Modern cameras are great. Just point one at a friend or colleague, press the button and the result is perfect. In theory. Here’s some help with the practice.
In your mind’s eye you’re photographing a relaxed person who’ll be delighted with the results. They’ll shower you in compliments or kisses (you choose) and you’ll gain a reputation as the go-to-guy who makes people look (and feel) good when a Facebook photo is needed.
Most times, though, you get a less fulsome reaction. The subject looks older, fatter and sweatier than in real life. If you’ve produced a shadowy silhouette or a bleached-out nuclear accident viewers can only guess how they look. The same viewer might, unfairly, draw a less than flattering conclusion about the person in the photo.
So what can you do to take that warm, attractive person and translate these qualities into a two-dimensional photo?
1) Trash the flash
Have you ever looked at a gossip mag (yes, you have), at the shots of celebrities stumbling out of night clubs at 4am? Not pretty sights, are they? A night of alcoholic and chemical abuse takes its visual toll, but not as much as the harsh light of the tiny flash on the paparazzi’s camera. It’s like going out in the noon-day sun – few of us look good in that. The lady in the dark photo below (see 2 below for more) isn’t looking her best in it.
Have you ever noticed that the shadows disappear when you go out on an overcast day. That’s because the clouds are scattering the sun’s light, wrapping it softly round faces exposed to it. Taking photos on such a dull day, or by the light of a north-facing window, is kinder to faces. Try it and see the difference.
2) Have a grey day
Photograph a black cat in a coal cellar and the automatic camera result will be grey. Snap a polar bear in a snowstorm – grey again.
Cameras expect photos to be a mixture of colours and tones which, if mixed together, would be a medium grey. So putting your photographic subject in front of a white wall will fool the camera into darkening the image – making it that cheery, vibrant grey. That’s why the pic shown here shows a grey wall and a very dark person. The wall is actually pure white. Many offices have white walls so placing someone in front of one will give you that result almost every time.
The answer is to find a background with lots of mid-tones. Most buildings and open spaces are made up of browns, greys, greens and blues. Using them as a background will give you a fighting chance of capturing a well-exposed image.
Now that you’ve got the light right, how do you get the person to lighten up?
3) We’re all shy
People can chat all day at the watercooler, keeping things nice and light. Put a camera between them, though, and both feel, well, exposed. This is a normal response to a strangely intimate arrangement and the common response is to take a quick snap and flee. Fight that urge. It takes time for both parties to relax; it could five minutes or even twenty but the best shots won’t happen until both parties feel reasonably comfortable so it’s worth hanging in there, taking plenty of pics as you go.
So does that mean that the results will show an old, fat, sweaty (but laid back) person? There is a solution.
4) Chin out, shoulders back, get your hands out of your pockets
Your least-favourite teacher was partially right. Looking good in a photo means holding yourself in an unaccustomed way which feels weird but looks good in a photo (not at a party – it’d look odd there).
Let’s start with the shoulders. Standing square-on to the camera – like in the traditional police mugshot – makes anyone who isn’t a supermodel look chubby. It also looks a bit gormless. The person should turn their body sideways – halfway between a front and side view.
Next the subject should lean towards the camera a little, from the waist. Next, stretch their head towards the camera whilst keeping their chin level. If you think it sounds strange just wait until you try it. The photo above shows the before and after positions.
The last stage is to have the camera slightly above the subject’s face so that the shoulders create a nice diagonal line and the underside of the chin is hidden from view. The result should show a sharp-edged, tight-skinned chin. Now press the shutter. The final shot below shows the result of following these tips.
Thanks to Maureen Scott for being a good sport and letting me take and use the unflattering examples.
There’s a lot more to making attractive portraits than these stages: lighting, make-up and retouching all come into the mix but they take a long time to master and most people would rather get on with the job they know and enjoy.
I hope these four tips help you improve your image in social media, brochures and business cards. If you want to see more examples of my portraiture, and shots of weddings, events, products and locations, please have a look at the photography page, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call me on 07812 576 430.