in photography a picture of one person that includes the face and concentrates on the person himself (as opposed to fashion or fetish photography).
Portraits are thus not defined by the way they are framed but rather by their intention.
What follows is about the usual practice of portraits; of course, the photographer should master the standard techniques and explore new ways of interpreting the theme which, in this case, is one particular person.
Portraits range from close-up (from the hairline to the chin point, excluding ear neck and hair) to environmental portraits: the latter include the person and a meaningful chunk of their working or living environment. Anne Leibovitz took some great environmental portraits, and so did Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Both BW and color film are common. BW is considered more artsy and it offers the considerable advantage that it can be processed at home: this offers a lot of control.
Portraits have traditionally been shot on every kind of format; photographers favored large formats because it lent itself to retouching on the negative.
There are studio portraits, where usually the subject is posed in front of a controlled background, and portraits shot in various locations, including outdoor (which makes light control more difficult) and indoor.
Many lighting style have been used for portraits. The standard lighting style (the one used by hurried photographers for yearbook pictures and employee of the year shots) uses a camera at eye level and three lights:
- main: at a 45° angle to the left of the photographer.
- fill: usually two or one and half stops weaker than than the main light. Its purpose is to fill in the shadows and soften the features.
- hairlight: almost behind the subject, up high and always out the frame. Usually stronger than the main light, its only purpose is to create a pleasant reflection on the hair.
Another lighting style is the Hollywood style, that employs a single light up and to the left of the photographer, creating a somewhat harder rendering of the features.
What I mentioned here is the standard technique: good portraits, though, have been created with an incredible variety of lighting techniques, from pure backlight (resulting in a silhouette) to very large softboxes all around the camera.
For tightly framed shots, a medium-telephoto lens is usually preferred (say, 90 to 135 mm. on 135 film): this has the effect of slightly compressing the features. Most people find this pleasant.
Of course, great portraits have been taken with all sorts of lenses; remember that wideangles close up will exaggerate the nose.
Designing the portrait
Film choice, lighting, background, framing and props: subsequently, development and printing. All these are the technical tools under your control.
A subtler variable is your relationship with the subject and his reactions to your activity.
Notice that it is not necessarily true that you want a relaxed subject: maybe what you want to render is a person's tension.
I have a cousin: when I take pictures of him in a relaxed setting, he inevitably lapses in a boring, almost artificial smile. But when I took pictures of him while he was working on a difficult bit of metal casting, then the real Luigi became visible: concentrated, careful, thorough.
Or at least, my real Luigi: remember that in portrait photography you are not neutral. There is no such thing as simple recording here: portraits are built, and they are always your interpretations of another person.