The Portrait Photographer's Notebook: The eyes have it

It is said that a peoples’ eyes are the windows to their soul. I believe this is true, and because eyes are the most expressive facial feture, they deserve as much prominence as you can give them.

But, after shooting too many portraits to bother counting, I can tell you that hiding double chins is very important to many subjects. And, although they seldom come right out and tell you, many subjects who want their double chins to be hidden also want their eyes to look larger! Sadly, working with a face often involves a series of tradeoffs in which one correction has both a positive and negative effect. In this instance making eyes look bigger can exacerbate the double chin issue.

To get noses to look smaller and to banish double chins, many people consciously or unconsciously raise their chin a bit when they pose themselves for a portrait. While this makes their noses look smaller and stretches those double chins into a single (although full) chin, this move also it makes their eyes look smaller.

It’s All a Matter of Parallel Planes.

Imagine that the plane of the face and the imaging plane (either the film or digital imaging sensor) are floating in space and that they are parallel to each other. When they are parallel you will record an accurate rendition of the face. By accurate I mean that each facial feature will be in correct proportion to all the other features.

If the subject lifts his or her chin, the head will now be tilting backward and the plane of the face and the imaging plane are no longer parallel. The bottom of the facial plane (where the chin is located) is almost always closer to the imaging plane (which is determined by the camera position) than the top of the facial plane where the eyes are. Because of this discrepancy in distance, the chin looks larger and the eyes look smaller than they actually are.

Conversely, having your subject lower his or her chin a tiny fraction of an inch brings the eyes closer to the imaging plane than the chin is, which makes the eyes appear bigger and the chin appear smaller. Lowering the chin a fraction of an inch also makes the nose appear a fraction of an inch longer and also might expose a double chin.

I would gladly trade these possible defects to get bigger, more expressive eyes, but the choice is yours, and depends on the subject’s priorities. If you’re photographing someone you know well rather than a client, try it both ways and let your subject choose the picture on the basis of personal preference.

Compare these photos and you can see that raising the subject’s chin by tilting the head backward (left) makes her chin more prominent while lowering the subject’s chin slightly by tilting the head a bit forward (right) makes her eyes appear larger.
Both photos are from the second edition of my book Wedding Photography: Art, Business, and Style.


But only a fraction of an inch!

Interestingly, in the initial stages of shooting portraits, most beginning photographers tend to overcorrect when trying to accentuate a facial feature. Forgive the metaphor, but imagining how good a single candy bar tastes, these newbies often decide to eat three or four in a candy bar orgy. Like having your subject lower their chin, too much of a good thing can often lead to the photographic equivalent of a tummy ache!

We’ve all seen illustrations of the little waif with saucer-sized eyes but that isn’t the effect I’m after because it looks so unnatural. What you need is a measly one-quarter (or at most one-half) inch of chin lowering to make the eyes appear slightly larger without looking artificially exaggerated.

Chin lowering solves the eyeglass issue, too!

If your subject wears eyeglasses (and many people do want to be photographed with their glasses on!), lowering the chin slightly also eliminates reflections in those glasses. Like a pool hall bank shot, having an eyeglass wearer lower his or her chin slightly makes the flash reflection off the glasses bounce harmlessly towards the floor instead of into your camera lens. But, remember, as mentioned above, a little bit of lowering is all you need!

Eyeglasses, and the flash reflections they often induce, can strike fear into the hearts of both the subject and the photographer! But fear not, noble shooter; having your subjects tilt their heads slightly forward by having them lower their chins a bit can snatch a beautiful portrait from the jaws of flashback. Both these photos are from the second edition of my book Wedding Photography: Art, Business, and Style.


And Now…. Back to Those Double Chins!

What happens if your subject is not svelte like my model, but is "blessed" with a pair of chins? Although I pointed out previously that having a subject lower his or her chin can exacerbate the double chin issue, there is a way to make the eyes larger and hide the those extra chins in one fell swoop.

If you go to a slightly higher camera position (with the lens centered on the subject’s eyes instead of the nose) the subject’s eyes are now closer to the camera lens than the chin is, which means the eyes will appear larger and the chin smaller.

As an added benefit, the slightly higher camera angle will also hide those double chins under the subject’s primary one. In effect, this means that you’ve scored a double victory by accentuating the feature you want to show off while minimizing the feature you want to hide!

Of course, if your subject has a weak chin you can’t do this, which proves, I suppose, that with some portrait subjects there’s no such thing as a free lunch—you just have to do your best and hope that a pleasant, animated expression and a good likeness carry the day.