Creative Brief

October 30, 2020

The Art of the Portrait

Everyone loves portraits. Portraits account for over a quarter of a million assets in Stocksy’s collection and, year over year, the keyword “portrait” is the most searched term on our site. But what is a portrait, really?

Lots of photographers and cinematographers capture pictures or videos of people “posing like a model” and call it a portrait. Yes, a portrait is a pictorial representation of a person, but not every picture of a person is a portrait. Given the saturation of “people pictures” in the collection,  it’s time we focus more on context and craft. How are stock portraits used? What makes an image or clip of a person captivating, compelling, or widely useful?

It’s useful to know that the word “portrait” comes from the Latin “portrahere,” which translates to “drag out, reveal, expose.” This means that the intent of a portrait is fundamentally exploratory. Portraiture, as an artistic convention, is a collective meditation on culture, identity, and presence. Within it, we search for clues to a person’s character, a cultural mood, or even the human condition. We love portraits because we want to know what humanity looks likeits essence reflected, refracted, and illuminated in all of our different forms.

This all may sound overly poetic, but these properties of portraiture are important to keep in mind when shooting stock content. The person/subject is anonymous to the viewer, therefore, it is not the subject themself that gives meaning to a portrait, but what the combined visual components (mood, style, setting, demographic, emotion, expression) signify. Shooting portraiture for stock is a challenge to turn a stranger’s image into a function of our cultural retina.

Portraiture Things To Consider

  • Care with lighting:
    • When outdoors, shoot at a time of day that will give images depth, dimension, and atmosphere.
    • In the studio, professional studio lighting, attention to shadows.
    • When indoors, look for well-lit spaces and carefully balanced mixed-light.
  • Diverse subjects from underrepresented demographic groups.
  • Styling that matches the scene and the subject.
  • Portraits that tell a story about the subject.
  • Unexpected and thoughtful angles.
  • Think about how the point of view changes the subject’s scale and stature in position to the viewer. How do these positions inform the subject’s sense of power, personality, and presence?
  • Shoot locations that complement or complicate the subject.
  • Expressions of personality, countenance, and emotion that describe people,  e.g., open, sensitive, searching, confident, thoughtful, defiant, strong, curious, creative, motivated, collected, ambitious, kind, introverted, easy-going, extroverted, etc.
  • Explorations of mood, tone, and character, e.g., warm, cool, ironic, serious, intimate, stark, simple, glamorous, formal, fun, irreverent, etc.
  • Creative, intentional compositions and compositional tension.

Human Touch

Captivating portraits can range from the highly constructed—posed, creative, stylized—to the decidedly documentarystripped down, spontaneous, raw. They can be as visually exciting as a dramatic production or can be a simple frame that allows the subject’s character to shine through.

Either way, the most powerful portraits are never one-sided transactions. The most enigmatic portraits come from engaging sitters in a collaborative effort. The shooter’s rapport with their subject is what gives portraits intimacy and energy. 

The most common issue we see with portrait series submitted for review is that they are rushed. This can result in shoots that feel somewhat empty. This can often be a result of selecting a model to fill a certain look or demographic without first establishing a conversation with them to make them comfortable or to connect them to a wider context. We encourage everyone to prioritize quality over quantity and to take the time to focus on crafting compelling individual shots.

How To Get The Human Touch

  • Get to know your subject a little deeper. Understand more of their personality and what’s important to them. Remember everyone’s story is different.
  • If producing an environmental portrait series, capture people in their real house, studio, or workplace, etc. What spaces are meaningful to them? Find out their favorite place to go for a walk or spend time. What does a day in their life look like? Do they have a pet or quirky hobby? Explore these personal pieces.
  • Unless shooting fashion portraiture, you may want to let subjects style themselves—they may feel more comfortable in their own clothes. However, do tell them not to wear branded clothing and provide suggestions or style inspiration for how you envision the shoot and its aesthetics.
  • Experiment with different ways of making people feel comfortable in front of the camera.  You could try keeping the camera rolling when they’re not aware you’re shooting “for real,” or play music to create the right atmosphere.
  • Ensure that the environment is conducive for the effect you’re trying to achieve. If shooting in an urban environment, how can you create more of a sense of place than shooting against bare walls, back alleys, and empty plazas?
  • Avoid leaning heavily on cell phone use and other well-covered concepts.
  • Don’t be afraid of subtlety. Subjects don’t need to be laughing outrageously in order to show pleasure, confidence, happiness, etc. Friends, partners, and co-workers don’t have to be laughing, hugging, or super close to each other to convey togetherness—especially now in our socially distant era.
  • Be careful with over-accessorizing, especially when it comes to devices. 

