It takes two…

Simon Campbell, Musician

DSC_6637What is a portrait photograph? If it is, as the dictionary describes, basically the likeness of a person, then surely any photograph which includes a human is classed as a portrait? No, of course not, it’s not that simple
I had a bit of an epiphany a couple of weeks ago, an enlightenment that will change the way I work from that day on, I suddenly realised, for me personally, what turns a photograph of a person into a portrait – the subject has to want to be photographed, and not just be willing to have a camera pointed at them, they have to be totally involved, and most importantly, totally comfortable. The subject has to ‘give’ the photograph. Portrait photography takes two.
I’ve been back through every photograph that I’ve taken of a person over the last few years and I can now see, instantly, who wanted to be photographed and who didn’t, it’s so blatantly obvious, and I can now see why I was never really happy with the shots, but couldn’t quite put my finger on why. So, as of two weeks ago, I’m only photographing the people who really, genuinely want to be photographed.

por·trait [pawr-trit, -treyt, pohr-] Show IPA
a likeness of a person, especially of the face, as a painting, drawing, or photograph: a gallery of family portraits.
a verbal picture or description, usually of a person: a biography that provides a fascinating portrait of an 18th-century rogue.
1560–70; < Middle French: a drawing, image, etc., noun use of past participle of portraire to portray…



  1. Nice blog post and I agree with you. I’m going through a different phase in my photography too. I hope nothing but success with your photography. Nice pictures too


  2. Phil,
    you are absolutely right.

    I recently realized, after a lifetime mostly spent doing editorial work, and even portraiture, without seeking and promoting very much a collaborative effort between the person in front and the one behind the camera, that indeed it is that rapport, that goal in common ( towards a significant, desired, image) that is instrumental in achieving the best portraits.

    Always enjoying getting your blog updates !

    Keep up the good work.


  3. Hello Phil, I totally agree with your views on portrait.
    When someone wants to get their photo taken or when they are involved in this process, the image gets life.
    We could feel it, looking at their eyes, there is a spark, it’s not lifeless.


  4. I completely agree Phil, as a portrait photographer you build up a rapport with that person even if its a few second sitting or a few hours. Taking someones photograph without their knowledge cannot be classed a portrait.


  5. Portrait is one of the most beautiful part of photographing. I really like it, you are so right you can see there so much more than a face.


  6. It’s a very intimate thing. Phil and I have been working together for years, and rather like a great barber & tailor, you build trust and empathy with each other. He always gets the best out of me and hope, as a subject, I positively reflect his skill and creativity 🙂


  7. Awesome photographs, Phil. And I agree with you on portrait making process – for a appealing portrait, it needs involvements from both sides – photographer and person in the image. I would like to add one more in this – the person need to trust completely on the photographer’s creative process too. From my experience, I have seen few people only interested to look good in the photograph and poses in that direction rather being themselves truly and that is most frustrating situation for a photographer and that does not make a good portrait. A good portrait is a result of fine bonding between the two in real sense. Fantastic blog post, Phil, I like it very much.


  8. Hi Phil.

    > The subject has to ‘give’ the photograph

    Interesting. It reminds me of Avedon. He would say things like (something to the effect of) “Look at what he gave me” and “What a great gift he gave me” when referring to the people he had photographed. He does this a lot in the documentary ‘Richard Avedon – Darkness and Light.’ It’s YouTube-able.


  9. Reblogged this on InSitePhotographic and commented:
    Quite often I run across someone’s blog here that makes a really great point about some aspect of photography. This particular blog by Phil Kneen makes a really valid point about portrait photography. Short and sweet. Read on. Many thanks to the author.


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