• August 7, 2020

How to Photograph People Well

How to Photograph People Well

How to Photograph People Well 1024 683 Gavin Parsons

People like having their picture taken about as much as they enjoy walking into a lamppost. Being told to smile, stand up straight and look happy are some of the most annoying, or terrifying phrases, someone can hear. So how do you get a subject to look good in front of the camera? Well, ‘cheese’ is best left in the fridge or put in a sandwich as it will not help you get a decent portrait of anyone, with the exception perhaps of an affineur (someone who ages cheese).

It’s a psychological problem more than a photographic one as people think they look stupid, or ugly and will often tell you they hate having their picture taken. I am of the school that people are generally ugly on the inside rather than the out, so just about everyone has a trait that makes them stand out photogenically. It could be in their eyes, their smile or just the way they stand. As a portrait photographer, it’s your role to bring those traits out and show them off.  Your subject may think they are too fat, too thin, have a crocket nose or a lop-sided face, but none of that matters if you find the element that actually holds their beauty.

However, in order to capture your subject’s personality, you first have to make them uncomfortable. I don’t mean tell them Bernard Manning jokes or insult their grandmother, but work them into some uncomfortable poses to actually make them look their best.

The classic ¾ pose. It’s good, but it gets rather samey after a while.

You see, the way your average person stands is not the most photogenic, we didn’t evolve to have our picture taken. You need to make them stand (or sit) in a way your average human would find ridiculous at best and downright stupid at worst, but believe me the results are well worth it.

The idea is to get the eyes at the right level, show an accentuated jawline and a neat shoulder profile. Get those fundamentals right and you can start having some fun. So how to do that?

Let me show you with a case study of a shoot I did last year for a veterinary practice who wanted to update its website and needed some new staff headshots. These were normal people, not models or actors used to a camera. None liked the idea of having their picture taken. So everything was normal.


Shot using the head jut technique, while this is a simple portrait (as it’s a business headshot), it is much easier one the eye that how many shots turn out.

I set up outside (as they wanted an outdoors look) away from prying eyes. If someone hates having their picture taken they will hate it even more if people can see them. I set up a bounce board, which was a sheet of A0 mounting board clipped to a tripod, to throw light under the chin, thus lighting the face much more evenly and flatly. Good lighting is a crucial part of portrait photography and something many people brush over.

With digital, people think everything is fixable in post, but it’s not. Using film photography techniques is often just as valid now as it was in the 90s. I wanted an even soft light so made sure I was in the shade with the light coming at me, which would create a soft hair light.

These shots were all to be head and shoulder headshots, not full length, and I wanted a shallowish depth of field so I reached for my go-to portrait lens the Nikkor 85mm f 1.8. My version must be 25 years old and it is as crisp as freshly picked iceberg lettuce. In the shade I was still able to get a decent shutterspeed and used f3.5 so I would get the face sharp, but not the background (I wanted more than just the eyes sharp) and any lens performs better from 2 stops down.


Asking your subject to make slight movements while still jutting their head forward means you find the sweet spot that creates a lovely portrait of someone who hates their picture being taken.

I also used a tripod for the camera was well. On it I had a pan and tilt head (although this works with a ball head too), and lightly tightened the controls so I could move the camera, but with little effort.

Set up done, I called each person forward one at a time so only me and the subject were outside. This is when things get interesting and uncomfortable (as I mentioned earlier).

So there is a classic way of posing a subject. Stand them 3/4s to the camera and get them to turn their head towards you. This does a couple of things. It accentuates the jawline and neatens up the profile. It is the most overused pose in portrait photography.


Keep the expressions subtle and keep looking though the viewfinder and shooting when you see the subject’s pose, stance and facial features coalesce into a lovely image.

However, try this (although try it on a relative who isn’t expecting good results first as it takes some time to get used to). Stand your subject square onto the camera. Then ask them to do the following:

  1. Turn their hands so the palms are facing you. That action reduces the profile at the top of the arms, making the subject slimmer (which they’ll like).
  2. Push their forehead out towards the camera. This is uncomfortable, but accentuates the jawline. Your job is to get them to move their head up and down until you get a natural look in the camera.
  3. Turn their whole body while in the above pose one way and then the other while keeping their eyes on the lens. This should give you an idea who which side looks the best

Show someone how they really look to you and you could change their mind about having their picture taken. 

Give it a try with your partner, or friend. You’ll be amazed at how the results turn out once you have the knack and they get the head jut right. And then the local lamppost will be blemish free.

This article was first published on Telephoto.com.

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