Flattering portraits rarely happen as a default. Some people are photogenic, yes, and look good at every angle. But often, we work hard to get flattering photos that the sitter loves. There is no one-trick as every person’s face, form, and shape are different. We have to tailor our angles to each portrait sitter. However, there are basic fundamental tools we can use that help us achieve flattering portraits.
1. Use the right lens
Having photographed people for a decade now, I have learned that there is no great all-around lens that can do the best job for everything. Sure there are good lenses that achieve good results, but I’d favor specialist lenses for specific purposes.
Let’s take portraits, for example. A basic kit lens that comes with a camera purchase is usually an 18mm – 55mm zoom. It is expected to be good for wide angles and normal-range views. Yes, it’s good for day-to-day standard snaps. But for portraits? A longer zoom, such as the 85mm, 105mm, and 200mm, are a much better choice for stunning portraits. These give a shallow depth of field, great compression to the background and produce flattering portraits. There is no distortion similar to what you would get when using wider lenses for portraits.
You can read more about choosing the best portrait lens on here.
2. Use the right angle for the person
Many women I have photographed do not like having their portrait taken. They are aware of various imperfections on their faces, angles they do not like, and features they are self-conscious about. This is normal and certainly rings true for me. I’m the worst portrait sitter.
In order to achieve portraits that women like, I usually shoot both sides and show them the first few photos I take on the LCD screen of the camera. They choose a preferred side, and we take a few more from that angle. The worst thoughts are usually just in their minds. When they see their photos, even on the back of the camera, they realize it’s not as bad as they thought and there is a better side. They usually relax more from then on.
Generally, I photograph at slightly higher than eye level for most women. This angle hides any unwanted necklines, slims down cheeks and tapers the face down a little for a more flattering portrait.
If I’m photographing from an even higher level than usual, I ask them to look up at me just ever so slightly, and that gives me a confident posture and stance too.
With men, it is usually quite the opposite. Most male portraits get taken within seconds. I find them less self-conscious with a “let’s get on with it, over and done with attitude” in a nice way. I ask them to stand as they usually do. If they slouch, I ask them to straighten their spines a bit, square their shoulders and look straight into the camera. Sometimes I get them to lean slightly against a wall. I generally photograph men at eye-level.
Children, on the other hand, I look best when photographed from waist high. That means I’m always a little lower than them – often sitting on the floor and looking up to them a bit. This means they don’t look too small, and they get a boost of confidence that they are being looked up at and not down to. Children often look down towards whatever they are holding or playing with. By shooting from a lower angle, I get to see their faces clearly too.
3. Use the right type of lighting
Simply put, short lighting is when the shadowed side of the face is closer to the camera. Being in the shadow, this side of the face is darker and therefore usually ‘shorter’ in terms of the span of the light hitting this side of the face. Broad lighting is the opposite when lit and the brighter side of the face is closer to the camera. Because it’s brighter, it appears much broader with more light reaching much of the area of the face.
Short lighting makes the face appear slimmer due to the shadows created on the face. This can also produce strong contrasts although you can soften the dark areas by using a reflector.
Broad lighting helps in making the face appear wider. Because this area is usually brightly lit compared to other areas, stronger contrast between dark and light is usually created.
Use these two lighting types to the advantage of the sitter for more flattering outcomes. You can read a more in-depth explanation of these two types of lighting on here.
4. Crop correctly
Because I always edit my photographs, I feel I can afford to change my composition in post-processing rather than always trying to get everything right in-camera. Don’t get me wrong, I strive to get my compositions right, but I have found I can always tweak it in post to improve it. I shoot fast and can’t always get the horizontals completely straight, so I correct this in post. This means I have to shoot a little wider than the final outcome.
I have no problems with cropping as long as it’s not too aggressive and there are ample pixels left in the image to produce great prints.
There are a few caveats in cropping though. For flattering portraits, never crop or compose your photos so that the edges and tangents are on body joints like elbows, knees, neck, wrist, shoulders and across the belly. These look odd and somewhat disturbing. Always crop in between or partway through the joints, so chest, arms, hips, leg, calves, forehead are acceptable. You can read more about tips on cropping to improve your image on here.
I have photographed many a woman who was very conscious of her body. For example, she was self-conscious of her arms, and yet she turns up in a sleeveless top. In those cases, I zoom in and crop the arms lengthways down so the photo only shows a third of the bare arm.
You can also crop to reposition your image and strengthen your composition as a result. I find using the rule of thirds as a very strong compositional tool and tend to lean towards it a lot. A symmetrical composition is also strong and effective. This is a good article on factors to consider when composing portraits.
I hope you found these four tips for flattering portraits helpful. If you have more tips to contribute, share them on here in the comments below.