Getting those portraits right, once and for all


From candid to formal, spontaneous to set-up; know how to prepare for your close-up

Most of us have been unpleasantly surprised (okay, startled) when we’ve looked at photos of ourselves. Everyone says the camera doesn’t lie, but where did that extra chin come from? Why do my arms look so fat? Is my nose really that long? And when did my knees become so… substantial?

It’s enough to make a person terminally camera-shy, which is pretty tricky when another camera may be as near as the closest cell phone. But don’t worry, it’s actually pretty easy to look good on camera–and when you know how to look good, it becomes a lot easier to photograph others so they look good, too. 

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For candid and spontaneous photos

First, just as with any other photography, think about the light. Portraits benefit from softer, diffuse light, which means that convincing people to move into the shade at your aunt and uncle's pearl wedding anniversary will make for much better photos than in bright sunlight. For a start no one will be squinting, but neither will anyone have shadows cast by their noses on their cheeks. 

 Here, the bright sun contributes to the feel of the photo, but imagine trying to grab a group shot in that bright light?

Here, the bright sun contributes to the feel of the photo, but imagine trying to grab a group shot in that bright light?

If you suspect that photos might be in the offing, wear clothes that flatter you for the occasion. Cap sleeves and sleeveless tops or dresses won't do much to make you look at your best in a photo. You don’t have to be fat to have odd bulges suddenly appear on your arms.

Should you be wearing shorts, put in a special request for a zoom shot that eliminates legs, even if your knees are beautiful under normal circumstances.

Don’t stand against a wall, directly facing the camera; you’ll look like you’re about to face a firing squad. The final result will be more flattering if you stand at an angle and position your head as if you’re showing off just one earring (or ear). You can also choose which is your best side and show off that one. 

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For the unavoidable full shots, like photos of the wedding party or large groups, avoid the fig leaf position: arms at your sides, with a slight bend that allows you to clasp your hands together in front of you. Instead, stand an angle and bend the arm closest to the camera at the elbow and hold it loosely at your waist. Although it may feel unnatural, the photo will be more flattering.

For non-professional posed shots

You want a close-up, so allow the camera to go no further down than your waist. Your goal is to show the sparkle in your eyes and your best smile.

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When it comes to clothes, choose items that are solid blocks of colour; patterns and prints are far too distracting. Most people should avoid all white, too. Dark, more subdued tones are usually most flattering, but if you look good in vivid colours, go for it. Try not to split yourself in half with your tones, either. If you're too light or too dark top or bottom, it'll make you look unbalanced.

 The cream top works against the white background and general airy feel to the photo

The cream top works against the white background and general airy feel to the photo

If you're having photos taken as part of a group, try to wear clothes than are all in the same palette. Sure, you won't want to be matchy-matchy, but if you're all wearing shades of brown, taupe, burgundy, and dusty and pink, you'll look unified but not congealed.

Wear tops with high necklines: crewnecks, v-necks, and modified scoop necklines are flattering, and turtlenecks look good on everyone. Showing too much skin can not only make your neck look short and thick, it draws attention away from your face. Frame your face instead. Wear long sleeves, or at least sleeves that go down to your elbows, if your arms are in the shot.

Avoid too-bright lighting: it creates shadows where you don’t want them. Shoot outside on a slightly cloudy day or stand in light shade. Standing in the front doorway allows soft light on your face while creating a dark background.

 This was a street photo, which means that the background is part of the look, but beware of distractions

This was a street photo, which means that the background is part of the look, but beware of distractions

Avoid cluttered, distracting, and busy backgrounds. And think about what you're wearing in combination with your background, too. You want to stand out from it, but you don't want it to be too much of a contrast, either. 

Women: wear make-up, but not so much that your photo looks like a floozy shot that screams for a white feather boa. Use eye liner, neutral eye shadow, and mascara, and try to cover splotchiness or red spots with foundation or concealer.

Men: shave just before you are photographed, whether you think you need it or not. The camera can pick up five-o’clock shadow better than you can.

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Keep any jewellery in the shot simple: plain hoop or simple drop or stud earrings and a single strand necklace look great. If you want to wear a brooch, think about ditching the necklace.

Play with the camera angle. If you have an extra chin or two, have the camera positioned slightly higher so you can look upward. If you want to minimize your proboscis, position the camera slightly lower so you can tip your head down a bit. If you have multiple chins and a prominent nose, like so many of us do, better stick to straight-on shots.

Keep your hair off your face as much as possible. It can hide your features and make shadows.

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Before the click, take several deep breaths so you appear relaxed. Let your eyes smile. Lick your lips and tuck your tongue behind your teeth. Take more shots than you think you need, so you have more choices.

Granted, our photos won’t be confused with a Gisele Bundschen or Marcus Schenkenberg layout, but at least we have a fighting chance of not looking older, fatter, paler, shorter, taller, harsher, and bumpier than we really are. After all, maybe the camera doesn’t lie, but it sure can exaggerate.


This article was written by Marjorie Burke for Photocritic and first published on 6 March 2008. We thought it was too good to keep hidden away, so we've tweaked it and re-posted it.