What the Mona Lisa Can Teach You About Taking Great Portraits

What the Mona Lisa Can Teach You About Taking Great Portraits

When it comes to famous images the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the most recognized in the world.

When I visited the Lourve in Paris a couple of years ago I was stunned by the crowds of people gathering around this small image, pushing and shoving to get close and to take a picture of it (I got some great shots of the crowd).

The Mona Lisa has been at the center of much debate and speculation over the years but why is it an image that intrigues people so much and what can we learn from it as photographers today?

While we live in a different time (the Mona Lisa was painted in the 1500’s) and use different technology – is there something in this famous image that we can be inspired by as image makers today?

Lessons from the Mona Lisa for Photographers

Today I want to explore some of the different aspect of the Mona Lisa and point out some things that Leonardo did in painting this image that I think we could take away as portrait photographers today.


mona-pyramid.pngWhile we look at the Mona Lisa today and see it’s composition as fairly standard and simple – for it’s time the composition of the Mona Lisa was ground breaking and has set new trends in painting which have been followed for centuries since.

One of the compositional elements that the portrait is known for is Leonardo’s use of a pyramidal composition which shows the subject with a wider base at her arms and her hands forming the front corner and everything is in place to draw the eye up her body to her eyes and her infamous smile.

Take Home Lessons for Today

The same form of composition can work for us. While I wouldn’t dare suggest that this is the only or best way to set up a portrait shot – the pyramidal composition is one worth trying.

The Pose

Again – today we look at Mona Lisa’s pose and it seems fairly normal but for it’s day it was quite revolutionary as most portraits at the time were rigid, stiff and quite often profiles rather than front on.

In contrast Mona Lisa is somewhat relaxed and at ease as she leans upon the arm of a chair with her hands crossed in a relaxed fashion.

While she’s slightly turned to one side she sits open to the viewer and holding their eye.

Also unusual for the time was the fact that Leonardo went against the norm with the framing of this image and opted for a three quarter length pose rather than a full length one. In this way he filled the frame with his subject which lends itself to an intimate image and little room for distraction by her context.

One last aspect of the pose is that the Leonardo has positioned Mona Lisa’s eyes at the eye level of the one viewing the image. This brings a sense of intimacy to the image as we the viewer gaze directly into her eyes (there’s not a sense that we’re looking down on her or that she’s doing that to us).


Take Home Lessons for Today

This classic pose works today. Fill your frame with your subject by using a three quarter length pose, relax your subject, have them turn their body slightly away from the camera and look directly at the camera. Give their hands something to lean on (they can look awkward otherwise). Most of all – attempt to relax your subject.

The Background

Much has been written about the background of the Mona Lisa and we can draw out a few things from it for today.

One thing worth noting is that while paintings of the day generally had both the subject and background in sharp focus with lots of detail – the background of the Mona Lisa seems to ‘fade’ or become more blurred and out of focus the further from the subject it extends.

This was unusual for the time and is an effect that many portrait photographers use today by choosing a large Aperture to make for a blurred background that leaves the viewer of the image to focus upon the subject.

While there is definitely points of interest in the background (there’s a lot of debate about whether the two sides of it ‘match’ and whether it’s supposed to be some kind of a fantasy/imaginary background) the colors in it are somewhat bland, muted and subtle – again leaving the focus upon Mona Lisa.

Take Home Lessons for Today

There are different ways to use a background of a portrait. It can either be used to put your subject into context by showing their surrounds – or it can be used as a backdrop that is largely a blank canvas with few features so that your subject stands out.

In a sense Leonardo has done both with his background. It doesn’t take the focus away from the subject – yet the landscape behind her does have an element of mystery and interest to it. It’s also visually complementary to the subject with some of the shapes and colors almost mirroring colors and shapes in the subject’s clothing.

The lesson is to carefully consider your backgrounds – they can greatly enhance or detract from your portraits.


One of the things that I like about the Mona Lisa is the way in which light falls upon the subject. Leonardo uses light to draw the eye of the viewer to the parts of the image that he wishes to be highlighted (the face and hands) and balances the image nicely by placing hands and face in positions that counter one another.

Leonardo also uses shadow (or a lack of light) to add depth and dimension to different aspects of the image – particularly the area around Mona Lisa’s neck and in the ripples on the dress on her arm.


Take Home Lessons for Today

Think about how your subject is lit. Use it to draw the eye to key parts of your image but also use shadow to create depth and dimension to your shots.


We’ve talked about clothes and portraits here at DPS before and Leonardo takes the approach of darker less obtrusive clothes in this image. Once again – this is a little different to other portraits of the time which are renowned for being bright.

While her dress has quite a bit of detail (the lace work is quite fine and the detail in the folds on her arms are lovely) and it all is within keeping of the feel of the image – everything works to highlighting her face.


There’s also a lack of any kind of jewelry or any other kind of accessory to distract the viewer away from Mona Lisa’s face.

Leonardo obviously wants something about the woman herself to shine through in this image rather than anything else.

Take Home Lessons for Today

Clothes are another element that can be a real distraction in a portrait. Take a lesson from Leonardo and use clothes that fit with the subject and give them context – but which don’t distract your viewer.


One of the things that I’d not noticed about the Mona Lisa before that i read about today is that on either side of the subject just under and to the side of each of her shoulders there is half of a round ball shape (see the images below on the left).

It is believed that what we see of currently of the image is actually slightly smaller than the original. Part of the image was lost when the image was re-framed at some point. What were the balls?

The most widely accepted theory is that in the original and full version of the painting two columns extend up from the balls on either side of Mona Lisa. She’s actually sitting on a balcony overlooking the view behind her. You can see the horizontal edge of the balcony extending between the two columns.

Here’s how one artist reproduced the Mona Lisa with the extra columns.


