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Essential Makeup Tips for Every Portrait Photographer

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Read Time: 15 min

Four ingredients are necessary to achieve beautiful looking skin in portrait photography: a healthy and rested subject, makeup, good lighting, and talented retouching. Other than recommending a good night’s sleep and drinking plenty of water, there’s little a photographer can do to change the given subject. Makeup, however, can balance skin tones, correct most skin imperfections, and even change the perceived shape of a subject’s face. Makeup applied well will also boost the effects of good lighting and minimize the work needed later in retouching.  

Fashion and glamour photographers know the benefits of makeup and usually have a makeup artist on set. Portrait photographers are often not that fortunate. Typically, they work with the makeup — or lack of makeup — the subject wears, then correct for shine, blotches, and uneven skin tone in post-production. But, with a few makeup supplies and a bit of practice, any photographer can develop enough skill to apply basic makeup and improve a portrait right from capture.

This tutorial suggests what you might want to include in a makeup kit, introduces the basics of makeup application, and covers the important considerations of hygiene.

The Tools

Makeup artists spend hundreds of dollars on equipping their kit, but you will only need a few items to apply basic makeup before a portrait. That said, there are two important points to consider.

  • Cheap products usually give shoddy results. You don’t need to purchase the very best but I do recommend you shop in a reputable makeup store, at the cosmetics counter of a department store, or in a pharmacy with an expanded cosmetics section. Some ideal products can also be purchased online
  • More people are demanding cosmetics that are free of animal testing and animal byproducts. People are also increasingly resisting or are sensitive to harmful ingredients often found in cosmetics. Anticipate these potential objections and purchase cosmetics and tools that are animal friendly and free of the worst of the harmful ingredients

Brushes and Applicators

I recommend beginning with a kit of three brushes: a face brush, a blush or powder brush, and a concealer or lip brush. A number of companies now make animal-free brushes from bamboo. They are soft, durable, inexpensive, and clean up easily. If you’re looking for brushes that can withstand some abuse, spend a little bit more money and purchase good quality synthetic brushes. Be sure, however, that the larger synthetic brushes are very soft and pliable.

A basic tool kit for applying makeupA basic tool kit for applying makeupA basic tool kit for applying makeup
  1. Face brush: the largest and fluffiest of makeup brushes, often about 2 inches wide with the bristles curved in a rounded shape
  2. Blush or powder brush: a medium sized, soft brush, 1 to 1.5 inches wide with curved edges. This brush will serve double duty, so avoid purchasing a small blush brush.
  3. Concealer or lip brush: a small brush, about 0.25 to 0.5 inches wide, with ends tapered to a rounded point
  4. Wedge-shaped disposable sponges are handy for all sorts of things. Look for these packaged in a round or square shape, scored to be torn apart into wedges. (Tip: Disposable makeup sponges are also a great tool for propping up items in a still life.)
  5. Cotton swabs are indispensable and useful for many tasks. Splurge for a brand-name product with tightly wound swabs. Budget swabs often cause more of a mess than they clean.
  6. Popsicle sticks or tongue depressors are also useful for a number of things. Check your local craft shop for inexpensive boxes of sticks. This is one product to purchase as cheaply as you can.
  7. Disposable hand towels are another indispensable product. Tissues are not strong enough. Paper towels are a good second choice but they are not as easy to pack in a small kit.
  8. Blotting film or facial blotting paper is the last disposable item to add to your kit. The films or papers will come in small cardboard packages of about 30 sheets. They are inexpensive and you’ll use these a great deal, even if you don’t apply any makeup at all.


You will be able to apply basic makeup with a surprisingly small kit of makeup. You may wish to add more or different products if you find you’re often applying makeup, but begin with just the basics.

A small kit of essential makeupA small kit of essential makeupA small kit of essential makeup
  1. Translucent loose setting powder: This powder will have a very light skin tone colour in the jar but applies neutrally on almost all skin tones. Mineral-based powder is popular and works well. If you are feeling adventurous, mineral-based loose powders can also be purchased with more colour. With practice, you can match almost any skin tone by blending from a combination of three, perhaps four, basic shades.
  2. Concealer: This is an inexpensive staple for any makeup kit. You can purchase a small pot of each of three shades of concealer cream (light, medium, and dark), but if you have the patience for shopping, I recommend looking for what is often called a “concealer wheel” or “concealer palette.” This single container will contain light, medium, and dark skin tones plus yellow, green, and light purple or pink. 
  3. Blush or bronzer: It can be tough picking just one blush or one bronzer that will work on most skin tones, but NARS makes both, which can often be purchased at holiday time as a pair in one case. Look for NARS Orgasm blush and NARS Laguna bronzer. I have yet to encounter a situation where this blush/bronzer duo has failed me. Blending the two shades will work on skin tones that don’t take either the blush or bronzer on their own.
  4. Rice powder: This is a very fine, light, loose white or very pale powder used for absorbing excess oils and highlighting features. Be sure to purchase the real thing and not a chemical substitute. Real rice powder will go on almost invisibly; chemical substitutes will add or change colour. If you’re unable to find rice powder in the cosmetics shops, try a theatre supply store. This is not an expensive product.
  5. Lip gloss or cream: As with blush and bronzer, it can be difficult to find just one lip colour that will look attractive on all skin tones. It’s rare that a woman will arrive for a photograph without her lipstick in her purse, and most men would rather give lip treatments a pass. Still, I recommend keeping a pot, squeezable tube, or stick of clear lip gloss, and if you wish, a few tinted lip balms. Do not purchase lip gloss in a long container with a stick applicator. It is almost impossible to use gloss this way without contaminating it.

