Corrective Techniques

Today's post comes from the book Portrait Photographer's Handbook by Bill Hurter. It is available from and other fine retailers.

The art of good portraiture is found in the photographer’s ability to idealize a subject. This demands that the photographer know practical methods of correcting the subject’s physical flaws and irregularities.

It’s important to understand that people don’t see themselves the way they actually appear. Subconsciously, they shorten their noses, imagine they have more hair than they really do, and in short, pretend they are better looking than they really are. A good portrait photographer knows this and acts on it the instant a subject arrives for a session. As a matter of procedure, the photographer analyzes the face and body and makes mental notes as to how best to light, pose, and compose the subject to produce a flattering likeness.

This section deals with methods to correct specific physical traits you will encounter with everyday people. Be tactful about making any corrective suggestions.

Overweight Subjects. Have an overweight subject dress in dark clothing, which will make him or her appear ten to fifteen pounds slimmer. Use a pose that has the subject turned at a 45-degree angle to the camera. Never photograph a larger person head-on—unless you are trying to accentuate their size.

Use a low-key lighting pattern and use short lighting so that most of the subject is in shadow. The higher lighting ratio that produces low-key lighting will make your subject appear slimmer. Use a dark-colored background and if possible, merging the tone of the background with the subject’s clothes. To do this, minimize or eliminate the background light and any kickers you might otherwise use to highlight the shadow-side edge of the subject.

Standing poses are more flattering. Seated, excess weight accumulates around the waistline. A dark vignette at the bottom of the portrait is another trick to minimize the appearance of extra weight.

If the overweight person has excess skin under their chin, keep the light off the neck, or use a gobo, a lightblocking card placed between light and subject, to keep light off this area.

Sometimes great portraiture is not about minimizing flaws, but maximizing great features. Here, Tim Kelly eliminated just about everything about this girl except her nearly perfectly shaped face. He used black everywhere to defocus attention, photographing her in a black sweater in a black chair. Tim had her lean forward in the chair, so you can’t even relate to the type of pose in use. These are all intentional techniques to focus your attention on her face.

Thin or Underweight Subjects. A thin person is much easier to photograph than an overweight person. Have the person wear light- colored clothing and use a high-key lighting ratio and light-colored background. When posing a thin person, have him or her face the camera more to provide more width. A seven-eighths angle is ideal for people on the thin side.

If the person is extremely thin, do not allow him or her to wear sleeveless shirts or blouses. For a man, a light-colored sports coat will help fill him out; for a woman, fluffy dresses or blouses will disguise thin arms.

For a thin face, use broad lighting and a lighting ratio in the 2:1 or 3:1 range. Since the side of the face turned toward the camera is highlighted, it will appear wider than if short lighting is used. The general rule is, the broader the person’s face, the more of it should be kept in shadow; the more narrow the face, the more of it should be highlighted—the basic differences between broad and short lighting.

Slender subjects can be photographed head-on with no angle to the shoulder axis. A very broad, highlight area and the pose enhance this girl’s natural beauty. Photograph by Tony Corbell.

Elderly Subjects. The older the subject, the more wrinkles he or she will have. It is best to use some type of diffusion, but do not soften the image to the point that none of the wrinkles are visible. Men, especially, should not be overly softened as their wrinkles are often considered “character lines.”

Use a frontal type of lighting so that there are no deep shadows in the wrinkles and deep furrows of the face. Use a softer, diffused type of lighting, such as umbrella light. Soft lighting will de-emphasize wrinkles.

A smaller image size is also called for in photographing elderly people. Even when making a head-and-shoulders portrait, the image size should be about 10–15 percent smaller, so that the signs of age are not as noticeable.

This wonderful portrait by Giorgio Karayiannis says more in what it omits than what is visible. Giorgio used a very strong lighting ratio to omit large portions of the image—a technique that is often used to minimize the visible areas of a large person. The light, a square softbox, was moved back from the subject to increase its specularity. With no fill-in, much of the portrait is black. The deep blacks and dark areas lend mystery to the portrait.

Eyeglasses. The best way to photograph eyeglasses is to use blanks (frames without lenses), obtained from the sitter’s optometrist. If the portrait is scheduled far enough in advance, arrangements can usually be made with the optometrist for a set of loaner frames. If blanks are not available, have the person slide his glasses down on his or her nose slightly. This changes the angle of incidence and helps to eliminate unwanted reflections.

