The Creative Photographic Portrait: What, How, Why

Creative Photographic Portrait

The Creative Photographic Portrait: What, How, Why

In general, when we talk about taking portraits, the popular imagination thinks of the typical photo sessions in which the model poses for the camera, more or less naturally, and the photographer takes a series of photos thinking of a possible book or report. But a portrait can go far beyond this concept because a well-done portrait can offer an infinite number of artistic possibilities.

What do we understand by portrait? And for “photoshoot”?

As I said in the introduction when someone talks about portraiture. The vast majority of people automatically think of a photo session. Especially those people who are not related to photography. But also fans of this art who have never considered the portrait as something bigger than a simple photo session.

When I talk about a photo session, I am referring to the typical photographic sessions in which a model poses for the camera, with no other pretensions than to show off the clothes they are wearing or simply to graphically immortalize the physical appearance of that person. I just made up this definition and it is not intended to be, in any way, offensive or derogatory to these types of photos, just be clear! But if we accept that taking a portrait is much more than clicking in front of a person, we will agree that there are infinite possibilities to get the most out of the fact of taking pictures.

Creative portrait options

There are different ways to make a portrait. All of them have in common the human figure but they observe it in a different way in order to achieve different results. Here are some examples:

The abstractualization

It consists of learning to look at the body in an abstract way and being able to see it, only, as figures, lines, or shadows to portray. The result is usually quite striking because if the body is well abstractualized, at first glance, the eye will not recognize that what it is seeing is a human figure. But with a little more observation, the figure will be discovered and, then, we cannot stop seeing it for what it is: the body seen in an original way. Any tips to get abstractualize the human figure? See it closely, play with light to hide some details and enhance others, and, above all, train the eye to see it in a different way. These tips, of course, can be used for any type of abstract photo, even if portraits are not included in it.


Here the human figure is everything. It is about creating a story and having our model represent it. The portrait that we must look for if we want to achieve this type of photography has to be planned, a slave to history, and focused on explaining something. So for these types of photographs, photographic planning is very important, as is the choice of the model. Perhaps the easiest way to get a human model is by visiting friends and family, but it may be that this is not enough for these types of photographs, since the person who appears in them has to be strong enough to convey what we want to explain. If you want to experiment with these types of portraits. Take your time looking for the right person to embody your characters. The end result will thank you!

“One more figure”

Until now we have always talked about the human body as the main element of photography but we can also use it as one more element of the composition, which does not have special importance within the image. In the same way that in the image there may be a table or a window. We also incorporate a human figure. It will be difficult to ensure that our model does not add any kind of meaning beyond what the other elements of the composition can add because, as we have already said on occasion, the human factor always adds attractiveness and “visual hook” to a photograph. So it’s our job to learn to use it however we want. This is just one more photographic exercise that we can try to develop.

The human reference

Another type of portrait in which the human figure is not the most important part of the composition. Or maybe yes, because even without being the main motif of the photograph. It will help us to give another meaning to the image. By looking for the human reference I mean to take a photograph in which there are no references to the real size of things. And place in it a human figure that performs the referential function. This can serve to show the majesty of landscapes, to reveal falsified macros … In these cases, in addition, we can achieve that the figure has a double function: on the one hand. As we have already seen, gives us the spatial references of our photography. And On the other hand, giving us that human factor that fills some images with meaning.

A self-portrait is also an option

We have already spoken enough times about the self-portrait and about learning to look at it with different eyes. The fact is that for all the functions of the portrait that we have just seen, an “alien” portrait can work the same as a self-portrait. So do not close doors, if you want to do a portrait and you do not have any model available, consider being your own model.

Can you only be creative when it comes to clicking?

Absolutely. We already know that taking photographs is not just activating the shutter. So any of the variables in the photographic process can be a good starting point for a creative portrait. For example, lighting. A portrait has as many possible illuminations as the photographer (or illuminator, if applicable) has the desire to innovate, so it would be absurd to try to classify portraits according to the type of lighting they have because, surely, no two illuminations will be exactly the same. Anyway, a long time ago, at photographyblog we talked about the main ways to illuminate portraits,  but did you know that you can use light to modify the portrait as you wish and, thus, be able to transmit whatever you want? Let’s put a couple of examples:

If we illuminate a portrait from the wide side of the face. We will be able to soft textures and we will achieve a less angled face with softer features. This type of light is often used with corrective functions, to hide wide noses, for example. Even so, we can also use it to transmit serenity and purity since the shadows that will be generated on our model’s face will be few and, in addition. As a general rule, they will be “hidden” (by the nose or chin, for example). This type of light usually works very well with soft lighting, which adds a soft atmosphere to the portrait. But of course, anyone is free to do their research. And very interesting portraits can surely be achieved in broad, harsh lighting.

On the other hand, if we illuminate a portrait on the narrow side of the face (that is, on the side that is farthest from the camera), we will be able to enhance the contour of the face and hide the roundness of those more oval faces. This type of light creates highly visible shadows, sometimes leaving most of the skin in shadow. What can be achieved with this? You can get images with great force, with textures, with contrasts. Mysterious photographs in which what is hidden is perhaps more important than what is shown. This lighting usually combines well with harsh lights, which mark the shadows well. Although as in the previous case, this is not an immutable law!

A portrait, of course, can also be illuminated from the front. But a frontal light is not equivalent to a simple or meaningless light. This type of lighting usually generates very few shadows on the face of the model. So that the viewer’s attention will be placed on the gaze of the person portrayed, which will gain strength. This lighting often gives an air of grandeur and has been used extensively for portraits of famous people and artists.

Of course, the least important thing here is theory. The practice is everything. Learn to use lighting to transmit what you want, to count things. And, above all, do not close doors, experiment and believe!

Our friend digital art

A creative portrait can also include a good dose of digital processing. There are many photographers who take their images already thinking about the final result they want to achieve with them. This implies, perhaps, creating scenarios, characters, and stories through the computer. Always starting from the basis of a photograph, of course. In my personal opinion, the images resulting from these types of retouching begin to move away from what would be pure photography and closer to what I call “digital art.” It is not at all derogatory, just another branch of art. Be that as it may, it is an option that we can investigate in order to arrive at more creative and original portraits.

No more boring individual photographs

There are so many ways to present your photos once they are finished. As a general rule, we usually present them individually and independently of each other. Have you tried putting together some photos to see what happens to them? Sometimes, in the same photographic situation, we can take several photographs that complement each other. In this way, the story told by two separate images grows stronger and deeper. Mounting diptychs, triptychs, or photographic compositions, in general, can be another way to give a portrait of creativity.

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