Cleaning Products

It is absolutely essential that you keep your hands, brushes, and cosmetics clean.

  • Hand sanitizer: Any one will do, although I recommend avoiding any sanitizer with a heavy scent. Wipe your hands well with sanitizer before and after every makeup application.
  • Brush cleanser: Look for a conditioning brush cleanser in a spray bottle, or purchase a small spray bottle and fill it with isopropyl alcohol. Spray every brush thoroughly when you are finished a makeup application. Let the spray sit for a minute or two on the brush, then wipe the brushes clean with a disposable hand towel. Brushes that have been used with blush or contour may need a few cleanings to remove all of the makeup.
  • Cosmetic sanitizer: Isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle will also work as a cosmetic sanitizer, but it will discolour makeup with repeated use. A better choice is a sanitizing mister made especially for cosmetics. Makeup artists swear by a cosmetic sanitizer made by Beauty So Clean. It can even be purchased in very small portable spray bottles. Lightly spray all cosmetics with sanitizer after every makeup application and leave the cosmetics open for a few minutes to air dry.

Applying Makeup to Women

Most women will have taken some care to apply at least the minimum of makeup before being photographed. To be sure they have, suggest when arranging the photography session that they apply face cream and foundation before arriving for the shoot. Also remind them to be certain to bring their lipstick with them.

When your client arrives, assess each step before applying or correcting your client’s makeup. Your client’s makeup may be just fine or may only need some minor touchups. Only add or repair what’s needed.

Blot and Conceal

This is a critical stage of applying makeup for photographs. Done well, blotting and concealing will transform skin irregularities and save a great deal of retouching later. Done poorly and you’ll spend more time retouching.

Your first step is to use blotting paper to blot up any obviously oil spots. Simply press the blotting paper to the oily area, lift, and repeat as necessary, using a clean section of blotting paper each time. Do not rub!

Then, using your smallest brush (the lip or concealer brush), dab concealer on blemishes, dark under eye circles, and any other area needing a bit of correction. Dab on a bit of concealer with your brush, wait a minute or so, then use a clean finger to lightly dab the concealer to begin to blend it in. (You will finish blending in the next stage.)

Applying concealer demands that you think about colour theory and shading. Apply green to red blotches, yellow to purple-blue under eye circles on olive or tan skin, and light purple or pink to under eye circles on fair skin. Then use a flesh-toned concealer the same as, or slightly lighter than, your client’s skin to even out the corrections. Consider using a darker flesh-toned concealer to make areas recede (for example, on a prominent nose bump) or a lighter flesh-toned concealer to bring areas forward (for example, on sunken skin below under eye circles). 

Blot oil and conceal blemishesBlot oil and conceal blemishesBlot oil and conceal blemishes

Correcting or Balancing Foundation

With excess oil removed and any blemishes covered, check your client’s foundation. Some women are generous in applying foundation or fail to adequately blend foundation along the jaw line. If this is the case with your client, dampen one of your wedge sponges and use it in light gentle strokes to even out the foundation. Pay particular attention to her jawline and hair line, ensuring any makeup lines are smoothly blended out.

Some women may not have applied quite enough foundation. If this is the case, use your largest brush (the face brush) and brush on lightly tinted setting powder. This is also when you might apply tinted mineral powders if you’re experimenting with those. Or, if your client has very dark skin, use a popsicle stick and scrape a tiny bit of contour into some tinted setting powder. Powder will not provide deep coverage, but it will supplement a thin application of foundation. 

Correct or balance foundationCorrect or balance foundationCorrect or balance foundation

Blush and Contour

If you’ve never applied makeup to another person, this stage will initially feel awkward using a brush and makeup in this way. Practice in advance by brushing makeup onto white sheets of paper. Watercolour paper is ideal for practising because it mimics the feel of skin. To get the most out of your practice, download a blank face sketch from the Internet, print it on watercolour paper, and practice applying makeup to the sketch.

When you are ready to apply blush and contour to your client, ask her to smile broadly. Use your medium-sized brush (blush or powder brush) to apply blush from the apex of the apple of her cheeks in a very slight curve down and then up, almost to her ears. Brush the blush on in light strokes, brushing on more makeup in layers until you’ve achieved a look that is slightly more dramatic than natural.

