Can good photography make me beautiful?
July 23, 2004 11:42 PM   Subscribe

Just how much of a difference to your looks can good photography make? [more inside, of course]

I looked at some of those before and after pics and I'm wondering how they managed to do some of that. Take the first dude, for example. How did they make his very square face look so slim?

I'm useless when it comes to photography. Could any of you share tips on how to use my non-SLR plain jane digicam to get better pics like that?
(yes, I know they use much better equipment and a studio, etc. so I will never come too close to that quality, but still...)
posted by madman to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
1. never use the on-camera flash
2. never use the on-camera flash
3. never use the on-camera flash

If you follow these simple rules carefully, you can do some amazing photography with nearly anycamera.
posted by Kwantsar at 12:08 AM on July 24, 2004

I'm really good at taking absurdly, devestatingly attractive pictures of myself. (I'm not unattractive in person, but I'm not supermodelish either.) Generally, beyond a certain point (my pictures are now only attractive) looking not-nearly-as-good as your pic isn't worth it.
posted by Tlogmer at 12:37 AM on July 24, 2004

I generally don't photograph well, but there's a marked difference between my appearance in photos that has nothing to do with contrivance.

Most all of my best photos are outside, though -- which fits Kwantsar's observation -- and taken while I'm doing something enjoyable.
posted by weston at 1:02 AM on July 24, 2004

Did you notice that the crappy amateur photos were almost all straight on, and the professionally posed ones were 3/4 profile but looking straight at the camera? It makes a huge difference.

Also, note that the "after" photos are close up but with all skin blemishes removed. Everyone looks nicer with big eyes and lovely skin.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:35 AM on July 24, 2004

The rise of onboard flash to accomodate crappy f/6.3 zoom lenses in contemporary point-and-shoots has dealt a terrible blow to the quality of everyday photography. It's pretty easy to get great shots under a wide range of shooting conditions using, for example, a Canonet G-III from the 70's that has a fast, non-flash-mandatory fixed lens. As Kwantsar says, death to onboard flash.

It's really not about the camera though. Lighting and posing (and sometimes, retouching) are at the heart of portraiture. With lighting, for example, shoot outdoors in the afternoon (not noon) sun, hang an unpatterned sheet up on a line in between you and the sun (can be omitted if it's really late in the afternoon), and stand with a white wall off-camera on the side opposite the sheet to help fill in the shadows. Simple diffuser/reflector setup.

(That third example in your link is really strangely lit, from the bottom. I'm guessing that they ran through many, many different lighting setups and chose that one as the most flattering after a lengthy process of trial-and-error.)

As for posing, the "turn to face someone off-camera then look toward the camera" 3/4 approach is pretty standard and effective. No need to reinvent the wheel. I don't like "straight" shots since it takes much more care to light a straight-on shot without making the face look too flat.

Retouching needs really varies widely from subject to subject, but just having retouching tools at hand will give you the confidence to frame the shot more tightly. Tight head-and-shoulder shots are immensely appealing to most viewers. (To frame your shot, zoom out on your camera as far as possible, then physically move the camera in/out until there's some space showing above your head and a bit of your torso below your shoulder.) If you'd like to get your feet wet on the technical aspects of using an image editing program, the DPR Retouching forum is one of the friendliest ones there amidst their other often-cantankerous forums. Often times if you post one of your shots there and ask others to help you with it, some of the other users there will retouch and repost it while explaining to you the steps they used. It's worth a try (but wander into DPR's manufacturer-specific forums at your own risk).

Above all, exploit the fact that your camera is digital and experiment! Digital film is free (or more accurately, already paid for), and nobody else needs to see the botched shots. And if you're really interested in getting the results you like, you'll probably have some fun experimenting with the process too.

skallas: The Canon A70 is fairly cheap (for a digicam) now that its replacement has been announced. It has the important aperture priority, shutterspeed priority, and exposure compensation controls. It's been one of Canon's best sellers since it's a great package all around, with unbeatable bang for the buck and delivers wonderful images. Now's a good time to pick one up due to its recent price drop before it leaves the market completely.
posted by DaShiv at 3:10 AM on July 24, 2004

Two more quick nuggets:

1) Have someone else grab candid shots of you if you can. Posing is hard!

2) Pay attention to your background. Look at how big of a difference the simple backgrounds make in the before and after pics. Even a brick wall is better than an apartment interior (if you like your picture to have that indy-band album cover feel, but that's another issue). The most mundane things can make the photograph (and hence, you as its subject) "look" better.
posted by DaShiv at 3:15 AM on July 24, 2004

Good portraits are all about the lighting. Putting a couple of reflectors in the right place to deal with the shadows will change the look entirely. Check this out for a howto.
posted by smackfu at 6:48 AM on July 24, 2004

For the cheap, quick 'n' dirty method, a couple of quick tips:

1. Zoom the camera all the way in - even if you have to place it on a tripod halfway across a room. The zoom lens will slim you.
2. Shoot eye level.
3. Pull yourself away from a background, especially if you must use the evil flash.
4. Have a simple background.
5. Go for a medium shot - ie. upper torse and face. People want to see your face foremost.
6. Use natural light. Overcast light is best, preferably not bright, harsh sun. 'Magic Hour', that first hour of sunrise or sunset is also very nice light.
7. ???
8. Date Time!
posted by jazzkat11 at 7:24 AM on July 24, 2004

A portrait tip that's served me well over the years:

If the person you're shooting is uncomfortable in front of the camera, or just doesn't know how to pose without looking stiff and grim, have them sit comfortably and look off in some other direction. Get the shot framed up, then say, "Okay, now look at me" -- the moment you get eye contact, immediately take the picture. Either their eyes will flick towards you and you'll get a nice 3/4 view, or they'll turn their whole head -- either way you'll get a much more natural expression than the usual "I'm posing for a photo now" grimace.