When photographing a subject wearing eyeglasses, the key light should be diffused so that the frames do not cast a shadow that darkens the eyes. Place the key light even with or just higher than the subject’s head height, then move it out to the side so that its reflection is not visible in the eyeglasses as seen from the camera. This produces a split or 45-degree lighting pattern. The fill light should also be adjusted laterally away from the camera until its reflection disappears. If you cannot eliminate the fill light’s reflection, try bouncing the fill light off the ceiling or the back wall of the studio.

When your subject is wearing thick glasses, it is not unusual for the eyes to be darker than the rest of the face. This is because the thickness of the glass reduces the intensity of light being transmitted to the eyes. If this happens, there is nothing you can do about it during the shooting session, but the area can be dodged digitally or during printing to restore the same print density as in the rest of the face.

If your subject wears “photo-gray” or any other type of self-adjusting, light-sensitive lenses, have him keep his glasses in his pocket until you are ready to shoot. This will keep the lenses from getting dark prematurely from the shooting lights. Of course, once the light strikes them they will darken, so you might want to encourage your subject to remove his or her glasses for the portrait.

One Eye Smaller than the Other. Most people have one eye smaller than the other. This should be one of the first things you observe about your subject. If you want both eyes to look the same size in the portrait, pose the subject in a seven-eighths to three-quarters view, and seat the person so that the smaller eye is closest to the camera. Because objects farther from the camera look smaller, and nearer objects look larger, both eyes should appear to be about the same size.

Baldness. If your subject is bald, lower the camera height so less of the top of his head is visible. Use a gobo between the main light and the subject to shield the bald part of his head from light. Another trick is to feather the main light so that the light falls off rapidly on the top and back of his head. The darker in tone the bald area is, the less noticeable it will be. Do not use a hair light, and employ only minimal background light. If possible, try to blend the tone of the background with the top of your subject’s head.

Baldness, or a pronounced receding hairline, can sometimes be handled by judicious cropping—as in the case of this portrait by David Williams. Notice how the hand is brought into the composition as a major element and how its strong posing helps to add character and flavor to the portrait.

Double Chins. To reduce the view of the area beneath the chin, raise the camera height so that area is less prominent. Tilt the chin upward and raise the main light so that much of the area under the chin is in shadow.

Wide Faces. To slim a wide face, pose the person in a three-quarters view, and use short lighting so that most of the face is in shadow. The wider the face, the higher the lighting ratio should be. If the face is extremely wide, even a 5:1 ratio would be suitable.

Thin Faces. To widen a thin face, the solution is to highlight as much of the face as possible. This means using broad lighting, where the side of the face most visible to the camera is highlighted. You should use a frontal pose, such as a seven-eighths view, and keep the lighting ratio on the low side—in the 2:1 to 3:1 range. Kickers and hair lights will add depth and dimension to the portrait, and further widen a thin face. A smiling pose will also widen the cheek and mouth area.

Broad Foreheads. To diminish a wide or high forehead, lower the camera height and tilt the person’s chin upward slightly. Remember, the closer the camera is to the subject, the more noticeable these corrective measures will be. If you find that by lowering the camera and raising the chin, the forehead is only marginally smaller, move the camera in closer and observe the effect again—but watch out for other distortions.

Deep-Set Eyes and Protruding Eyes. To correct deep-set eyes, keep the main light low to fill the eye sockets with light. Keep the lighting ratio low so there is as much fill light as possible to lighten the eyes. Raising the chin will also help diminish the look of deep-set eyes. To correct protruding eyes, raise the main light and have the person look down so that more of the eyelid is showing.

Large Ears. To scale down large ears, the best thing to do is to hide the far ear by placing the person in a three-quarters view, making sure that the far ear is out of view or in shadow (either by using a gobo to block the light from the ear or by feathering the main light). If the subject’s ears are very large, examine the person in a profile pose. A profile pose will totally eliminate the problem.

Very Dark Skin Tones. Unusually dark skin tones must be compensated for in exposure if you are to obtain a full tonal range in the portrait. For the darkest skin tones, open up a full f-stop over the indicated incident meter reading. For moderately dark subjects, like deeply suntanned people, open up one-half stop over the indicated exposure.

