3 Simple Steps to Elegant Portraiture



by Monte Zucker



Take a close look at ALL of the photographs in this article. All you see is ONE light pattern. That’s it! No Rembrandt lighting. No broad lighting. No split-lighting. No side lighting, or back lighting. Just ONE LIGHT PATTERN!

How would I describe it? It’s a light source that creates a three- dimensional appearance on a flat piece of paper. The light comes from slightly above the subject’s eyes and slightly to the side of the face. Both eyes are lit by this main light. When the light is in proper position (shining into both eyes) a catchlight appears in the subject’s eyes at either the 1 o’clock position or at the 11 o’clock position, depending on whether the light is coming from the subject’s right side or left side.

The tell-tale sign of the correct lighting pattern is that there is a small loop-shadow that comes down and to the side of the bottom of the nose. One side of the nose is in shadow. The shadowed side of the face is always towards (closer to) the camera.

The relationship of the light to the face is universal. It never changes. As the face turns, the light moves with it. Move the face; move the light. Move the face WITHOUT moving the light and you’re in trouble. Then, you’re either flat-lighting the face or turning the face away from the light. Shame on you!

Does this always have to be the case? No. Of course not. But when you follow this simple one-step lighting pattern you can always be certain that you’re in the right ballpark. You’re lighting the face correctly, creating a three-dimensional form on a flat piece of paper.

I expose the portrait for the main light and keep the fill light two f/stops under the main light.

Only TWO Poses!

Simple posing technique makes people appear to be unposed. People don’t object to being posed. They object to looking posed in their pictures. If you can make them look natural, they’ll be thrilled. If you can make them look BETTER than they usually look in their photographs, they’ll be ecstatic! So, let’s work on that.

Everyone looks good when posed in a BASIC POSE. Men and women.

For easy identification I have posed this woman in her turtleneck sweater for all of the Basic Pose Illustrations. For the Feminine Pose examples she has put on her red coat.

The basic pose works equally well for both men and women. Women with heavy chins/necks should always be posed in this Basic Pose. Men, of course, should always be posed in this Basic Pose when photographing them either full-faced or the 2/3rd angle of the face.

Simply stated, the Basic Pose is one in which the head and shoulders go in the same direction. The head is tilted towards the lower shoulder, so that the head is perpendicular to the slope of the shoulders. Since we are always turning faces towards the light, the subject’s body and face should be turned towards the main light for the Basic Pose.

The rear shoulder is lowered when the body is turned at a 45_ angle to the camera and the subject leans forward (over the “belt buckle”) towards the knees.

Basic Pose, Full Face to the Right

After analyzing the face, if it is decided that you are going to turn the subject’s face to the right, start off with the body turned in that direction to begin with. That way, you will not have to move the light from one side of your subject to the other when changing from full-face to the other two facial angles.

For the basic pose the shoulders are always turned at a 45_ angle to the camera. It may be a good idea to begin by positioning your subject so that one shoulder is going directly into the lens. Then, when you extend the far elbow out to form a base for the composition, the body will automatically fall into a 45_ angle to the camera.

Notice how the head is tipped towards the low shoulder and facing directly into the camera. I usually place the height of the lens for all head and shoulder portraits slightly above the eye level of the subject. Then, while looking thru the lens I have the subject raise or lower the chin to see the normal perspective of the face. This is the ONLY way to know exactly what the camera will be recording. No surprises!

The portrait is usually cropped, so that if you were to draw a line straight down from the chin, there is an equal amount of the subject’s body on both sides of that line.

Basic Pose, 2/3rd View of the Face to the Right

Leave the body exactly as-is, still at a 45_ angle to the camera. Turn the head until the eye on the far side of the face comes almost to the edge of the outline of the face. This is the 2/3rd view of the face.

It slims the face down considerably from the full face position. It brings out the cheekbones. It is usually the most flattering view of most faces. The head is still tipped to the lower shoulder. The only difference between the positioning of the light between photographing a person in full-face or the 2/3rd view of the face is that the light must move farther around the subject to maintain the same light pattern as before.

The eyes are usually centered in the eye sockets as seen from camera position. Occasionally, it might be good to position a woman’s face at this angle and still have her looking back towards the camera. It doesn’t work for a man.

If the bridge of the subject’s nose is fairly high, it may begin to hide some of the eye on the far side of the face. Do not let this happen. Bring the face back towards the lens, until the nose does not interfere with the full view of the far eye.

