Before becoming a photographer, I recall that many people looking at photos would say
things like “Wow, that’s such a great angle for you” or “This is my better side.” I wanted
to know why people had a “better side.” And I asked myself, “Does that mean buildings,
objects, or other environmental elements also have a better side?”
People’s faces are as different as our fingerprints. Some people have round faces, others
thin and long. Some have full lips whereas others have thin ones. The shape of people’s
eyes is probably the most obvious diference from one individual to another.
This means that as a photographer you cannot approach every person in the same way.
Because of the different bone structures, when light illuminates a face it will behave differently every time for different people. Every person can be photographed beautifully, if you
take the time to study his or her face and choose angles and lighting that best complement
it. One size does not ft all!
For example, older folks look slightly younger when photographed with direct light on
their faces because the light has the same intensity on both sides. The light will fall flat on
their faces, filling in the shadows created by wrinkles and making them appear younger.
With the right combination of angles and light direction, anyone can have a photo of
themselves where they look truly amazing. It is your job as the photographer to find the
correct formula for each client.
In Los Angeles (where I live), I have run into people wearing t-shirts reading, “I’m a photographer, not a miracle worker.” I feel like telling them that it doesn’t take a miracle to take a great portrait of someone; it takes skill! Another line I frequently hear everywhere I teach
workshops is that we get beautiful photos because we only photograph beautiful people.
It’s a shame that people think this way because they are discounting the hard work and
practice required to be a good photographer.
Our job is to consistently deliver the best photographs our clients have ever seen of themselves, regardless of their weight, ethnicity, age, or color. Solid, deliberately focused practice
sessions can transform you from just a person with an expensive camera to a true artist at
the highest level.
To illustrate the point of finding the correct light-and-angle combination for specific face
structures, consider these two images below taken only minutes apart. Although the
woman is beautiful in both, you can see how the second image is clearly the better angle
for her. These are the steps I took to go from the first to the second:
- The first characteristic of her face that stood out to me were her striking eyes. That was
the base for everything that followed. Once you find something that grabs your attention, run with it. Every decision you make should be based on featuring a person’s
- I noticed that her face was a bit round, so I used her hair to partially cover her face to
deemphasize the roundness and give her face a more oval shape.
- The last step was to turn her body away from the light and turn her face toward it. I made
sure her chin was down, but I had her fix her eyes on an object slightly higher than
her face. Remember that posing the eyes is just as important as posing the body. Once
the eyes were in the right place, I asked her for a gentle smile and fnally pushed my
(left) Consider these two images taken only minutes apart.
Although the woman is beautiful, the frst image is not the
best angle for her face. (right) I used her hair to partially cover her face and make it more oval.
I then turned her body away from the light and her face toward it.
The Tourist Test
I had a wedding assignment the next day at the church of Santo Domingo in the city of
Oaxaca, Mexico, so I was taking some angle shots to study later in my hotel room. This is
the typical angle most people take when they stand in front of a structure like this.
The entire church is beautiful, but you want to train yourself to be more selective.
The entire church is
beautiful, but the left and
right sides are plain, so you
can remove them from the
If you are a professional photographer and you are taking a photo from the same angle as
the usual tourist, it should raise red flags, and you should look for a better angle. The center portion is clearly the best part, featuring the greatest architectural detail. The left and
the right sides are plain, so you can remove them from the final photograph.
Think about all the photos in which you see your life, from the old family album to vacation photos. Probably 95 percent of them were taken from the perspective of the average
adult, who is 5 to 6 feet tall. Your eyes are so accustomed to seeing the world through this perspective that it’s no longer interesting.
That’s why people are so intrigued by those aerial photography books found in any
bookstore. With a fresh perspective, even a building you see every day can suddenly look
exciting. Remember this the next time you are on a shoot. Look around and find a way to
offer a perspective other than the 5 to 6 footer. To keep this in mind during a shoot, ask
yourself, “What would this scene look like from a bird’s or a dog’s point of view?”
Let’s continue with the example from the church of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. Standing
in front of the church, I turned around and noticed a two-story building across the street.
Here’s the church from a bird’s perspective.
Here’s the church
from a bird’s perspective.
I noted the plants in front
because they caught my
interest as possible leading
I circled the plants in front of the church because they caught my interest as possible leading lines to the church. From where I was
standing, the plants don’t form straight lines, but take a few steps to the right and you have perfect leading lines.
Once I take a few
steps to the right, the plants
form perfect leading lines to
This may seem like a lot of work, but by practicing being selective and trying out different
perspectives, you’ll fnd that the process becomes intuitive to you. The results are worth
the effort, as seen in the final photo. The bird’s-eye perspective is more dramatic,
with the cactus plants on the ground acting as leading lines. The vertical crop focuses on
the best features of the church, eliminating its distracting weaker elements.
The results are worth
the extra effort with a more
dramatic perspective and
a crop that focuses on the
church’s best features.
The result is a photo that resembles a piece of art, rather than just another photo of a
couple kissing in front of the church. In case you are wondering what happened to all the
guests, there was a small window, literally just a few seconds long, when nobody else was
in my frame. Even if I hadn’t been so lucky, you can always Photoshop the people out.
What you can’t Photoshop is the creativity, thought, and skill that goes into making
a photograph like this.
A small dog would see the world from one to two feet above the ground. From that perspective, everything must look gigantic, especially if the object or person is close to the dog. Keeping this in mind can help you make objects you are photographing look much
larger than they are. This is a very useful tool in your visual repertoire.
Let’s put this technique to use at a typical small outdoor wedding in Beverly Hills, as shown below. At first sight, there is absolutely nothing magical here, nothing that is screaming to be
photographed. Let’s see if you can locate the
diamond in this haystack. Study the photo and ask yourself if there is anything that could be used to simplify this scene.
At first sight, there
is absolutely nothing
magical here that needs
to be photographed.
Looking at this scene I was clearly uninspired, so I closed my eyes and had a little dialogue
in my head about how to bring out the magic in an average location.
Q: What do I like the most about this scene?
A: The parasols’ circular geometry and the fact that they repeat themselves.
Q: If the repetition is intriguing, what lens should I use to show the largest number of
A: A 16–35mm or a 15mm fisheye lens.
Q: If I shoot with an extreme wide-angle lens too much of the scene would show. I only want
to display the repetitive circular parasols, nothing else. How do I crop out the rest of the scene
but still use the wide-angle lens to show the largest number of parasols?
A: I can get much closer and shoot from above or below the parasols. I would have to be
so close that even with the fisheye lens, nothing but parasols would show in my frame.
Q: Should I shoot from above (bird) or below (dog)?
A: Above would require me to stand on something and it might be too disruptive
during the ceremony. Below will be more subtle since I can be closer to the ground and
hide. Below (dog’s perspective) will be my angle of choice.
Q: Once I get really close to the guests and point my camera upward, what should I
A: It would be neat to enhance the contrast created by the harsh sun and shadows.
Therefore, I’ll expose for the parasols making everything else a silhouette.
Here’s the image that resulted from this dialogue.
I shot this after running a list of creative possibilities through my mind.