Next, ask your client to suck in her cheeks. Use your blush or powder brush with your bronzer to lightly apply a bit of contour in the sunken area of her cheeks from about mid-cheek back to hair line. A little contouring goes a long way. When you begin feeling more confident applying contour, consider applying it down the middle of a woman’s nose, at her temples, and on the tip of her chin. This will make your client’s face look a bit thinner.  

Apply blush and contouringApply blush and contouringApply blush and contouring


For good makeup application, blend, blend, and blend some more. Begin with your large face brush and lightly sweep in circles to begin to blend in the edges of the blush and contour you’ve applied. Finish blending by using your face brush to lightly brush on some light flesh coloured translucent powder.

Highlight and Manage Shine

Rice powder can be used at this stage both to add some highlights to your client’s face and to tone down any shiny areas. To add highlights, use a clean blush or face brush (be sure you’ve cleaned it of blush and contour), dip the tip of the brush in some rice powder and gently touch the rice powder onto the areas you wish to highlight. Then use your face brush to blend.

Adding highlights to either side of the bridge of your client’s nose — near the inside corners of her eyes — will brighten her eyes. To lift a tired look, add a bit of highlighting to the very top of her cheek bones near the bottom of her eye sockets, particularly toward the outer corners of her eyes toward her temples.

If your client has some shiny areas — and this may be all you need to correct for some clients — apply some rice powder on the shine using your face brush. Go lightly; it’s easy to over-correct and end up with overly pale looking skin. 

Highlight manage shine and colour lipsHighlight manage shine and colour lipsHighlight manage shine and colour lips


Finish by ensuring your client’s lips are smooth, polished, and moist looking. If your client has brought her own lipstick, have her use that. If, however, she did not bring it or her lips need a bit of moisture or shine, use a popsicle stick (or tongue depressor) to scoop a bit of lip gloss out of a pot or to scrape a bit of tinted lip balm off the tube. Apply the gloss or balm from the stick with a clean concealer or lip brush. Don’t use your fingers or let your client use her fingers; more gloss or balm will remain on your fingers than on your client’s lips.


At each stage, step back from your client to assess what you have applied or corrected. You can always layer on a bit more makeup where needed, but it’s difficult to neatly remove too much makeup.

Before and afterBefore and afterBefore and after
Before and after without retouching. (I asked my model to apply her own mascara.)

Applying Makeup to Men

To my surprise and delight, I have never had a man refuse my suggestion of a bit of corrective makeup. Typically, I limit makeup application for men to concealing and managing shine.

Blot and Conceal

Always use blotting paper on a man’s skin before applying any concealer. Men naturally produce a heavier oil on their faces. If the oil is not blotted, concealer will easily slip off with every attempt to apply it. Otherwise, the same principles for applying concealer to women applies to men. You may only need to be a bit more diligent in blending concealer over shaved facial hair.

Managing Shine

Rice powder works wonderfully to matte shine on a man’s face, especially on high foreheads and bald spots. Even if you are not able to completely matte shine in those areas, rice powder will bring the shine down enough that you will have texture to work with in those areas of the photograph when retouching. As with women, apply rice powder to men lightly with a large face brush, blend well, and check to be sure you have not created pasty-white areas. 

If your client’s skin tone is dark and you are trying to matte significant shine, blend a little tinted translucent powder with the rice powder before applying. Alternatively, Arbonne makes a powder (FC5 Mattifying Powder) that works wonderfully. It’s a pressed powder and looks light green in the compact, but goes on neutral with every skin tone. It will matte shine but won’t lighten skin or add highlights. 

Managing shine on a mans skinManaging shine on a mans skinManaging shine on a mans skin


Some men, particularly those who spend a great deal of time outdoors, have dry or flaking lips. Ask if you might apply a little clear lip balm in this case, or offer it to your client to apply with his finger. This is a circumstance when applying lip balm does work better with a finger. Rub the balm in well; you typically don’t want shiny traces on a man’s lips.


Before finishing up, take a close look at your client. Remove smudges, makeup flakes, or lint with a cotton swab. Use your face brush or a damp disposable sponge to blend any makeup that needs just a tiny bit more blending. And use a damp disposable sponge to remove stains or lint from clothing.

Finally, always clean your brushes and cosmetics after every use. Use a conditioning brush spray or isopropyl alcohol on your brushes and cosmetic sanitizer or isopropyl alcohol on your cosmetics. Throw away any disposable items you used. And always wash your hands with soap and running water or with sanitizer as soon as you are finished.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Applying makeup to another person does not come naturally. There is a reason why makeup artists are paid handsomely for their work. But with a few tools, a small bag of cosmetics, and practice, you will be able to address the worst of makeup or skin flaws before you capture your client’s portrait.

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