Posing The Face

Today's post comes from the book Posing for Portrait Photography: A Head-to-Toe Guide for Digital Photographers, 2nd Edition by Jeff Smith. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

We will start off with the face, because the face is the most important part of any portrait. There are portraits created by photographers that have the face in silhouette or obscured from view in one form or another, but this is usually an artistic exercise for the photographer, not a portrait that would be salable to the average client.

The face has many parts—and sometimes it feels like some of the parts are working against each other to make your job as hard as possible. For example, imagine you are photographing a person with a large nose and a wide face. To make the face appear thinner, you could increase the shadowing on the side. Unfortunately, that harder light or reduced fill will also deepen the shadow on the side of the nose, making it appear larger.

Identify Problems, But Don’t Go Too Far
It is pretty easy to assess a person’s face and quickly see if there are problems that need to be addressed. If you look at a person and think “Wow, what a nose!”, that might be a problem you should do something to fix. For most people, however, their face is their soul. If you mess with it too much, they won’t look like themselves—after all, you don’t want to be messing around with someone’s soul.

Elevated camera angles can be very flattering and appealing—but only when the face is also turned up toward the camera to maintain an undistorted perspective.

Camera Height
The angle of the face is important—especially as the photographer uses more unique angles and elevations. It used to be that every client was photographed sitting down and the camera on a camera stand was slightly higher. Why? So the photographer didn’t have to bend over, of course! Then some forward-thinking photographers started to realize that by raising the camera (the camera angle Facebook made famous) or lowering it, you can create different looks for different clients. Unfortunately, some photographers don’t realize that, in most cases, you have to raise or lower the face as you raise or lower the camera position in order to avoid dramatically altering the appearance of the face.

Framing the Face
As photography styles changed, we also found that the face needed to be framed—especially as the camera was brought closer. There is nothing worse than the “floating head” look where only the face is showing without any framing/support from the shoulders, arms, and/or hands. When the shoulders are not going to be in the frame, or the subject has an extremely long neck, the face needs to be supported to look its best. You can bring the hands to the neck or cheek to create a base for the face to visually rest on. (This correction can also help conceal a common problem area: the neck and chin.)

Consider the Type of Pose
Your approach to posing the face will also depend on the style of portrait you are creating. In traditional poses, the face is positioned with only the neck for support. Slice-of-life poses capture people the way they really are when they are relaxed, so the head will often rest on the hands, arms, or shoulders. Glamour poses are posed for a sensual feel, so the shoulder will be raised toward the chin (also slimming the view of the shoulder) or the hands may be lifted to the neck, face, or hair.

Raising the arms helps to frame the face in closer views of the face.

The Connection to Lighting
The posing of the face is linked to lighting. Posing that will work with soft lighting and a low lighting ratio will look ridiculous with a harder light source or a high lighting ratio. For traditional portrait lighting styles or spot lighting you would have the face turned more toward the main light for impact. Using butterfly or ring lighting you would have the face looking directly at the camera.

With most Americans being overweight, it’s often a good thing to make the face appear thinner than it really is. For these subjects, the best view of the face is when the body is turned toward the shadow side of the frame and the face is turned back toward the main light source. This stretches out everything from the shoulder up and gives the face a leaner look.

Lighting From Below
As previously noted, my lighting has more of a glamour/fashion look than most traditional portrait lighting. For example, I like to have a light come from beneath the subject’s face, whether it is for a head-and-shoulders-, three-quarter-, or full-length portrait. For everything up to three-quarter-length poses, we use a trifold reflector to create this light; for full-length poses, this reflector is replaced by a light on the floor in order to achieve the same lighting effect.

This light coming from underneath the subject adds an additional catchlight in the eyes, brings out more of the eye color, reduces the darkness under the eyes that most people have, and smoothes the complexion. For our images of seniors, it has worked out very well. Because my clients are younger, they like the more fashionable look of this lighting.

Light from underneath the subject adds an additional catchlight in the eyes and brings out more of the eye color.


  1. You are right. face is the most important part of portrait photography. thank you for your use full tips.

  2. Very nice tips. Tried your best to explain it with pictures.

  3. Very nice tips. Tried your best to explain it with pictures.