The Subject

Today's post comes from the book Monte Zucker's Portrait Photography Handbook by Monte Zucker. It is available from and other fine retailers.

When I ask photographers what goes through their minds when they begin to create a portrait, I usually hear vague comments but nothing with substance. It seems to me that photographers have never had any definite guidelines to follow when starting a portrait. That’s why I’m beginning with what everyone should know. You should begin by studying your subject’s face—and a few specific features in particular. After just a few moments, you will actually know exactly how you’re going to photograph each and every one of your subjects.

Begin your analysis with the subject turned straight toward you. Look at the full face. Then, turn the head and body slightly, viewing the face from an angle. Finally, turn the subject still more to see the side view. You can accomplish a similar effect by changing your own viewpoint, rather than asking the subject to move. Repeat this evaluation to view the other side of the subject’s face.

What you’re looking for is how the face seems to change as you view each specific angle. When viewing the full face, be sure to have the subject facing straight at you. Examine the hairstyle, the size of both eyes, and how a change in their expression changes the size of the eyes and the outline of the face.

Eventually, you will be able to do this analysis while simply holding a conversation with the person. Of course, this makes your subjects more comfortable than when they are aware that you are studying their faces. Once you’ve decided to photograph either the left side or the right side of a face, stick with your decision. If you photograph a person from every conceivable angle, you will only tend to confuse them when it comes to making a selection. If you’re totally unsure, of course, then go for both sides of the face—but I rarely do that.

Since each face has its own special characteristics, it’s important to know how you can best determine the specific angle that will be the most flattering to a given subject. There are basically three angles of view to consider.

Full Face. This is the view you achieve when looking at the face straight-on. When they are not covered by the subject’s hair, both ears will show equally in this view.

Even if you’re beginning a portrait sitting with a full face, you should think about which way you’re going to turn the face for the two-thirds view. Think about the easiest way to go from one facial view to the other without having to switch the main light from one side to the other.

Two-Thirds View. A two-thirds view of the face is achieved when the head is turned to the side, leaving both eyes visible from the camera position. The eye on the far side of the face should go almost to the edge of the outline of the face, but a small amount of flesh should still separate this eye from the background. The tip of the nose should be contained within the outline of the cheek; it should not come close to the edge of the face or cross over the outline of the face and protrude into the background.

In this facial view, the bridge of the nose should not cover any of the eye on the far side of the face. If the subject’s nose has a high bridge and it begins to cover the eye, you must ease the face back slightly toward the camera position.

The two-thirds view usually slims the face, making the cheekbones stand out more.When you use this view, you’ll find that round faces will seem more oval. This view can also be used to provide considerable softening for subjects with a square jawline. It also has advantages for subjects with protruding ears; it causes the ear on the far side of the face to disappear, while the ear closest to the camera position seems to flatten out against the side of the face, minimizing its appearance.

Profile. In a profile view, you see exactly half of the face. To achieve a pure profile turn the face away from the camera until the far eye and eyebrow both disappear. If they are long enough, you may see the eyelashes of the second eye, but this is is unimportant. All that really matters is that you see an exact profile. Once you have your subject posed for a profile, be sure to reposition any hair that may be showing on the far side of the face—especially below a woman’s chin.

Many people think that they are looking at a profile when they’re actually viewing slightly more or less than the side of the face. If your subject is turned too far away, you’ll be showing more of the back of the head. When the subject is not turned far enough, you begin to see some of the far eye—plus some of the flesh beneath the nose. Obviously, both of these problems tend to detract
from the outline of the face.

In a profile position, the entire shape of the face seems to be dramatized. Even subjects with a “less than perfect” nose often look very good in a properly lit profile. Just think of some of the famous profile portraits you’ve seen.

Hair. As you look at the different views of the face, take into consideration the difference your subject’s hairstyle can make. If the hair looks better from one side than the other, then I would certainly consider photographing the subject with that side toward the camera. I usually photograph the fuller side of the hair, rather than photographing into the part.

Eye Size. Always take note when a subject has one eye that is smaller than the other. When you find that, you can make them appear more equal in size by turning the smaller eye away from the lens. The reason for this is that the eye is basically almond-shaped; it is wider in the center than on the outside edge. When the smaller eye is turned away from the lens, the larger part of the eye will be toward the camera. Conversely, when the larger eye is turned toward the lens you will be looking at the smaller part of that eye. Thus, the two eyes will appear to be more equal in size from the camera’s viewpoint.

Noses. Some subjects have a bump or curve in on one side of their nose, while the other side of the nose is straighter. To disguise this, light the curve or the bump, placing the straighter side of the nose against the shadow. The curved side of the nose (facing the light) will tend to flatten out when the light hits it.

Follow Your Instincts. What happens when the hair, the eyes, or the nose tell you to turn the subject’s head in one direction and one of the other guidelines tells you to turn the head the other way? Then, you simply have to make a judgement call; determine which guideline is more important and follow your instincts. I look at the hairstyle first, since that is the most obvious element in the portrait. I follow with a study of the eyes. Lastly, I look at the nose.

*excerpted from the book Monte Zucker's Portrait Photography Handbook


1 comment:

  1. You do amazing work and are a good teacher!!! I will read and learn about your techniques. I am no photographer, but do love taking pics of my children and friends. I will be posting later today and you can tell me how much wrong I am doing to get better. GREAT WORK!