Choosing a Portrait Style

Written by Backdrop Express Photography Team on . Posted in Portrait Photography

Choosing a Portrait Style | Backdrop Express Photography Blog

Portrait photography is foundational to studio and location work. There are a number of categories within it, and it’s essential for photographers to develop proficiency in a number of them to effectively communicate with clients and be able to choose the best direction for each project. Understanding and gaining experience in a variety of portrait photography styles can help you to become a more versatile photographer. Categories of portrait photography include:


A formal portrait is planned and organized. Communication between the photographer and subject is key. Clothing, location, style, backdrops, props, lighting, mood and atmosphere have all been decided. The client has likely commissioned the photographer, but in some cases, the photographer may have approached the subject. In a traditional or classical portrait, the subject’s face is the predominant element of the image. The purpose is to depict an accurate visual representation. The final image can be a head-shot, two-thirds or a full-length composition. A traditional canvas or muslin backdrop is often used.


A posed portrait simply means the photographer has communicated with the subject through spoken direction or body language that they wish for a specific positioning or facial expression. This may arise out of a formal portrait session or within a candid setting.

adult man posing with arms crossed on gray backdrop

Candid with Subject Unaware

Portrait photography during candid shooting may take place when the subject least expects it. This typically occurs when the photographer is traveling with a subject but can also include casual street shooting or while in a café or restaurant. The subject will likely not be facing the camera. This type of portraiture is used in photojournalism, street photography, travel photography and event photography.

policeman on sidewalk

Candid with Subject Aware

At this point, the subject has become aware of the photographers’ presence and looks into the camera; however, they are not posed. An element of spontaneity persists.

girl laughing in field


Couples portraits require a photographer to capture the relationship between the two people. The attraction between a newly-engaged couple, the bond between mother and child or the friendship between a pair of performers will define these photos. Lighting should convey intimacy. Also, try and keep the camera lens at about eye level with both subjects.

outdoor portrait of father and son


For smaller group portraits, the photographer should strive to portray the bond among the group members, such as within a family, a board of directors or a sports team. A large group such as a wedding party, school group or big sports team can be more challenging; technical logistics are just as important as human and aesthetic ones. A viewpoint from up above can offer a helpful advantage.

family portrait with toddler on white backdrop


A sports portrait aims to portray the subject in their element, such as in uniform, with key equipment and/or in the sporting environment. Sports portraits can be taken before or after an event, or scheduled in the off-season. The location and equipment help tell the story, e.g. a swimmer with goggles and cap, a soccer player by the goal with a ball, a bicyclist and cycle on a winding road, or an athlete in their letterman’s jacket at midfield.

 portrait of basketball player on black backdrop


This type of portrait refers to a subject being photographed in their “natural environment.” A carpenter doing woodworking, a fireman dressed in gear by a fire truck, a teacher in a classroom, a potter in front of their potter’s wheel all illustrate the potential for environmental portraits. Natural surroundings complement the subject, show their character and become powerful elements of the photo.

portrait of chef in kitchen


A glamour portrait puts emphasis on depicting the subject in a flattering light and showcasing their romantic appeal. Soft studio lighting, creative backdrops and sensual outfits and props are often used. This type of photography is usually intended as a gift for a significant other.

glamour portrait of woman laying across sofa on a black backdrop


This style of portraiture is a combination of environmental and candid portraits. The subject is shot casually in their normal day-to-day environment to depict their life experience. A number of industries implement this editorial style, including fashion, food service and even the pharmaceutical industry. Lifestyle images can help to evoke emotions in the viewer through the depiction of a desirable lifestyle. This style is sometimes used in family portraits and wedding and photography.

Abstract or Surreal

Abstract portraits are artistic and not a traditional or realistic representation. Collage effects, software, creative lighting and digital manipulation can be used to create the desired effect. Abstract or patterned backgrounds may be used. Surreal portraits venture even further away from realism to attempt to depict the subject’s subconscious identity through otherworldly imagery.

surreal portrait


A conceptual portrait features an added dimension, concept or hidden meaning. These photos can leave the viewer guessing and they tend to be open for personal interpretation. Conceptual portraits are sometimes used in advertising but most often in fine art photography.

Do you specialize in portrait photography? Which style do you find yourself doing most?

-Backdrop Express Photography Team

Interested in learning more about portrait photography? Check out How to Capture Great Athlete Portraits!

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