What makes a great photograph? – About portraiture (part one)

For most people, it is fairly easy to judge a portrait as good. In galleries or museums, we easily connect to certain images and say: “This portrait was very well executed by the photographer.” But if we would ask ourselves what it is exactly about this portrait that makes us judge it as a well executed photograph, the matter gets a lot more difficult. For the photographer, throughout his whole educational developement, this one question is of immense importance: what makes a great photograph? To narrow down this complex question, I start of with portraiture as one of the most ancient and one of the first genres of photography.

In every genre of art, as a beginner, one has to master his gear. Critics saying that a true genius doesn’t need to study and work on his abilities is simply wrong. Taking a famous example, Pablo Picasso (of course) had a rare and extraordinary talent to sketch and draw. Already as a child, he was able to paint like adult and educated painters. Yet, he went and studied the techniques of other painters, even copied them. According to biographers, he went into the prado (the famous museum in Madrid) for hours and hours, just to copy the ancient masters. Only through this longsume education, he was finally able to overcome traditions and rules and create the revolutionary art we know today.

About portraiture (2)

Katrin (commissioned), Rolleiflex X, Trix

For photographers, this is as important. At the beginning, photography seems to be all about aperture, shutter speed and iso-values. Once you’ve master this triangle of exposure, it gets about sharpness, unsharpness (the cheezy word “bokeh”) and the specifics and characterstics of certain cameras, lenses, types of films and so on. The pictures will show this concern about the gear. Yet, there is no way around it. Only if you’ve mastered your gear, you will be able to digg deeper and create something independent of the mechanical execution of the photograph.


What a portrait is not

In order to set criteria for a “good” portrait, it is easier to ask what a portrait is not. One could say that portraiture is shooting people. But shooting human beings is very diverse and not always portraiture. Shooting people on the streets, it is not. Staging a subject into a preset, it is not. Fashion photography, it is not. Portraiture does contain the human element, but that is not what characterizes it. In all examples mentioned above, it is still the photographer that is the director of the image. So the core of these images is photography itself. The aim is to create an aesthetically pleasing image. A real portrait is not about the photographer and neither about photography itself. It is only about the subject being photographed.

About portraiture (3)

Maria (at lunch), Canon A1, Trix.

Michael Mazzeo, a gallerist and photographer himself, once said:

“A good portrait is one in which the viewer can disregard the veil of the lens, the hand of the artist and the limitations of the picture plane and enter into a dialog with the subject.”

This is not possible if the viewer senses the signature of the photographer, if he is drawn to the image due to aesthetical aspects of photography. Portraiture in the truest sense (at least in my opinion) means revealing the personality of a human subject and showing the emotions and the atmosphere of a certain moment, captured for eternity by a simple photograph. A good portrait for that matter asks more questions than it gives answers. It is revealing, yet mysterious. If it evolves over time, such as the viewer can go back to it and alter his interpretation and renew his imaginative dialog, the photograph succeeds in his aim to capture the truth. So a very important aspect or better criteria for a great portrait is if the picture shows the subject the way he/she really is or (to take a step further) reveals some inner truth, that even the subject has not known before. Certainly, this might just be one aspect of the complex personality and nature of the human being (such as real emotions like sadness, happiness, extraversion, introversion…), but nevertheless a true one.


The connection between photographer and subject

Although the best portrait is probably made in absence of the photographer, the limitation of photography requests his presence. This is the point where the capability and the skills of the artist fall into place. A portrait photographer is more a master of human interaction than photography itself. It is his task to connect to the subject in such a way that he/she will reveal at least some part of his/her unaffectet nature. To capture this, even if it lasts only for a couple of seconds, is the main challenge of the photographer. Being highly alert towards tiniest variations in mimics, feelings, emotions during the photography session is a prerequisite for the artist.

About portraiture (1)

My cousin (just in between), 5DMKII, 28mm.

A lot of famous portrait photographers (e.g. Bert Stern) said that taking someones portrait is like falling in love. Metaphorically speaking that means feeling a deep sense of appreciation and fascination for the subject. It can be a small detail in the physical appearance, an unsual aspect of behavior or a true emotion that lets the photographer connect to the subject. So to conclude one could say that a great portrait evolves through the collaboration of the photographer and his subject. If this connection, unflattered by the limitations of photography is visible, I think a portrait has achieved its goal. If an emotional reciprocity is evident, it enables also the viewer of the portrait to develop a relationship with the subject. What used to be the shared moment of two peoples can be relived by a simple observer. He/she will lose himself in contemplation and ask himself how that moment – captured by the simple photograph – once was and never will be again.


From the viewer’s point of view

The considerations above leads me to another aspect of “what makes a good portrait”. It is the viewer’s point of view. Of course this is highly subjective. But a good portrait will engage the viewer, he indulges to the subjects presence inside the photograph. The true quality is not entirely visible within the frame of the photograph. Of course, there are sensibilities and interpretation that are common and shared among everybody – considerations and traditions that have been refined over time by the constant progression and evolution within the tradition of photography or art in general. But on a deeply personal level, a portrait is great when it satisfies our thirst for emotional connection, yet challenges our desire to understand the unknown. If the viewer has this sense of balance and in his subjectivity can connect to the person shown, the photograph is successfull.


A lot of the aspects mentioned above also count for other genres of photography. I tried to highlight some points that are important to me when taking a portrait and when looking at other photographer’s work. The criteria outlined are very difficult to achieve as the photographer has to have a deep understand for human behavior and even psychology. I don’t consider myself as a master in this genre. Yet, I enjoy asking these questions and try to live up to them. The images included above are some of the portraits I took and like. Naturally the selection of these contains much of my own subjectivity, so please be patient. Critics, comments, thoughts are welcome. Share them down below.

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  1. [...] What makes a great photograph? – About portraiture (part one) (philippmasur.wordpress.com) [...]

  2. [...] really digg the work of Hellen van Meene. As I was talking about the greatness in portraiture just a week ago, this is what I [...]

  3. [...] the first part of the this series called “What makes a great photograph?” I tried to explain what it [...]

  4. Great post :) Some beautiful portraits too!

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