Whether or not the columns in the original looked exactly like this reproduction or not I’m not sure – but it seems that Leonardo used a technique that we call ‘framing‘ in photography today. This technique is all about drawing the eye of the viewer of an image to your main subject. It also has the potential to add a little context to a portrait (with the columns it would be more obvious that Mona Lisa is sitting on a balcony).

Take Home Lessons for Today

Learn to use techniques like framing to draw the eye of the viewer of your images to your main subject. Frames can be subtle and a natural part of the environment around your subject. Don’t use them in every shot but do keep your eye out for opportunities to include them to add another dimension to your portrait work.


Who is the woman (its been argued that she is anyone from a female form of Leonardo himself through to the wife of the man who commissioned the image)? What is the background? Why is she smiling (or is she)?


There’s something mysterious both about the subject herself (her look is both alluring and aloof) and the way that the image was painted (Leonardo used a technique called ‘blurring’ around the edges of the subject that was new for his time that give it a mysterious quality). This leaves the viewer of the image asking questions and entering into it with imagination. Leaving elements of the image open to interpretation can make an image impact it’s viewer.

Take Home Lessons for Today

One of the elements that takes a proficient image and makes it a great image is that it goes beyond being a record keeping exercise and becomes a story telling one.

The Mona Lisa has drawn viewers to use their imagination and have conversation about it for centuries simply because it leaves parts of the story untold. This is something that can’t really be learned as a photographer – but is something that comes with experience.

What Lessons Does the Mona Lisa Teach You about Photography?

What have I missed out on? What do you see in this famous painting that could teach us about photography?

Read more from our category

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Ramarao Ramanaidu August 24, 2013 10:50 pm

    I still do not believe Mona Lisa Is a girl. Mona Lisa is none other than Da Vinci himself.

  • Glen June 27, 2013 04:27 pm

    That was fascinating! Thanks so much for the read.

  • Pimmiq June 17, 2013 12:15 pm

    The latest critic I read about the Mona Lisa, was something about teaching and lessons in painting. Reading many of the comments it show this painting is still a great work of teaching. Small enough to carry around, much rules to be broken and almost creating something that becomes a beauty just by braking all the rules.

    It does not follow the rules of third, it does not accomplish something near the golden ratio,the person is not in the center. Also the red arrow is just something pointing in the picture but without any relation to anatomical structures or symmetry. Look at lines following the arms they are just slightly from the middle as is the point of the arrow just above the head, does not follow the eye-outsides. Th eyes are horizontal, but the horizon is slightly of.

    A peace of beauty just because everything is just not right. Even her smile give the impression that YOU were on candid camera and she is the person to ridicule your reactions.

    Leonardo da Vince a great scientist!

  • Robert Greene May 28, 2013 10:23 am

    I can't believe what a great job Darren is doing with this entire web site.

    Thank you very much, Darren, for what you do.

  • Andy Hutmacher May 21, 2013 05:49 am

    I just realized that I spelled "teacher" incorrectly. Oops!

  • Andy Hutmacher May 21, 2013 05:47 am

    I always learn something at this site. But as a retired English teahcer, I wish to offer a suggestion: Do not use an apostrophe with" its" to show possession. "it's" always means 'it is".

  • Ron Dexter May 18, 2013 10:23 pm

    Great stuff!!

    The warmth of the picture on the left in contrast to the cold one on the bottom adds "warmth".

    I shot TV commercials for years with long lenses wide open to soften the backgrounds, but still give a sense of where the subject was.

    Check my web site. Try the No Camera-Camera Course.

    I have taught photography for over 50 years.


  • Helene Kwong May 18, 2013 03:56 am

    Great article. I never appreciated Mona Lisa until Darren touched on and magnified various aspects of the painting that I had never noticed before. Now I understand why Da Vinci was considered one of the greatest painters of his time. I enjoyed this article very much. Thank-you!

  • Guigphotography May 17, 2013 07:33 pm

    I got a bunch of those elements in this attached shot, though at the time, it was more instinctive than technically planned. I think there's plenty in the article and comments to help with future portraits. Thanks!

  • Michael Wiseman May 17, 2013 03:04 am

    A fine article, Darren -- thank you!

    But PLEASE use "it's" and "its" correctly: it is annoying to meet this error in an otherwise well-written article:
    IT'S with an apostrophe is short for IT IS, the apostrophe indicating the missing "I". So just ask whether "it is" is what you want to say. If it isn't, then use "its".
    Examples from your (otherwise) excellent article:
    "While we look at the Mona Lisa today and see it’s composition as fairly standard and simple – for it’s time the composition." "While we see it is composition" is not what you mean; neither is "for it is time".
    "Who is the woman (its been argued". There you need "it's"; as it stands, it makes no sense at all.

  • Bhusan Shrestha May 14, 2013 09:44 pm

    Had Mona Lisa been any other painting with a beautiful model, all of the comments made above would not have been made. This is what makes it so special. People wondering who the woman was, which place this was or what she was thinking is a mystery shrouded in history which no other than only Da Vinci himself can tell.

    And if he can paint such a perfect portrait without any help from technology, then it sure deserves appreciation. Thanks for educating us.

  • Naz May 14, 2013 01:37 am

    andrew- there's a LOT mroe goign o nwith hte composition than just the obvious- it uses a sophisticated geometric composition, and hte mastery of it shows inthat it's not obvious until the painting is broken down systematically- Most all of the great artists and photographers were very adept at geometric composition, and folsk liek Henri Cartier Bresson the photographer/artist, used geometric composition to great sucesss- They knew sophisticated sompositions such as root 4 rectangle, sinister diagnonal, baroque diagonal, root 5 rectangle, golden section, golden means, golden triangles etc- If you look at hte sketch ups and underpaintings for the paitnings, you will see very specific and precise compositions- nothign is done by chance- every placements has it's purpose for reasons of visual literacy-

  • Andrew VH May 14, 2013 12:54 am

    Surprising some of the negative responses to the painting. If you try to see that face on a similar built woman in todays dress style, she isn't unattractive in any major way. I hear a lot of posters missing the fact that beauty and dress of several hundred years ago was quite different. And I'm amused by those that dismiss the composition. I haven't done the research, but Mr. Rowse says that the compsition tricks we see as boring and obvoious are only that because DaVinci and others used them when they were onorthodox, and others used then again and again until we don't even see them anymore, they became cliche, long after.