Be careful not to let the tip of the nose come too close to the edge of the face or cross through the outline of the face into the background. When that happens one gets a very distorted view of the face You create little pockets of flesh between the upper lip and the nose, as well as small pieces of the face between the upper part of the nose and the eye.

Basic Pose Profile to the Right

There is no Basic Pose when you’re photographing a subject in profile. The pose for a profile is always the Feminine Pose. We’ll discuss this later in this article.

Basic Pose Full Face to the Left

This is the same as the full face in the other direction. This is the way to begin, if you know that you are going to be turning the subject’s face to his/her left.

Basic Pose, 2/3rd View of the Face to the Left

Same as in the other direction

Profile to the Left

As you can see, the profile in either direction is always in a feminine pose, whether it’s for a man or a woman. You need the body at a 45_ angle to the camera, so that it can support this view of the face well.

The Feminine Pose

The Feminine Pose is one in which the head is turned and tipped towards the high shoulder. The woman’s body is turned away from the source of light. Her head is turned back to the light. The light is placed to get into both of her eyes, creating our singular light pattern, regardless of what angle of the face is to be photographed.

Slim women look elegant in the Feminine Pose. Women with a heavy jawline should be posed in a Basic Pose, rather than in a Feminine Pose. A Feminine Pose would accentuate the heaviness in the neckline area and be very unflattering.

Everyone (men and women, alike) should be posed in the Feminine Pose for a profile picture. That is the only way in which you can show enough of the body to properly support that view of the face.

The high/low shoulder is achieved by the lean of the subject’s body. The body leans slightly forward (over the “belt buckle”). At the same time the body leans in the opposite direction from the way the head is turned. Thus, if the subject turns her/his head to the left, the body leans slightly to the right.

Remember, the head turns and tips to the same shoulder. Some people inadvertently turn the head to one shoulder, while tipping it towards the other. Not good!

Let’s begin studying the feminine pose by looking at the full face portrait. Her body could really be turned in either direction. The deciding factor would be the choice of which direction you will be turning her face for the 2/3rd view and/or her profile. In this illustration her body is turned to her right. The main light is coming from her left. It’s obvious, then, that she will be turning to her left to continue the photographs from this full face position.

When turning a head for the Feminine Pose one should be careful not to turn the face beyond the point where the cord in the neckline would stand out too much and distort her neckline. If one observes the correct body/shoulder position for each view of the face in the Feminine Pose, this will not happen.

Thus, for this full face picture the woman’s body is turned to approximately a 45_ angle to the lens. At this point the relationship of her head to her shoulders becomes solid. If she turns in any direction, the relationship between the head and shoulders remains as-is.

Now, take a look at the same exact pose - viewed from a different perspective. This is the 2/3rd view of a woman in the Feminine Pose.

Her body for this head and shoulder portrait is turned straight into the lens. This is the ONLY time that it’s advisable to turn a person’s shoulders straight towards the camera.

For this picture I chose to turn her body and face. Then, I moved the light slightly to her left to retain the same lighting pattern on her face.

I could just as easily left her as she was and moved the camera position to where my lens saw the 2/3rd view of her face. In this case, however, I would have had to move the background, too. In a studio environment it’s much easier to move her and then the light, rather than just changing camera position and having to worry about the other details that would undoubtedly have to be modified by changing the location of the camera.

Finally, for her profile you can see where her body is once more at a 45_ angle to the camera and that the light has once more been moved to retain the same light pattern.

Now, let’s study the 2/3rd view of her face and her profile facing in the other direction.

Of course, the same things apply here as when she was turning her head to her left shoulder. The only difference is that the main light is now coming from her right side.

The shoulder position for the 2/3rd view is towards the lens, while the body turns once again to a 45_ angle for her profile. She’s like a statue. Move any part of the pose and the entire body moves with it.

Wrapping it all up in a neat package, let’s now look at the whole concept put together for you. It would probably be a great idea for you to save these illustrations and refer back to them as often as possible. Certainly, this would make you appear to be the most knowledgeable person in your area about posing and lighting for portraiture.

Where do you go from here?.

None of this, probably, will sink in simply by reading this material. It is imperative that you work with it and refer back to these illustrations while you’re creating portraits and after you’ve done them. Eventually, you’ll find that these simple 1, 2 and 3 basic steps to fine portraiture will create the platform from which you can launch in any direction you wish to go.