Everyone wants to look better in pictures. I can’t even count the number of times I have had people tell me they want me to make them look thinner, taller, younger and just better. And, of course, they’re sure that I can and will employ some sort of digital magic that will magically make it all happen.
Newsflash: helping people look their best in portaits isn’t a digital trick. Ok, maybe the younger part because I can minimize wrinkles digitally (please note—I didn’t say remove), but it doesn’t take a retouching genius to help people look their very best in a portrait. I am not a fan of over-retouching and so, no I don’t use my retouching skills to alter a subject’s appearance. I much prefer to employ a little in-camera wizardry to help my subjects flatter themselves in portraits.
And today, I’m going to share with you three of my best easy tips for creating more flattering portraits. I originally published this a few year’s ago, but it was time for a little freshening up so we’ve updated it.
1. If It Bends, Bend It
People rarely stand perfectly straight with straight arms and straight legs. Portraits are much more flattering when we allow people to bend in the places where people should bend. Elbows, knees, wrists and hips are all places where people are made to bend. Allowing people to bend not only relaxes them but also creates more flattering body lines. Bending the elbows and moving them away from the body as in the portrait below helps to narrow the waist. Her hips and legs are also bent. Have your subjects put their weight on the leg that is furthest from the camera and bend the leg that is closer to the camera at the hip and knee. This has a slimming and flattering effect in portraits. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. Stand flat-footed in front of a full-length mirror with your weight on both feet. Then shift your weight first to one leg and then the other and notice the difference in the lines of your body.
Finally, angle your subject so one shouder is closer to the camera than the other and slightly lower. Shooting straight on (like a mug shot) makes your subject wider in the camera lens. Angling away from the camera slightly (I like a 30- to 45-degree angle) narrows the silhouette and is much more flattering.
Here is another example of bending. Just because she’s sitting, doesn’t mean you can’t still bend. Notice also, that all her “bends” are slightly different. One leg is only slight bent and the other is bent more sharply. Her arms are also bent and she leaning forward slightly at the waist, giving her a more dynamic feeling than if she was sitting rigidly upright.
There is one exception to the bending rule and that is this: Don’t slouch. I always tell my subjects–especially females–to arch their back slightly. This pulls them upright, keeps the waist from becoming scrunched up and elongates the neck and keeps them from scrunching their shoulders, all of which adds weight & thickness. Slouching is never flattering.
2. Choose Camera Angles Carefully
In portraits, it is possible to emphasize or de-emphasize body parts. With subjects who may be self-conscious, I like to photograph them from a little bit above eye level. This allows me to angle their body away from the camera, emphasizing their beautiful faces and making their bodies appear proportionately smaller. Just as placing the shoulders at an angle to the camera in the examples above and below creates a more flattering silhouette, so does focusing on the face and allowing the rest of the body to recede.
Rather than photograph this adorable senior girl straight across the image (which would have made her white pants stand out as the lightest part of the portraits), we angled her lower body away from the camera, which brings the attention back to her face–which should always be the focus and makes a much more flattering portrait.
3. Step Out of the Sun
I don’t know about you, but the first photography rule I learned way back when was to always photograph with my back to the sun. That means your poor subject is looking into the sun to have their portrait made. That’s just mean. It’s also unflattering. Requiring your subjects to look into the sun causes squinting and face scrunching and harsh shadows. Turn your subject away from the sun, have them step into the shade of a tree or building–or make your own shade with a reflector or large sheet of foamcore (like in the baseball photo). The result is a much softer, more relaxed portrait.
Finding or creating shade for your subject eliminates distracting shadows and allows them to relax in the portrait. (Bonus note–see how our baseball player is “bent” in the portrait on the right? Much more flattering & dynamic than his straight arm on the left.)
Your subject doesn’t have to be completely shaded. A little highlighting on the side of the face and the hair can enhance a portrait. Just be careful not to let the sun shine right on the end of her nose.
As you can see in the examples above and below, I photographed these young women against bright sunny backdrops. Turning their faces away from the bright sun doesn’t diminish the background. One thing to be aware of when photographing shaded subjects is that you do want to get some light in their eyes. I like to use my reflector to add a little sunlight back in to the eyes and faces. I think the reflected sunlight is often a softer and more natural looking than artificial light.
If you don’t have a reflector–or someone to hold it for you, you can use a flash. To do this I use my flash on very low power to add a little light in the eyes. That little catchlight adds a sparkle to the portrait–and yes, you can do this with either an add-on flash or your camera’s built-in flash, though you’ll need to read your camera’s instruction manual to learn how to customize your built-in flash. Don’t just let your flash fire on auto or on full-power. This will wash out your subject and blow out the highlights.
So here are three very easy ways you can make more flattering portraits. There are always portrait opportunities, so grab your camera and experiment a little before your next big event and see how these easy tips improve your portraits.
I would love to hear how it works for you. Share your thoughts, questions and results in the comment section below. And remember, your questions are always welcome. I may answer your question in a future blog post.