    I don't see it as a beautiful painting either, but if beauty was the only criteria of art, then light classical and soft jazz would be the most popular music forms and Thomas Kinkade would be the worlds greatest artist. It's an artist as influential to his art as Picasso, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, and George Lucas. Like any or not, their art forms were vary different before them and after, and MANY people after follow their footsteps until those techniques also become commonplace.

  • Steve Mac May 13, 2013 07:59 pm

    I've always loved the deceptive simplicity of the Mona Lisa..the simple dress, lack of jewellery or adornment of any kind..the biggest lesson I ever got I from this portrait I learnt studying art at school and it certainly applies to my photography today..sometimes something very simple can create something stunningly beautiful :-)

  • Joanne May 15, 2012 01:25 pm

    Thank you for this article. It has given me a great idea for a 3rd grade art appreciation class on DaVinci without the use of paint. Thank you, thank you!!!

  • Peter Bayliss LRPS December 14, 2011 05:21 am

    Sorry i only glanced down the replys, but as far as i saw, not one has remarked on what made this painting great ! Its the eyes !
    Even when many years ago at school when Art was a subject i did up to `O` level, the eyes where regarded as one of the most noticed item in any picture . Science taught that the first thing you look for in any picture was the eyes.
    In this great painting its the eyes that first speak to you, with it`s mystery ! And that is why it has `spoken` to us all over the years for it is done in such a clever way, for it creates a mystery, it calls a question, the eyes are making a message that only the viewer understands or is made to wonder.
    Painter or Photographer, eyes are the answer to any good portrait.

  • Nicole September 22, 2011 09:40 am

    I love the Mona Lisa in so many way! while other people might think that its just another Profile Picture I believe that we can see the difference from how people dressed in the Renaissance to now and BTW, I think that the Mona Lisa is pretty in her own way. Also, great article.

  • Anwar August 7, 2011 12:39 pm

    @Ramesh....I suggest mystical spiritual literature as the only sort of reading to further understand the Mona Lisa painting. The painting goes beyond technique and ability and into the realm of the sort of spiritual glimpses we all experience from time to time.

  • Ramesh Perla August 6, 2011 01:04 am

    Honestly, I always wondered what is so special about Mona Lisa and its importance in the field of visual arts. You broke down the elements of interest very nicely and thanks for that. I know am keen on learning more about the picture than before and probably would read a book or two as the time permits.

    Any recommended books you may know?

  • jordan June 8, 2011 01:17 pm

    the mona lisa shows me that you WILL NOT get it right all the time (there is five paintings under the flnal painting)

  • christian louboutin bianca 140 flannel pumps gray April 25, 2011 10:54 pm

    Thanks for your posting on this web site. From my experience, there are occassions when softening upward a photograph may possibly provide the wedding photographer with a chunk of an imaginative flare. Many times however, the soft cloud isn't precisely what you had in mind and can sometimes spoil a normally good picture, especially if you consider enlarging it.

  • cindersfella April 10, 2011 03:28 pm

    I think that the real issue with any portrait is that you think about the image and the way you want to portray the image and remember that roman wasn't built in on day so you should develop your techniques and try different things. and take lots of photos, that way you will develop your own style and artistic flair. and may be present an image that will be just as famous as the "MONA LISA"

  • Sarah April 9, 2011 02:17 am

    Looking at the full frame face of the Mona Lisa above, it seems to me her left eye is looking directly at you, but the right eye is very slightly off, not enough for a squint, but still not looking straight at you. Maybe this is part of her allure? It may be , of course, that it is me that is not seeing straight!

  • Kasimiro Tuteta April 9, 2011 01:36 am

    She looks so relaxed because Leo gave her a good fuck just a few minutes before painting. So Take Home Lessons for Today, and always screw your model before taking pictures. Good luck and enjoy!!!

  • Dee April 8, 2011 06:38 pm

    First of all.. what an interesting article. Mona Lisa is def a mystery to us and its good at how we photographers can learn to take better portraiture from looking at painting. Whatever Mona Lisa is, he or She.. Im sure Leonardo Da vinci has a reason why he painted this. Thanks for the tips DPS! Keep it up.

  • ozgipsy April 8, 2011 11:12 am

    Great article only ommission is regarding Photoshop. The original painting by the artist had the subject with her hair in a bun (determined by 3D xray) so it shows that the artist has in effect Photoshopped his image by changing the models hair.

  • Dandwdad April 8, 2011 07:37 am

    Things not mentioned: the number of main points of light on her, 3 in a loose vertical. An asymmetrical number in loose symmetry. Notice the fingers are loose, not claws or spread. The human hand has a natural closed point most people don't realize, Leonardo shows this. As to smiling, I think the lips are pretty amazing. They're a voluptuous bow shape: any woman would love to have lips shaped like that especially without makeup.

    In contrast to the 'sexy' lips, Leonardo appears to make her eyes pull the smile back - she seems a little more reserved. Yes, to MY interpretation she is looking to the right of the 'camera.' As to eyelashes and eyebrows, look at the hair, it's stylized with little real depth in the darker areas. I wouldn't put it past Leonardo to do what we do in the modern day: hairy things = men. To feminize her he'd remove hair that wasn't feminine, even to the point of making her less 'realistic.'

    As to the balls .. maybe they are just balls (Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar?) . Some structures have spheres on the walls, just a decoration, seen the front of a new Target lately? I also love that he didn't appear to mess with her nose - it's a very strong very plain nose. (Roman anyone?) Maybe she actually had a bigger one but I doubt it. If I had messed with it I would have made it smaller than he did.

