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01.15.2014
© 2013 Lindsay Adler

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

Compression to Flatter Pronounced Features

As photographers, our job is to be problem solvers. We need to come up with visual solutions to a wide range of ‘problems’. Advertising photographers help their clients to express their brand and allure the target audience with their images. Food photographers must light and style the food to make any viewer’s mouth water. Portrait photographers must use the tools available to them to flatter their subjects.

While I consider myself a fashion photographer, a great number of my biggest clients are actually portrait clients including athletes, musicians, and celebrities. Together with my creative team we are helping them to express their personal brand through the images we make. These people are often NOT models or model-esqe. They have ‘flaws’ just like the rest of us, and my job is to help emphasize their assets and reduce attention to ‘flaws’.

When first starting my portrait studio, I wished there was a guide to photographing everyday people… something to refer that would allow me to really tackle any photographic challenge when it came to my subject. For this reason, I have begun creating one for all of my colleagues and followers.

In fact, this March I will be teaching a class at WPPI (Sponsored by Sigma) called “How to Flatter Anyone, No Really Anyone!” Furthermore, at the same time I will be having a class released on Kelby Training entitled “Photographing Anyone’s Good Side.” Both of these classes will address how to photograph more challenging features of a subject including a pronounced nose, double chin, oily skin and many more elements that might present photographic difficulties.

For now, I’d like to begin by sharing one important element to flattering your subject: LENS CHOICE. Choosing the right lens for the job will make a massive difference in the appearance of you subject’s features.

Let’s talk about headshot. When photographing with a full frame sensor, getting a tight shot of someone’s face, I don’t recommend anything wider than 70mm. In fact, this is the reason I love the Sigma 85mm 1.4 so much. Because of its minimal focal distance (makes you back up just a bit) and also the compression of this 85mm lens, it is very flattering for the tight portrait headshot. At 70mm or 50mm, the facial features become distorted. This makes someone’s face appear wider and features more pronounced.

Wider lenses will exaggerate distances between facial features, whereas longer lenses will compress (reduce) these distances. For example, with a wider lens, a person’s nose will appear further from their face and therefore longer. With a longer lens, the nose will be compressed toward the face a look shorter.

This of it when photographing an event or even landscape. Lets say there is a tree in the foreground and a mountain in the background. With a wide lens, the tree looks very distant from the background. With a very long lens, the tree appears much closer due to compression. The same effect happens with the features of someone’s face.

Here is a perfect example of a striking young woman with a more pronounced nose. If you use a wider lens, in this case the Sigma 50mm 1.4, her nose appears longer and her eyes and features bloat outwards. Typically when I shoot with the Sigma 85mm 1.4 lens this is a comfortable starting point for compression in a portrait. For this subject, however, while the compression has improved at 85mm, I felt that a longer lens would be more flattering for her particular features. I switched over to my Sigma 70-200mm 2.8 lens and there is a world of difference in the compression 85mm 1.4 or even toward 200mm with the Sigma 70-200mm 2.8, the shot becomes significantly more flattering.

 

© 2013 Lindsay Adler | @50mm

© 2013 Lindsay Adler | @50mm

© 2013 Lindsay Adler | @85mm

© 2013 Lindsay Adler | @85mm

© 2013 Lindsay Adler | @200mm

© 2013 Lindsay Adler | @200mm

This effect applies to any pronounced features, include a pronounced chin

Lets take a look at this beautiful woman with a more pronounced forehead. If photographing slightly above eye level using a wider lens (here the Sigma 50mm 1.4), the lens will actually make her forehead appear bigger if we are too close to our subject. If however, we back up and use a slightly longer lens, an Sigma 85mm 1.4 lens, notice how the features compress nicely. The forehead looks smaller and it is a much more flattering choice for this subject. Just the difference between a 50 and an 85 transforms this portrait.

© 2013 Lindsay Adler | @50mm

© 2013 Lindsay Adler | @50mm

© 2013 Lindsay Adler | @85mm

© 2013 Lindsay Adler | @85mm

Certainly there are always instances to break the rules. Furthermore, angle of your lens (are you standing above the subject, eye level, or below) plays a large roll in the appear of the subjects features.

One way, however, to make your job easier in flattering any subject is to always select the correct lens for the job! Be sure to check out my Kelby Training and WPPI platform class to see even more photographic tools to add to your tool kit!

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  1. Lindsey is exactly spot on with her advice to be aware of how focal length affects the subject. I use this knowledge in a slightly different way, especially when photographing portraits of men. Rather than using a longer lens to flatten, I often use my Sigma 35 1.4 Art lens (full frame) to provoke a sense of intimacy between the subject and the viewer. To do this, I usually have my subjects lean toward the camera and allow the 35mm focal length to slightly exaggerate the depth of the rest of the frame, creating a subtle “3D” feel, which really enhances the intimacy of the image.

  2. Great article! Very helpful!! However, I have a question regarding compression if using a cropped-sensor. I understand that using a 50mm on a Canon cropped-sensor will yield a field of view equivalent to an 80mm lens on a full frame sensor. Will it also yield the same level of compression as the 80mm or will it still have the same exaggerate distances between facial features as the 50mm on the full frame.

  3. Great article as ever Lindsay. You explain topics so simply and you’re a natural educator, not sure which you’re more talented as, if a photographer or an educator, both amazing.

    Patrick, answering your question the results from a cropped sensor will be equivalent to 80(ish)mm and therefore return the same compression as a 80mm lens. This is one of the reasons why the 50mm were so popular (and still are). I hope that helps.