The 11 Different Types of Portrait Photography

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There are many different types of portrait photography, such as this close-up portrait of a serious man model in studio neon lights

Portrait photography is a lucrative and one of the most popular photography genres, but did you know there are many different types of portrait photography? First, let’s define our terms. When we talk about portraiture in photography, we’re talking about capturing images of people. 

You might be thinking about the portraiture photographers of your childhood when you think about this genre; those are the ones who would take the family picture once a year when your mother made everyone get dressed up and pose in front of the fireplace. And, you’re not wrong–that is one type of portrait, but there are many other types as well. 

We’ve put together a list of 11 of the most important types of portrait photography to better understand this interesting genre.

1. Traditional Portraits

The traditional portrait is typically where the subject is looking at the camera and posing for the photograph. These are usually shot in the studio with a formal photography backdrop. 

Frequently, these portraits are cropped to show the head and shoulders of the subject rather than the full body. A typical example would be a senior yearbook portrait. 

This is one of the types of portrait photography that endures precisely because the mix of posing and studio lighting results in flattering images. 

2. Family and Group Portraits

This is that family picture you took every year where your mother made you wear your formal, Sunday ‘go to church’ clothes. Nowadays, you might prefer a portrait with your significant other or perhaps a close group of friends, and maybe you choose to keep it casual instead of formal.

One type of portrait photography is group photography, and you can decide who is part of the group, as seen here with this group of friends.

Whatever the case, these portraits are often shot on location in the subject’s home or some other location where the group gathers. The nice thing about these types of portraits is that you can often capture genuine interaction between the subjects, and that can make for compelling images. 

3. Formal Portraits

This is a category that pairs well with the traditional and group types of portrait photography. It simply means that it is a carefully arranged pose under optimal lighting conditions that captures the person or people looking their best. They are often wearing more formal attire, just like when you were a kid! 

This kind of portrait is also often used to take serious types of photographs, such as those used by businesses for advertising purposes or to highlight some of their best employees.

Formal portraits involve posed shots with flattering lighting, and often, formal attire, as seen in this portrait of a man in a business suit.

4. Lifestyle Portraits

This type of portrait photography captures people in their everyday environment doing everyday things. To do this, you might have to schedule more than one session, and you’ll also have to be a director as well as the photographer. 

You might, for example, ask the kids to jump on the bed or play tag in the yard. You want to capture them doing things that they do regularly together. This is where you can get creative with your images.

Lifestyles portraits show people doing everyday things.
Lifestyle photos show people doing everyday things, like this couple in the park.

Talk to your subjects and get an idea of what they’re like. That will help you as you think about the kinds of images you want to capture. 

5. Conceptual Portraits

This is another type of portrait photography where you can get creative. Conceptual portraits capture an idea (a concept) within the portrait, and they often use props to do so. These types of portraits are often used in advertising to capture the concept behind the product. 

With this type of photography, you’ll often use unique backgrounds. For example, you might find some interesting street art to use behind your subject, or you might even take the picture with your subject in water. That often has a dramatic effect. 

6. Environmental Portraits

This is a mixture between two types of portrait photography–traditional and lifestyle. An environmental portrait is traditional in the sense that they involve poses and optimal lighting conditions, and they are lifestyle portraits in the sense that they are taken in a location that is special to the subject of the photo.

With environmental types of portraits, the photo is taken in a location that is special to the subjects, like this family on this hilltop.

It’s a location that means something to that person and forms an important part of their personality. It could be an artist’s studio, an office, a den, a kitchen, or a classroom. With environmental portraits, the goal is to capture the person in what they consider to be their natural environment. 

7. Candid Portraits

Candid portraits are portraits that are not posed. They are unplanned. An example of a candid portrait would be the street photography images that capture people.

With this type of photography, there’s usually no posing and no direction on the part of the photographer. And, generally, the subject is not looking at, or at least, not acknowledging the photographer. 