    As to ugly. How many people in pictures or paintings that are more than 60 years old are 'pretty' to us nowadays? Some of the Impressionist ladies are beautiful, but often for the Victorian clothing and not their specific physical looks. In looking back at family pictures, many of my family (and other people's families) look awful. Not just the 'blue collar' workers or the poor, just anyone. Well, they grew up in a time we didn't; where disease changed people's faces, where your life showed on you more than it does now.

    Another idea on 'ugly' ancestors, there was no such thing as in-breeding or not in-breeding, it was the ONLY thing. If you only went 1 to 10 miles to get married, you were marrying family. People didn't go 50, 100, 500 miles away from home so they bred with the people they could - family (second cousins etc.) That tends to change how people look. Look at my wife and I: she has mostly English, some Scotch and a little German ancestry. Mine is a good bit Irish, a little Welsh, less English, some German and lots of Czech/Slovakian. If you only have one basic ethnicity then features are going to be emphasized that won't in a mutt (or blend) like my wife and I or most American people nowadays. I really wonder how ugly we would be to them!

    Please go on with more portraits from other painters, I think them having full control of what they show (or don't), teaches us a banana boat-load. Thanks!

  • Ade Brelage April 8, 2011 05:01 am

    This theme is very interesting for me. I have been wondering about Mona Lisa's gaze, the fact that wherever you look at her, she seems to look straight at you. Do you happen to know how do you obtain that technique and its name? I would love to take some photos with that gaze on them. Thank you

  • Geoff Pickering April 8, 2011 03:40 am

    well you cant argue with the fact that it does evoke emotions/comment whatever you think of the Mona Lisa Artistically.. however in regards to the article.. maybe its just me as I seem to be the only one mentioning it, but she is definitely not looking into the viewers eye, (which as said is normal for portraits) but in fact is looking off to the side & out of the painting, in fact her body is facing one way & her eyes are looking the other, one of those times when breaking a rule works?
    anyway thanks for the article & for the many replies....very informative & thought provoking,

  • Ray April 8, 2011 03:26 am

    Good article, but I must take exception to your description of the Mona Lisa's smile as "infamous." The words "enigmatic" or "famous" would have been fine, but "infamous" was clearly a bad choice. Synonyms for infamous would include: notorious, vile, disreputable, wicked and villainous. Certainly, none of those adjectives apply.

  • Neil April 8, 2011 03:19 am

    Good article.

    For a long time I have studied the art of the pre-raphelites with a view to understanding their use of light, etc..., rather like you have used the Mona Lisa.

    We can all learn from looking at "the masters", even if we dont find the subject "turns us on". It is easier when we find our subject is our muse, but we have to work harder when the subject to be photographed does nothing for us. It's then we have to use these lessons to aid us in our profession.

  • naz April 8, 2011 02:40 am

    as for what might have ben left out or missed in regards to composition? There seems to be repeating patterns, repeating pyramids, the background is in gthe form of diminishing pyramid- lending itself to vanishing perspective- it repeats the pattern of the Lisa herself- plus you'll see 'mini pryamids' i nthe forms of the hills, mounds behind her- which I beleive was a deliberate descision to repeat patterns- you also see the delicate lace patterns, graceful lines of the lace, repeated i nthe line of the road behind her, and i nthe curls and lines of her hair- I'm sure there are probablty even more repeating patters, but hard to tell from the small photos presented

  • Norm Aubin April 8, 2011 02:33 am

    You prove your point of a DOP in the background by showing the reproduced Mona Lisa with the extra columns. This rendition pulls your eye away from the face with too much detail in the background, and extra detail on her sides below the columns.

  • naz April 8, 2011 02:32 am

    [[This is a great painting. But why is this a “masterpiece”?]]

    its a masterpiece because it was revolutionary for it's time- leonardo experimented 'outside the box' outside the norm with his paintiongs- much like Van gogh, Rueban, Seureat, etc all did after him- leonardo's style opened and paved the way for artsists expand beyond the 'norms' of the day, and inspired them to experiement- when Van Gogh first came on the scene, paintins were all pretty much the same, yes, there were a few movements goign on at the time- but Van Gogh REALLY opened the door for modern expressionism- You look at his paintins, and they look like a chaos of color, sloppily slapped down on caqnvas, but careful study reveals that he really understood painting well, color theory, and used colors very adeptly- which is why his paintins move us today despite the 'style' of expressionism seemign to be sloppy- Where Gogh experimented with color theory, leonardo experimented with composition that was revolutionary for it's time- plus he nailed the 'smile' not an easy thing to do with such delicate and precise minimalism as shown in the painting.

    Da vinci's compositions may seem basic today, but in his time, there werre mostl iekly gasps around the art world because he was bold enough to break with hte norms of the day- like Gogh's experimentation brought disdain fro mthe artworld back then, without foklks liek Gogh, we'd probably never have witnessed movements liek cubism, pointilism, etc today- it was folks like Da vinci and Hogh that helped to pave the way for others who viewed the art and hten expouned on the styles even further. There are many other reasons why it's a masterpiece, like his study and mastery of anatomy, His attention to, and depiction of, detail which he deftly abreviated at just the right amount to be detailed, but NOT too distracting, etc, but the reasons I lsited are soem pretty important reasons why

  • Jennifer Lycke April 8, 2011 01:40 am

    As both an oil painter and a photographer myself, I really appreciated this article comparing both forms of art. I have found that painting helps my photography, and vice versa.

    Thanks for a great article!

  • S.Abe April 7, 2011 10:21 pm

    Anyone else begining to understand school portrait photographers? "Alright now turn your body a little more to the right. A little bit more... There stop. Now look to the left."
    Clearly, they aren't as good at it, but then, they aren't going for the slightly romantic, mysterious look.
    Great article

  • mshockley April 7, 2011 10:12 pm

    This was a very informative article and nicely written! I enjoyed reading it, not only from a photography stand-ppoint, but also for the pleasure of learning more about the famous painting. Thanks!