Uneven Mouths. If your subject has an uneven mouth (one side higher than the other, for example) or a crooked smile, turn his or her head so that the higher side of the mouth is closest to the camera, or tilt the subject’s head so that the line of the mouth is more or less even.

Long Noses and Pug Noses. To reduce the appearance of a long nose, lower the camera and tilt the chin upward slightly. Lower the key light so that, if you have to shoot from much below nose height, there are no deep shadows under the nose. You should use a frontal pose, either a full-face or seven-eighths view, to disguise the length of your subject’s nose.

For a pug nose or short nose, raise the camera height to give a longer line to the nose. Have the subject look downward slightly and try to place a specular highlight along the ridge of the nose. The highlight tends to lengthen a short nose.

This is the type of portrait one might not attempt with a teenage subject a few years ago because the retouching might have been extensive. Now with the many retouching techniques available in Photoshop, it is easy to smooth the entire complexion in a matter of minutes. Photo by Brian King.

Long Necks and Short Necks. While a long neck can be considered sophisticated, it can also appear unnatural—especially in a head-and-shoulders portrait. By raising the camera height, lowering the chin, keeping the neck partially in shadow, and pulling up the shirt or coat-collar, you will shorten an overly long neck. If you see the subject’s neck as graceful and elegant, back up and make a three-quarter- or full-length portrait and emphasize the graceful line of the neck in the composition.

For short or stubby necks, place light from the key light on the neck. This is accomplished by lowering the key light, or feathering it downward. Increase the fill light on the neck so there is more light on the shadow side of the neck. Lowering the camera height and suggesting a V-neck collar will also lengthen the appearance of a short neck.

Wide Mouths and Narrow Mouths. To reduce an overly wide mouth, photograph the person in three-quarters view and with no smile. For a narrow or small mouth, photograph the person in a more frontal pose and have him or her smile broadly.

Long Chins and Stubby Chins. Choose a higher camera angle and turn the face to the side to correct a long chin. For a stubby chin, use a lower camera angle and photograph the person in a frontal pose.

Oily Skin. Excessively oily skin looks shiny in a portrait. If you combine oily skin with sharp, undiffused lighting, the effect will be unappealing. Always keep a powder puff and a tin of face powder on hand to pat down oily areas. The areas to watch are the frontal planes of the face—the center of the forehead and chin, and the cheekbones. The appearance of oily skin can also be minimized by using a diffused main light, such as umbrella or softbox lighting.

Dry Skin. Excessively dry skin looks dull and lifeless in a portrait. To give dry skin dimension, use a sharp, undiffused main light. If the skin still looks dull and without texture, have the person use a little hand lotion or body oil on their face to create small specular highlights in the skin. Don’t overdo it with the lotion or oil, or you will have the reverse problem—oily skin.

Skin Defects. Facial imperfections like scars and discoloration are best disguised by placing them in shadow, using a short lighting setup and a strong lighting ratio. Many of these issues can now also be addressed using digital retouching. Always get clearance from the subject before removing such features; they may have acclimated to them and not want them removed.

Here’s a problem you may not have thought of: what if the person is proud of the trait you consider a difficulty? Or what should you do when you encounter more than one problem?

The first question is best settled in a brief conversation with your subject. You can comment on his or her features by saying something like, “You have large eyes, and the line of your nose is quite elegant.” If the person is at all self-conscious about either one of these traits, he or she will usually say something like, “Oh, my nose is too long, I wish I could change it.” Then you will know that the person is unhappy with his nose, but happy with his eyes, and you’ll know how to proceed.

The second question is a little more difficult. It takes experience before you can discern which of the problems is the more serious one, and most in need of correction. Generally, by handholding the camera and moving into the corrective positions (i.e., a higher or lower camera angle) you can see how the physical characteristics are altered. By experimenting with various lighting, poses, and camera angles, you should be able to come up with the best posing strategy. Another good trick is to show them a few frames on the camera’s LCD. If they are at all selfconscious,
they will comment on their looks.

More than good lighting, posing, and composition techniques, the successful portrait photographer knows how to deal with the irregularities of the human face. All of the great portrait photographers know that their success lies in being able to make ordinary people look absolutely extraordinary.


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