What Exactly Is A Dramatic Portrait?

We often hear the term “dramatic portrait” used in describing a certain type of portrait photography but what exactly is a dramatic portrait?

In order to define what a dramatic portrait is, we must first define the word “drama” (seems only fitting). 

According to Merriam-Webster drama is:

“a state, situation, or series of events involving interesting or intense conflict of forces” 

It is these “intense conflict of forces” that is key to defining dramatic portraiture. They are the opposing forces of an image. 

To put it into a visual context it is light and shadow — two elements that are inextricably linked. In order to showcase light, one must also showcase darkness, and in order to showcase darkness, one must also showcase light. 

Shadows and light are certainly intense forces that are in conflict with one another, at least visually, and when applied to the human face in a photographic portrait is certainly one element of a dramatic portrait, but what exactly do these two elements represent?

Shadows and darkness represent what is hidden or unknown, and can take on a mysterious or dangerous tone.

Light and brightness represent what is revealed or known, and provides us with information we can understand and interpret.  

Putting the two together we experience an image on a dramatic level because on one hand it’s providing us with information on what it is we’re seeing, but it’s also hiding information from us in the shadows and that causes our minds to fill in the darkness with our imaginations. It’s a conflict between what we see and don’t see, between what is known and what is unknown — conflicting forces.

Now, the intensity of these conflicting forces can be dictated by the degree to which the shadows are dark and the light is bright. The higher degree of contrast between the two, the higher the drama, and the opposite is also true. An image that has a very gradual and smooth transition between the highlights and shadows won’t appear as dramatic because there is less intensity between the two opposing forces.

Expression in a Dramatic Portrait

Light and shadow certainly play a big role in a dramatic portrait, but expression is also a key element. 

Most expressions in dramatic portraits are what one would consider serious, or intense, or at the very least, neutral because those are the expressions we associate conflict with. When one is in conflict, we’re battling to get what we want and there’s rarely any levity in that. There’s intensity, angst, struggle, strife, a concentrated effort of energy. I personally don’t consider someone smiling to be a dramatic portrait. I consider it to be just a portrait. 

What Is the Tone of a Dramatic Portrait?

Another element that goes into a dramatic portrait is tone.

When one hears the word drama one thinks of conflict and opposing forces each trying to get what they want. That’s why we categorize movies and TV shows as either comedies or dramas -- two words that are on the opposite sides of the spectrum. 

The word dramatic does not lend itself to being light-hearted so anything that gives off that vibe is going to erode the drama in a portrait, or eliminate it altogether. That’s why I don’t consider anyone smiling or grinning in a light-hearted manner to be considered a dramatic portrait based on how the word drama is defined.

Where Does the Word Portrait Come From?

Since we provided a definition on the first half of our topic, we owe it to ourselves to define the second half as well.


Where does that word come from with regard to photography today?

It comes from the world of painters painting portraits of people, a craft that goes back many hundreds, if not, thousands of years. 

Since the original professional portrait painters were commissioned to paint royalty, significant leaders of the church, and wealthy nobles who could afford such a service, these painters painted their subjects showing them in a dignified and esteemed manner. They weren’t comical in nature, is what I’m getting at. There was a tone of seriousness to them.

Although I wouldn’t consider these portraits to be dramatic, because the goal was to capture what a person looked liked for posterity in an artistic way, they certainly had a gravity to them — and when I say “gravity” I mean, they conveyed a significant impact due in large part to the status of the subject in society that was being painted.

So, putting the definitions of drama and portrait together, along with the origins and history of those words, we arrive today with…

The dramatic portrait —  a photograph of a person whose composition includes elements of opposing forces (light and shadow) that delivers significant impact with a serious tone. 

At least that’s how I see it.  

How To Transcend the Traditional Dramatic Portrait Using Eclectic Contrast

A concept I was introduced to a number of years ago is something called the eclectic contrast

It’s basically two or more elements that appear together that normally don’t belong together -- and when done right, appear rather shocking or unsettling. It’s a variation on opposing forces and can create conflict in the logical mind. 

An example of this would be an image of a ballerina in an eloquent pose holding a large cleaver in one hand. Those two elements are not typically seen together so when viewed in the same image creates this disturbing conflict in one’s mind. You’re trying to figure out how the two go together because your mind is saying that logically they shouldn’t be together. 

This mental conflict can give an image drama if done right and that can add to a dramatic portrait along with lighting, expression, and tone. It’s not a typical dramatic portrait but it’s kind of like an extra ingredient you can throw in for added drama.

Another example of this, using the dramatic portrait, can be found by photographer Joel Grimes. He did a series on bikers, hard core Harley Davidson riders specifically. He took dramatic portraits of many individuals but there was one woman included in the series as well.

This woman presented an eclectic contrast to the norm because one wouldn’t normally associate a woman with the hard core lifestyle of Harley Davidson bikers.  

You’ll typically find this kind of creativity used when photographing actors for a magazine article and lends itself more to an editorial type of shoot. Someone like Robert Downey Jr. has used this in the past but I’ve seen it to some degree with other actors, musicians, and artists.

Dramatic Portraits With Regard To Headshots

When an actor gets a “dramatic headshot” taken for their marketing purposes, the photographer is borrowing elements from the world of dramatic portraiture. I won’t get into the details of the differences between headshots and portraits here, but for a full explanation of that topic you can refer to my article, “What’s The Difference Between A Portrait And A Headshot”.

So, What’s the Point?

Why all this research and effort to define what a dramatic portrait is? What’s the point of all this? To be honest, I didn’t see the point until I reached the end of my article and I started asking myself this question.

The point of all this is to help us recognize and achieve a certain level of genius and excellence. 

It is only through limitation that we as artists can achieve genius or excellence and by defining what something is, we’re providing ourselves with those limitations… a playground of sorts in which genius and excellence has a chance to be created.

An example of what I’m talking about is music. Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven only had twelve notes. That’s it. They were limited to twelve notes to compose all the various masterpieces they created. 

Another example is Michelangelo’s statue of David. There was this piece of marble that had been rejected previously by two other master sculptors due to too many imperfections and it laid untouched for 25 years. The imperfections were thought to be weaknesses in the stability of the marble itself — its limitations considered it to be unusable. 

Michelangelo, at the age of 26, carved what is considered to be the greatest piece of sculpture from that very block of marble, working with and around those very limitations. 

In Conclusion

If we can define what something is in great detail, it provides us with limitations of what it is, and also what it is not. It gives us our boundaries and defines our limits from which genius and excellence can arise and be recognized. 

Defining what a dramatic portrait is, and what it is not, gives us the boundaries in which to create stunning dramatic portraits which can then be justly classified as dramatic portraiture.