  • Jean April 7, 2011 08:09 pm

    This article is just brilliant. Never read such detailed overview of the painting. I'm going to get that book. Thanks to Darren.

  • georges bococi April 7, 2011 07:54 pm

    Waste of time. Sad but true :(

  • GoKu April 7, 2011 06:01 pm

    very interesting and quite informative, gonna try this technique out and see .. Thanks for the link Nige

  • John Ludwig April 7, 2011 01:24 pm

    I just heard some news today that some scientist may have discovered what they believe to be the women who actually posed for the painting. They are going to dig up her grave and study the body and some time in the near future they plan on recreating her face. Just some interesting thought! Great article as well.

  • Shia Patrik April 7, 2011 12:14 pm

    @anwar I agree.. truly Leonardo is a man ahead of his time.. centuries ahead of his time to be precise..

  • Shia Patrik April 7, 2011 12:10 pm

    alot of people today have an impression of "what makes this painting that people talk about. its not that great" e.g. @alex..

    now try this..compare that painting to the other paintings during that "time" and you'll see what i meant..the keyword here is "during that time".. ;)

  • Mandeno Moments April 7, 2011 10:44 am

    Here’s how one artist reproduced the Mona Lisa with the extra columns.

    It's interesting to note four things about this reproduction:

    1) The "in focus" background is much less pleasant than the original (this subject is covered in the article)

    2) The tones are repulsive and sickly. The original (as shown here) has unnatural but warm, pleasant tones: I generally prefer realism, but this reminds me that unrealistic photos can be pleasant. Photographers will benefit from learning which tones are pleasant and which are unpleasant: when photographing people warm (reddish) tones such as light from a sunset are a safe bet (set white balance to Daylight to preserve those sunset tones).

    3) The shape of the face, particularly the mouth and nose, makes the subject unattractive. The lower forehead is less pleasant than the original's. The human mind is drawn to faces in a photo and they are often a make-or-break factor.

    4) The subject's hand that is on the viewer's left looks claw-like and somewhat creepy. This reminds me that hands are an important factor in photos (the subject is too large to cover in a comment).

    Two examples of framing in portraiture:

  • CatWalker April 7, 2011 08:51 am

    What a wonderful, thought-provoking article! The Mona Lisa has fascinated and intrigued artists, students, spectators and tourists for hundreds of years!! Personally, I would have never looked so deeply at such a famous (and for some, infamous) painting for instruction. It's just this type of forward-thinking that makes DPS a fabulous resource for photographers, both professional and aspiring! Great article :)

  • Erik April 7, 2011 05:10 am


    This is a really interesting article and the breakdown of the lighting, composition and background for the Mona Lisa is fascinating. In this shot, a black background eliminated distractions as suggested and the blue gloves frame the face.

    Blue Gloves: http://t.co/w7lQbSl

    Regards, Erik

  • ReonyBony February 27, 2011 08:57 pm

    Hi! This is kind of off topic but I need some advice from an established blog. Is it tough to set up your own blog? I'm not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast. I'm thinking about making my own but I'm not sure where to begin. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Cheers

  • Cristin Maciak December 21, 2010 07:32 am

    Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn't show up. Grrrr... well I'm not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

  • Anwar December 9, 2010 05:03 am

    I think the Mona Lisa represents an unbeatable rival for photographers and this is why they often find it ugly. In the end these photagraphers understand that thier whole lives are devoted to something they themselves secretely find inadequate and unworthy. The same responses have been going on with Modernist painters as her many attacks and parodies plainly illustrate. Such a master piece as the Mona Lisa causes hard working though inadequately talented people to suffer deep frustration.

    On the other hand, today we have digital technology and can subtley manipulate mere photography to obtain some of the qualities of the finest art. In the end though the end work will merely be a close faximily of the actual intention....a mere print.

  • CLC November 14, 2010 01:52 pm

    Just found this - VERY interesting perspectives. Good 'thinking points".

    Although I read only a few comments, I laughed out loud at Alex's - I agree COMPLETELY!!!

  • Robert Voltaire October 9, 2010 06:19 pm

    Davinci's use of light and color is unmatched. I also think that beginning photographers, like great painters, should study masterworks and learn from their techniques. Wonderful insight.

  • Bill July 6, 2010 04:49 am

    Very interesting information and cool site! I've always liked the mona lisa smile...it's there, but subtle. It's how I tell my portrait subjects to smile, actually.

  • Melissa G. May 14, 2010 06:15 am

    I learned a lot from this post. Actually i'm learning a lot from your whole site!

    Thank you for sharing such practical tips and ideas!

  • Marts May 4, 2010 09:51 am

    What i find to be the most special secret of Mona Lisa is the fact that you stare at the outlining of her body for a period of time you will start to notice many woman and men appear in her image.
    To the untrained eye you wont notice anything. I ask people to take time out and look at her deeply and you will notice a constant change in her hair, clothing, facial expressions etc.

    This mirror theory is only a pre-school theory and this whole Da Vinci code is a insult to his mastery of art and his incredible intelligence in perspective of Renaissance art. I mean come on people Dan Brown knows how to milk the money out of the most skeptical believers. Unfortunately the majority being Book reading and movie going drama queens (no hard thoughts to you Hollywood show-ponies)

    However those that have no syllabus in art will never be able to understand what he was achieving at the time, as my art teacher told me, art is not for everyone. It is for those that give and contribute to the survival of art.

  • lawrence March 6, 2010 04:48 pm

    i think the mona lisa painting is great, i just think the reproduction of the new mona lisa painting is ugly....... Great article though.

