Tilting the Head. Your subject’s head should be sightly tilted in every portrait. By doing this, you slant the natural line of the person’s eyes. When the face is not tilted, the implied line of the eyes is straight and parallel to the bottom edge of the photograph, leading to a static composition. By tilting the person’s face, the implied line becomes diagonal and the pose appears more dynamic.
Masculine and Feminine Poses. While there is considerable debate over the relevance of the terms “masculine” and “feminine,” they are generally understood by portrait photographers to refer to a pose containing certain basic elements—much of it relating to the direction the subject’s head is tilted. In the masculine pose, the head and body are turned in the same direction and the head is tipped toward the low (far) shoulder. In the feminine pose, the head is turned and tipped toward the high (near) shoulder; the body is leaned forward at the waist, then tilted slightly in the opposite direction from the way the face is turned. For example, if the subject is looking to the left shoulder, the body should lean slightly to the right.
This portrait is casual, but it still adheres to the basics of good posing. The shoulders are turned at an angle and the head tipped toward the far shoulder in a traditional masculine pose. The camera viewpoint is high, providing a unique perspective, and the hands are treated casually. Teenage boys should be posed naturally to relieve self-consciousness. Photograph by Deborah Lynn Ferro.
The Eyes. The area of primary visual interest in the human face is the eyes. The eyes are the most expressive part of the face and if the subject is bored or uncomfortable, you will see it in
Engaging the Eyes. The best way to keep the subject’s eyes active and alive is to engage the person in conversation. Look at the person while you are setting up and try to find a common frame of interest. Ask your subject about himself; it’s the one subject everyone is interested in talking about. If the person does not look at you when you are talking, he or she is either uncomfortable or shy. In either case, you have to work to relax your subject and encourage trust. Try a variety of conversational topics until you find one the person warms to and then pursue it. As you gain your subject’s interest, you will take his or her mind off of the portrait session.
This album page by Heidi Mauracher exemplifies the feminine pose. The bride’s head is tipped toward the near shoulder and the beautiful sloping line of the shoulders. Also, notice the beautiful hand posing; the edges of the hand are photographed and the graceful fingers are separated by a small amount of space. Notice, too, that the bride is not really resting her chin on her hand; it is an effective illusion of the pose.
Direction. The direction the person is looking is important. Start the portrait session by having the person look at you. Using a cable release or wireless remote with the camera tripod- mounted forces you to become the host and allows you to physically hold the subject’s attention. It is a good idea to shoot a few frames of the person looking directly into the camera, but most people will appreciate some variety. Looking into the lens for too long a time will bore your subject, as there is no personal interaction when looking into the camera. Many photographers don’t want to stray too far from the viewfinder and so they will “come up” from
the viewfinder to engage the subject just prior to the moment of exposure.
Iris Position. The colored part of the eye, the iris, should border the eyelids. In other words, there should not be much white space between the top or bottom of the iris and the eyelid. If there is a space, it should be intentional—as when creating a wide-eyed, innocent look, for example.
Di Fingleton is a magistrate in Australia. For his book, The Faces of Queensland, Marcus Bell chose to isolate only one eye as the basis for his portrait of her. You can see the compassion and intelligence in this portrait as effectively as if the entire face were pictured
Pupil Size. Pupil size is also important. If working under bright lights, the pupil will be very small and the subject’s eyes will look “beady.” A way to correct this is to have your subject close their eyes for a moment just prior to the exposure. This allows the pupils to return to a normal size for the exposure.
Just the opposite can happen if you are working in subdued light; the pupil will appear too large, giving the subject a vacant look. In that case, have the subject stare momentarily at the brightest nearby light source to contract the pupil.
The Mouth. Generally, it is a good idea to shoot a variety of portraits—some smiling and some serious (or at least not smiling). People are often self-conscious about their teeth and mouths, but if you see that your subject has an attractive smile, get plenty of exposures of it.
One of the best ways to produce a natural smile is to praise your subject. Tell him or her how good they look and how much you like a certain feature of theirs. Simply saying “Smile!” will produce a lifeless, “say cheese” type of portrait.With sincerity and flattery you will get the person to smile naturally and their eyes will be engaged.
A natural smile is often the key to a successful portrait. Pictured is professor Ian Frazier, who heads up the Queensland Center for Immunology and Cancer Research in Australia. Marcus Bell chose to picture him in a closed mouth smile that seemed to be indicative of his character. This portrait reminds us that the mouth is as expressive as the eyes.
It may also be necessary to remind the subject to moisten his or her lips periodically. This makes the lips sparkle in the finished portrait, as the moisture produces tiny specular highlights on the lips.
Also, pay close attention to be sure there is no tension in the muscles around the mouth, since this will give the portrait an unnatural, posed look. Again, creating a relaxed environment is the best way to relieve tension, so talk to the person to take his or her mind off the session. Some people have a slight gap between their lips when they are relaxed. If you observe this, let them know about it in a friendly, non-critical way. If they forget, simply remind them. Although this gap is not disconcerting when casually observing the person in repose, when frozen in a portrait it will look unnatural to see the subject’s teeth showing through the gap.
One of the most engaging smiles can be seen when both the mouth and the eyes smile simultaneously. The best photographers are well paid to find and isolate just such moments of pure joy. Photograph by Alisha and Brook Todd.
Laugh Lines. An area of the face where problems occasionally arise is the frontal most part of the cheek—the part of the face that creases when a person smiles. Some people have pronounced furrows that look unnaturally deep when they are photographed smiling. You should take note of this area of the face. If necessary, you may have to increase the fill-light intensity to lighten these deep shadows, or adjust your key light to be more frontal in nature. If the lines are severe, avoid a “big smile” type of pose altogether. (Note: In some cases, these smile creases define character. If so, the remedial lighting should be avoided in order to showcase this trait.)
Chin Height. The height of the subject’s chin will have an impact on the viewer. If the person’s chin is too high, he or she will look haughty; if it is too low, the subject will look timid or lacking in confidence.
You would not think that chin height would be a crucial element in a good portrait, but it definitely is. In this appealing senior portrait by Ira Ellis, the chin height of this young man makes him appear confident but fun loving. A higher or lower chin height would not necessarily have been as appropriate with this pose.
Beyond these psychological implications, a person’s neck will look stretched and elongated if the chin is too high. The opposite is true if the chin is held too low; the person may appear to have a double chin or no neck at all.
The solution is a medium chin height. When in doubt, ask the sitter if the pose feels natural. This is usually a good indicator of what looks natural.
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