Try it a few times -- it works even if the model is expecting it. Most of the shots the timing will be off, but you only need one good one. The only thing to watch out for is to make sure you have a reasonably fast shutter speed -- which with an automatic camera translates to "make sure there's enough light" -- so you don't wind up with motion blur. (Although a little blur, either motion of depth-of-field, can be nice -- as long as the eyes are in sharp focus.)

[On preview, I notice that daShiv suggested the exact same technique. So I guess this is just a 'me too' comment. But it really does work.]

jazzkat11's suggestion of using the zoom does flatten out the face, which is (usually) good -- but the catch is that it also flattens out the background, which is (often) bad. I like to use a wider lens and get in close, which softens the background and makes it look further away, but risks distorting the face if you overdo it. It's a tradeoff. Try both.
posted by ook at 9:12 AM on July 24, 2004

Another option to the one ook suggests is to have people look down, puff air into their cheeks and then blow it out through pursed lips (making a raspberry sound) - most people will find this very amusing, especially if they're feeling tense about having their picture taken, and you'll almost always get a natural smile and a relaxed, happy expression out of it. A genuine smile is often very obvious in a picture, and looks far better than a "say cheese" rictus grin.

Taking a picture from slightly above and to one side of the subject, with them looking up toward the camera is very flattering to most faces, especially those which tend toward the jowly. "Rembrandt" lighting, with the light source above and off to the side, is also flattering.
posted by biscotti at 9:23 AM on July 24, 2004

As others have said, getting too close with a wide-angle lens is usually not a good idea, unless you're going for an uncomplimentary, exagerated perspective - it's a good way to give people a big nose. For flattery, the longer the better. Fashion photographers on location have been known to use 300mm and longer lenses.

Another thing to notice about the linked before and after photos is that many of them are taken with a viewpoint slightly above the subject. Not looking down on them, especially, but just a little elevated - this is easier to control with a longer lens, as well. The effect is to achieve a complimentary subtle slimming of the face's shape.
posted by normy at 9:34 AM on July 24, 2004

Also: faking studio lighting:

Go to the hardware store, and get two or three of those 500W halogen worklights. They're about 20 bucks each, maybe twice that if you get the ones with a stand. (At least one of them you'll need a stand, so not all the light will be coming from the floor.) If you bounce the light off a nearby wall, rather than pointing it directly at the model, it softens the light, conveniently adds some color if the wall happens to be painted, and prevents squintiness. Don't put the lights behind the camera: put them near the model, to the side. You want soft shadows, not flat boring light on everything.

With three of them, you can get a pretty good simulacrum of a traditional studio portrait setup: the key light is above the model to one side. The fill light is further away, on the other side, bounced off a wall or otherwise softened: its job is to keep the key light's shadows from being too harsh. (Watch the nose: if you see two shadows, your fill is too bright.) Put the third light directly behind the model, pointing towards the camera; its job is to give you just a tiny fringe of bright highlights on the hair. A little goes a long way, here -- too much backlight looks hokey and obvious, but just a little bit helps pick out details, and keep dark hair from blending into the background. (The third and fourth examples on this page could've used some backlight, I think...)
posted by ook at 9:35 AM on July 24, 2004

When you get your picture taken, take a moment to consciously relax your shoulders. Think of something that will bring a real smile to your face. Stand/sit up straight, or unless you're posed otherwise.

The picture shows your face as the world sees it. You're accustomed to your mirror image. Many people hate their own pictures because they look subtly wrong. Look at the pictures in a mirror, or use software to reverse the pictures, and you may hate them less.
posted by theora55 at 12:33 PM on July 24, 2004

Well, the trick is that good photography can't change your looks at all. And if you've ever done any online dating, you know that sometimes over-presenting oneself in the photos sets high expectations which come crashing down if you finally meet in person. Some photos are indeed much more flattering than others, but for online dating purposes, I suggest choosing one or two that are more middle-of-the-road and realistic.

Unless you're truly hideous and desperate for a date.

As for "how'd they do that?" the simplest thing I can see is that they actually filled the entire frame with the subject. Shooting people from too far away is stupid photography amateur mistake #1.
posted by scarabic at 1:13 PM on July 24, 2004

There's a trick from a few of Scott Kelby's books that looks like it may be in use here.

According to him, you can horizontally scale pictures of people to up to 95% of their original width without anyone noticing the difference. He claims he's done this in a large number of cases, no one's ever complained, and people have, in every case, liked the way they looked better.

I've never tried it myself.
posted by Caviar at 2:04 PM on July 24, 2004

Having witnessed a good number of Hollywood headshot photo sessions:

1) Use the most zoom possible, even if that means shooting from across the room. 2) Try some shots with the camera looking down on you from a 45 degree angle. 3) Use black and white film (or photoshop). Very few people don't look better in black and white.
posted by 4easypayments at 12:23 AM on July 25, 2004

Gah! Upon re-reading the thread I noticed I had mistyped "zoom out" instead of "zoom in". Follow everyone else's suggestion about using the longest focal length possible (i.e. "zooming in"), not what I wrote!

The tips about shooting from an elevated position are great, especially under available (i.e. ambient) lighting.

Sorry, I usually shoot with primes so my brain momentarily interposed this whole "in/out" business with zooms.
posted by DaShiv at 1:51 AM on July 25, 2004

Jerry Seinfeld had some routine that was basically "You know how you look in the mirror and every now and then get just right angle to let yourself think 'Damn, I'm an attractive person!' Imagine what actually beautiful people see in the mirror..."
posted by NortonDC at 9:42 PM on July 25, 2004

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