Posing the Face
An excerpt from the Steve’s book “Digital Portrait Photography: Art, Business, and Style”
I firmly believe that perfect posing results in portraits that don’t look posed. The idea that a photographer’s best work should not be seen is a difficult concept for many photographers to accept because of the competitive nature of a profession where everyone wants to stand out. Imagine the consternation we egocentric photographers feel knowing that our goal is not to be seen? Regardless of our desire to shout about our competence from every hilltop and steeple, or the necessity for proving talent and creativity in competing for assignments, I still come back to the truism that the very best posing is invisible. The whole idea behind great portraiture is that it’s not about the photographer’s technical virtuosity, but instead about the subject and his, her, or their message. So let’s talk about posing: the invisible art form.
Posing and the Camera
Many artistic techniques in portrait photography are best when they don’t call attention to themselves. If the viewer is distracted by any photographic technique, it obscures the subject who should be the focus of the portrait. There’s a phrase that magazine and book publishers use to describe a great editing job: The perfect editor never leaves footprints. The editor’s job is to make the words organized and easily understandable so the message comes through without losing the author’s unique voice and, in a way, that’s a good description of the portrait photographer’s job, too. If a portrait photographer’s posing technique looks stilted, uncomfortable, or unnatural, then the photographer is leaving footprints, and those very footprints can doom the portrait to mediocrity, or worse still, a cliché.
Even though posing is an invisible art form, when done carefully and with a plan, it can do wonders for a less than perfect face. In reality, there are very few “perfect faces” to begin with, so posing is an invaluable technique. Shortening noses, accentuating eyes, hiding lazy or different-sized eyes, strengthening weak chins, and a host of other common “problems” can easily be dispatched by posing. Like the magician’s sleight of hand, much of this visual trickery is based on controlling what the viewer can see, and probably more importantly, what they can’t. While you can accentuate something by lighting it, or minimize it by hiding it, or placing it in the shadows, another way to do this is by carefully choosing your point of view. What this boils down to is your camera’s position in relation to the face, and while it may not seem to be connected to posing, it can be considered as a block in the foundation you’re building to support everything else you’re going to do. That being the case, let’s start there.
Two Planes Floating in Space
In your mind’s eye, imagine two planes floating in space; one represents the subject’s face (the facial plane) and the other represents either the digital chip or the piece of film within your camera (the imaging plane). Do you have a mental picture of this? Good. While these two planes are not physically connected, moving either of them affects how the facial plane is shown on the imaging plane. Not only does moving either plane left, right, up, or down change how the subject’s face is portrayed on the imaging plane, but depending upon whether the planes are parallel or not also affects how the face is portrayed. If the two planes are parallel and centered on one another, then the imaging plane will record an “accurate” rendition of the facial plane. But if they’re offset or not parallel, then things start to get interesting.
When I talk about centering the lens (or lens axis) on the subject, you should imagine a straight line that passes through the exact center of the front element of the lens and hits both the imaging and subject planes at a right (90°) angle. While centering the lens can be exact, the center of a subject’s face is not as easily defined. If we were to center the face on the lens axis, it is likely that the centered lens axis line would hit the average subject somewhere between the bridge and the tip of their nose. However, when we get a mental image of a face the first thing we usually see in our mind is the subject’s eyes. This means that there are two centers of the face; one is the physical center (somewhere approximately on the nose), while the other is the center of interest (usually the eyes). If I’m doing a bust-length portrait, I usually start with the camera centered on the physical center of the face. But if I’m doing a close-up portrait, which is primarily the subject’s face, I start off with my camera centered on the center of interest—the eyes.
Full-lengths are a bit easier because the subject’s eyes, while still important, are a much smaller part of the whole. I was taught that the approximate starting off point for a full-length portrait is to center the camera on the subject’s belly button. In general, I find the least amount of subject distortion happens when my camera’s imaging plane is approximately parallel to the subject plane, be it their face or their body. Remember though, that like all rules, this rule is ripe for breaking.
Depending on what kind of portrait you are composing, you’ll want to consider the camera height in relation to the subject’s face. For bust-length poses (top), center your lens on the subject’s nose. For close-ups, center your lens on the subject’s eyes (bottom).
