The Theory of Portraiture

We are going to take a look at the theory of portraiture, including the history of portrait photography, and the varying approaches that can be used in this style of photography.

Firstly, we see that at the beginning of photography as an art, portraits were mostly used to capture pictures of famous and prominent figures of society; “From prehistoric times, human kind has used pictures to describe, communicate, remember and celebrate. The portrait was a natural extension of these uses. As societies develop, important individuals soon became the subject’s of pictures.(1)” We see this in the iconic portrait below of Abraham Lincoln; a prominent and important figure of historical society.



Whilst there are a great deal of portrait photographs of prominent and pillar figures in our history, there is a serious lacking in documentary photography. Many of the world’s key events were not captured simply due to society’s ‘impression’ of photography. There were a long list of rules and bans against what photographers could and couldn’t capture. This has resulted in a severe lack of images from important events of the world’s history. “In the history of photography of our country we don’t have photos of the famine in the Ukraine in the 1930’s, when several million people died and corpses were lying around in the streets. We don’t have photos of the war… The entire photography history is ‘dusted’. And we have the impression that each person with a camera is a spy.(3)” I believe that documentary style portrait photography is a vital method of recording history. Photography has come a long way, and now documentary portraiture is a prominent style used widely by photo-journalists and portrait photographers. An example of this is Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl. A documentary style image, yet definitely a portrait. This shows the variety of styles of portrait photography; from sitting in a studio capturing a prominent figure, to capturing life in third world countries.



We have seen thus far the varying styles of portraiture; from studio shots, to outdoor documentary style images. Secondly, we are going to explore the different approaches to portrait photography. A huge part of capturing portraits is in the challenge of showing the true emotions of the person you are photographing. This is arguably the most important and yet the most challenging part of portraiture. When writing about photographing Victorian artists and intellectuals Julia Margaret Cameron said; “When I have had such men before my camera, my whole soul has endeavoured to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man.(5)” We see this in her stunning examples of portraiture below. This highly significant element of portraiture must not be ignored. To capture a person’s personality should be as important to the photographer as the technical composition and exposure of the image.





We have seen that upon approaching portrait photography it is important to prepare oneself for capturing the emotions of the individual. Secondly though, the technical points of portraiture can not be overlooked. We see that framing is a vital technique to master. “The term portrait photography is a broad one that encompasses everything from tightly cropped images of the face to full-length portraits of subjects seen in a wide-range of settings.(8)” One can frame the portrait in many different forms; cropped face, head and shoulders, torso, and full figure. I have explored these varying forms here. But how does one go about framing a portrait? “…the actual framing of an image is generated by the subject, by the nature of the information to be conveyed, as opposed to being a manifestation of the photographer’s style.(9)”  The way in which a photographer approaches framing a portrait is ultimately decided by the subject itself. Depending on what the subject is doing or how they move and act- the framing will vary from image to image, subject to subject. Although there is definitely a certain creativity involved. Whether the photographer decides to have the subject as a small part of the frame, or a large part of the frame, in the centre of the frame or at the edge; every decision is vital to the finished product of the image, and must be thought through creatively. “What is the nature of the frame? Consider it as a container. As such it can be an energy field, alive and swimming, perhaps near to bursting with information. Or it can be a tightly closed box…something for you to examine later on at your pleasure. These are two extremes, neither one having more intrinsic merit than the other. They simply represent two different sensibilities, two different ways of perceiving and organising the world.(10)”  Whether the photographer is organised or impulsive in their framing of the portrait, the importance of framing a portrait must not be taken for granted.

In conclusion, we have seen that portraiture has changed dramatically through the years, from a time when it was simply used to capture important figures of the world, to now where it is a widely accessed style for children, models, and celebrities alike. We have also seen that there are varying styles of portraiture; from studio photography, to a more documentary style; I have decided that my preferred style is documentary; showing the real lives of real people. A hugely important aspect of portraiture is capturing the emotions of the portrait- this was emphasised by Julia Margaret Cameron in her strong work. We have seen the importance of framing in portraiture, and the different techniques used to frame an image; from cropped face to full bodied shots. We have see that the uniqueness of the framing is ultimately decided while shooting, depending on the subject; therefore possibly dictated by the subject itself? Lastly, the clear conclusion of this research is the huge importance of portraiture, and the many techniques that are involved in creating a great portrait image.

(1) RAND, G. & MEYER, T. (2011) The Portrait: Understanding Portrait Photography, O’Reilly Media, Inc

(2) WIKIPEDIA (2013), Abraham Lincoln, Available from:  ( [Accessed: 16/04/13]

(3) ROSWELL, A. (2007) Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography, AVA Publishing

(4) WIKIPEDIA (2013), Afghan Girl, Available from: [Accessed: 16/04/13]

(5) ROSWELL, A. (2007) Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography, AVA Publishing

(6) EBOOKS @ ADELAIDE (2012), Edward John Eyre, Available from: [Accessed: 16/04/13]

(7) WORDPRESS; PANCREATURE, Julia Margaret Cameron, Available from: [Accessed 16/04/13]

(8) HILTON, J. (2003) Wedding and Studio Portrait Photography: The Professional Way, Rotovision Publishing

(9) ROSWELL, A. (2007) Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography, AVA Publishing

(10) ROSWELL, A. (2007) Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography, AVA Publishing


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