A Picture vs. a Portrait

Is there a difference between what makes  a picture vs. a portrait? If so, what? What’s the difference anyway?

Let’s start with portraits. Seeing that I shoot or create portraits as my job, that should be an easy thing to define. Though I’ve thought a lot about how I want to shoot a portrait, I’ve never given a lot of thought to the definition. Not until I saw this photo as I was uploading from a session last week.

Chef Brooke Williamson
Chef Brooke Williamson

This is chef Brooke Williamson, shot at one of her restaurants, The Tripel in Playa del Rey. I think this is a portrait, not a picture, and I think that as a photographer, specifically, a portraitist, I should be able to tell you why. It’s something that we photographers must know (at least, what it is for us as artists) and something that you, a potential sitter, should have an understanding of. Because if you’re going to go have your or your family’s portrait taken, you should have some idea of what you’re looking for, yes? If not, well then, you could just end up with a bunch of pictures that don’t really speak to you.

When people come into my studio, I almost always ask them what sort of portrait they had in mind, and I’ve never ever gotten a really straightforward reply. People think they want this or that; they’re never very clear in their own mind, and they usually end up saying something like, “something candid, not really a portrait.” Well that’s a bit of a pickle, because what that person has just described is a picture.

I went Googling for some definitions of the word portrait and I found some really interesting bits. The dictionary is pretty straightforward: “A likeness of a person, especially one showing the face, that is created by a painter or photographer, for example.”

Wikipedia goes a little deeper: “A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality and even the mood of the person…”

So we can start there. A portrait is more than a snapshot, it’s not just something you take on the fly. At least, not generally.

I think a portrait sitting is like a dance between the sitter and the photographer. I don’t think it matters who leads; in fact, I think those roles change throughout the sitting (at least they do if it’s going well). A portrait is a collaboration between artist and subject. I can light you beautifully, pose you exactly the way I want and make you look amazing, but if there’s no connection in your eyes, if there’s no spark that says, “I am here, this is me, I am allowing you to capture me in this exact moment,” the portrait won’t happen. It will be a picture. It will be flat and it won’t speak to anyone.

I found this wonderful video on YouTube, in which the filmmaker asks that exact question, “What is a portrait?” to different artists, curators, instructors, etc. It’s pretty enlightening because at first , all of these accomplished people have to think about it; what exactly is a portrait?

Thirty-nine seconds in, you get what I think is the 2nd best answer. Sarah Saunders, Deputy Head of Education, says “To me, a portrait is a creative collaboration between an artist and a sitter, and it’s unique in that sense, as an art form…”

Yes! A collaboration. You can’t just go into a studio for a portrait expecting the artist/photographer to do all the work. A good portrait requires your participation; even more, it requires your intent.

The best answer is from James Holloway, Director, Scottish National Portrait Gallery: “I really like the idea of a portrait being the sound of people’s voices.” That’s an astoundingly insightful reply.

I shoot portrait sessions all the time, but I do have to remind myself to slow down and take a portrait, not a picture. I don’t always succeed; that is, I don’t think it’s possible to succeed every time because, as I’ve said, it takes two (or more). If I’m not present, really present, or my subject isn’t really present, we’ll end up with a picture. And that would be a bummer. So think about that.

But this whole thing brings up another question: What about when I’m shooting a portrait of your dog, or your baby? Is it possible for me to connect, to dance with an animal (who isn’t even mine) in a 60-minute timeframe? Or with a child or baby who might not even see me? Can I connect enough to get a true representation of that creature’s being? Or its voice?

Yes, definitely. I don’t think everyone can do it, but I think the people who love who they’re photographing can. Ok, not in love, not like a creepy “I love you and I’ve always wanted to take your photo” thing, but people who love people, or people who love dogs, people who love that connection and that process of creating a process. They can do it. The others–and here I’m speaking about people who are shooting because they want to be famous or make a lot of money or impress a girl, whatever–they simply can’t.

Think about this the next time you book a session for a portrait. For your dog, your baby, yourself…it doesn’t matter. Go into that session with the full intent to participate. Go into it knowing that the success of that session depends in large part on you.

I’m including a gallery of some portraits I’ve taken over the past couple of years. While you’re looking through them, ask yourself, “is this a portrait? Can I hear this being’s voice?” Don’t be shy about sharing your opinion; you won’t hurt my feelings. But even if you don’t chime in, start the conversation in your head so that the next time you book a session with a photographer (me or anyone else), you are more likely to come away with a portrait and not a picture.

Candid portrait. It can be done.

5 Replies to “A Picture vs. a Portrait”

  1. Two comments. First, from what I’ve seen on many websites, there are a lot of photographers who seem to think that a portrait is any photo with a person in it, no matter how prominent the person is in the photo. Second, I’m not a professional, so I don’t take portraits under the same circumstances as you, but I feel that if I tell the person I’m photographing how to pose, then I’m photographing the pose, and not the person. I’d rather wait for them to “pose” naturally.

  2. Agreed, James. Good point. I should clarify, there are some portraits; concept shoot, for example, when I am trying to capture a particular aspect of a subject. On those shoots, I may help them pose. But in a typical portrait session, I ask people to either stand or sit–however they feel most comfortable, because the body language can be as telling as the facial expression.

  3. By the way, I don’t think all of these photos would qualify as a portrait as I describe them above; they’re samples of my work from the past couple of years that I thought would make people think about it.

  4. just recently there was an exhibit in Pittsburgh by a shutterbug called “Faceburgh”, a few friends told me about it and wanted to know if I was going to the opening but when I looked into the project I must say I was greatly disappointed by the content…most of the “portraits” in this exhibit were spy shots taken with a telephoto lens that were the farthest thing from being intimate or portrait-like, many of the expressions on the people photographed were of great disdain that there image was being taken and the quality of the frames was not up to snuff either…the “photographer” even started a fundraising effort asking for people to give him $3K to hang the exhibit and he went as far as saying that if there was any $ left he’d buy a new lens or camera w/ the cash https://www.facebook.com/faceburgh http://faceburgh.com/photos/ the “photographer” said that this is the “story of Pittsburgh one face at a time” but I must say that I am offended by that statement, I have no understanding of these people through these spy shots, there is no intimacy between the shooter and the subject and a complete lack of collaboration, intent or willing participation.

  5. Wow, that’s about as far away from “the story of Pittsburgh” as you can get. So many people just looking for a hook, you know? Something that will get their project onto PetaPixel. I’ve always liked your portraits of people you come upon. You could tell that story much better.

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