Snapshots, Portraits, and Fine Art Portraits

What is it that separates a ‘Portrait’ from a ‘snapshot’? What makes a Portrait a Fine Art Portrait? There’s a lot more to it than simply making a number of exposures!

First, I’d like to address some of the misconceptions about what constitutes a Portrait. Some insist that a Portrait must have a vertical orientation. Or that a Portrait must be in Black & White, or that the subject must not be looking directly back at the viewer.

Portraits may be either vertical or horizontal, color or B&W, and with the subject looking back at the viewer, or not. These are not the criteria for determining whether a picture is a ‘Portrait’ or a humble ‘snapshot’.

Let’s talk about what a ‘snapshot’ is. Generally, snapshots are photos made on the spur of the moment, with little or no forethought or planning. Snapshots capture moments of reality, usually with no artistic intent, no thoughtful composition, and no special lighting.

Portraits can be made by accident, but that is certainly the exception rather than the rule. There is a whole creative process behind the making of Portraits. For a Portrait Artist the creative process begins with the first moment of contact with the client. That may be on the phone, via email, or in person. Ah! That’s the best…In Person!

I always prefer an in-person interview before creating portraits for anyone I don’t already know personally. Telephone and email can substitute, but there’s nothing like a face-to-face interview to learn about a person. You can experience their mannerisms, body language, and determine if you have “chemistry”, or at least whether you can work well with them.

Sometimes the first meeting or contact with the client is at the time of the actual portrait session. Definitely not the most optimal, but possible to deal with. Portraits can be made, after all, without having to be art pieces, and still have merit as portrait art.

Portraits, as opposed to snapshots, are realistic renditions of the subject(s), in the most flattering presentation. This is achieved through posing, lighting, camera technique, and rapport.

Yes, rapport! The photographer-artist must be able to draw out the personality of the subject. Of course, that’s easier to do if you’ve had a couple or more meetings with them prior to making images of them for portraits. But certainly possible on a short notice, one meeting scenario.

This one meeting/planning/portrait creation scenario, in fact, is by far the most common. Think Mall, or chain-store studios. Can an ‘Art Portrait’ be created under such circumstances? Certainly it is possible, but it would require exceptional ability on the part of the artist.

A much better environment for creating Art Portraits is developed by interviewing the subject, and learning about their interests, motivations and beliefs. What is important to them. With this information, the artist can begin to construct conceptions for portraits, which will evoke the personalities of their subjects.

For individual portraits, the goal is to portray the person in such a way that the viewer of the portrait will get a sense of what the person is about. For family, or group portraits the goal becomes to show the relationships, love or friendships within the group or family.

In all cases, Portraits require “finishing”, or “post-production” work. In the majority of cases, (think Mall, or Chain studios), post production is limited to color and density correction, processing and printing. Now that most all studios are ‘digital’, some light retouching may be included, but usually at an additional charge.

When a portrait has been properly prepared for with an interview/consultation, properly lit, posed and exposed, then it is in post production that the “art” of the portrait is brought to life.

Before digital changed all our lives, retouching was done on negatives and prints. Vignetting by dodging and burning, and “sandwiching” images was all done in the darkroom with enlargers, paddles and screens, and smelly chemicals!

In today’s digital workflow, the photo-artist does all the retouching, dodging, burning, highlighting, blurring, and other effects via computer software. And while creating many of these effects are easier digitally than they used to be with film, it still requires planning, artistic vision, expertise and plenty of time to execute. Typically, I’ll spend 15 to 30 minutes working on an image of just one or two people to prepare it for printing. Longer for more people, or if I’m collaging images, or making special effects etc.

So what does it take to produce a Fine Art Portrait? Knowledge of your subject(s), usually gained during the interview/consultation; Thoughtful planning and preparation, utilizing the knowledge gained in the interview, and your personal artistic vision; Skill in the use of your lighting and camera; Care in guiding your subject(s) into poses that convey the mood sought, or that add to the portrayal of personality; Time and Pantience and Expertise in using the tools at your disposal with which one prepares the images for final printing; And lastly, the media that the prints are made on, and the finishing and mounting of the prints for delivery to the client.

In the end, Fine Art Portraiture begins with the intent. It requires cooperation on the part of the subject, and relies on the vision and skills of the artist.