Portrait Styles

There are essentially four approaches that can be taken in portraiture—constructionist, environmental, candid, and creative:

  1. The constructionist approach is when the artist constructs an idea around the subject. 
  2. The environmental approach depicts the subject in their environment. 
  3. The candid approach is where people are documented (or appear to be documented) without their knowledge. 
  4. The creative approach is where manipulation of the visual is used to change the final output.

The various approached can be to different effect used for any type of portrait:

Environmental and Lifestyle Portrait

  • Captures people in real-life situations, events, and environments. 
  • Aims to illuminate aspects of a person’s character and lifestyle through their positioning within a wider reality.

Environmental portraiture is often taken in the subject’s natural environment, such as in their home or workplace, and typically describes the subject’s life and surroundings. In environmental portrait work, the environment and the person both have narrative importance. Environmental portraiture is perhaps where the photographer or cinematographer needs to be the most observant and thorough in their preparation. Small details often reveal the most about the subject. The artist must observe very carefully and also talk to the subject to find out about those character or lifestyle details that could add depth to their portrait.

It may also be useful to refer to this article, Shooting for the Edit, written previously about the importance of variety in composition and framing.

Studio Portrait 

  • Intentionally uses the neutral environment of a studio to focus solely on the subject and their attributes. 
  • In the absence of context or subtext, the importance and effective use of lighting, backdrops, props, and poses are heightened.

Fashion Portrait 

  • The principal subject of the portrait is the clothing/fashion/styling/attire of the model, not the model themself. 
  • The subject may be enhanced by the look, attitude, and pose of the model and by interesting use of light, location, or accessories — but stylistic choices are primarily made in service of the fashion subject.

In fashion portraiture, location, pose, and look need to either work together or make some sort of strong juxtaposition against cohesion. All aspects may work well together but if one element, (i.e. if the model pose is not in line with the atmosphere that has been created by hair, make-up, lighting, and location) the end result will miss the mark.

Beauty Portrait

  • A close-up portrait where the model’s face is the primary content. 
  • Usually used to promote skincare, makeup, wellness, and body-positivity themes and products. 
  • Beauty portraits can range from a crop at chest level to frank, extreme closeups. 
  • In contemporary advertising and marketing, there has been a shift away from a tendency to flatter and idealize and rather move toward more natural, simple, deep explorations of character.

Creative and Conceptual Portraits

  • Can involve the manipulation of the film or file in post-production.
  • Can use devices such as costumes, props, and evocative locations.
  • Can work with colored gels, etc., to build a narrative around the subject that expresses something interior or imaginative.
  • Uses portraiture as a base for the exploration of some kind of deeper theme about the world, society, philosophy, etc.

Group Portrait

  • Used to capture a group of people and their relationship with each other—for example, families, sports teams, co-workers, peers, or friends.
  • Recently this has become a popular format in advertising. But please be careful of tokenism when it comes to “group diversity” concepts.


What are clients searching for? Here are the keywords searched with “portrait” that have seen the biggest growth in the last year:

woman sun portrait
city man portrait
female portrait on white
portrait business studio
portrait mask
portrait woman professional
fashion studio portrait
portraits on white
portrait blue sky
black and white portrait white background
portrait black male
portrait craft
smiling portrait woman
portrait expressive
man portrait hair
woman autumn portrait
studio portrait color background
woman portrait full body
beautiful portraits
casual business portrait
meditation portrait
portrait man kitchen