Flattering Your Subject

One of the most important things to crafting a fine portrait is insuring that your subject is shown in their best light (both literally and figuratively). There are many books and tutorials available on choosing the light for your subject: short, broad, lighting ratios, particular sides, etc., and while these are all useful things to study and master, many of the traditional rules can and sometimes should be bent or broken for today’s digital cameras and the look of modern lifestyle imagery. This article discusses some techniques that I use to flatter my clients and produce images that will please even the most self-critical.

Flat Light
Sure, it goes against the ‘perfect’ 3:1 ratio, but I find that flatter light helps eliminate many of those wrinkles and lines that appear when you nail that nice sharp focus popular and possible with modern digital equipment. Flat lighting is also a style that works for a variety of face shapes and can flatter all subjects in a group shot. Flat light does not mean that my light source is one directly behind me, but I tend towards heavy fill or a main light just to the side of center. I also tend to use this lighting style a lot outdoors in the evening and one of the happy side-effects is that I can shoot at higher ISOs and not have to worry about too much shadow noise (because my shadows are minimized).
On a similar note, bright skin tones that retain important detail but maybe lose some of these same fine lines is another way to appeal to client vanity.

Undereye Lighting
A good makeup artist who knows how to do makeup for portraits can help in this area, but most of my clients are coming to me w/out this kind of professional pre-treatment. I find that reflecting light at an angle from below serves two purposes towards flattering my subject: it helps to eliminate or reduce undereye bags, and it also can provide a lovely lower catchlight to brighten the eyes themselves.

Long Lenses
Longer lenses make for prettier people. Maybe it isn’t as simple as that, but wide lenses can distort the features and make both people and the features on their face appear wider than they actually are. My personal rule of thumb is that anyone over 10 gets shot with a 70mm or above, but as long as you are mindful of your distance to the subject (back up), sticking with something above
a 50mm will serve you well. I use my wider lenses for establishing shots at events and for younger children, who aren’t as concerned about looking perfect and where distortion can add a bit of desirable whimsy to the shot.

Posing and composing
Most photographers know that shooting from slightly above is an easy way to flatter a female subject, especially one that might have a little extra weight. With certain male subjects, your best bet is to shoot from slightly below to convey a sense of strength and height. Beyond these basics, you want to evaluate your clients and the things they will want to emphasize and deemphasize about their faces and bodies. There are numerous books on the subject of finding the best poses for different bodies, but in this article I will briefly touch on a few easy-to-implement things that can improve your outcome for portraits of women.

Many women are concerned about the size and tone of their upper arms. You will find that they will wear sleeveless outfits to their portrait sessions and then later balk at the way their arms look. To minimize this issue, do not pose the client with the wide portion of their arm towards the camera and when the arms are visible, create a little space between the body and the arm so as not to smoosh the arm or add the mass of the torso.

In general, women want to look feminine in their portraits. In a standing portrait, you can help your client create a curvaceous shape by positioning and leaning. Instruct your clients to stand with their feet slightly apart and lean heavily on one foot and/or cock their hip to emphasize their shape. Once you ‘teach’ your client to stand in this manner you can position them at different angles to you to see which is the most flattering for that particular client by walking around them or having them rotate towards or away from you.

In group portraits, the surest way to take the focus away from how a client looks is to capture a moment. When people are engaged their personalities show and their animation goes a long way towards taking the viewer’s eye away from the subject’s individual features to see the group as a whole and their connection to each other.

There is no substitute for doing as much as you can with posing and lighting in-camera to produce the most flattering portrait, but there are definitely things you can do with your post-processing to make your subject look even better.

The most commonly done retouching is probably pimple and blemish removal. While there are plenty of free and for-pay plugins to create baby smooth skin, I prefer to use the healing tool and the clone brush to deal with individual blemishes. I use the same method for fine lines and undereye bags and circles that were not completely eliminated by the lighting methods discussed previously.

After blemish removal, my two most common requests are to color gray hair and whiten teeth. Both are easy to do, but have to be used sparingly so as to not look fake (or render the client unrecognizable). I tend to do a little bit of each even if the client doesn’t ask, but can go a little further when it is a specific request.
If you’ve done all you can with posing and lighting and your client still looks a little ‘thicker’ than you know they will be happy with you can always break out the digital photographer’s “big guns,” liquify. With liquify you can reduce a double chin, thin out arms, take away bulges and even open squished eyes (or correct uneven eyes).

In the coming weeks I will be coming out with a series of Photoshop videos to illustrate all of the above.

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Orange County Portraits by teyaphoto - Blog » Photographer Resources
May 4, 2009 at 5:25 pm


Christie June 15, 2009 at 8:27 am

This is awesome info! Thanks Teya, I can’t wait to see the videos!

DARBI CONNOR June 25, 2009 at 4:32 pm


Daniel from Sydney September 30, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Rarely do I find photography websites where I like most of the photos in them. I love yours! Its exactly the style I try to achieve with my photography. Thank you! I’m looking forward to your videos

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