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Portraiture Photography Definition [Portraiture Meaning Explained]

Portraiture Photography Definition

When confronted with the concept of portraiture, most people immediately cringe and think of the unflattering high school portraits. While a traditional portrait and its offshoot, the head-shot  are certainly one type of portraiture, there are a myriad other kinds as well. And a capable photographer can always create a graceful, traditional portrait.

Other types of portraits are: environmental, documentary, glamour and boudoir, fashion, lifestyle, conceptual, representational, abstract, and self-portraiture, among others. I’ll explain a little bit about each type before we get started on learning how to take them.

A traditional portrait is typically taken using a simple three point lighting setup, with the focus on the face. It can be closely focused on the face, as long as the face is clear and sharp and does not become abstracted in any way. These are meant to be documentations of a person’s appearance and are usually taken with the subject standing or sitting on a stool or chair. Personality can and should still be captured via the body language of the subject.

Environmental portraiture is next, and it’s one of my favorites. It’s sort of like documentary in that it’s true to the life of your subject, but it can be more posed or more fluid. Here, the face is still important, but you want to make sure to capture the quirks of the environment as well. You’re essentially making a statement about the person or people in the image via their environment. Environmental portraits can be done anywhere that is relevant to your subjects, from a job to an apartment to a place they frequent.

Documentary imagery is a little bit different from environmental portraiture. While environmental portraiture can be either posed or candid when the subject is aware of the photographer, a documentary subject may not be. If subjects are aware of the photographer, they’ve generally established a long-standing relationship, which allows their walls to come down. Also, in contrast to environmental portraiture which can be lit by extraneous lighting if necessary, documentary portraiture utilizes natural or available light. A documentary series may also include still-life or landscape photography as well.

Glamour shots are also generally referred to as beauty shots. The photo should give a representation of the subject, but the subject will be dressed up and in glamour makeup. It’s a fantasy image, and accordingly, the lighting is often dramatic. Boudoir has a similar feel to a glamour shot, down to the makeup and dramatic lighting, but the emphasis is placed on sexiness and appeal, and can be shot either in lingerie or nude.

Fashion portraiture rides the line between a fashion shot and portrait. For example, a full-bodied fashion shot may not be considered a portrait because the photo emphasizes the clothes, not the girl in them. A fashion portrait is focused in at least to shoulder level and often advertises makeup or hairstyles. The fashion aspect is still present, and the photo may not be specifically about the girl, but her personality is much more evident.

A lifestyle portrait refers to the genre of portraits that includes engagement photos or family portraits in the park. The subjects decide how they want to look, and what kind of mood they want to capture, and the photographer creates it. It’s the glossy, posed version of a truth.

Conceptual portraiture is my personal favorite and is generally how I work. It’s explained in the name: the image is concept-driven and every item and pose within the image holds special importance. They can be taken in camera or constructed, and often are a combination of both elaborate sets and makeup. They can also be narrative in nature.

Representational and abstract portraiture veer the furthest away from traditional portraiture, in that they may not even contain a face in them at all.

Representational portraiture is in fact, intentionally not a face. Instead, it may be a photograph that relates to the artist and some personal objects. For example, it could be a picture of toys from childhood, prospectively titled something like Artist Age Five. Abstract portraiture, in turn, may include sections of a face, such as eyes, lips or noses that have been cut out and rearranged. The image could also be intentionally blurred, made with a long exposure, or otherwise artistically rendered. Each choice made in regard to placement and color will have a specific meaning or theme for the artist.

Finally, we have the self-portrait, or the professional selfie. True to its name, it’s taken by the artist of themselves, often using a tripod or handheld shutter release to help out.

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