Someone recently asked me how to go about photographing people who may not appear to be the most attractive on camera. I think there is beauty in every person, but the method of going about capturing it is different for each person. I thought about some of the things that had worked for me and did some research and testing in order to put together a complete guide.
So how do you photograph an unattractive person? Use large diffused lights. Have them turn their body about 45 degrees to the camera. Shoot downward from slightly above. A telephoto lens can help flatten facial features. Most importantly, get the person to feel comfortable, relax and laugh.
Many photographers will shoot all of their subjects using the same setup every time, but that’s not always the correct way to do it. Some people are naturally photogenic, but there are many who just don’t seem to photograph very well for a variety of reasons. Shyness or awkwardness in front of the camera, the person may feel self-conscious about their weight, certain facial features or scars just to name a few reasons. There is beauty in everyone, it’s just a matter of finding the best way to photograph it and I’ll explain how to go about doing just that.
Use Diffused Lighting
The key to making someone look good is to increase light and diffuse it. Most everyone seems to look great when photographed using diffused light as it helps hide hard lines, gets rid of dark shadows and softens their overall look. The bigger the light source, the better. Some skin tones look better in different colors of light. Try using a warm light versus a cool light to see how the skin reflects it. If you are going to be shooting outside, try to do it in the early morning or late afternoon. Overcast weather often works well as it helps to soften shadows.
Use Poses that Highlight the Subjects Best Attribute
Depending on the subject and their face and body features, you will want to have them try different poses in order to de-emphasize certain not so attractive features. For example, if you are shooting someone and want to de-emphasize their nose, shoot them straight on with a longer lens that will help to make their facial feature appear flatter. If you have a subject that is overweight, shooting them from slightly above will help to thin out their cheeks and neck area, as well as make their torso appear smaller. Having the subject lean in slightly towards the camera and lengthen their neck can also have a slimming effect.
Emphasize the Eyes
If you put emphasis on your subjects’ eyes, that’s where people will tend to look when they view the photo. I’m sure you’ve seen photographs where the persons eyes really stood out and after walking away from the photo, that’s really all you can remember. Sometimes capturing a good shot of a person’s eyes is like staring into their soul. Be sure to really adjust your focus on their eyes so they show as clear as possible. Some mirrorless cameras have features like “Eye AF” that will allow you to autofocus on the eyes. Sony cameras have Lock-on Autofocus Flex spot that will allow you to select an area to track and focus on.
Get your Subjects to Relax
The anticipation of a photo shoot can cause people to become stiff and sometimes awkward. Try talking to them just like you would talk to one of your friends. Ask them if they have seen a new show on TV or if they are going to see any concerts anytime soon. Saying something funny is a great way to loosen someone up. People tend to relax when you talk to them rather than just sticking a camera in their face. While holding your camera, look at it and make adjustments while talking to them and let them hear the sound of the shutter, so they get used to it. Tell them you are just going to take some test shots to check the lighting, while you continue to talk to them. This will help you get some relaxed shots of them which a lot of the time tend to be the best.
Pick a Side
Everyone has a dominant side of their face, also known as a “good side” or “bad side”. For most people, it’s their left side. There are a lot fewer people whose best side is their right and even fewer people whose best side it straight ahead. Usually, this is easy to spot on each individual and you should try to figure this out before starting, If you have trouble identifying their dominant side, then snap a few photos from each direction and take a moment to look at them on your camera’s screen. Once you have figured out their dominant side, shoot them at a slight angle favoring that side, something close to 45 degrees.
Use a Telephoto Lens if Possible
I mentioned earlier the use of a telephoto lens. Using a telephoto lens, from a further distance and zooming in, to photograph people will result in flattening out the facial or body features of your subject. This is a method of using what’s called Perspective Distortion. The subjects attributes will look flatter because you are viewing it from a distance. If you move in closer to a subject, you will be viewing them from a greater angle which will give your pictures more depth.
Blurred Soft Backgrounds
Blurring the backgrounds of a portrait photo make the overall feel of the image seem softer. It helps to soften facial features as well as quiet movement and expression. It also gives the subjects face a nice contrast against the background. Try not to choose a background with vibrant colors or lots of sharp geometric shapes, this can take away from the appeal of the subject. Some ideas for backgrounds can be anything from a white sheet or wall to colored sheets, lace or curtains for inside shots. You can even add some string lights to help give your shots a fun and warm feeling.
Play With Colors
You cant always help your subjects choose their outfit, hairstyle or help them with their overall grooming, but what you can do is help play up those things to your benefit and in the end, your clients benefit. Take a look at the colors of their clothes and pick a background with colors that will accentuate it. If they are wearing a white outfit, for instance, you might choose a greenish background, as white and green work well together. Take a look at the persons eyes and see if you can play off of that by finding a background that helps make their eye color stand out more. Remember the eyes!
Take Plenty of Candid Shots
While you’re talking to your subject or asking them to move to a different spot or pose, continue popping off shots. If they are interacting with you or with one of their friends or relatives that is with them, I always like to continue shooting. I don’t think you can ever have enough pics especially when your client is someone who isn’t the easiest to get attractive looking photos of. Sometimes a person who isn’t exactly unattractive can appear that way in photos because they freeze up when they know the shot is going to be taken. Just keep taking photos when they are not expecting it. I’ve been able to get a number of great shots that way.
Should I Shoot in RAW or JPEG format? While RAW format will create larger files sizes, it’s the best format to use if you are wanting to make adjustments later on. By adjustments, I mean the ability to easily adjust color, tone, contrast without affecting the original file. When you adjust a JPEG image it actually causes data loss from the original image.
Should I use Photoshop to Edit the Subjects Face or Body? This is a tough one to answer. My gut has always told me “No”. I once had a studio take a photo of me and my family, which turned out very good. A few months later while it was hanging on a wall in our house, I noticed that they had Photoshopped out a mole that I have on my face. I didn’t think it was unattractive, but someone at the studio sure did. I don’t want my clients to ever feel that way, so I don’t do it. Adjusting color, saturation, tone, etc. is fine.
What Tips Can I Give to my Clients to Help Them Make the Photos Turn out Better? Have them practice smiling in front of the mirror. Sometimes the smile that looks the best on camera feels totally fake while you’re doing it. But getting a feel for what that good smile is like will pay off. Be well groomed and wear something that isn’t going to stand out and look silly on camera. Pay close attention to color and texture. Try to keep your eyes open and don’t squint. Just relax your eyes. Be well groomed. Pay attention to facial hair, blemishes, hairstyle, and makeup. Most of all relax and try to have fun.