  • Serena February 6, 2010 01:20 am

    I love the analysis of the Mona Lisa. And to those who don't like it, art creates an emotional response. Not liking the painting (thinking it is ugly) means that the painting still has meaning for that person.

  • Jeff Smith November 16, 2009 11:32 pm

    Nice piece, but you asked if you had missed out anything from a photographic nature... Well, have you noticed the horizon? It's higher on the right than it is on the left, which gives the picture a greater sense of depth and lifts the portrait from the picture..

  • nai October 24, 2009 03:45 am

    I like the fact that on the surface it seems to be such a simple painting, but it can be disected down to its finer points.

    I wonder if Leonardo would say huh? Its just a painting, nothing special. :)

    Its amazing that after 500 years it still gets the attention that it does, great article, thanks you!

  • Arno October 1, 2009 05:50 pm

    Ahoy Darren,

    Thank you so much for your tips, they've given me a new look on how to take photographs, and your Mona Lisa article has shed new light on my photography skills.

    Mucho thanks!!


  • Sandra Hindmarch September 11, 2009 04:20 pm

    Darren, thanks for the article on Mona Lisa, very interesting. I look forward to receiving my email from you on a Friday morning. I have learnt a lot from your emails, despite the 1001 photography books I have on my coffee table. Thanks very much !

  • Adit September 6, 2009 09:54 am

    Wow, I never thought that deeply about the masterpiece. Great article! Very analytical.

    I wonder if the Mona Lisa was actually taken by an ancient form of camera lol ? Anyways, it's good to know that the painting has actually taught us the art of both painting and photography.

  • Randy June 24, 2009 04:55 pm

    You pointed out somethings about Mona's portrait I did not know about like the circles on the edges of the frame and really how much like a camera captured image this portrait is, considering how amazing his vision was in other works he is know for, maybe he was rather prophet like, seeing into the future by impression. There is something else I noticed and I have never heard anyone mention this, She has no Eye Lashes, or Eye Brows. I bet this is part of the captivation of her face. Wonder if we should ask people we do portraits of if they would oblige.

  • Nancy D'Antonio May 13, 2009 12:19 am

    This article was really great. All the points are well thought out. I am planning to send my middle-school photography students to this site to read it because it really covers all the main elements of portrait phography using a famous painting that everyone can relate to. THANK YOU FOR WRITING IT AND PUTTING UP SUCH A GREAT WEBSITE.

  • peter k April 13, 2009 02:59 am

    Well, Mr. Rowse, I think that Da Vinci might have been an excelent portrait photographer and that you might have been an excelent art critic ! You talk here about Da Vinci and Mona Lisa because is an article about portrait, but don't forget that there are many rules of composition with the roots back in the painture of the 16th century - the rule of thirds, the positioning of a trail or of a river in a painting, the frame that is to put in the forground (such as a branch with some leafs) to bring a 3D feeling and so on. They knew empiricaly that it works, and we know it today scientificaly, that is - we know why ! Anyway, the article is excelent and teaches a lot, and there are some tricks that I've got from it. Thank you !

  • Ingrene March 13, 2009 10:23 am

    My Best Congratulations for your article. I consider that the classical painters give us something very important for a photographer : sensibility.

  • Martin Katz March 13, 2009 08:13 am

    Your insights are quite interesting. I learned a lot from this post. The known history of the painting may enhance your observations.

    Unlike photographs (which take seconds), the Mona Lisa was painted over a period of years, while Leonardo was traveling and painting for several sponsors. The model only sat for Leonardo long enough to get most of the facial features and some rough sketches of the hands. The hair, dress, and background were all painted from the artist's imagination. This is why many art historians believe that this was not a commissioned piece.

    Some details were painted several times. For instance, there is a string of pearls that were painted over; supporting your discussion of elimination of distractions. Other details were repainted as Leonardo learned of new techniques during his travels.

    I believe that those who see an ugly portrait are not seeing the detail in the work and are forgetting that the face is beautiful for the time.

    The painting is small, because it is painted on a single board, not a canvas. This allowed Leonardo to move the painting as he received new commissions.

    Because it is painted on a board, it is unlikely that much of the painting was lost during framing. This makes me doubt the idea that there were columns at the sides of the original painting. It is more likely that the partial spheres were part of sketched-in treas that were left indistinct so they would not detract from the portrait.

    On the other hand, I am not an art historian and I am a mere amateur at photography. I suspect that others commenting here have a better grasp of most of the artistic issues issues.

  • Shariq March 2, 2009 08:59 am


    This was an amazing article and I learnt a lot from this. I am hooked to your website.


  • lightfoot February 22, 2009 08:03 am

    can you imagine what it would be like to create a portrait without the tools we have today.anyone that has tried portraiture has experienced all the frustration that goes along with the learning processes. camera settings, lighting, background , now comes the subject that in most cases is not a pro.and you the photographer have to have a degree in psychology or at least know how to relax a subject enough to get started. if i had the patients of Leonardo I'm sure i would achieve more than i do.thanks to this article it has giving me something to appreciate and think about, thank you very much . the masters can teach us all !


  • Pralay Banik February 16, 2009 09:58 pm

    Excellent Article....
    It really shows the similarity between painting and photography. Yup.. i had learent a lot from it..!.
    and want to express a salute from my heart to Sir. Leonardo Da Vinci who created it and helped u and me to learn something.... superb article..

    Btw.. IT's the views of an ugly person who says ugly to this great picture..."sandra and alex"...

  • sandra February 12, 2009 02:28 am

    its ugly

  • Hal Mooney December 24, 2008 12:02 am

    For Ignatz - "People" are how photographers make a living. Each portrait assignment poses a new challenge: how do I bring out this individual's inner beauty, in a way that makes them happy with the result.
    Not every portrait will be an award winner, but we have to try. For a working photographer, the reward of a check may be enough.
    It's all fine and good to say you're an "artiste", and don't care to lower yourself to do "people", but expect to live as a "starving artiste".
    I prefer to make people happy, and be well compensated for my efforts.

