Thoughts on portraiture

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Today’s article is the first of two parts focusing on portraiture and human subjects as the focus of an image. It is not something I’m normally associated with because I rarely choose to show my work here; it doesn’t mean I don’t engage in it for personal reasons (which are usually not shared, obviously) or professional ones (I do have clients whose mainstay subjects are primarily human). Whilst curating images for a recent assignment, I had a couple of little personal epiphanies which I’d like to share with you all.

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We humans are one of the few self-aware species on this planet, and certainly the only ones with any reliable means of reproducing our own or other fellow people’s likenesses (transitory reflections in water do not count). We are also a social species, which means that for the most part, we seek interaction with other humans; you could probably argue that we need this interaction to remain in good psychiatric health – perhaps it is a reminder that we are not alone, our actions affect others, and with higher consciousness comes both power and responsibility. I digress considerably.
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Being a social species, we communicate; this is best done in person simply because out language is more than verbal or written. The same sentence can be said an infinitely different number of ways and even excluding context, the possibilities for interpretation are nearly boundless. Even the same word pronounced differently – take read and read, for instance – can have different meanings. More communication is done by facial expression than any other part of the body; researchers at Ohio State University have found there are roughly 21 different emotions or feelings that are expressed by facial gestures that are common across most human cultures, made by about 40 separate muscles (counting symmetry). There’s therefore a lot communicated that’s usually done inaudibly.

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Between this self-awareness and need for social communication, it is therefore not surprising that the photographic subjects we are most drawn to in general contain humans: even without any words, it is possible for us to generally infer the mood or actions of the subjects. However, this interpretation is usually without context – we as observers draw a conclusion based on the limits of our own experience and knowledge; if something does not have an analog in our own experience, our subconscious makes assumptions based on deeper unconscious memories (e.g. the emotional association between light = transparency/ honesty/ cleanliness and dark = mystery or danger).

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There is one property of photography that is both a limitation and a unique strength of photography: the ability to preserve what is perceived by the conscious observer as an instant in time. In this case, ‘an instant’ is somewhat elastic, with the basic tenet that it is an interval short enough that we cannot perceive any change in the subject during this period. Still photography, therefore, forces us to choose our instants carefully: the emotion or expression captured on the face of a human subject may therefore be generally representative, or not, of a greater interval. Both are interesting to us: the exceptional and the fleeting give us an opportunity to consciously analyse moments which we might subconsciously register but not fully understand. The generally representative allow us to preserve memory: we now have a (hopefully) faithful approximation to a period, person or expression that we were able to consciously absorb at the time.

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Human subjects present a much greater challenge than static ones: we are never really the same at a consciously observable level from moment to moment; the photographer must therefore choose his captured moments with some care. We instantly have a subject that is both a source of never-ending variation (and thus images – there’s a reason why muses are almost always people) and challenge: how can you ever be sure you’ve fully and accurately represented the subject/person? Since this is clearly impossible with a dynamic subject, the only choices are to a) abandon the attempt; b) never stop taking photographs; or c) choose to portray only a limited subset of the subject’s personality. Realistically of course, c) is usually the only approach that is practical and socially acceptable.

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Perhaps then, this is where the skill of the great portrait artists – whether photographic or otherwise – comes into play. The subject can consciously only present one side of their personality to the artist/recorder, but a good artist really has to be both a good observer* to first decide what aspect of personality or attributes they would like the portrait to convey, and then convince the subject to display them. Notice that I didn’t say which aspects of personality are representative: there are many reasons to limit what is shown (a formal portrait of a military general might not want to hint at signs of emotional weakness, for instance – whereas the opposite would be true of a hospice worker). Even if the subject chooses to only show one side of their personally, the absence of some behaviours or emotions is equally telling. They say the great comedians are usually depressed: it makes sense that one extreme of emotion must be balanced somewhere by the other.

*And they have to be, in order to render things in a way that communicates noticed ideas in an understandable way.

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We photographers must therefore understand psychology to some degree to be good portraitists, too – and not just so we can control the process to a degree that makes the impact of the output more certain amongst the target audience, but also so that we can understand our subjects and present them in the desired light.

People frequently say that a good portrait ‘captures the soul of the person’ – I have no idea how much of this is a derivative of primitive superstition from early photographs, (when there was an understanding gap of the technical process and the necessary bright flashes/ miniature explosions and bottles of chemicals probably didn’t help assuage fears either) and how much of this is merely a figure of speech – but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced there’s some truth to it. Fortunately, our subjects are not literally captured in an image (the mind boggles when you think about what happens during repro processes – does the soul get more dilute or smaller every time?) but they should be in more than a metaphorical sense. A good portrait should really feel as though it’s communicating something about the subject – or perhaps to go a step further, the audience should feel as though they are communicating directly with the subject themselves.

