How to Flatter Your Subjects So They Come Back for More


Have you ever taken an amazing shot that you absolutely loved? The lighting was perfect, the composition was amazing and your subject’s expression was just right, but when you showed that perfect photo to your subject, they HATED it?

They only noticed their double chin or fat thigh and could have cared less about your perfect golden light or placement of their double chin in the lower third?

This happens when you get so focused on making a beautiful shot that you forget that though your client might like a beautifully composed photo, they want to look beautiful too. If you are a wedding or portrait photographer understanding this and understanding how to make your clients look as good as possible is your key to happy clients.

Too often we think that we can fix things after the shot is taken by using Photoshop. However, doing everything in post-production is time consuming and not always enough. It is faster and easier to make some quick changes while you are shooting.

You can alter how your subject is posed or how you set your camera before taking the shot and your subject will look thinner and younger instantly. With these simple changes you’ll notice amazing results.

Here are six tips to remember when shooting to flatter your subjects.

Body Position

Ever heard the phrase the camera adds 10 pounds?  Have you every looked at a picture of a perfectly skinny person and noticed that they look bigger than usual? What's going on?

99% of the problem is that the person is standing or sitting in the wrong way and the photo is taken at just that wrong moment.

This can be avoided by giving your subject some direction. For example, if you are shooting a bride try telling her this:

1. “Turn your feet so they are at a 45 degree angle to me (the photographer)”. Her feet will be slightly to the side instead of facing straight at the camera. You can stand next to her and show her how to do this.

2. “Now swivel at the waist so your shoulders turn toward the camera”. This makes her waist look smaller than if she were facing straight on to the camera.

3. “Shift your weight to your back foot by slightly moving your hips back from the camera.” This often causes her to have to bend her front leg slightly. If she seems confused again model this movement for her.

4. “Finally, keep your arms slightly away from your body. You can place your hand on your upper thigh or waist.” This space between her arm and her body gives the impression that her arms are thinner and her waist is smaller. This is essential, even very thin women can look chunky if their arm is squeezed and flattened against her body.

Notice the difference between these two pictures:

In the first picture, the subjects and standing flat on to the camera.

The subtle shift in body position in the second picture makes the woman's waist slimmer, her legs even longer and thinner.

Ten extra pounds GONE!

Camera Position

You can always make some people look better when you photograph them from above.

Eyes look bigger, bodies look slimmer and double chins disappear when shot at this angle.

We, as photographers often see pictures of fashion models that are shot when the photographer is below the model’s eye level. These shots can be amazing and the model can look incredible in them. BUT the key word in that last sentence was “model.” Most of us are not shooting models. We are shooting real people who may have a few extra pounds to lose and shooting up at them will only exaggerate this.

Really this is as easy as hopping up on a chair or having your subject sit down so you can be higher than them.

For example, your subject is seated and the photographer stands above and shoots down.

Your subject is standing but the photographer stands on a chair or upstairs from the subject to shoots down.

This simple change can help rid your photo albums of double chins. And who doesn't want that?

Position of the Light

This tip is important to keep in mind when someone needs to have some wrinkles smoothed out. You can get this right with your posing and lighting so that you don’t have to spend hours fixing it in Photoshop.

The basic rule is that you should try to avoid side lighting your subject.  Side lighting is when the sun, or any light source is basically perpendicular (or at a 90 degree angle) to your subject.

For example, if you have a person standing near a window and the window is directly to his left or right then he is getting lit from the side.  

In this scenario, wrinkles and the contours of his face are more pronounced. This is often the lighting used in those lovely National Geographic photos of an old man who has worked outside for the last 75 years.  It dramatizes his weathered face.  I don't know about you but I would rather not look "weathered" just yet! And most likely your clients won’t want to either!

So what can you do?

In the window situation above you could do two things.

1. Turn the mother of the bride so that the window is at her back. Then you’ll have to use some fill flash to compensate for this backlit situation OR (and this second is my preferred choice for making people’s skin look beautiful)...

2. Turn her so that she is facing the window. The diffused light from the window will be straight on to her and is at your back.

Turning toward the window with the photographer putting the window at her back is the best option because it makes the soft light come straight at your subject. In this situation the light is soft because it is diffused. And diffused light is your friend!

Soft, diffused light coming straight at you is the most flattering.  It is often called "beauty light." This is because the even light reduces shadows on the face. Shadows accentuate wrinkles, under-eye bags and other flaws and no one wants that.

