Making Your Subjects Look Better :: Digital Photo Secrets

Making Your Subjects Look Better

by David Peterson 5 comments

In the hands of a skilled and patient user, Photoshop can take 10 years and 25 pounds off of almost anyone. But how do you make your people pictures look better before you get them into Photoshop? It’s always preferable to bring out the best in your subjects during a photo shoot rather than after one, which will eliminate the need for time-consuming photo editing down the road.

Lighting, lighting, lighting

It may not surprise you to hear that the first trick is proper use of light. Harsh light is unflattering to almost everyone, so you can capture the best possible picture by shooting your subject outdoors in the early morning or late afternoon. If you get caught out in bright sunlight, make use of your onboard flash to fill in the dark shadows on your subjects’ faces (another tip: a fill flash can reduce the appearance of wrinkles, and make large noses and other prominent features look less prominent by softening the shadows that tend to accentuate these qualities).

If you’re in a more controlled setting, such as a studio, you can also reduce the appearance of dark circles under the eyes by reflecting light from below, and you can soften wrinkles by using flatter light. If you’re shooting indoors without studio equipment, put your subject next to a window; natural light filtered through glass creates soft shadows and beautiful skin tones that will flatter almost anyone. When taking photos using window light, position yourself close to the window and have your subject sit a few feet away.

Try different angles

The correct angle can do wonders for any subject, even a person who suffers from chronic photographic double-chin. You can make a person look thinner in a photograph by having him stand with his body turned about 45 degrees away from the camera. You can also ask him to lean forward slightly and/or raise his chin (though not too much, because an over-elevated chin will look too posed). Or shoot him from just a few inches above his head, so he is looking up at the camera. All these tricks can help create shadows that will camouflage a double chin, or will simply hide unflattering extra flesh behind the features that you do want to highlight.

Men and women tend to have different ideas about how they want to look in an image, so keep this in mind when shooting adults. Women in particular are very sensitive to how their arms appear, so if your subject is sleeveless make sure to avoid taking photos when the widest part of the arm is facing the camera. You can also ask her to lift her arms slightly, which will make them look rounder rather than flat and wide.

Pay attention to weird reflections and glare any time you’re shooting people; no balding man wants to see light shining off his head, and a person who wears glasses should still have two eyes rather than one or more washed-out reflections. If your subject would rather not remove her glasses, you can eliminate those unwanted reflections by raising the eyeglass frames a little so the frame’s arms are above the ears and the lenses are tilted slightly downwards.

Carefully chosen camera angles can also make people look taller, shorter or less angular, so experiment until you find the angle that works best for your subject. A photo taken from just below eye level will flatter almost anyone, so start there and then branch out into other angles and poses.

Put your subject at ease

Nothing gives a photograph that “ugh” factor quite so much as a fake smile. It’s easy to make small children laugh, so instead of asking them to say “cheese,” tell a silly joke or make a face. If your subjects are older, ask them to remember a funny story or fill their heads with absurd images (like dogs in pink dresses or goats wearing socks).

It’s also important to put your subject at ease—you can actually do this with small talk, believe it or not. Find out what your subjects’ interests are and try to engage them in conversation about the things they enjoy. People love to talk about themselves and their hobbies and are almost sure to loosen up and give you a more natural looking photo if they’re busy thinking and talking about something they are passionate about. Giving your subject a prop to interact with (an inanimate object or even a pet) can also help take her mind off the camera, which will make your photographs look more natural and less posed.

Using a longer lens (70mm or more) can do wonders for your people photos, for a couple of reasons: a wider lens can distort features and body parts and make people look heavier than they actually are. A long lens will do the opposite, and it has some added benefits, too—first, a long lens will help create blur in an otherwise distracting background, putting the focus on your subject. And some subjects will actually be more at-ease with a longer lens, because the photographer doesn’t have to stand so close.

When all else fails, Photoshop

Some problems you just can’t solve during a photo session, so you’ll need to turn to your editing software (like Photoshop Elements) to make final fixes and touch-ups. Acne and other flaws on the skin can be cleared up quickly with the cloning tool (newborn babies in particular rarely have that peaches-and-cream look that you want them to have; their skin is sometimes mottled and sometimes covered in self-inflicted scratches).

Increasing the color saturation can be a quick fix for an otherwise dull or flat looking photo. It can give subjects with pale skin more blush, which will make them look younger and even healthier. It can also give the entire photo a more vibrant look.

With a little practice, you can also use Photoshop to remove stray hairs, whiten teeth and color gray hair. You can brighten eyes, remove an unattractive oily shine and even make someone’s face seem a little thinner. But never overdo it; there’s a fine line between retouching and making a person look kind of scary. Subtlety is the key in any Photoshop work where the aim is to have a beautiful, natural looking image.

Everyone wants to look good, but a photo should always make a person look their best. No one wants a permanent record of themselves looking awkward, chunky, older-than-they are or otherwise unattractive. It’s your job as a photographer to put your subjects at ease and make them look their best while finding that one quality or feature that highlights their personality. It can be a tough job, but a good photo will ultimately make for a happy subject (and a happy photographer).

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  1. Jennifere says:

    Thank you for all your hints they help with the little details we forget about. Especially the arms and glasses, they always are a point to be considered. Looking forward to more tips.

  2. Betty morgans says:

    Thanks for great suggestions...I have been working on getting better portraits. A car reflector that is used to reflect additional light other than a flash.

  3. Kimmo Wihervaara says:

    Dear David,
    Many thanks for the helpful and correct advise. This mail and the previous ones have given me much to make better photographing, though as I think, I am a quite experienced amateur photographer who has taken his earliest photos at the age of 10 in 1945.
    In the future hope to get more of your advise.
    Cordially yours

  4. Dallas Turner says:

    I spend a lot of time in Kenya where the people in churches love to have their photos taken. They immediately line up straight and paste an expression on their faces as though they the objects of a firing squad--not a pleasing pose. I use a Canon XTi but my suggestion will work with any camera. I focus and hold the camera on target then take my head away from the camera and say something that makes them laugh and at the same time snap the photo. That makes them laugh even more so I snap another one quickly. It produces more natural expressions.

  5. behzad says:

    thanks david, as always very apprpriate and helpful especially now that the festive season is around the corner and taking good family, children photos are the real chalange.

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