types of portrait photography

How many types of portrait photography are you familiar with?

The word “portrait” makes us think of a person—whether in a painting, drawing, or photograph. While not every person that you meet will come with an entirely different and unique background, they each have distinct experiences and their own story to tell.

As photographers, we have the necessary tools and skill set to help bring these stories to life. In this article, we’ll discuss the three main types that you need to learn, and for each, the best techniques for creating compelling photos.

1. Traditional Portrait Photography

Traditional portraits are generally posed and the focus is on the expression, personality, and mood of the person. Since the predominant feature of the photo is the subject’s face, many tend to think that this only involves headshots. While I am truly a sucker for headshots, I have to admit, some of the best traditional portraits that I’ve seen have been full body compositions.

Unlike candid portraits, the subjects are fully aware that you’re photographing them won’t get mad at you (if you’re willing to delete the double-chin photos, that is.) One good example of this is model photography. Due to their extensive experiences in front of the camera, models make it very easy for you to get solid shots.

types of portrait photography

Since this type of portrait photography focuses heavily on the person, we should either find a background that properly complements the subject, or deemphasize it altogether. The picture above demonstrates this.

In this example, to get Megan’s blue eyes and orange dress to stand out, I placed her several feet in front of some trees and used a telephoto lens with large aperture to create a shallow depth of field that helped isolate her from the background. This photo was taken with one of my favorite lens, the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM.

Tip: The way your subject feels can make or break the entire shoot. To get the most natural looking photos, it is the photographer’s job to help people relax, feel confident, and have fun. Here are 5 tips for making photo subjects comfortable.

2. Candid Portrait Photography

For the portrait to be considered candid, the subject must not be knowingly posing for the shot. Contrary to popular belief, this type of portrait photography is not related to the subject’s awareness of being photographed. An example of this is in wedding photography where the client and the guests are aware of your presence, but the majority of the shots you get will be on the spontaneous side.

types of portrait photography

Therefore, successfully navigating around candid portrait photography requires a few considerations:

First, many have a tendency to freak out in the presence of a professional photographer. To get around this, I highly recommend using a long telephoto zoom lens such as the Canon EF 70-200mm F/4L USM (or the Nikon equivalent.) Doing so will allow you to stay outside of their personal space without losing the intimacy you’re striving for.

Second, they say that the best camera is the one that you have with you. When photographic opportunities present themselves, you must always be ready to capture them.

I get that it’s inconvenient to carry around a 5DMarkIII and 70-200mm f/2.8L combo wherever you go. If you typically use this type of setup, I recommend picking up a quality point-and-shoot camera or even an iPhone 7 Plus for backup purposes.

3. Environmental Portrait Photography

Last but not least, let’s talk about environmental portraits and how they differ from the previous two.

This type of portrait photography requires going to the location where your subject expends most of their creative juices. It is usually somewhere related to their life’s passions. In these shots, the focus is on the relationship between the subject and their environment, like the name suggests.

For example, if you’re hired to create portraits for an equestrian, you may decide to take photos of them on their horse in an open field with the setting sun. Similarly, a picture of a pumped gym bro performing dumbbell curls can also qualify as an environmental portrait.

types of portrait photography yoga

Photo lit with a 430EX Canon Speedlite shot through a 43 inch Westcott umbrella

Unlike the traditional and candid portraits, this style of shooting is no longer about just the person. Because of this, we will require a different approach and gear choice to pull this off.

While there are many ways to shoot an environmental portrait, I would have to say that using a combination of a wide-angle zoom lens in addition to some type of off-camera lighting will get you very solid results.

Just as telephoto lens excel at isolating backgrounds, wide-angle lens are great for including them. A common problem at this stage is that the subject now blends into everything else. Using an off-camera flash can help give your subject that “pop” so that you don’t have to play “find Waldo.”

Your Favorite Types of Portrait Photography?

Even though there are so many types of portrait photography, we have to remind ourselves that the common theme of it all is “people.” No matter the skill level, the connection of between the photographer/camera and the subject can arguably be the single most important difference between a keeper and a wasted exposure.

Here is a quick recap of the various portrait photography types:

1. Traditional Portraits

  • Posed
  • Aware of photographer’s presence
  • Focus is on the person’s expression, personality, and mood
  • Fast prime lenses are best for this type
  • Examples are fashion, beauty, editorial, glamour, senior, corporate, or couples photograph

2. Candid Portraits

  • Not posed
  • Not necessarily related to awareness of photographer’s presence
  • Long zoom lens are recommended
  • Examples are parties, weddings, or street photography

3. Environmental Portraits

  • Can be posed or not so posed
  • Focus is on the relationship between the subject and the environment
  • Wide-angle zoom lens (or fast wide-angle primes) are ideal
  • Examples are instructors teaching a class, musicians playing a gig, or fighters in a cage

In conclusion, we hope that you’ve found this post informative. Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts, concerns, or especially any questions that you may have. We look forward to hearing from you. Till next time.