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It is probably for this reason that the most accurate or emotionally sensitive/intimate portraits are made by people who have a relationship with the subject beyond the transactional; it’s very difficult to understand enough about somebody’s personality in a short span of time to at least subconsciously know what traits characterise an individual’s personality, much less get them to show them unselfconsciously. The best actors and models (and probably politicians/ musicians/ celebrities) can instantly project themselves as they want to be seen; this is very different from who they really might be when uninhibited.

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Perhaps this is the reason behind the modern obsession with selfies: we, the social species, care what the world thinks, and therefore must ensure that the side presented is the one we approve of. It isn’t narcissism so much as an attempt at personal PR and managed communications – it boils down to the awareness of self-image again. At the danger of slipping too far into psychology again, I’m going to suggest that being aware of oneself, feeling the need to change to be accepted into society, and then being able to accept one’s image without changing are very different states of personal development. In any case, it’s simply too bad that most selfie-addicts are not aware that a flattering perspective of a human necessarily requires a narrower angle of view, some physical distance because of this, and a good light source – you’re just never going to get what you want with a wide angle lens on the end of a stick.

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Perhaps this is the reason for the saturation of images: none of them feel quite right, but the creators don’t care or are unwilling to find out exactly why. Don’t get me wrong: making a representative self portrait is perhaps one of the most difficult things a photographer can do, because you must first decide exactly what it is about yourself that you want to show, how you’re going to express it, and then all of the compositional and executional challenges. I’ve only done it consciously a few times myself; usually when I firstly need an image of myself for something and I am convinced that it would be easier for me to execute it myself, and even then only when a previous image will not do because it is no longer representative of the way I perceive myself, or more importantly, the way I want to be perceived. Notice we are once again back to the relationship between photographer and subject – even if they happen to be one and the same*.

*Perhaps the reason why photographers tend to take so many images of themselves in reflective objects is that we are curious at a subconscious level about how we appear to the rest of the world, or want ourselves to be seen as a photographer instead of something else. Those ‘photographers’ whose self-portraits are both obviously arms’-length selfies and exclude a camera leave me wondering about what they’re really trying to say about themselves.

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I’m going to end part one with the following thought: a portrait isn’t really about the subject. At a much more fundamental level, it captures the relationship between the subject and the photographer, and precisely what and how much of that they choose to share with the rest of the world. This article has been illustrated with images where the subject has been a conscious participant – either people I know to varying degrees of familiarity through personal relationships, or simply professional clients. I think the difference between the two is quite obvious – it’s difficult to quantify in words, but I think perhaps ‘naturalness’ or ‘ease’ would be a good way of describing it. We are fascinated by people because in some ways, they dynamically reflect ourselves. By extension, this includes their representations and interpretations – especially those that are atypical or typical. We seek to preserve and perhaps understand these representations and relationships; both for the ones we have experienced personally – perhaps out of nostalgia or fondness, and those which are completely unfamiliar – out of social natures. But this only covers the half possibilities where the subject is conscious of the photographer – part two will deal with candids, street photography, and a theory called the ‘happiness barometer’. MT


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  1. Thanks for clarifying.

  2. MT. You are correct, I was the one missing something, and now understand these are commissioned portraits. The.

  3. MT. Possibly, you may have missed and important point in Dan Sibley’s comment. You made a distinction between advertising and portraits for hire. Your street work here, solid as it ius, is nit about work for hire, so paying the bills with it is outside of its goal, it is street work. Thinking of Mr Sibley’s comments on great portraiture, let’s consider HCBs portraits which I knows you are deeply familiar with. They are great because they reveal personality. They are part candid, but mostly, ad you’ve noted eloquently, abiutvthgat quietness within the photographer that allows the personality of the relaxed subject ( whether that subject is fearful, arguing, happy, pensive) to be felt by a viewer.

    • Except this article wasn’t illustrated with images of street work, that’s the next one. Most of these were commercial images for hire or of conscious participants, which I’d consider bona fide portraiture in the traditional sense. Or am I missing something?

  4. The Mystery photo is 5 star all the way. No selfie there.

  5. The picture entitled “Hesitation” – is that technically a portrait? The reason I ask is that it looks more like a very well composed candid, as it seems uncertain if the guy is looking at you or not. The definition of what makes a portrait is another question, of course; I remember Jay Maisel saying that if the other person is aware you’re taking the photo then it is a portrait (and a collaboration) whereas if not, it’s a picture.

