn handle, for instance, or a pair of old shoes. 

Creative portraits give you absolute freedom to convey something special about your subject and can produce results that will interest and intrigue the viewer of your picture.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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