A Few Recent Trends in Portrait Photography

by | Apr 7, 2021

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

“We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.”— Ralph Hattersley

In the December issues of the former print editions of Shutterbug, I used to write about what I saw as current trends in photography. Since this option no longer available to me, I decided to write a post about one of the subsets of these trends, specifically portraiture. And if you are not familiar with the teaching of Ralph Hattersley, please take a look at my post about my favorite books that includes one of Mr. Hattersley’s books that was a major influence on me as a young photographer.

What follows isn’t based on any scientific or statistical analysis but instead is a general and highly personal overview of the style of portraits that I see represented on social media these days, especially Instagram. And it may be that these trends are much narrower because it only looks at social media while thousands of other kinds of images are being made by portrait photographers who are too busy shooting to spend time on social media. Who knows? But here are four trends I see all the time and my take on them

Big Heads. All the cool kids are shooting really close to the subject filling the frame with their faces. Back in the 1980’s this was a trend in PPA competition prints and was known as “the big head” look. Now it’s back for everybody that was too young (or not born yet) to notice that trend in the eighties. This is a trend I’m ambivalent about; it too will pass. And like a lot of trends I think it’s hugely subject dependent. Sometime “the big head” works and sometimes it doesn’t and it isn’t something you can force on all subjects. Heck, if you shoot a loose crop and have a high megapixel camera there’s always Photoshop’s cropping tool.

Ennui, according to one dictionary definition, this is a “feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.” This style of portrait features mostly young women who look like they are being locked up and held hostage by the photographer in a leaky basement and could care less about being photographed. The old catch phrase is that “the lights are on but nobody’s home” seems to apply but the cause could be as simple as the photographer not talking to their subjects.

Stuff “Growing out of people’s heads” is photography 101, yet I constantly seeing otherwise moderately successful portraits ruined by a) not initially seeing the object in the background sprouting out of a subject’s noggin and b) not seeing it on the LCD panel afterwards, when the photographer could quickly make a change in camera position to eliminate it. I’m not talking about a juxtaposition of an interesting background and a very different foreground. Milo Hess is a genius at this technique; Me? I try,

How I Made this Shot: One way to eliminate Stuff “Growing out of people’s heads” is by cropping tightly on the subject’s head. Several years ago, I photographed Krystyne outdoors in Phoenix, AZ as part of a group model shoot. The camera used was a Canon EOS 50D with my then-go to outdoor portrait lens  the EF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 II USM lens (at 90mm.) Canon discontinued this useful lens but you can usually pick up used copies on Amazon or eBay for reasonable prices. Exposure was 1/100 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 200. This was the first of four shots that I made of this pose and was captured using only available light.

Underexposed images is more of a technical detail and maybe I’m too sensitive about this subject but some photographers seem to think that the best way to show a dark  film noir mood is by underexposing the portrait. Nope. When you underexpose you may make it darker but you also make it flatter and dull. To successfully work with shadows also means the portrait should have some highlights too.


You can learn all of my tips, tools and techniques on shooting available light glamour photography in my book surprisingly titled  “Available Light Glamour Photography.” New copies of the book are available from Amazon for $15.83 with used copies starting at $20.25 for some reason, as I write this. The Kindle version is $28.45 for those preferring a digital format.