8. Glamour Portraits

Glamour photography is also often referred to as beauty photography. It’s usually designed to be sensual and to highlight the person rather than their clothes or environment, though those elements are an important part of the photograph. In fact, glamour photography often involves the use of make-up artists and a well-planned wardrobe. 

9. Surreal Portraits

Surreal portraits are a fine art style of portraiture. A surreal portrait turns dreams into images; it emphasizes alternate realities, and an interpretation of the subject’s subconscious mind.

Surreal portraits often involve the use of photo tricks and editing, as seen with this double exposure portrait of a young woman.
Double exposure portrait of a young woman.

As with any fine art style, it often involves the use of props, an often elaborate wardrobe, photo tricks, and photo editing. For example, this type of portraiture frequently involves images taken underwater. It creates a very surrealistic feel, and when done well, the results are stunning.

10. Abstract Portraits

This is another one of the types of portrait photography that involves more of a fine art style rather than a representational style. It’s purpose is not to realistically represent the subject, but rather to create a work of art. It often involves digital manipulation, and this is one genre where you can break many of the photography rules that you’re accustomed to following. 

Abstract photography allows you to express your ideas or emotions without having to be realistic, and it’s a great opportunity to unleash your creativity. You might, for example, shoot the portrait of your subject through a rainy window or in motion so that the image is blurred. You might also get in close on one feature of their face, like one of their eyes.

Abstract portrait photography is one type of portrait photography where you can use your creativity and think outside of the box, as seen in this image of woman holding an opaque piece of film.
Abstract portraiture is one type of portrait photography where you can use your creativity.

Whatever the case, you can throw away the rule book here and allow yourself to really think outside of the box. 

11. Close-up Portraits

This is probably the most personal of the different portrait photography categories. It involves getting in close, and for your model, it can either be liberating or nerve-wracking. 

It might help to talk to the model about the kinds of things they love to do. That will help relax them and it results in great facial expressions. For this kind of portraiture, you want to highlight your model’s best facial features, and hide any flaws. 

To do that, you can ask them to tilt their head one way or another, but regardless of how they are posed, it helps to keep focused on their eyes. A person’s eyes are usually their most striking feature, and as the ‘windows to the soul,’ most people want to see them in a portrait.

Close-up portraits should always focus on the eyes, as seen in this close-up of a woman's eyes.
Close-up portrait photography should include the eyes.

As a portrait photographer, you want to capture images that will help to form part of a lifetime of memories, but you might also want to create a form of art or capture a concept. There are a number of styles to choose from, and of course, you might like to try them all. 

Whatever type captures your imagination, portraits are a great way to express not only your subject’s personality, but yours as well. Portraits are a common way for us to express ourselves, to capture our spirit, our unique nature, and perhaps even our dreams. 

If you can master the art of portrait photography, you can shape the world for generations to come with your images. Now, that’s a reason to smile!

Frequently Asked Questions about Portrait Photography:

Here are some other common questions regarding portrait photography:

What makes a portrait?

This is an interesting question because the answer is not so straightforward. On one hand, it is the representation of a person, but it also involves the photographer’s interpretation of the subject, and so, it is a mix of the two.

Can a portrait be full body?

Yes, very frequently portraits involve full-body images. A common type of portrait photography where you see this is street photography.

What does portrait mode do?

When in portrait mode, your camera will automatically use a large aperture to blur the background by using a narrow depth of field so that your subject is the only thing in focus.

What is the best lens for portrait photography?

Well, there are different lenses for different types of portraits, but many professional photographers consider the best standard lens for portrait photography to be a 50mm lens, such as this Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. They say the 50mm lens has the perfect focal length for portraits.

What is the best camera for portrait photography?

As with any genre, there are many considerations regarding what type of camera to use, but here are two that are among the highest rated cameras for portrait photography: the Canon EOS 5DSr, which was built specifically for taking portraits, and the Sony Alpha A7R III, a high resolution mirrorless camera.

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Catherine Gaither is a professional photographer and bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.
Catherine Gaither is a professional photographer and bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.

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