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Photographer Secrets: How to Show Your Subject's Best

Kristine Tsui March 31, 2021 · 7 min read
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We’ve all mastered the art of the selfie – finding our best angles, our best lighting in our homes, and that exact face we need to make to get the perfect shot – but what about in photography? Here are some easy tips to showing your subject’s best. *Disclaimer – this article discusses tips and tricks for portrait or headshot photography, and as always, to quote Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”.

Angle Matters

The rule of thumb is that taking a photo from above someone’s face (so that your lens is pointing down at your subject), is slimming and feminizing – which achieves a “prettier shot”. This is my go-to for headshot photography, where flattery is everything. However, this isn’t the only way to take a headshot. Taking a photo from below your subject (so that your lens is pointing upwards at your subject) will yield a more masculine and confident picture – it emphasizes their chin and enlarges facial features. I love using this technique in a session when we’re trying to market our subject as more “confident”. I often start with the beauty shot, then navigate from there based on what tone the subject wants to exude. *Quick tip: I’m 5’1 so I’m usually shorter than most of my subjects. In order to capture headshots of my subject’s from above, I often stand on taller objects, or if I’m indoors and it’s clean, I’ll have them sit or “stand” on their knees. Shooting from the side of your subject, versus in front of it also makes a drastic difference. It’s pretty basic visual logic, shooting from the side means that the lens only sees a part of the face, so you see less, thus appearing slimmer. However, shooting from the front is by no means off bounds. In fact, when a subject feels confident to rock all that they have for the camera, it can create some incredibly honest portraits that reveal a whole lot. These are the photos that I usually love the most. Quick Tip: At the beginning of a session, I ask my subject what they think their best side is. If they don’t immediately respond with a preference, I know that they don’t have one, and dismiss the question. Don’t pressure your subject to knowing or desiring a specific side – asking can just very quickly clear up if already have decided what side they want to be shot from, thus alleviating them from feeling like a diva by telling the photographer. In the end, this saves time, and photos can be catered around what they prefer. Regardless of an answer or not, I believe that all sides is the best side and take from all three at some point of a session. I’ll decide with the subject what they like best and favor an angle more than others based on their preference.

Light & Lens

The most important “technical” element across all photography is light. Good lighting is crucially important in creating a great portrait and can determine whether a photograph is flattering or not. Of course, this is an incredibly personal, artistic, and complex matter that cannot be narrowed down to generalities, but for the sake of this topic, we’ll paint some broad strokes. I’ve found that my favorite light for portrait photography is diffused and even lighting. This “beauty” lighting that’s even and diffused can be found naturally on an overcast day, under shade, or behind windows. What you want to avoid for a traditional photo are hard lines that mainly come from direct sunlight or harsh lights. Strong light that casts shadows on the face can easily emphasize blemishes, uneven skin, and even cause your subject to squint from the bright lights in their eyes. The important idea here is to be intentional about your light and being aware that it can make or break your photo. Experiment with different looks and find what best works for you! Quick tip: one of my most important pieces of equipment in my arsenal is a simple, 15 dollar reflector. It allows me to find light even in darker locations and balances light back on my subject when I want to shoot in non-ideal locations. When choosing a lens, go for a portrait lens over a wide-angle to create a more flattering shot. While wide angle lenses are great for landscapes or even full body shots, when used to take up-close shots, it distorts the image and can enlarge the face. I prefer to use lenses over 50mm, with my favorite personal “budget” lens being the Tamron 90mm 2.8.

Constant feedback from your subject

I’ve found that the most important way in finding out if your photos are flattering your subject is to ask them! During a session, if possible, I make it a habit to intentionally (but sparingly) show them the photos. I’ll pull them up either on the back of my camera, or preferably on my computer and go through the photos we’ve taken so far. I ask them “What photos are catching your eyes?” and “What are some photos you DON’T like, and why?”. This constant chain of feedback allows me to make sure my subject walks away happy. After viewing the images, we jump right back into that session to beat their favorite photos, repeating and improving what they loved most, and cutting away what they didn’t like.

Confidence & comfort

In order to get a good photo of your subject, they have to feel confident and comfortable. I’ve found my favorite photos come when they trust your work. If this means sitting down with them prior to your session to ensure that you’re both on the same page, go grab a cup of coffee and discuss your process. This also means that you need to KNOW your camera before you take their photo. The more you look and finagle with your settings during a session, the more they’re focused on what you’re doing and not the task at hand. Know your settings and spend more time on your subject. Make sure that they feel confident in the clothes they’re wearing and always be on the look out for things they might be self-conscious of, like misplaced hairs, bra straps, overturned collars, etc. In the end, make sure they look good, crank some music, and let them have fun! You’ll get happier photos, guaranteed.

Any tips you’d like to share?

These are only some of the ways you can make your subject look their very best. Practice and see what works for you! There are endless methods to make beautiful people, look beautiful and I’ve found that one of the most rewarding things about taking photos is making people feel confident and reminding them continually that they’re wonderfully created. Take joy in that and challenge yourself to make that more important than the photo itself. You might find that when you do, your photos start looking so much more incredible. About the author Kristine Tsui is an Associate Producer at Bindery NYC and founder of Headshots With a Mission, a fundraising tool which hopes to equip and empower young creatives with tools to create tangible change in their local communities and abroad through giving back with their artistic gifts.

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About the Author
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Kristine Tsui

Associate Producer at Bindery NYC

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3 Comments
  • Communication is very important in portrait photography, so I'm glad that most of your tips go back to talking with your subject. Don't treat the person in front of the camera is a prop! :-) 6 years ago
  • Anonymous
    Photography is not simply way to explore services. Need to expert in photo shot, color match and upload portfolio with desire content. If your photo match standard must will sell and explore more. Thanks 6 years ago
  • thank you for the article. very interesting! 6 years ago