  • noor ahmed December 23, 2008 07:31 am

    Now I understand why a woman with ordinary features attract so many people. It is the art of composition.

  • Melissa Rodwell November 13, 2008 02:56 pm

    This is an awesome piece! I hope it's okay to link this as a reference to a post I am going to write about portrait and working with people. It is so important for photographers to study from the great master painters. Their sensibilities to lighting has always been very powerful to me and I learn from their work constantly. Thank you for this post!

  • Ignatz Horowitz August 26, 2008 11:38 pm

    Just another posed portrait. Ugh. Which is why I don't do people. "Glamour Shots", anyone?

  • Jon August 12, 2008 10:25 am

    Great analysis. I suspect Leonardo Da Vinci would have been a fantastic photographer.

  • Jim Talkington July 28, 2008 12:05 pm

    Very nicely done. It's nice to see the breakdown of features. All too often photographers find themselves looking only at photographs for inspiration...what better place to learn portraiture than from the most famous portrait of all time?

  • Bob Bevan Smith July 27, 2008 09:46 pm

    This is a very instructive article. The painter is able to control the position of the model, the lighting, background and colours absolutely. You as a photographer must attempt the same control over your portraiture. By exerting that control, you take a photograph rather than a snapshot. But there's not a lot you can do about the beauty (or otherwise) of your model!

  • Malcolm July 27, 2008 12:31 am

    The "blurring" is called "sfumato"- to paint like smoke. Very thin glazes of paint create the soft haze of the painting in the face and background. This was one of Leonardo's contributions to painting. Leonardo, like the Venetian painter Bellini, has also done away with the contour lines (outline) seen in other Renaissance work (Botticelli si a good example) and is more haw we "see" rather tahn an outline filled in like a coloring book which was standard at the time. The painting isn't so much about her beauty (ugh!)as it is a record of a new way of painting based more on how rather than what we see. Her "cult" status is more of a Romantic Period fascination.

  • Richard July 26, 2008 07:51 am

    Relating it today - learn from the lighting - ain't no on-camera flash in auto mode used here!

    But the question for today's budding photographers is... what would you use and how would you use it to achieve approximately the same illumination & effect?

    BTW, again relating it today - if you produced a photo that looked like the Mona Lisa, you probably wouldn't get paid for it. I ask you... would YOU want something that looks like that hanging in your living room? I sure wouldn't. Times change and what's hot and what's not change right along with it.

  • kck July 26, 2008 02:48 am

    In all reality they were the first photographers except they used paint instead of cameras. The painting can teach us so much and we should be open to learn.

  • Terri July 26, 2008 02:26 am

    I think this is a great article. I recall finding the "shape" (rhyming pattern, meter, etc.) of several Dan Fogelberg songs and writing songs that matched. This exercise taught me, first of all, how great Fogelberg was, and gave me much insight into songwriting. I, for one, will rise to the challenge of the assignments given. Thanks!!!

  • Rob July 25, 2008 09:06 pm

    Interesting article. You know sometimes when I see really good photos, they do start to look like paintings, and in a way paintings have more intrigue & mystery plus the painter has to be more aware about light & colour. I might start getting into painting.

  • John July 25, 2008 08:36 pm

    Very interesting article. There's plenty on the web about glamour / fashion / wedding etc portraiture. Input relating 'classical' portraiture to photography is not so easy to find. Though we may not want to take this kind of photograph, it still seems that we could learn a lot from the kind of discussion given here. And, without wanting to sound greedy (!), maybe this could develop into a series of articles in this style, looking at other paintings and photographs, and helping one to see the image more clearly.

  • srkalvala July 25, 2008 08:29 pm

    i enjoy reading this article,and try to incorporate these elements in my portrait photography

  • srkalvala July 25, 2008 08:22 pm

    very good article,it gives clear idea of elements of good portrait,no doubt one should consider all these elements to take good portrait.

  • greg July 25, 2008 06:13 pm

    Yes i agree the mona lisa is not pretty,ive waited in line for two hours just to see her mugshot,but hey we are all victims of hype and its good for tourism.
    Excellent article by the way DPS

  • Sharon July 25, 2008 01:43 pm

    It was an interesting comparison of two entirely different media. I really enjoyed reading about the use of light to capture those effects.

  • Lizzy July 25, 2008 09:34 am

    intruiging thoughts on framing and context with the possibility of the columns. Broadens my horisens and makes me wonder - how much of what we do is viewed differently then we intended for one reason or another?!

  • Alex B. July 25, 2008 03:46 am

    This article fails to mention the most important things regarding the mystery of the painting.

    1) Yes, she is smiling as if she knows something. This was an intentional smirk to denote that the image contains a secret image within it.

    2) The secret image's location can be found by looking at where the finger on her right hand is subtley pointing to. Da Vinci developed a special mirror that you would apply to his paintings to show secret paintings within. You have to apply this mirror tool to where she is painting and you get an image of a distorted character that is supposed to be knight templar. The Knight Templars were the secret order that Da Vinci was a part of. So, this could be Da Vinci, or anyone else for that matter. It is unclear. But the true meaning of the painting escapes most people.

  • Mihaela V July 25, 2008 12:46 am

    Excellent analysis, you've done a great job extracting relevant lessons from this painting.

    Whether people like the Mona Lisa or not, we all have something to learn from DaVinci!

  • Jon July 24, 2008 10:02 pm

    I agree that the Mona Lisa is an ugly painting. But then again I don't like much of any art.

  • Jimmy DoLIttle July 24, 2008 09:30 pm

    Wow dude that Mona Lisa was one ugly chick. You woulda thought he could have picked a cuter model.


  • Jason van der Valk July 24, 2008 08:51 pm

    I'm sorry, but as much as I love art and as much as I have spent "discovering art" in school and in college, the Mona Lisa is very much overrated.

