A portrait is defined as a likeness of a person, especially of the person’s face. Simply that. But, the word in general use has deeper connotations. A photographic portrait is understood to be a good quality image that not only captures a person’s physical likeness on film, but also something of the person’s character, generally in a manner that is attractive and pleasing to the subject. Before technique and lighting and lenses, a portrait photo- grapher must be able to elicit a good response from their subject.  You have to be able to get the subject comfortable with you as the photographer as well as being around a camera.  Then you have to get the person to reflect the desired mood whether it be playful, sad, inquisitive or tired.  This all comes down to being good at relating with people.  It has been said that a great portrait photographer will know more about their subject in an hour than some people know about their own friends in a lifetime.

Portrait Photography

A normal portrait photo will exclude any background detail.  This can be achieved by using set backdrops or wide aperture settings to create a shallow depth of field.  It should also be noted that in a standard portrait the subject must fill the frame.  While different camera formats allow for more or less room around the subject (ie: square film vs. rectangular 35mm) you generally want at least 80% of the picture to be the subject. 

You will also have to consider what type of lens to use.  A wide lens is almost never used for portraits because it will always exaggerate a person’s features.  A normal lens is good only when the photographer wants to present a very natural look.  Even then, a telephoto is usually the best way to go.  For 35mm photography it is common to use an 80mm or a 110mm lens.  Larger lenses tend to flatter a person’s facial features by creating the illusion of a smaller nose.  Be careful though, because large telephoto lenses often give a very shallow depth of field and that could mean a subject with sharp nose and eyes but a blurred everything else.
Other things to consider are types of film.  With digital the “film effects” can be toyed with later.  When using actual film though, you may want to keep in mind that people usually look best in black and white.  If using color film, shop for something that highlights skin tones the best. 

From here on out a lot of things come down to style.  There is a general belief that portraits should never be sharp and instead photographers are encouraged to use softening filters.  But when learning to become a great portrait photographer it’s up to you to decide what works best.  As in any other photo field, go out and experiment as much as you can. **