Portrait photography tip - brunette

The small details of a portrait are the deciding factors of its quality: the shimmering glow of a catchlight around the iris, the expression on your subject’s face, the simplicity and texture of the background, and interestingly enough, the position of the chin.

Think of the chin as the rudder of a ship; a small thing really, but the direction can make an enormous difference in the end result. As a rudder determines the course of a sea vessel, chin position determines the visual quality of a portrait.  

Not all chin positions are created equal

Take, for example, the set of portraits below. We will refer to the first as Image 1, and the second as Image 2.

Portrait photography tip - girl with green tip hair eyes closedImage 1
Portrait photography tip - girl with green tip hair profileImage 2
There’s no question that the subject of this image is an attractive person, but Image 1 makes her neck look big and beefy, and Image 2 makes it look long and feminine. Seeing that she’s actually on the petite side, Image 1 is a both unflattering and an unfair representation.

Here’s a closeup:

Portrait photography tip - combined shots that show chin position

Image 2 = better. That’s obvious. But here’s why: 

The chin (jawline): One of the most important angles in portrait photography

A majority of the time in portraits, the most striking feature will be the subject’s face. The face is how we recognize each other, and it plays a huge part in human communication through expression and eye movement. As a result, we’re accustomed to look to the face first before sizing up the rest. Obviously there are thousands of portraits which don’t feature the face, and in those cases, other angles become more significant.

For portraits which do feature the subject’s face, however, the most important angle is, almost without exception, the jawline. Therefore, chin position becomes paramount.

portrait photography tip - smiling girl behind a plant

Everyone is shaped differently, and equally, their faces are shaped differently. Some people have long faces with strong jaws that make positioning simpler. Others have petite, round faces with button chins, and in these cases you’ll have to be more intentional with positioning. If you photograph certain people with their heads raised slightly, they will look much heavier than they actually are, which they will probably not be pleased about.

Image 1 and Image 2 are dramatic examples. Naturally, you’re not going to always tell your client to turn their head in profile to get the most prominent angle. You’re going to want to be much more subtle than that. Usually a 3/4 or 2/3 angle will do the trick. 

How to communicate positioning to your clients and portrait subjects

Portrait photography tip - photographer directing the subject 
Now that you understand the basic concept, the difficult part is getting your clients to do what you need them to. You can try to explain it to them the long way and they’ll look at you like, “You want me to do what?” and when you say, “Turn your head a bit to the left,” they’ll swivel it around 180 degrees with owl-like talent. I’ve seen it happen.

To avoid frustrating miscommunications – ones that baffle your subjects and leave you shaking your head in dismay – use simple directions. As you can see in the photo above, I use a combination of hand gestures and make it a point to visually show them what I mean. I also tell my clients three things:

  1. Lower your chin slightly
  2. Extend your forehead out, as if you’re connected to a fixed point in the distance
  3. Turn your head 10 degrees, either to the right or left

If you tell them these three things, in this order, while visually showing them what you mean, they’ll usually understand immediately. Most people you work with, unless they’re professional models, won’t have a great deal of physical self-awareness. Therefore, your guidance is crucial to creating the flattering portraits that you intend them to be.


About The Author

Joey is a Boston-based freelance writer and photographer passionate about cultural development and fascinated by people. Her website is: http://joeyphoenix.com

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