    And that is perfect to say. In this day and age we have many a figure and art (musicians and sports figures) that are overrated and verbally abused to make money off of. The Mona Lisa is a prime example of an art piece that isn't "great" but is good and the mainstream loved it after the artist died.

    Kinda like Tupac.

    This is a great painting. But why is this a "masterpiece"? And don't use a "triangle" for a reason. Any good artist or anyone with an artistic eye knows how to compose a photo.

    The Mona Lisa isn't the only "triangular" positioned piece of art out there.

  • Master July 24, 2008 03:34 pm

    nice articel
    great job

  • Tom July 24, 2008 11:44 am

    I have to concur with most posters on here, fantastic article. Its in the attention to little details that Leonardo's genius lay.
    On a small but pedantic note, the reason there is no jewelry in the portrait is because Leonardo never finished the painting, which was a quite common occurrence. If you look closely you will also see that the woman has no eyebrows!!

  • RussHeath July 24, 2008 10:47 am

    Great work, Darren! Above and beyond the usual, I really learned something from this.

  • Carol Ann Wiley July 24, 2008 09:06 am

    Joel, I can only echo what everyone else has said: "Great article"! As any outstanding chef will tell you, "Your main entree deserves your best presentation". Congratulations, Chef Joel, you have succeeded with both.

  • Reena July 24, 2008 06:51 am

    Really interesting article!!! I think you haven't missed any point! :D

  • Mandy July 24, 2008 06:40 am

    This is the most unique and interesting post I have ever read about portraiture.

    On one hand I have found it an interesting piece about taking portraits with lots of good information.

    And on the other hand I have learned more about the Mona Lisa in this one photography post than I have ever done from an art book!

  • Alex July 24, 2008 05:26 am

    I'm sorry if my response was somehow personal or insulting to anyone. What I meant was that I don't understand all this hype around one particular painting, while just literally meters away from the Mona Lisa are exhibited, in my truly humble opinion, Leonardo's much better, more appealing works - with better lighting and striking compositions. Just because we don't know who's the (wo)man in the portait doesn't make more beautiful to me artistically. I would never claim I'd do better, God no! My apologies!

    DPS is great as always!!

  • Debbie July 24, 2008 04:50 am

    Great article! I enjoyed learning what makes this portrait so popular and how to apply those point to portraits today. Fascinating bit of art history!

  • Scott July 24, 2008 02:54 am

    I don't understand the allure of the Mona Lisa. Its good, but personally I don't understand how it is as famous as it is. Don't harass Alex because he does not like it. Art is subjective, and everyone has the right to determine if something is ugly or not. As long as he doesn't claim to do better, than he has nothing to prove.

    Also, very great article. Relating photography to other famous works of art is a great idea and you have done wonderful job; you have succeeded in being able to demonstrate many aspects of photography that are universal in art. Its great to learn from art forms other than photography; like cross-training for photography.

  • Raymond Chan July 24, 2008 02:27 am

    Great tips, although I'd still rather learn from living photographers rather than a non-living painting.

  • Raymond Chan July 24, 2008 02:26 am

    Great tips, although I still would rather learn from real living photographers rather than from a non-living painting.

  • Mholsonproject July 24, 2008 02:20 am

    Where was this article a few months ago ... was just in Paris ... and paid the painting a visit. Was lucky as there were not huuuuge crowds, but still lots of folk. You would think that you would walk into a huuuuuge room with this one painting, but that is hardly the case. It is in a room with very huuuge paintings and perhaps that makes it look even smaller than it is.

    I know that I did not experience a WoW factor when I first saw it. My first impression was ... it's the size of a postage stamp. Would have been nice to take a look first hand about what was said above, but then again ... you cannot get close enough of the painting to see too much detail.

  • Pete Langlois July 24, 2008 02:14 am

    Great post, and very thorough explanation! Great tips to expand on from yesterday's portrait tips.


  • Cherany July 24, 2008 01:54 am

    Well, I never understood one bit what was so special about this piece, but you've cleared it up for me. I had no idea it was so unusual for its time.

  • Dave July 24, 2008 01:51 am

    I think that the first lesson for me in this article is in positioning the subject. This can either make or break a portrait and much attention must be paid to it. I like the concept of using the "arrowhead" which has been superimposed on the first photograph of the Mona Lisa. Arrangement of clothing is also important - make sure that buttons are buttoned and everything is tucked in where it's supposed to be. It makes the difference between a portrait and a snapshop. I'll certainly be giving these tips a try.
    Thanks very much for a well presented article.

  • Bonnie July 24, 2008 01:02 am

    Alex may need a walk in the fresh air to clear his head. Great article, great depth to this much documented portrait. THanks!

  • Amy July 24, 2008 12:48 am

    This is exactly the kind of deeper thinking and analysis, going way beneath the surface of a pretty face, that separates the artist from the guy who just knows how to use expensive camera equipment. Thank you.

  • Maximilian July 23, 2008 10:55 pm

    Even though I don't agree with Alex, I don't think you have to be good at something to not like something...

    Great Post, btw.!

  • Andy July 23, 2008 08:40 pm

    @alex: I'd like to see what your painting skills have produced, if you consider the "mona lisa" an ugly painting.

  • punne4e July 23, 2008 05:53 pm

    ^^Well, first of all i would like to congrats on this beautiful article that reflect portraits soul,by the way i don't agree with Alex's response.

    Keep it up,you have done a meaningful job that deserves more than best.
    I would love to give you 85 % out of 100 Ok!
    all the best and have a good day.
    God bless you. VICKY.punne4e

  • Alex July 23, 2008 04:23 pm

    I'm sorry, I just think the painting is really ugly. :P Very good article though, as always! ;) Thank you.

  • kalandrakas July 23, 2008 04:02 pm

    Very interesting article... Worth reading..
    Love the way it is presentated... Great job!