View Full Version : Making real people look their best. How to? Best book? guide?

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02-03-2008, 12:06 AM
I never paid much attention to faces. Never had the reason to.

I am doing a portrait study right now. I didn't want to stress myself too much, so I picked pretty girls to study.

They have problems.

The eyes are uneven. The nose grows to the left. The lids are not symmetrical. When the mouth is closed a front tooth is sticking out. A really long face...

I'm not going to talk about the bodies, but you get the picture.

I need a book. Or a guide. :D

What would you recommend?

02-03-2008, 12:55 AM
Hark the words of the 19th Century photographer, Mr. Peter Britt, of Jacksonville, Oregon. When the young daughter of a Hotel owner came in and complained about her portrait Mr. Britt had made, he said, "Madam, if you want a photograph of a pretty face, you will have to bring one."

My uncle was in great demand at the local university as a model for the painting classes...his face was unusually symmetrical and well proportioned. I think you will find that kind of face rare...and perhaps eventually uninteresting.


02-03-2008, 01:12 AM
Uninteresting? I'd just give credit to myself, the photographer.

I still don't know what to do about the normal, unsymmetrical people though. :)

David H. Bebbington
02-03-2008, 02:08 AM
Just a few thoughts - softer lighting, always take 3/4 or profile shots, never head-on, use a yellow (or even orange) filter to subdue redddish skin blemishes, be aware of which side of your sitter's face is the "good" one, use a longer lens (3 or 4 times standard focal length) to flatten out perspective, use a diffuser filter or soft-focus lens. If working in b+w, be aware how very small changes in printing exposure can radically change the way skin tones look, from smooth to quite muddy and spotty-looking. And if all that doesn't work, digitise the results and retouch, the way all portrait photogs used to do when LF was the format of choice for portraits. In fact, there's an idea ...

Best regards,


02-07-2008, 09:58 PM
1. There are books on Photoshop that teach you how to do cloning, healing brush, slim waists, enlarge breasts, remove double/triple chins, etc.

2. If you do darkroom, then you can still use a fine brush and spotone in addition to dodge and burn.

3. Of course before you even enter the darkroom or Photoshop you can use a Softar filter. As Zeiss says, each grade takes away 10 years.

4. The real question is-- do you really want to do all this? Will the end result be real? I've been repulsed by studios offering "makeover" packages where the results are so fake, the skin is so obviously plastic, the diffusion effect is so strong, etc.

5. My suggestion is to do what you can in terms of clothing, posing, lighting and camera angle to hide/minimise the flaws and let the rest be. I remember well the portrait of Condoleeza Rice in a portrait photography book I bought. She is frankly not a very pretty woman, and the photographer did put the more pimply part of her face in shadow, and the side lighting created a mysterious and powerful look that was appropriate for a Secretary of State. Not pretty-- she's never going to win a beauty contest-- but it was a well-executed formal portrait.

02-07-2008, 10:28 PM
There are all sorts of miracles that soft window light, ample fill, appropriately diffused lenses, and a strategically moving photographer can achieve!

As you will see clearly from what I am about to say, I'm not a portraiteer- haven't even tried. I am thinking mostly about landscapes these days. Nevertheless I would go about this the exact same way that I'd approach any landscape: foremost enumerate the best things about the scene and think about how to make them come to the fore. Unusual or unexpcted elements can become extraordinarily powerful in any composition. Now, with portraits you have all kinds of technical and creative power that you don't have with landscape: you can totally control the lighting, you can credibly diffuse or work with very limited depth of field without it being seen right off as an "effect", you can make big adjustments in the orientation of yourself and your subject... very quickly. Just think about all that power you have and how you're going to use it for good! :)

[Okay I just realized why I am afraid to try portraiture: too many degrees of freedom.]

Books? There must be millions on portrait lighting alone. I think the thing to do is go to the bookstore and find some examples that you like, and learn how to start taking them apart in terms of what lighting techniques were applied. Right on this site, in the gallery section, I think you will find some masterful examples and people willing to discuss how they worked the shot.

02-07-2008, 10:40 PM
hi andrey

you might consider going to a junk store and leafing through
old portraits, carte de visites, high school portraits ...
and look at photography books ( from pre 1940 ) on portraits ...
they show lighting, and technique that may give you ideas...

good luck!

Richard Harris
02-07-2008, 10:59 PM
nice site, great portraits. Andrey look and learn.
Richard Harris

02-08-2008, 07:45 AM
Free "Ole Pro" portrait guide online (http://groups.msn.com/Asktheoleproaboutphotography/joezeltsman.msnw?pgmarket=en-us)


02-08-2008, 07:53 AM
I agree with everything David said, he is clearly knowledgable in this area.

Long lens, some type of softening filter (if needed), diffused lighting in most cases (umbrellas, strip-lights, white reflecting material, etc.) are all ingredients for good portraiture. I also use yellow or green filters to control B&W skin tones (haven't tried orange, though).

