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The 10 Commandments of Portrait Photography


Art has no rules. Right? Wrong! Call me cranky, but I don’t like the latest photography trends. I love simple, classic portraiture, and I admire legendary photographers like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Albert Watson. That’s why I put together my 10 Commandments of Portrait Photography.

​I used the word ‘Commandment’ for a reason. Some people will believe, and some don’t. And that’s okay. ​This is just the truth as I see it.

Commandment #1: A Portrait Is About the Subject, Not the Photographer

We create portraits because we want to say something about a person and because we want to make a connection, not because we want to show off our fancy new $2,000 lens or get more likes on Instagram.

Commandment #2: To Call a Picture a Portrait, You Need Consent

Too many photographers will call any old picture with a person in it a portrait. But to be a portrait, the subject must consent.

Otherwise, you could call any old street or fashion picture a portrait. The word would lose all meaning.

Commandment #3: A Portrait Is About a Person, Not How They Look

The moment a picture becomes about makeup, hair, a prop, or a post-processing style, it ceases to be a portrait — it becomes a fashion picture.

Commandment #4: A Portrait Can’t Ever Tell You Everything About a Person

You can’t encompass everything there is to know about a person in a hundredth of a second. So never assume you’ve captured the truth about a person.

People have many sides, and you’re lucky to catch just one of them.

Commandment #5: An Effective Portrait Makes You Curious About the Subject

Forget the words good and bad. What do they even mean anyway? ​I prefer to think of pictures in terms of effectiveness. If you want to know more about the subject, then it’s an effective portrait.

You may not like what you see in a particular portrait, but if it gets you thinking, ​it is effective.

Commandment #6: We Learn from the Masters, Not the Latest ‘Influencers’

We don’t create portraits for the moment to chase the latest fleeting trend. We want our pictures to live on and be just as effective 50 years from now.

Commandment #7: Ideas Are More Important Than Technique

​You don’t need to be a master technician to be a good portrait photographer. But you must be able to formulate ideas and concepts that form ​a basis ​for your pictures.

Commandment #8: Technique Is More Important Than Tools

Cameras, lenses, and lights are fun… maybe more fun than they should be. We can all admit that.

But it’s not what gear you use that counts. It’s how you use it.

Commandment #9: A Portrait Does Not Have to Flatter the Subject

A portrait does not have to please the subject… unless they’re paying to be pleased.

Commandment #10: Do No Harm

It’s the photographer’s job to make the subject comfortable. A portrait session should be enjoyable for everyone involved.

Yes, you can use Jedi Mind Tricks, but only to put your subject at ease.

About the author: Michael Comeau is the Editor of OnPortraits.com, an all-new online community dedicated to simple, classic portrait photography. Click here for more information. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was also published here.