What Makes a Good Portrait?

Packshot on 17/06/2013

What makes a good photographic portrait?

It’s a nightmare because there are no real rules. And the top portrait photographers are the first to acknowledge that.
The only real area of consensus is that a good portrait makes the best possible use of both the person and the environment. But there are many balances to achieve within this. Should the surrounding environment be included in the shot? If so, why, and how much of it? If not, why not? Should the subject pose standing or sitting? Why? Should they look towards the camera or away from it? And what will the lighting say about them?

The skill of good portraiture is the ability of the photographer to think along these lines on his or her feet. Quickly. And to keep the subject relaxed. Photographers use various tactics to maintain this balance. Some stay silent. Others engage in small talk. And others take their subjects through each step of their own decision-making, for clarity. As with the original topic here, there are no real rules. Many approaches work, as long as they contribute towards the required atmosphere.
At this point, I find myself drawn to one of our blog posts from a year or so ago, in which I discussed two radically different portraits of US President Barack Obama – both produced by Nadav Kander. I said that this one portrayed him as a “pensive” and “communicative” individual, concerned but not yet carrying the responsibilities that he would later assume. By contrast, this one portrays the same man as “focused, formal and forceful”. To distil the messages of the two photographs yet further, you might say that the first image shows Obama thinking about what he hopes to do, whereas the second shows him thinking about what he will do.

There’s so much in that purposeful hand on his cheek, and in the difference in each photographer’s treatment of his eyes. The most subtle style choices can have the most profound effects.

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