How Portrait Photography Has Evolved Over Time

If you were a wealthy individual in the early 1800s, you might have been able to commission an artist to paint a portrait of you. This was not likely to have been a pain-free process, however, even if it meant that you got a framed likeness of yourself at the end. Think multiple sessions of sitting still and trying to keep your features frozen in a dignified smile. And if you didn’t quite like how the portrait turned out, there wasn’t much you could do about it.

Luckily, the invention of photography transformed portrait making into something less time consuming and with more reliable results. Early portraits were daguerrotypes. They were named after the French inventor, Louis Daguerre, who came up with this technique of imprinting images on an iodine-sensitized silver plate using mercury vapor. Daguerrotypes were produced for around twenty years starting in 1839 before they were edged out by other photographic techniques. Since they had a pretty short run overall, daguerrotypes that survive today (such as the two below) are valuable collectibles.


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The daguerreotype was the first widely produced photograph, invented in France by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839. It is an image on a polished silver plate—each one a unique positive image. Daguerreotypes were produced for only twenty years before the process was replaced, and their fragility and short historical time use make them a precious record. – Southworth & Hawes (American, active 1843-1863). Unidentified Child, ca. 1850. Daguerreotype. George Eastman Museum collection. – #eastmanmuseum #fromthecollection #daguerreotype #photography #historicphoto #southworthandhawes #historicprocess #fromthecollection #museum #fridayfact #funfact #historicphotography #history #museumcollection

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But even as commercial photography gained steam, cost was still a constraint.

According to this article on early portrait photography: “While a daguerreotype could now be made in a much quicker timeframe than a painted portrait, and at a much lower cost, it remained a relatively expensive proposition. In 1840, a daguerreotype cost about $30, the equivalent of three or more months’ wages for the average person.”

So, early subjects – including the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Dickens – tended to be either wealthy or famous or both. Over the next few years, however, as costs dropped and people became more familiar and comfortable with the medium, many portrait studios sprung up to cater to growing demand. In many cases, backdrops for photos were elaborately created by photographers to suggest affluence and accomplishments.

As UK-based portrait specialist and historian, Jayne Simpton, says in this blog:

“Rather like a theatrical stage, [professional studio portraits] sometimes involved a painted backdrop and contained various ‘props’ which aimed to create a three-dimensional effect and enhance the scene. Drapes, furniture, painted architectural forms and moveable indoor accessories suggested a drawing room interior, while artificial rustic features conveyed the impression of an outdoor location. Additional accessories kept by the studio reinforced the genteel and attractive effect: quality toys such as dolls, spinning tops, drums and tambourines were kept for small children to clutch, while adults often held a book, implying literacy when not everyone could read.”

Professional portrait photography

Professional portrait photography is far from a one-time event in our modern lives. From gap-toothed smiles in school portraits to color-coordinated holiday pictures, we rarely miss out on chances to place ourselves and our families in front of a professional camera.

Portraiture in photography is defined as the art of capturing the personality of the subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses. But these days, it doesn’t always take expert staging and framing to produce a winning shot. With today’s advanced phone cameras and a little bit of photographer’s luck, anyone can produce a striking portrait.

Take this happy mix of colors and lighting that one mom used to her advantage to take a picture of her young son:


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“My son is my muse.” #ShotoniPhone by Nicole G. @coco.loren

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In recent times, professional portrait photography – particularly with families and children – has leaned toward candid, rather than posed shots; and toward outdoor and natural settings as opposed to manufactured ones.

There’s also a strong artistic sensibility that runs through the genre. In a 2017 interview with ScanCafe, Portland-based lifestyle photographer, Kati Dimoff, described what she aims for in her work:

“I always try to find the fine line between trend and cliché. What I hope people are looking for is a time capsule of their family’s love, taken in their best light. My goal is to create heirlooms of a family that their grandchildren will fight over. I want their photos to feel like the early childhood scene sequence in Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life. Earnest; timeless; like life is moving at three quarter speed; hair and curtains caught in the wind that is almost as loud as the blood rushing in their ears and the leaves rustling above; weighty and heart-achingly beautiful.