What Makes A Portrait Photograph

Text and Images Jim Austin, MA

"Ah, that's a pretty good shot of you,” a friend said as we were looking at a set of prints over our morning coffee.

As I sipped, I thought: “Well, it may be a good picture, but I wonder what would make it a good portrait?”


What it the secret of lasting portraits? It is the relationship.

Like yin and yang, there are two main characteristics of lasting portraiture. The first is the photographer – subject relationship. A second, equally vital part of a lasting portraits is what viewers bring to them. Relationships are at the heart of each of these characteristics.

Here, we'll first explore the creation of portraits and the photographer-subject relationship. Later, we'll see how we viewers add meaning to portraits through our personal relationships to the subject.


Good portraits are made. Their uniqueness comes out of the energy in the photographer-subject relationship. Portraits, unlike snapshots, require a set of skills.

A snapshot demands less of the photographer in relating to the subject. It may show a person's identity, like a police mug shot, but it takes a minimal photographer-subject relationship at best. “Stand here and smile” snapshots, while part of a global folk art, need not involve a photographer's intentions or consciousness. In contrast, a lasting portrait must delve deeper.

Lasting portraits often have a trace of the photographer's intent or style embedded within them. We photographer's often have a variety of relationships with our subjects, but regardless of whether the photographer's style is involved, indifferent, documentary, or judgmental, all photographers must understand the nature of this relationship.

A photographer who builds rapport can craft a more memorable portrait. Viewers instantly see the qualities of these relationships in the picture itself. Think of a photographer taking a group picture at a wedding. If this pro wedding photographer knows how the people in the group are related to each other, then it is easier to get them to smile, laugh and be at ease with each other. This helps create more natural portraits.

Lasting portraits can also be made during unplanned, chance encounters. During these moments, an willful photographer engages with a subject, catches them at ease, and makes an image with qualities the viewer perceives as truthful. This does not mean the photographer's technique is left to chance. It takes awareness, concentration and practice.

As with dancing, the steps that photographer and subject take can be flexible. We photographers need not rigidly control the photographer-subject relationship. In the service of making lasting portraits, we can allow our subjects to influence us. A photographer's skill and training define a quality portrait just as dance training defines the quality of the dance performance. In dance, a naturalness of emotion emerges from within a set structure of movement.



Slices from the flow of time, portraits can imply timelessness. Portraits are made in the context of their own time, tied to a specific era. We add textual meaning to these portraits in several ways, such as by adding captions and metadata. A picture I inherited shows my grandmother during her collegiate theater days. Its style and inscription pin it to early 1919. Viewing family portraits such as this, we expand our personal history. Looking at them, we get a sense of continuity in our lives. Memorable portraits also help us recall a range of emotions: passion, pride, revenge, and love. A few of them make profound impressions. Why? Because of the depth of our relationship to the subject. Over time, the portrait seems to help us know that person at a deeper level. With the passage of time, we the viewers fill this depth with meaning.

A picture is the expression of an impression. If the beautiful were not in us, how would we ever recognize it?

~Ernst Haas

We have many relationships in our lives. There is one we can all count on: our relationship with our own mortality. Lasting portraits objectify this relationship, especially those portraits we make and collect of our family members. These images contain past memories and illustrate the mortality of our loved ones. After a portrait is taken, the only certain thing is that time will pass and the situation will change.

If you doubt this, take out an old photo of yourself.

Many things have changed since it was taken. As Susan Sontag said: “To look at an old photograph of oneself, of anyone one has known, or of a much photographed person is to feel, first of all: how much younger I (he, she) was then. Photography is the inventory of mortality.” Photographsand especially portraits reflect this mirror of mortality. For instance, I suspected I would not ever again see this man pictured above?in poor health and in his late 80's?and so this realization at the time added poignancy to our portrait session.

We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.

~Anais Nin


1. Smile when you photograph someone. Your subject is always watching your facial expression. They may not speak your language, so a large part of what you communicate comes from your expression.

2. Thank people sincerely after making their portrait, talk to them after you take photographs of them. Your positive tone of voice reinforces your successful communication with someone.

3. Explain why you are making a portrait. Let your subject know it is their face, what they are doing or something unique about them. Praise your subjects honestly.

Lasting portraits are not about truth. We may not know the facts of a portrait such as the identity of the subject; I did not know who this man was, when I made my street portrait of him attired in his beads. The art of making portraits depends not on the facts of the image, but on a photographer's conscious purpose in making it.


We celebrate portraits to the extent we can relate to them and associate with them. Lasting portraits touch a more universal humanity that reflects the face of our own uniqueness back to us. These portraits are often made by skilled, conscious photographers who make time to build a relationship with their subjects. The portraits they create can have a timeless presence. As such, they are more than just pretty pictures. After they are taken, lasting portraits shape how we see.

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