I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today and want to talk about 4 things I really hate about portrait photography in 2019.
# 1. Nobody knows what a portrait is
We live in a bizarre world. People use the word “portrait” to describe everything from real portraits and bad fashion photographs to bad beauty photographs and street photography shots.
For example, this street photograph is not a portrait:
So I’ll tell you what portrait photography is, and it’s not as easy as you might think.
I always start with Richard Avedon’s classic definition:
A portrait photograph is an image of someone who knows they are being photographed, and what they do with that knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what they are wearing or what they look like.
A portrait begins with a certain level of consent and communication between the photographer and the subject. This is essential because without consent and communication, any old photo of a person is a portrait.
But there’s a second layer to defining portrait photography – and that’s what it really is. A portrait is about the person in the frame.
As soon as an image is about clothes, makeup, and hair – or even accessories like cars and bikes and blurry Christmas lights – it ceases to be a portrait. It becomes fashion photo or lifestyle porn… that’s all you see on most Instagram portrait accounts these days.
Speaking of Instagram …
# 2. Instagram’s algorithm
Do you know what really drives me crazy? Like crazy, could I tear a phone book in half? That damn Instagram algorithm… but not for the reason you think.
I’m not mad at the algorithm itself. I’m crazy that photographers are so obsessed with the algorithm, like there is a magical shortcut to Instafame. I’ve noticed a marked increase in engagement bait tactics, like bot comments on my photos.
For example, I received a compliment on the “great colors” of this black and white portrait:
One guy even posted the same comment (“Great aesthetic and detail”) on two of my photos:
I’m also seeing more and more reposted motivational quotes and memes. Damn, I couldn’t resist doing mine:
And then there’s the latest trend: photographers form spontaneous Instagram pods, tagging themselves in stories with the stated goal of beating the algorithm. I have nothing against photographers who work together to improve their profile, but doing it in public feels desperate.
# 3. The look of transformers
There is a particular type of “portrait” that I cannot escape. The subject is a pretty girl posing as a model, which is reason enough to call it a fashion photo instead of a portrait.
It is taken in 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 yes, she’s bathed in the warm glow of “cinematic” color grading.
And when I say “cinematic” I mean it looks like Transformers:
I suspect that 20 years from now these images will be our take on the glamorous’ 80s shots:
I run away from trends as quickly as possible because in 20 years, I don’t want to go back to my work and a bunch of dated pictures. In fact, I run so far that I have become 100% black and white.
Now maybe one day I’ll pull out my pictures and say, “Mike, you wasted 30 years of your life creating this big pile of shit.” You shouldn’t have stopped playing the guitar.
Well, at least that won’t sound like everyone’s crap.
# 4. Bokeh
Hopefully 2019 will mark the year of the peak of the bokeh. I mean, Nikon and Sigma just released 105mm f / 1.4 lenses. Nikon also offers a 58mm f / 0.95 lens for its Z-series mirrorless cameras.
Not to be outdone, Sony said its E-mount cameras can theoretically take f / 0.63 lenses.
Apple and Samsung phones simulate shallow depth of field.
And oddly enough, just a few hours after posting this article, I read about the Zeiss Otus 100mm f / 1.4 lens!
Like I said, a portrait is about the person, not the shape of the bokeh balls. No image has ever been marred by onion ring bokeh.
Take a look at this portrait:
If you judge it by the quality of what is outside 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: People
I wanted to end on an uplifting note. So I’ll say this: Portrait photography has given me a huge gift: interactions with a group of incredibly diverse people, whom I would never have met otherwise.
And pretty much each of them had their own interesting story.
There was the single mother who was anxious to find her hospitalized daughter. The over-medicated southern debutante is desperate to escape her last name. The dancer dreams of joining the New York City Ballet. The painter who sold knives to make ends meet.
And of course, there is my most important subject: my father.
I laugh every time I read that AI or iPhones or whatever is going to kill photography. Technology cannot replace the experience you have when you take a photo, whether you’re photographing a newborn baby, or the sun rising behind a mountain.
About the Author: Michael Comeau is the publisher of OnPortraits.com, a brand new online community dedicated to simple and classic portrait photography. Click here for more information. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. This article was also published here.