There are several ways to create a beauty light situation:

1. Window light hitting your subject’s face because the window is at the photographer's back.

2. Your subject stands just inside an open doorway, photographer stands just outside the door and shoots in at subject.

3. Your subject stands in the shade (for example of a building), light is at photographer's back. Note the shade must be EVEN across your subject’s face- dappled light coming through the leaves of trees can make un-even light on your subject’s face can cause that weathered look we’re trying hard to avoid.

So a little shift of position and your subject will look years younger. No Photoshop required!

Choose the Correct Lens

There are some pictures that my photographer took at my wedding that I just cringe when I look at. My nose (my least favorite feature) somehow looks much bigger and my already high forehead seems to go on forever. When I look at the other photos of the day, I look like the pretty bride I felt like, but those few pictures are just horrible looking (because I am horrible looking in them!).

So why did I my face look so strange in those few pictures?

The answer: my wedding photographer’s lens choice. He was using a super wide-angle lens to take close-ups of friends and me.

When you shoot a close-up portrait of someone with a lens wider than a 50mm, you’ll get some distortion. Faces get longer, noses and foreheads get bigger.

See this example below. The first picture is shot at 24mm. Notice how their foreheads and noses look long.

The second photo is of the same couple. This was shot with a lens longer than 70mm. Their faces are no longer distorted.

It is generally a good rule of thumb to not shoot portraits with a lens wider than 50mm for close-up portraits. (Many photographers chose 70mm or 100mm lenses for portraits.)

This will help avoid distortion of the face so that clients don’t wonder why their nose suddenly grew!

Your Exposure

There is a difference between correct exposure and the exposure that is correct for the situation you are in or for your aesthetic. And when choosing the right exposure for subjects who don’t have perfect skin (whether they are teenagers with breakouts or mothers with wrinkles) the “right” exposure is always slightly over-exposed.

This extra light smoothes out the imperfections in the skin, again, well before any Photoshop is used. Get this right in camera and your touch-up time with be significantly reduced.

There is a fine line between slightly over-exposed and too over-exposed so you’ll have to play with this a little bit. However, a good start is to get the exposure technically right, based on your in-camera meter, and then change your settings to over-expose by about a half a stop.

You can do this by looking at your in-camera meter. When something is correctly exposed, the line in the meter will be on zero or right in the middle. You’ll change your settings to let in a little bit more light by either opening your aperture or slowing down your shutter speed. Follow your meter and when it shows that you are halfway between 0 and +1 you should be just the right amount over exposed.

Look at these two examples to see the difference in this subtle over exposure.

In this first photo, the subject is slightly underexposed and his wrinkles and skin imperfections stand out.

In the next photo, the subject is slightly over-exposed and the extra light on his skin makes it look smoother and more uniform.

Getting Natural Expressions

The light might be perfect, the photographer in the perfect position but if your clients stiffen and look like a deer in headlights when a camera comes out, none of that will help.

Really what makes someone look beautiful in pictures is when they look happy, relaxed and natural.

Here are some suggestions you can give clients for looking more natural in photos:

1. If you are looking directly into the camera instead of seeing a camera, think of something that REALLY makes you smile or laugh.  Maybe it's the moment your boyfriend asked you to marry him, or when your two year old stuck a pea up her nose or maybe it's a pint of Ben and Jerry's. When you're thinking of something that genuinely makes you happy, you're eyes smile too and your face softens - the perfect anti-"picture face."

2. Look at someone else in the picture and smile at them.  When you're looking at someone else you are more likely to make genuine expression and look your most natural.

3.  Look at someone off camera who makes you laugh or smile. Sometimes just not looking right at the camera allows you to look more natural. At weddings when I’m taking a photo of just the bride or groom alone, I’ll have someone off-camera in charge of making him or her laugh.

My favorite pictures of myself and of anyone I've photographed are when they are laughing. So tell your clients, “Turn to your friend and laugh.  Snuggle in close to your honey and laugh. Giggle with your baby. Even when you don't feel like laughing, laughing MAKES you laugh.”

Fake it 'till you make it, if you will.

Then when your clients look back on the photo, it will make them smile because they'll remember feeling happy. And as Audrey Hepburn once said, "the happy girls are the prettiest."

As you can see simply paying attention to how, where and from what direction you shoot your subject you can make them look thinner and younger without spending hours in Photoshop after the shoot. Couple this knowledge with the ability to make your subject relax and give genuine expressions in the photos and you’ll be consistently creating photos that your subjects will love.

Now go make your subjects feel pretty... and happy.

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