I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, and I want to talk about 4 things I truly hate about portrait photography in 2019.
#1. Nobody Knows What a Portrait Is
We’re living in a bizarro world. People use the word ‘portrait’ to describe everything from actual portraits to bad fashion photography to bad beauty photography to cliché street photography.
For example, this street photograph is not a portrait:
So I’m going to tell you what portrait photography is, and it’s not as simple as you think.
I always start with Richard Avedon’s classic definition:
A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he is being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks.
A portrait starts with some level of consent and communication between the photographer and subject. This is critical because without consent and communication, any old picture of a person is a portrait.
But there’s a second layer to defining portrait photography — and that’s what the picture is actually about. A portrait is about the person in the frame.
The moment a picture is about clothes, makeup, and hair — or even props like cars and bicycles and out of focus Christmas lights — it ceases to be a portrait. It becomes a fashion picture or lifestyle porn… which is all you see on most Instagram portrait feature accounts these days.
Speaking of Instagram…
#2. The Instagram Algorithm
You know what makes me really mad? Like so mad, I could rip a telephone book in half? That damn Instagram algorithm… but not for the reason you think.
I’m not mad at the algorithm itself. I’m mad that photographers are so obsessed with beating the algorithm, as if there’s some magical shortcut to Instafame. I’ve noticed a clear uptick in engagement-bait tactics like bot-driven comments on my photos.
For example, I got a compliment on the “great colors” in this black-and-white portrait:
One guy even posted the same comment (“Great Aesthetic and detail”) on two of my pictures:
I’m also seeing more and more reposted motivational quotes and memes. Hell, I couldn’t resist making my own:
And then there’s the latest trend: photographers forming spontaneous Instagram pods, tagging each other in stories with the stated goal of beating the algorithm. I have nothing against photographers working together to boost their profiles, but doing it in public just reeks of desperation.
#3. The Transformers Look
There’s a particular type of ‘portrait’ that I can’t escape. The subject is a pretty girl pretending to be a fashion model, which is reason enough to call it a fashion picture instead of a portrait.
She is shot wide open with a 50mm or 85mm lens. She has no skin texture, and her eyes are so sharp they can cut glass. And oh yeah, she’s bathing in the warm glow of ‘cinematic’ color grading.
And when I say ‘cinematic,’ I mean it looks like Transformers:
I suspect that in 20 years, these pictures will be our version of 80s glamour shots:
I’m running away from trends as fast as I can because in 20 years, I don’t want to look back at my work and a bunch of dated clichés. In fact, I’m running so far that I just went 100% black-and-white.
Now, maybe one day I’ll pull up my pictures and say “Mike, you wasted 30 years of your life creating this big fat pile of s**t. You shouldn’t have quit playing guitar.”
Well, at least it won’t look like everyone else’s s**t.
Not to be left out, Sony declared that it its E-mount cameras can theoretically take f/0.63 lenses.
Apple and Samsung phones fake shallow depth of field.
And funnily enough, just a few hours after I published this post, I read about the Zeiss Otus 100mm f/1.4 lens!
As I said, a portrait is about the person, not the shape of the bokeh balls. No picture was ever ruined by onion-ring bokeh.
Look at this portrait:
If you’re judging it based on the quality of what’s out of focus instead of the subject, I failed as a photographer.
It’s like ordering a steak and licking the plate to see how it tastes.
Why I Still Love Portrait Photography: The People
I wanted to end on an uplifting note. So I’ll say this: Portrait photography has given me a huge gift: interactions with an incredibly diverse group of people, most of whom I’d have never met otherwise.
And just about every one of them had their own interesting story.
There was the single Mom aching to be reunited with her hospitalized daughter. The overmedicated Southern debutante desperate to escape her family name. The dancer dreaming of joining the New York City Ballet. The painter that sold knives to make ends meet.
And of course, there’s my most important subject: my father.
I laugh whenever I read that AI or iPhones or whatever else will kill photography. Technology can’t replace the experience you have when you’re making a picture, whether you’re photographing a newborn baby or the sun coming up behind a mountain.
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.