One note of caution: wide faces need more contrast than narrow faces to avoid enhancement of these characteristics, unless that's your intention.

02-08-2008, 12:54 PM
thanks richard,


02-08-2008, 02:55 PM
If you want to learn how to make "real" people look like those in "classic" portraits, you have already been given some excellent technical advice.

If, on the other hand, your problem is that the young ladies all want to look like the ones on the magazine covers, it might be good to collect a few books by real masters of portraiture--Cunningham and Karsh come to mind--and let your prospective candidates see that a good portrait represents its subject, as opposed to a commercial illustration model. There is a big difference between a subject and a model; essentially, the latter is not "real" except in the image. Keeping Annie Leibovitz' Women around to page through has helped to get this across to a number of people who have since become favorite subjects.

02-08-2008, 07:55 PM
Thank you for your replies. I'll read Zeltsman's approach. It looks like a system.

I can't believe I didn't mention this. I'm doing this as part of training for wedding photography.

Basically, I want to get to a point that I see a face with my eyes and know the kind of light it is going to look best under.

The problem I found with books, is that while the pictures are interesting I can't know if that's the model that has a thin face or the split lighting that makes it appear so. At best it gives you a picture with a light setup and ratios, without ever telling you why the person was posed that way or why the light was used.

At worst, it's just the portfolio of the author.

I'm looking for a system.

02-08-2008, 08:36 PM
John, I agree. Very nice work.

David H. Bebbington
02-08-2008, 10:50 PM

I'm looking for a system.

"System" is a very good word, Andrey. From the point of view of portraiture, the people of the world fall into 2 distinct groups, namely the 5% or so who like the way they look and the 95% who don't (notwithstanding that among the 95% there may be many whom you or I might consider attractive, or even to be flawless beauties - they don't like themselves!). I therefore believe that successful commercial portraiture is a question of applying a flattering formula with minor variations (and of course developing an appropriate professional manner, radiating confidence and enthusiasm, always concentrating fully on the sitter, never fiddling with lighting or other equipment in the presence of the sitter but engaging them in conversation to put them at their ease, etc.).

This, quite frankly, is why, despite the fact that I am a trained professional and quite happily do live demonstrations of portraiture from time to time at camera clubs, etc. shooting either Polaroids which are passed round the audience or digital pics which are projected on a screen, I don't do commercial portraiture, because I find it tedious to constantly re-vamp the same formula in the way which seems essential for commercial success.

I believe you can develop a system only through practice - if you can find subjects which you can try shooting in five or six different ways (and who don't get bored while you shift the lights and camera about, which as I said I would avoid doing with real clients), I feel you would be well on the way to developing the eye which would enable you to decide instantly what set-up to use for a given sitter.

Best regards,


David A. Goldfarb
02-08-2008, 11:38 PM
David Bebbington is right to say that many clients have a formula in mind, and they all want the same darn thing, and this can get tedious. I found this to be the case when I was shooting performers' headshots for a while.

There are many tricks that can be done with lighting, posing, camera position, retouching and things like soft lenses. You can make a face look thinner with short lighting, or you can make a thin face look fuller with broad lighting, for instance, or you can use a high camera angle to de-emphasize a flabby neck or double chin. Many of these issues, though, are things you might not notice, but that the subject is self-conscious about, so you've got to figure out what their own body issues are.

It's worth noting that classic portraitists like Karsh and Hurrell later in his career didn't use soft lenses. They used sharp lenses and smoothed things out with pencil on the neg. Hurrell even preferred that his subjects not wear foundation makeup--only eye makeup and lipstick--so that he could capture the glow from clean skin and retouch the blemishes later.

02-09-2008, 09:44 AM
John, I agree. Very nice work.

thanks vdonovan :)


02-11-2008, 09:37 PM
Thank you very much for your responses.

David H. Bebbington, I wouldn't mind the "routine" of being able to make people look attractive. :)

I've shot 5 models, pretty girls so far. Only one has symmetrical eyes, but crooked smile. Everybody else need to be at an angle and short lit. With one model I couldn't get the eyes to look even, no matter what I tried.

02-12-2008, 07:53 PM
When all else fails, there is always makeup...

A few months ago I was asked by an acquaintance if there was anything that could be done to hide the fact that her eyes are quite different in size; it seems that she was very upset by her senior (high school) pictures, but apparently had no confidence that the photographer would be able to do any better on a second try (it is possible that he had no confidence, either). I was able to suggest the book Plastic Surgery Without the Surgery, by Eve Pearl, which has basic techniques for visually emphasizing or de-emphasizing features. She told me that the makeup worked as advertised, but I haven't seen the pictures so I can't say whether posing or lighting also had something to do with it.

Christopher Walrath
02-13-2008, 03:43 PM
Hire a model.