Working With Planes and Distances
Let’s talk about the changes that take place when you start to move out of parallel in the imaging and subject planes. If you’re shooting a subject and the imaging plane is centered on the eyes (and thus slightly higher than the face’s center), and you tilt the camera downwards to reframe and center the face, you have accomplished a few things, some good, some bad. Because the imaging plane is now higher and tilted downward toward the face’s physical center, the subject’s eyes are closer to the imaging plane while their chin is farther away. This is almost always a good thing. At the same time, the higher point of view and the downward tilt of the imaging plane makes the subject’s nose look longer. This is not always a good thing! The higher viewpoint will also minimize the subject’s nostrils and weaken a strong chin (or even worse, weaken an already weak chin). Often, you’ll find that trying to accentuate or minimize one feature of a subject’s face results in the accentuating or minimizing of another feature at the same time. That’s because all of a subject’s facial parts are connected and, sadly, you can’t remove your subject’s nose and move it a quarter of an inch up or down and then reconnect it! So whenever you adjust the camera angle to better portray one feature, be prepared for resulting changes in other features.
As you consider this point, remember that the facial plane is not fixed—it’s also free to move and tilt, which will also change the results you’ll see. For example, if you center your lens on the subject’s eyes or even higher, which is slightly higher than the physical center of the face, and then have your subject tilt their head up slightly to bring the face’s plane back into parallel with the imaging plane, then the folds of a double chin are stretched open and start to disappear. Without a doubt, 99.9 percent of your double-chinned subjects will applaud this change. As an additional bonus, any double chin still remaining will be hidden and minimized because the high point of view puts it under the primary chin. But remember to look for those resulting changes to other features and weigh their effect on the portrait; in this case, you will end up with a longer-nosed subject who has a weaker chin. I find it very interesting that even slight alterations in camera height usually create simultaneous positive and negative changes, and having to constantly evaluate these changes and make compromises is one of the reasons I’m still not bored with portraiture after all these years.
For changing the distance between camera and subject planes, small increments are usually best. If you were to draw a horizontal line through the center of most subjects’ faces (the nose) and another horizontal line through their eyes, you’d find that the distance between the lines on most faces is only about two inches. So when raising the camera as in the example above, I would consider a “high” camera position to be one in which the center of the imaging plane is no more than approximately 4 – 6 inches (10.2 – 15.2 cm) above the center of the subject’s face. Go much higher (like a foot or two) and the camera’s height starts to leave a signature. What is a signature, you might ask? Any time you choose a point of view that is so radical that it detracts from the subject by calling more attention to itself, that point of view is leaving its signature on the photograph. I think very high and very low viewpoints trigger associations about the subject in the mind of the person viewing the photograph.
It’s important to consider what the height of your camera says about your subject. A high camera position can make them seem small or young, while a low position can make them seem overbearing or larger than life.
I believe everyone naturally makes assumptions about things they see that are based, in part, on past experiences, and camera height as interpreted by a viewer can be a prime example of this concept. If you start to bring up mental images of children you know, you might realize that in the vast majority of these instances, you are looking down at them because kids are smaller than adults. I believe that when we look at a portrait of a single subject done from a radically high viewpoint, it triggers our mental associations about children and makes us feel that the subject is young. If you accept this, then when we look at a portrait of a single subject from a radically low viewpoint, the opposite occurs—the subject looks heroic, powerful, and larger than life because of their dominant, overbearing position in relation to the camera.
While this may seem like a logical concept, I can’t tell you how many photographers I’ve encountered who give no thought to how the camera’s height in relation to the subject changes things. Worse still, these photographers often choose a camera height based on their own comfort or convenience, rather than the best choice for the portrait. I’ve seen very tall photographers doing portraits of small kids with the camera held at their own eye level. I find this unbelievable because they are giving up a useful tool without even considering how their camera’s height might be used to their benefit in portraiture.
In: Posing · Tagged with: accentuating eyes, bust-length portrait, camera, camera’s height in relation to the subject, close-up portrait, eyes, face, hiding double chin, hiding lazy or different-sized eyes, Posing, Shortening noses, strengthening weak chins, viewpoint