    It’s a really nice shot though, and while I try to avoid asking this question too much, what did you shoot it with (body and lens)? The OOF area is really nice but it links back to a “not found” page on Flickr.

    • A more important question: does it matter? What if a candid subject happened to be looking right at you, or you instructed a collaborative one to look away? How would the end audience tell the difference? As far as I’m concerned, the final impression is all that counts.

      From memory an E-M5 and Leica 50/1.4 via adaptor.

  6. Thank you for your discussion on this subject. Yet such lovely images I can scarcely move my eyes from the images to read the text.

  7. Hi Ming Interesting article. I find the problem with a lot photographic portraiture is that there is often too much camera work or processing in an attempt to capture or bring something out in the subject. This is very prevalent in the field of “professional” photography. I find with most professional portraiture we are only left with a mask or a veneer of often overly flattering junk. The picture is just as much about the photographer as it is about the subject. With professional portraits we are often left with an image of a figure that has been posed and post processed beyond any reality based recognition.

    I find the professional intent is simply to attain the learnt response from the viewer/subject. “Its polished, highly detailed yet flattering, so it must be good” The subject might like this type of portrait as the photographer has captured them in a light they have never seen before (nor has anyone else for that matter). However this is just a lie that tickles the vanity of the subject. Most great portraiture is often disliked by the subject as it captures or brings out a truth or vulnerability and if done well very candidly. This type of camera work is often very simple and quiet. To capture a truth without the subjects awareness is one thing, to put them in front of the camera and pull it off is another skill all together. It requires a whole level of social awareness and emotional understanding to enable the subject do all the work. This process only requires the photographer to press the shutter at the right time.

    • I’m not sure so much that’s portraiture as advertising – I posted some thoughts much earlier about honesty and integrity in advertising and got castigated for it, so I’m keeping my mouth shut.

      Remember though if the subject is also the client, then our brief as photographer isn’t fulfilled til they’re happy. If they want an illusion and non-reality, then that’s what we should deliver. If we are the artist and determining output, then it would be easier to argue for truth. Sadly, that doesn’t pay the bills 🙂

  8. Daniel Boyd says:

    Style is awesome. We all know you have skills, Ming, but the lady is way beautiful, and that does not hurt does it :-))

  9. toughness is my favorite in this set. Indeed, the communication between the photographer and the subject can make a picture stronger as the emotion “looks” directed to the viewer, annoyance and indifference in this case 🙂

  10. My curiosity is piqued by the one labelled “Commitment”. Is the photographer photographing the photographer in the same position, at a complementary angle? Is there a third photographer photographing the two from a detached, standing perspective? And a fourth photographing the three in a wide shot? And on…and on…

  11. It’s a perfect frame.
    Nice work.

  12. Great essay – lots to think about. “Relaxation” is wonderful.

    I’ve lately been mulling a phrase, “preservation of first notice,” which as I understand it means capturing (or re-creating) whatever it was that first drew your attention to a scene. Not sure it really applies to formal portraiture, since as you’ve noted portraits are often more about the relationship between the photographer and the subject, which implies a connection beyond the “first notice.” Maybe the phrase is more applicable to candid/street shots…looking forward to your Part II. 🙂

    On a walk a while back I saw a pack of teens pose for a phone-pic before a spectacular sunset; the kid who took the photo counted, “1…2…3,” and just as he was snapping the shutter, each of the kids in the group struck a pose – nothing super-obvious, just a shift of a knee here, a tilt of the chin there – and right before my eyes they all went from normal, average kids to supermodels, keenly aware of how to make themselves look their best in a photo. It was astonishing – I had to laugh because in my experience, at least with folks from my generation, the subject often pauses to think about whether they should look at the camera, smile with their mouths open or closed, or tuck the stray hair behind the ear, and the moment is lost. (I rarely shoot anything formal, maybe once in a blue moon for work or something, but when I do I like to shoot the “stiff” pose and then rapid-fire a few more frames when everyone stops holding their breath…)

    • It’s an experience thing: the more selfies you take, the more chances you have to get it right…same with anything.

      On the more serious topic of ‘preservation of first notice’, I agree that’s pretty much the core of any sort of documentary or candid photography – the moment the subject consciously engages the camera, he or she changes what they were doing and the moment is broken. Does this apply to formal portraiture? I don’t think so, but I might be wrong. Perhaps ‘catching unaware’ or ‘unguarded’ is the closest we can get.

  13. I like the first image.

  14. 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. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer. Wikipedia

  15. I love Peter’s picture. he indeed looks very relaxed.

  16. Kristian Wannebo says:

    You didn’t mention the problem that many subjects look strange (I don’t find the right word) on photos if they were aware of being photographed.
    So the photographer often also needs to be skilful at distracting the subject from the camera and from the intention to photograph.

