Inspirational Portrait Images
… and what we can learn from them
Since art’s inception, the portrait has been hashed out in a million different ways. So, it should come as no surprise that photographers sometimes have some trouble in creating a shot that breaks the mold, so to speak. However, as trade masters like Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus prove, the creation of an inspiring portrait is a challenge worth taking on.
I took it upon myself to dig up a few shots that ignited my creative flame. As you’ll soon discover, each photograph contains qualities that can be implemented to improve just about any portrait. All of these images were sourced from Unsplash.com – an online community where photographers exchange high-quality images for free use.
Inspiring Portrait #1 (click on any image to see a full-size slide show)
I know, I know – a smoldering cigarette is something of a cliche in portrait photography. Nevertheless, this shot won me over right away thanks to the way the dramatic backlighting interacted with the ribbons of smoke. I was also impressed with the naturalism present in the body language of this model – it feels like a private moment that the photographer just happened to stumble into. With walls and windows working together to create a “frame within the frame”, it’s difficult not to feel a bit voyeuristic looking at this particular shot. Yet, the composition of the image makes it nearly impossible to focus on anything other than the pensive smoker.
“I believe photography is one of the best ways of traveling on time, beauty and eternity in just one picture…” – Sebastián León Prado
Inspiring Portrait #2
This whimsical portrait steps away from the traditional studio head shot, which, for me, makes this a photograph worth talking about. For some, the presence of the anonymous assistant holding up the back panel might be considered a glaring flaw.
On the contrary, I feel that the imperfection gives it a leg up on the thousands of perfectly polished headshots out there that lack soul – in short, the “flaw” makes the photograph stand out. That’s not to say that this isn’t carefully crafted or well executed.
The flattering lighting utilized by Nemati is spot on, giving the scene a very soft appearance. Furthermore, the makeshift bouquet ties the green backing and the honey hues of the model’s skin and hair together seamlessly.
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Inspiring Portrait #3
A precise pose in a controlled setting is only one way to take on the portrait. Sometimes, the most compelling pictures of people are made spur of the moment. Being able to identify and capture a great candid shot takes talent, though street photographers make the task seem simple.
Framed by bright lights reduced to balls of bokeh, the scene taking place in this photograph could happen just about anywhere on Earth. Regardless, the blank expressions on these two teens is hard to ignore despite the fact they’re not actually interacting with the photographer.
Inspiring Portrait #4
One could make the argument that a good portrait is easy when you’ve got a stunning model on hand. Nevertheless, I found myself returning to this picture again and again because of the compelling composition present.
The bright, vibrant colors are eye-catching – the contrasting blues and yellows meld into one another beautifully.
Additionally, I feel that the basketball hoop amidst the arid background actually adds quite a bit to the picture. Among other things, it emphasizes the model’s impossibly long legs, making the main subject all the more interesting to look at.
Related Post: How to Make Full Body Portraits
Inspiring Portrait #5
Who doesn’t love a good reflection? While this shot doesn’t contain the details of the head and shoulders in a way a traditional portrait might, I feel that there’s some points worth discussing in this lovely silhouette.
Though some might write this image off as a landscape, it’s impossible to ignore the human element of this shot. Framed in the mouth of the cave and reflected in a crystal clear pool, the person in this photograph takes center stage. The rock formations add a large array of color to the frame. However, the blank backdrop of the sky prevents the subject from being lost in the scene.
Inspiring Portrait #6
A strong environment can seriously bring out the best in a portrait. For two reasons, the subject doesn’t get lost among the blossoms and bright blue sky of this scene. Firstly, the bright, direct gaze of the model immediate demands the viewer’s attention. More importantly, the lines occurring naturally throughout this composition all lead back the model. The rows within the garden slope inward into the horizon, and the stalks of the individual flowers go down, guiding the eye toward the bottom of the frame.
Inspiring Portrait #7
This alluring image is an excellent example of less equating to more. The portrait is perfectly suited to be in black and white. Without the distraction of color, I’ve found myself focusing more so on the shapes and lines that make up the model’s face.
Her eyes seem just a little bit brighter than they might otherwise, and her stark freckles really pop. Not every photograph works as well in monochrome – if the photographer included any secondary details in the shot, the subject’s gaze wouldn’t be nearly as demanding.
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Inspiring Portrait #8
PHOTO BY NOAH BUSCHER
Good portraits draw viewers into the photograph. A great portrait, on the other hand, makes the audience consider the world outside of the frame as well.
In my opinion, this shot pulls off just that. Despite the moody, neo-noir looks of this portrait, the darkness isn’t overwhelming and doesn’t overly obscure the model’s face.
The photographer remains close to their subject, retaining a sense of intimacy. Yet, the reflection of neon lights reflected in the subject’s glasses sparks the imagination and begins to tell a different story outside of what’s visible.
Inspiring Portrait #9
This particular photograph successfully attains a dreamy quality without becoming too complicated for one to wrap their head around. In particular, the bird’s eye vantage point plays a big role in transforming the bubbles and foam of this bathtub into something seemingly celestial.
Though the shot may seem simple, I feel that Lee must have put careful thought into crafting this photographer. The model seems to be strategically positioned to retain balance throughout the composition.
What’s more, the bubbles transform the water’s surface into an additional layer, creating a sense of depth to the portrait that otherwise wouldn’t be present.
Inspiring Portrait #10
Right away, it’s easy to see why this is a fun photograph to look at. The holes within the leaf literally break the portrait into easy to digest pieces, forcing the viewer to scan the entirety of this composition.
However, nothing is obscured to the point of being abstract. The veins of the leaf lead the eye to the most important fragments of the model.
In addition, the layering of the plant also adds some shadow, depth, and color that bring the image to life.
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The take away:
Portraiture can be an intimidating feat for obvious reasons.
Aside from successfully directing another human being, successful portraits also require camera mastery and a strong understanding of composition.
However, the modern photographer does have an advantage over the artists of yesteryear. Thanks to the internet – especially resources such as Unsplash – we’ve got a whole treasure trove of inspiration available at our fingertips.
So, if you want to master the portrait, simply study what it is that you like. Make note of the elements that make inspirational images captivating. Once you’ve identified the features that make for a great image, practice implementing them in your own photography. By building a visual “voice” of your own, it becomes easier to create a piece that you can feel proud of.
Meghan is an artist and writer based out of Boston, MA. With an interest in everything from instant film to experimental videography, her work has been featured internationally in a variety of photographic exhibitions and publications. As a regular contributor, she uses her broad background in fine art and varied professional experiences to inform her articles.