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The Essence of a Great Portrait

If you find portrait photography difficult, then you’re not alone. Interacting with another person at the same time as using a complex camera, and combining the two activities to make a pleasing image isn’t easy. There’s a lot to think about, even if you’re already familiar with your camera and have put in some good preparation time.


Aside from the lighting, the background, the composition, the pose and the expression, there is also the question of what even makes a pleasing image. Will the subject like the way they look, which is their best side, is their hair perfect, what’s the best angle to shoot from for their particular shape of face? Your subject might have other things to do, a meeting to go to or kids that need to be picked up from school. Landscapes usually tend to be more patient models.

A great portrait isn’t all about making somebody look beautiful though. You could photograph the most immaculate, styled, posed model in a wonderful location in beautiful light, but it wouldn’t necessarily make a good portrait if it doesn’t tell the viewer anything. People aren’t perfect, and a portrait should be more about leading towards an element of truth, more about the person being photographed.


As photographers, we are in some ways, freed by our limitations. We can only only capture moments, glimpses. A single expression can never tell the whole story of a person in all their complexity, so we are free from the obligation of trying to do so. But it can hint at who a person is in reality. It can suggest a story, and it’s those subtle hints and suggestions that can make a portrait more intriguing.

It can help if you know the person, or at least a little about them. It helps not only in thinking about what you might want to show in the photograph, but also in your interaction with them. If you know something about their interests, their views, their hobbies, what’s going on in their lives at the moment, you’re more likely to be able to understand their perspective. You might aim to help them relax, or discuss a passion of theirs that might stir an emotion that animates their features.


Here are three other exercises you can try:

1. Use your camera screen rather than the viewfinder. Sometimes the camera inevitably gets in the way. Holding a box in front of your face isn’t the best way to interact with someone, so try a different way. Keep the camera ready, glance at the screen for composition, but watch your subject and their expressions and reactions, watch for the moment you want to capture.


2. Distract your subject. Not many people are immediately comfortable being photographed. It’s difficult to ignore a camera being pointed at you, so sometimes a distraction can help. You could try providing another point of focus, suggesting something else to look at or think about. A prop can work well too, especially if it’s in keeping with the portrait. An object of some sort to take attention away from the camera.

3. Wait. Sometimes we try too hard to make something happen, and instead of going searching we have to let it come to us. Wait for a few moments and see what happens. Something will change,a pose, an expression, and you might be more pleased with the results.


There is no formula for a great portrait, other than patience, practice, determination, and probably a slice of good fortune too. But there are also a whole lot of very good, honest, storytelling, memorable and joyful portraits to be made along the way. Remember that you’re making a portrait of a person, and people have imperfections. Some of the greatest portraits have even looked awkward or uncomfortable; not to attempt to demean or embarrass, but to be real. People that program electronic drum machines include tiny imperfections in the rhythms they create because they sound more natural, more pleasing to the ear, more like real drummers. You might try to make the perfect portrait but it’s likely that it’s exactly the imperfections that might make it great.

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Alastair Arthur
Alastair Arthur

is a headshot and portrait photographer, based recently in Paris, and now New York. He regularly practices street photography, is the author of The Photographer’s Guide to Paris and teaches as a master in The Arcanum. You can see more of his work and projects on his website, or on Instagram.