    • That’s because the subjects aren’t relaxed. If they are…then they tend not to notice the camera anyway. Most of the time people accustomed to being photographed are fine; those not will be visibly tense and yes, look uncomfortable and this is very obvious in the finished image. They do have an expectation of an ‘event’ – the pose, the flashes, the lights etc. I’ll take those first, then talk to them while pretending to adjust equipment, all the while shooting (camera on tripod) – and once that initial expectation is passed, that second set are inevitably what we land up using.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        I’ve found it pays to practice to shoot handheld without looking in the camera, just checking its direction.
        Of course some cropping follows, and the background has to be without surprises.

        • Don’t forget focusing…not so easy to hit critical focus on eyes without looking at the finder. You can of course stop down, but then your background had better be completely neutral.

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            It _is_ hard to keep the distance constant while keeping the camera in line.
            Nothing for a fast lens!
            Easier with a small sensor.
            The advantage is that you just pull the camera out when the situation is promising.
            I admit that my (technical) hit rate is rather small…even for the family album.

  17. I have a strange thought: in “Achievement”, in order for you to achieve you personal vision, you included elements that don’t belong in the photograph, commercially speaking. The slice of a painting in the upper right, the round table occupying a lot of space on the bottom that cuts off the legs of the gentleman and makes him look boxed in, these take away from the focus on your subject, yet maybe conform with your sense of balance needed in the photograph. I make a direct correlation between this photograph and the photographs by the grand masters shown to us in photography school, where it seemed that the desired result was a good photograph, not a conventionally good portrait (which may be the difference between an artistic versus a commercial photograph).

    When I shoot portraits, I have to decide whether I will let my passion lead me to create a personal piece of work, or create something my subjects will recognize as acceptably good. These two don’t gel, because I am quirky by other people’s standards. I’m in the process of thinking how I can marry the two, and whether that’s possible or desirable. Have you come at crossroads about this?

    • Interesting question. There was an alternative version with some excluded elements, and it was easy for me to move things out of the frame since it was a posed portrait – however, they all felt stilted and unnatural – not ‘relaxed’. I put those elements back in deliberately. Feet are always odd though, and tend to dominate because of size and spatial cues – hiding them behind something non-prominent pushes attention back to the face.

      As for your crossroads – if it’s for a client, shoot what the client wants first, then try your own take. If it’s not, then you are really the client, so shoot what makes you happy. Not much point in doing otherwise 🙂

  18. “Style” is masterful, well done! Easily one of the best portraits I’ve seen in a long long while. The others are strong, too. Very refreshing to see perfectly executed portraits where the whole subject is in focus, not just one eye or the tip of their nose.

    Ming, since nothing in your photos is accidental, I’m guessing you are into rums? 🙂 Both Cruzan and Angostura have great rums in their selection, I always keep Angostura 1919 and Cruzan Single Barrel in my cabinet. My favorite rum is El Dorado 15y, very strong and complex aroma. Try it if you haven’t already. Ron Zacapa 23y is also excellent, but a bit too mellow for my taste.

  19. Another fascinating article. I do appreciate your insights and your ability to articulate them.

    Something I’ve found interesting with my own work is that my favorite portraits are of people I know, very much like what you said, but with a twist. Other people who have known the subjects have told me how wonderful the images were, but those who didn’t know the subjects were unmoved. In these cases I think I’ve captured part of the “soul” of someone, but only to the degree that those who already knew the person were able to recognize–which is still an enjoyable accomplishment.

    I love these images but at the same time I know they’re not great portraits because they failed to convey those emotions to those unacquainted with the subject. When you can accurately introduce your subject to a stranger, at least to a degree, then I think you’ve nailed it.


    • You pick up a good point: portraiture has to go both ways. You can only capture as much as the subject wants to share themselves – a great portraitist is somebody who can get their subjects to open up and relax enough…

  20. Great portraits! You really captured their essence and your interpretation of their expressions is spot on!

  21. Wonderful to see so many of your “people” shots together….it has been a while, and it was your images of others that first drew me to you Ming. The first image has always been a particular favourite 🙂

    Looking forward to part II!

    • Yes it has…but I admit it isn’t something I shoot often or land up having client-embargoed. And one’s friends only have so much patience with cameras pointed in their direction… 🙂

  22. i like the top image the best. it has humor, beauty, and it juxtaposes the main subject with contrasting objects in the environment very elegantly. nicely done.


  1. […] part one we looked at why images of people fascinate us, and the nature of portraiture. However, this only […]

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