Adapt Your Shooting Skills to Compliment Your Subject’s Beauty

Human Body, Nude, Moab Photography Workshop

The human body, in a nude state, is the hardest to capture or paint. Photo taken at one of our Moab photography workshops.

The human body is unique to every individual and as photographers we must be skillful in how we portray it in our images. The wrong portrayal of our subject’s body or body parts leads not only to poor photos, but can negatively impact your subject’s self-esteem and maybe even lead them to depression—a serious condition that is known to cause death or suicide.

Obviously photographers are not out to kill their subjects, but it’s important that we understand that the possibility indirectly exists, especially if we fail to photograph the human body in a way that amplifies our subject’s greater assets while deemphasizing the natural detractors our bodies individually hold. We must recognize that human bodies come in all different shapes, sizes, and forms, and as photographers we must understand how to adapt our shooting skills to compliment our subject’s beauty.

It all starts with the largest part of the human body, the actual physical shape of our subject in its entirety. If the body is short and heavy it’s best to capture their natural beauty with a lower shooting angle. Photographing a subject “up” or from a lower angle normally slims the subject and gives them height and even tall heavier bodies will shed pounds optically from this lower angle.

A photographer can also do the opposite with slender, tall bodies by capturing them from higher angles, which tends to shorten their subject and creates the appearance of added weight to their bodies. Whether trying to shorten the human body of one subject or lengthen the body of another subject through camera angles, lens selection is important too. In the case of heavier subjects, wide-angle lenses make it easier to distort the body’s length, but use with caution as wide-angle lenses can also distort a person’s body into abnormality.

White Balance, Human Body

I captured this silhouette of one of our models during a Las Vegas photography workshop teaching a white balance technique.

Lens Selection

Normally I use medium telephoto to telephoto lenses in my photography of women as these lenses provide what I like to call the three C’s of a great lens, nice compression of the background, tight composition of the image, and provides a comfort distance between my subject and I. With heavier subjects however I may go to a wide-angle lenses and move in close at a lower angle to provide my subject with longer legs and a more slender body.

Clothing Matters

Another technique for photographing heavier subjects is to have them wear black—it’s a naturally a more slimming color. Try to avoid sleeveless shirts or tops that reveal your subject’s arms, as arms can photograph “thick.” Also be aware that the arm closest to the camera, especially the upper arm area, is also usually closer to the light source, thus the arm reflects more light than your subject’s face making the arm brighter than any other body part. This can naturally emphasize the upper arm in an unflattering manner while detracting from your subject’s face—solution; move the light or change the pose.

Besides the arms, there are other parts of the human body that can photograph “thick,” such as the upper thighs and stomachs or midsections of your subject. For heavier subjects, put your subject in clothes that do not bare the midriff. If your subject insists on a two-piece bikini rather than a one-piece swimsuit, use wraps to “style” her look in a more flattering manner and if you’re photographing your subject in lingerie or a more boudoir type setting, use the bed sheets, blankets, comforters, pillows, or even a teddy bear or other props to hide the mid-section of the body. Sometimes even the position of the hands and arms can help accomplish the illusion of the human body portrayed in a slimmer manner.

Though with slender or lanky models watch for bones protruding from the rib cage or the hips. Obviously clothes can help eliminate this anorexic look of your subject, but if your subject has minimal clothes or wants to pose nude or implied nude, this is a potential problem. Avoid cross lighting the human body or trying to light it from the sides like a fine-art figure-nude if a model’s ribs are evident as this type of lighting can really emphasize your subject’s bones. A slender subject is more difficult to capture with low-key lighting too.

If your subject is that thin, then a larger soft box dead-on to your subject works best as your goal is to eliminate or soften the shadows which unfortunately is more a flat than dramatic lighting style. The solution here is traditional three-point lighting, a main or key light, a fill and a backlight. A beauty dish also works well in this scenario.

You might also have your subject turn her hips straight on to the camera as this pose tends to widen the hips and diffuse any protruding hipbones, though avoid this with heavier models and have heavier models pose with one hip toward the camera, and the other hip away from the camera. This provides for accentuating the nice S-curves naturally formed by the buttocks.

Study The Human Body

It’s also about taking the time to study your subject’s body. Do this as inconspicuous as possible and let your model know part of the photographic process involves you watching her in the light, as she moves, focusing on her assets so you can emphasize those assets in her photographs while finding her lesser qualities and avoiding them. While height and weight are the most important part of the human body that will immediately affect your ease in capturing the inner and outer beauty of your subject, it’s also responsible for the perceptions others see in your photographic abilities, and your subject’s natural beauty.

There are other considerations that a photographer must take into account besides their subject’s height and weight, like their subject’s hands, knees, legs, breasts, eyes and even hair. Besides taking note of these observations of their subject, a photographer must also look for things like bad breast augmentation, stretch marks, tan lines and any other detractors that can affect the final outcome of your photos.

It isn’t that life’s reminders are negative, it’s about how your subject wants them portrayed or not. There is no Barbie Doll image mandate, as there are plus-size models in the fashion world too, and many men prefer these types plus often heavier models truly represent our society while the more slender are the rarity after adulthood.

Human Body, Free the Nipple

This photograph of Elizabeth was taken during one of our Moab photography workshops.


Ah the breasts, while I support the “free the nipple” cause, do not stare at your subject’s breasts in a creepy manner, but as your subject poses in less supporting and more revealing clothes, study her breasts closely to understand their shape and form, in an artistic frame of mind. Does your subject’s breasts need uplifting support? If so, have her use her hands to support her breasts up, cross the arms, have her wear an underwire bra, etc. Whatever you do, don’t comment on breasts that droop or have stretch marks, you’ll only help give the your subject a complex or add to the destruction of her self-esteem.

