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Useful Photography Tip #6: Making Your Subjects Look Better

by Sander-Martijn on 11/08/2011

Help your subjects look their best

Help your subjects look their best

The most common question I get at the beginning of a shoot from non-professional models, especially females is “Can you make me look skinnier/prettier/younger?” They’re generally saying it in jest and are thus surprised when I answer in all seriousness “Yes, I can. It will still be you, just the best you.” How do I do that without changing what the person actually looks like? Well here are a few tricks to do just that.

In Camera

Mamiya RZ67 with 100mm (~68mm equivalent)

Mamiya RZ67 with 100mm (~68mm equivalent)

1. Use a quality lens that doesn’t distort. 50mm and 80mm primes are very popular portrait lenses for this reason, but a quality zoom will do fine. I usually use my Nikon 50mm f/1.8 when in the studio and my Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 when on the street.

2. Shoot from a low angle. Read this carefully: At least 90% of people will look taller and thinner when you shoot up from below your subject. If you go really low and up close that will create a different distortion, usually about waist level works just fine. Once in a blue moon I look at the photos and someone doesn’t – those will look taller and thinner from above (I’ve never found a reliable way of looking at a body type and knowing which they’ll be, so I just go from below by default and if that’s not working I try from above instead). In any case if you’ve ever heard the phrase “a camera adds 10 pounds” that comes from straight on shots.

Shoot from a low angle

Shoot from a low angle

3. Use a big light source. This means an overcast day, diffused or reflected lighting when using natural light; with a Flash bounce it off the ceiling, a reflector or a wall; in the studio a large softbox or octabox. Blemishes, wrinkles and even extra curves only show with shadows. The larger the light source, the less and softer the shadows, the smoother their skin will look and also thinner.

4. Have them wear dark or black flattering clothes. Most of my clients ask me what kinds of clothes to bring, and sometimes I just offer. If I know the person is a little heavier than they’d like to be, I will always mention black. If you have a stylist they should already be in tune with this, as well as to know not to put them in skin-tight clothing. There are clothes out there that look great on every body type, so help them out.

5. Use a makeup artist. Most people aren’t that good at putting on their own makeup. If their budget is tight this may not be an option, but encourage it whenever possible. If my client wants a makeup artist and can’t pay for it, I won’t bring one in for free even if I know someone willing (if it’s a paid job I want my whole team to get paid), but I will mention that if they want to try to get someone starting out off craigslist or somewhere else they may be able to find someone inexpensive.

6. Pose them at 3/4, with one leg forward, arms behind their backs, leaning back or forward  etc. How you pose them will differ for each person and what their own “concern areas” are. Often they won’t tell you what they are, but sometimes they do and otherwise you can usually guess from body language. Remember this isn’t about what you think their trouble areas are, it’s what they are self-conscious about. If you’re unsure, don’t ask them, just try a lot of different options and see what works. I recently photographed a girl whose profile I found quite attractive, but she doesn’t like her profile and threw all those images out. Fortunately she mentioned that so I didn’t shoot a lot of them, just enough to try to convince her otherwise, but she didn’t go for it.

OK, so now you have some photos that already look a lot better than average. These 6 simple rules will get you 90% with everyone. The other 10%? That’s Photoshop magic.

Post-production

The final magic comes from something I’ve devoted a whole article to in the past, Retouching photos using Dodge and Burn. Remember as I said in tip 3, almost all the things people take issue with only show because of light and shadows. Dodging and Burning selectively changes highlights and shadows. This technique is how you’ll get rid of any wrinkles, blemishes and even quite a bit of unwanted weight by using broad strokes (i.e. a large brush size).

For extensive manipulation there are other things such as Liquify, perhaps a topic for another day (one hint – use a humungous brush and manipulate by the edges of it, not the center), but I have learned that this almost never works if the subject is also the client – they know their own body, and even when done very slightly I’ve been asked whether I “did something”, so I don’t recommend this or other actual slimming techniques unless you’re asked to.

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