Portrait Styles

Portrait Styles

When you think about portraits there’s a pretty good chance that you get a mental picture of what a portrait is. Some prior experience has colored what comes to mind when you think about having your portrait taken. Maybe it was annual school photos taken in the first weeks after the start of school. Maybe it was family portraits in a studio. Some of you may think about fashion models on a photographer’s set getting their photograph taken for a magazine.

From a photographer’s standpoint a portrait can be many things. Pretty much the only real restriction is that it must depict someone. Some of the more abstract self portraits I’ve seen don’t even have a person in them, but, rather, are just things that represent a person. But, nearly always a portrait means a photograph whose primary purpose is to show a person or group of people.

Let’s break down some of the photographer lingo used to describe some common portrait styles:



“Contemporary” is one of the more vague terms I see used on photographer’s websites. Sometimes it can refer to less posed portraits, other times it can mean highly posed fashion-style images. When I think of contemporary portraits I think of photographs that break some or all of the old-fashioned portrait rules.



“Modern” is pretty interchangeable with “contemporary.” By itself “modern portraits” just mean portraits that are made in styles popular for today.



Most traditional portraits are made in a studio with deliberate lighting. That light can be very soft and even or can be harsh and edgy, but is usually supplied with a flash or studio strobe. The person or people being photographed are often posed using traditional props like posing stools, tables, and apple boxes. Traditional portraits often follow classic posing rules that conform to long held ideals for making people look good. Most school photos fall squarely in the “traditional” category.



“Fashion” portraits are very popular for high school seniors and younger adult women. Fashion style portraits are often fairly edgy in both posing and lighting and may break many of the traditional posing rules.



Studio portraits are simply those that take place in a photographer’s studio. They may or may not incorporate backdrops and artificial lighting (flash/strobe). Studio portraits remove some of the potential difficulties that outdoor or on location portrait sessions can have, but also have less variety in style and options.



Candid images are generally those that are unposed and look as though the person who is being photographed is not aware of the camera. Candid portraits are often taken at events, like weddings and parties, of people who are not posing for the camera. Many family photo sessions include some candid images that are captured between more posed and photographer-controlled set-ups.

I hope this guide has been helpful to you for thinking about what kinds of portraits you may want for your family. When trying to decide what type of portraits you want it is best to talk with your photographer about not only what is possible, but what will help you reach your goals for the session. Not every family or session has the same purpose and one size doesn’t fit all.