In the case of augmented or enhanced breasts, remember, never call them fake or implants, refer to them as enhanced or augmented. And for the record, all breasts are real, whether augmented or not—ask yourself, have you ever seen a fake breast augmentation?

It’s not your business why the model chose to have this medical procedure; after all, some women do it for reconstruction after childbearing, others for a more firm support, though if she mentions why, take note. A little knowledge about her choice plus respecting her decision goes a long way in developing a good knowledge of your subject’s mindset as well as establishing great rapport between the both of you. This should also make your shoot flow easier, but at the same time don’t pry.

bustier for closer breasts

While this model has no “gap” problem with her augmented breasts, the bustier helps bring the breasts closer together.

One thing to watch with breast-augmented subjects is the distance or gap between the breasts; keep in mind, there is a natural distance in all breasts, some more than others. Some women have great surgeons that ensure the natural gap between their breasts remains as it once was, while others are not so lucky and the gap between the breasts is actually increased during augmentation. Larger than normal gaps between the breasts must utilize clothing, such as tight fitting lingerie and/or a bustier to help bring them back together for a more natural look, though sometimes you can get away with the model crossing her hands in front of her breasts or using her arms to help create normal cleavage.

Neck Lines Model Photo

By adjusting your lights to create a subtle shadow in the neck, you can reduce the prominence of lines caused by turning your subject’s head.

While breasts are connected to the chest, or upper body, the neck is slightly above the breasts and can create slight problems, though this is happens more when the head is turned excessively in one direction. The key here is to only slightly turn the head in any given direction, if you must turn the head more, try and cast the neck in the shadow parts of the image. You can also have your model wear more conservative clothes that hide the neck, though the best bet is just have the subject pull all her hair to the side of where the neck is exposed.

Speaking of hair, hair is part of the human body, and I prefer long hair because as a photographer we can do many things with long hair. Hair should display healthiness so make sure any split-ends are trimmed before the shoot. Not only can the hair be used to hide the necklines, but it can also be styled to create imaginary diagonals. Models can hold it up, run their hands through it, etc., thus making hair one of the most natural props available to your subject. Not to mention the hair is easily styled into many forms, curly, straight, waxed stiff or wild, wet-look, up, etc., hair can also set the mood or tone of the image.

Watch The Hands

If you have a model that likes to play with her hair during the shoot, take a close look at her hands; is her skin tight with popping veins? Do you see a distinct color shift caused by poor use of self-tanning products? Are her hands smooth, hairy or rough? All these come to play as in photography for publication editors kill many images because of the hands and how they are portrayed in an image.

While some subjects have beautiful hands, some have ugly hands. Depending on the angle you photograph the model, if the hands are included in the image, the hands can appear as large or larger than the face, an abnormal appearance that will not flatter your subject. If the hands are held open where the palm is seen, especially in its entirety, then you get the “stop sign,” or don’t look at me effect. The best method in photographing the hands is to have them positioned where you get a karate chop appearance, the profile of the hand, not the front or back. If the hand is placed or cupped against the body, ensure that no light passes between the hand and the body itself.

Let’s say your pose calls for the front of the hands to show, such as a model standing with her arms crossed, then you would turn your subject into the light looking for a shadow to help cover part of the hand; the shadow doesn’t have to be hard and harsh, soft and subtle is fine too, the idea is to minimize the impact of showing the entire hand or hands in the image so the viewer still focuses on the subject’s face. A cupping of the hands works well too.

Often while focusing on the placement and lighting of the hands we forget one other major part of the hands, the fingernails. They should be trimmed and manicured. Long or medium-length nails work best in images especially if they are painted with a color found in the model’s outfit, not necessarily a contrasting color either. Think of the fingernails as extension of the fashion the model is presenting. If you were creating a commercial product shoot for nail polish, then you would make the nails contrast to the dominate colors of the clothes, making the nails stand out, but in general photography of women, it’s about your subject and not a product, so the idea is to have the nails compliment and be more subliminal than over-powering.

On last point on fingernails, they have cousins known as toenails, don’t ignore the toenails especially if your subject will be barefooted, or wear open-toe sandals or shoes. I would also recommend your subject’s toenails be painted the same color as her fingernails. Even if your subject claims she not going barefooted or will be wearing open-toed shoes, I still recommend to all my subjects to get a full manicure and pedicure because you just never know how the shooting session may end up and it’s always best if you’re prepared.

The Teeth

Now that you’ve studied the human body from fingers to toes, look at your subject’s teeth. Are the teeth straight, white, crooked, or stained? Obviously if the subject insists on smiles or just smiles all the time, and her teeth are not pearly whites, you might want to correct this in an image editing program like Adobe Photoshop. If your subject has beautiful teeth, then make sure and capture that essence of your subject.

While I don’t shoot a lot of “teeth” photos, I do capture them from time to time, especially when my subject has perfect teeth. Perfect teeth is an asset, not a detractor—please note though, if your subject has perfect teeth but cannot provide anything but a forced smile, then forget about the teeth and concentrate on the subject’s overall facial look. In photography of women it’s always about the look as the face is the most important part of the image.

Overall, as you build rapport with your subject, you’ll also understand their body more. You’ll soon discover what looks and poses work naturally well for your subject. You’ll also find that looks and poses will vary from subject to subject as the human body comes in many shapes and forms. Not only does this understanding of the human body and your subject help your photography shoot flow well, but it will help you capture images that your subject will love—uplifting her self-esteem! With that I close, and as always, please don’t forget the men and women that patriotically serve to protect our freedoms—God Bless them, their families and friends, Rolando.

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